Have Social Networking Sites Made Us Dumb?

Clarification: Not dumb, as in stupid. Rather, dumb, as in mute – or, wordless.

I am a big fan of the writer’s message board and reference site, Absolute Write. It’s an incredibly useful site; it builds writers’ communities, provides support, and I would in no way ever make fun of and say anything negative about it. Something amusing I noticed when glancing through the forum topics in my Google Reader, however, is the subject titles of each new conversation. Examples from this weekend:

“i poop rainbows”
“so, is it possible without broken bones?”
“grandchild for sale, 30K. supplies limited”
“Lindsay Graham advocates mass murder”
“we don’t need another hero?”
“no rest for the wicked”
I’m assuming these threads have to do with writing in some way, but maybe not. It got me thinking “what do writers really talk about in open forums?” (My alternate title for this blog post was “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Writing.”) Most likely, these topics are intended for research purposes. (Who amongst us hasn’t Googled “centaur mating rituals” in the name of “authenticity?”) But, I’m sure many forum discussions have less to do with someone’s work-in-progress, and more to do with starting a conversation with someone about something on his or her mind. I find this neither negative nor positive, as far as productivity is concerned; I simply find it curious.
Ironically, one of the forum discussions on Absolute Write this weekend was titled “Social Networks Destroy Your Privacy.” I have my issues with Mark Zuckerberg as much as the next social networker, but I’m not one of those people who think social media sites are out to get us. They’re guilty of taking a mile when we give them an inch, but that’s about it. They wouldn’t be able to exploit us if we didn’t give them just enough to use. 
This is where using social media sites for their intended purposes comes into play. If we’re using Facebook for reasons other than connecting with friends (and stalking), and using Twitter as a source of talking about what we made for dinner, rather than when our book is coming out, and, finally, using literary blogs and message boards as a means to discuss anything other than writing or books, then why wouldn’t these sites take advantage of us? We’re giving them way more than is necessary for them to survive, so why not take the excess and find a way to monetize it?
There is, of course, an alternative side to “saying too much.” A more positive side. If any of you follow me on Twitter, you know that I don’t always tweet about books… or writing… or publishing… OK, sometimes I just tweet about TV or what I did that day. Am I giving the Twitter gods authority to spam me with stuff I later have to block? Sure. But I also have developed relationships with writers, editors, and other agents whom I’ve never met in real life. I’ve even set up a couple meetings with editors as a result of discovering common interests. As someone who is still relatively new to the world of agenting, I’ve found it incredibly useful and fun to let other sides of me show via social media. 
The benefits of sharing recipes, discussing current events, and talking about your families via social media sites are obvious when you look to publishing and writers’ blogs and see the same people comment on every post. These people know each other, and their comments turn into conversations, which lead to friendships, bonds, and critique groups. To me, people who say e-friendships aren’t real are clearly not using social media to its full advantage. (That said, I’m a big believer in boundaries. Hence, I will not be your friend on Facebook.)
What do you all think? Have we been given so many literary outlets that we’ve now run out of things to say? Or is the “nothing” just another part of being social?

Strength, Weakness, & Why Everyone Gets Feminism Wrong

There was some discussion this week about what makes a so-called “strong female character,” and since I’m often touting that I want that very thing in a novel, I thought I’d offer my two cents. It all started with Natalie Whipple, YA author and my former fake-battle-of-the-band nemesis. She blogged on Wednesday that she hates the term “strong female character” because it usually implies that there is only one way to be strong. In response, and further elaboration, Sarah Jae-Jones examined what it means to be feminine and the variations of “strength” it indicates.

I call myself a feminist and I don’t understand how anyone, male or female, can say they are not one. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men, and that women have the freedom to make their own choices. That’s all it is. We are not militant radical hairy-legged man-haters intent on ridding the world of all things male. The thing about applying labels to yourself is that, suddenly, you become every negative connotation that label has ever represented.

Another example, though on a far less ideological scale, is the casual science fiction fan. Say you like sci-fi or fantasy to the average person and you become pegged as a Babylon 5-loving, Dungeons and Dragons-playing, convention-attending fanatic. (How many times have I experienced the “judgmental nose crinkle” after one hears my favorite show has the word “vampire” in it? Yeah, a lot.)

The point is, it’s easier to generalize; the extreme of a situation is always more fun to consider than the reality. To me, real strength is rising above those labels and bringing their original meaning back to the forefront. (And yes, I am attending the Rally to Restore Sanity.) Strength is not the ability to be sassy, independent, or fall out of gender roles. (Sorry, but I buy impractical shoes and paint my nails and am afraid of spiders – and I like to think I’m pretty damn strong.) Strength is the ability to be yourself and be comfortable with that person. There are characters who are less self-assured and still considered strong, but we’ll get to that later.

So what do I mean when I say I’m looking for strong female characters? Well, it’s the same as what I mean when I say I want strong male characters. “Strong” women are not necessarily the single-and-proud modern femmes made popular by Sex and the City. Of course, those characters were strong, for the most part. That is, until the movies showed up and demanded Carrie needed a marriage license in order to be happy, even though the person she married was horribly emotionally abusive to her for over ten years.

But I digress.

Actually, it’s not digression. By making Carrie get married, her character was weakened. She represented the “It’s OK to be single!” crowd (started a movement, even!) and making her marry Big instead of just living monogamously ever after or (gasp!) remain “happily single” the way she did in the book, basically lobotomized her. Yet, making a character like Charlotte remain single would’ve just been upsetting. Her whole purpose was to find love and marriage and have babies. Not giving her that happy ending would have weakened her too. It would have said everything she worked for was all for nothing, and that her dreams were meaningless.

The ladies of SATC were by no means the originators of ambiguously happy endings in the form of marriage. Elizabeth Bennett wasn’t suddenly in less control of her life because she married Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice. What made Lizzie strong was her intellect, wit, and refusal to adhere to the restrictions of her time. We’d root for her no matter what she’s done because of who she is. If she ended up single at the end, she wouldn’t be tragic or a martyr. She’d still be Lizzie, who got there on her own terms.

There is also what I’ll call plot-based strength. Think of Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air (made famous by George Clooney in the movie). In Ryan’s case, independence and freedom are not always positive strong points. He is solitary and convinces himself he wants it that way. Then we see how lonely that life is, and just when we think he can finally connect with someone… he doesn’t. The ending is incredibly sad, but the novel sets it up to be that way. Sad endings aren’t always deep and happy endings aren’t always an easy way out. But, in Ryan’s case, his sad ending existed to make the reader reflect. Like Lizzie, it almost didn’t matter if the character found happiness through another human being or whether he decided being alone is what he really wanted. It was his time, place, and circumstances that made him who he is. If we knew him in real life, would we consider him a strong, confident man? Maybe not. But he does make for one strong character.

Back to my original question, now: what do I mean when I say I want strong characters? I want people who transcend the labels, who are multi-dimensional, and who’s endings are in keeping with what they want or deserve. Words like “strong” or “weak” only apply to how you write your characters and what types of lives you want them to have.

To me, the weakest character in all of literature is Bella Swan. She is passive, unremarkable, and has no purpose other than to be the object of crazy-stalker-boyfriend’s affection. She is the poster child for low self-esteem and teaches girls all over the country that it’s OK to be controlled, bitten, and obsessed over, as long as the boy is cute enough. (Oh, and it’s perfectly fine to carry his claw-happy offspring, as long as you wait until marriage and give up your humanity.)

The reason all of this makes Bella weak, other than the obvious, is because through it all, we’re still supposed to think of her as our heroine, and not as the tragic figure she really is.

Writing good characters, like feminism, is about choices. Whether your character is male or female, ask yourself if they were responsible for their story’s conclusion, and, if they weren’t, can it be considered redeeming or poignant.

Entitled

“And I am a writer, writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home; And I’ve written pages upon pages, trying to rid you from my bones.” – The Decemberists, The Engine Driver

In a recent writing session, I asked former colleague/YA writer/all around awesome person, Tracy Marchini, when she gave her novels their titles. The answer: “right away.” Under normal writing circumstances, I wouldn’t have even asked because obviously the title comes first. But this wasn’t a normal writing circumstance for me – I was writing fiction.

As most of you know from following the blog, I’m (painfully slowly) writing some YA fiction at the moment (again, a painfully long moment that will someday lead to a finished novel, I hope). I’m enjoying the process immensely, when I find the time for it, but in my mind, I still would not refer to myself as a writer of fiction. To me, I’m still a personal essayist who simply ran out of (true) things to say for the time being.

With my non-fiction, which includes these blog posts, I think of a title first. Sometimes that’s all I have. I either think it sounds clever or captures the spirit of what I’m writing about. With essays, themes are layered, but they usually revolve around the same central issue. Novels rarely can be wrapped up so tightly. Their titles range from encapsulating an idea to a particularly good line of dialogue to a one-word, thought-provoking concept. The endless possibilities make my brain hurt, which is why the file currently frowning at me from my desktop reads “UntitledYA.doc.”

How do you all think of titles? Do they come first or do you, as the quote above says, write pages upon pages before you can rid title-block from your bones?

George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin

I’m back, friends! I spent a week in 65-degree upstate New York where I escaped NYC craziness and worked on my YA-in-progress. Despite a pretty great week, I have to say it’s good to be home. (What can I say, I loves me some craziness. The return to 90-degree humidity, however, is a different story…)

While writing this week, I noticed that I write a lot of dialogue. Or at least more dialogue than narration. This is neither good nor bad in my opinion, but it got me thinking about writing conversations in general. I’m a big dialogue person – old-fashioned Bogie and Bacall banter, I eat it up. But how much does it really matter? For me, it’s the first thing I notice when reading or watching something, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important thing I look for. When reading requested material, queries, what-have-you, I usually see one of two extremes when dialogue doesn’t work. I’ll call it the George Lucas vs. Aaron Sorkin problem.

Explanation.

Take George Lucas. Star Wars has proven decade after decade that Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away resonates with audiences, regardless of generation. He’s reinvented the franchise yet again with Clone Wars, which is currently being enjoyed by the grandchildren of those who were first shocked over the identity of Luke’s dad. (Don’t worry; I won’t ruin it for you.)

Yet, one thing George Lucas is notoriously guilty of (which he’s even accepted himself) is that he cannot write dialogue. Like, at all. Sure, Han’s “I know” to Leia’s “I love you” was pretty badass, but given the rest of the lackluster attempts at romance, I think this gem was simply the result of Lucas’ inability to convey genuine emotion.

Lucas proves that you don’t need deeply meaningful conversation, witty banter, or even a college-level vocabulary to engage a massive audience. It should come as a surprise to no one that Star Wars is one of my favorite movies, but consider for a minute if it was a novel (and also ignore the many novelizations that already exist). After a few pages of “I’ll be careful”/”You’ll be dead!” exchanges, I think I’d be ready to throw in the towel. Some things just don’t translate to the page with the same effect.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Now, before I explain the “problem” I have with a person whom I consider a master of dialogue, I will state that The West Wing remains one of the greater written shows of all time, and that I’ve loved everything Sorkin has ever written and/or created. With one exception – Studio 60. So, that will be my focus here. Studio 60, to me, represents exactly what not to do as a writer, even if you’re an incredibly gifted writer. 

Sorkin has a philosophy that one should never talk down to one’s audience. This is evident in his writing, and he stated it blatantly in Studio 60. I agree with him to an extent, but in the case of this “missing of the mark,” let’s say, he manages to take his trademark smart, witty, heightened language and turn it into whiny, preachy, condescending monologue. Even in near-perfect shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has been guilty of preaching. Since I usually fell into the choir he was he preaching to, I never really minded, but there were times where even I felt the eye roll-worthiness of some of Bartlett and Leo’s seemingly unrelated anecdotes in reference to world-changing decisions.

With Studio 60, Sorkin took his preaching to a new level. Clearly still pissed at NBC for firing him from The West Wing, he managed to create an entire show of monologues that made fairly accurate points about unfairness, network greed, and censorship, among others. What he forgot to do while making these Obama-level speeches was to develop an actual plot. Stories and characters on television are created through dialogue, which is another thing he forgot to write. Or, at least, forgot to write it well. Hence, the show failed.

Lucas’ ability to create a world in which people want to lose themselves is a testament to his talent as a writer. Whereas Sorkin’s apparent inability to use words for anything other than wit and intellect is a testament to his particular talent. On the page, however, a balance needs to be struck, whether you’re writing commercial or literary fiction. Exceptions are always made, depending on genre and style, but (for me, at least) I like seeing both factors given equal, or near-equal, weight.

How important is dialogue to you, and how do you approach it as writers? Does every word count toward the plot, or do you let your characters speak tangentially, the way people do in real life? Tell me how you balance your story, dialogue, and character development.

Voice, Balance, & How to Avoid Mary Sues

I’ve been thinking a bit about voice and, more specifically, how do I make mine distinct? I’m taking a break from my role as agent today and giving my semi-annual appearance here as a writer. As some of you might know, I’ve been struggling through my first attempt at fiction. The main characters are based on people in real life, myself being one of them. But I’m finding that as I further develop the plot, my character is changing from its real life roots. Suddenly, I’m not writing “fictional me” anymore; I’m writing someone else completely.

Creative Writing 101 will tell writers to “find their voice.” An author’s voice is a way to personalize their fiction, give it their stamp, and is a way to connect their novels even when they are completely independent from each other. Style, tone, use of language… all of these go into the ever-important “voice.”

Something important for writers to ask themselves is whether their voice and their characters’ voices are two separate entities. Fiction writers base characters on themselves all the time, and (as I mentioned, here) drawing from what you know can often lead to the best ideas. But where is the line between you and them, and how do you keep that balance?

As authors, your writing style comes through in descriptions, narration, themes, and types of characters you create. Those are what readers will associate with you when they recognize your name in bookstores. Once you create your characters and settings, however, you need to switch your focus every time your character says or does anything. Some questions to consider when making this switch:

  • – What type of person is my main character?
  • – Is this how I would react in this situation, or is this how my character would?
  • – Do I use this phrase all the time, or can I allow my character to say it as well?
  • – Given the context and tone of the novel, should my character act this way?
  • – Is my character’s name just my own name spelled backwards?

Not being able to find a balance between your own voice and your characters’ can lead to the unwanted evolution of Mary Sues. If you want to know where the term comes from, feel free to Wiki (fun back story). But, basically, a Mary Sue is a stand-in for the author in a piece of fiction.

Mary Sues are frowned upon and ridiculed by your literary peers, but they are by no means deal-breakers. I can think of two massively popular novels out right now that feature these characters: Twilight and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mikael Blomkvist is essentially if Stieg Larsson was cast as James Bond (literally) and Bella Swan looks and acts exactly like Stephanie Meyer except omgeveryguywantsher, including the two hottest guys on the planet!

Before you say to yourself, “Yes! NYT Bestseller list, here I come!” remember this: These books are insanely popular because their stories resonated with bajillions of readers, not because these characters were particularly engaging, or even well-crafted. The characters who are memorable and more often discussed from these novels are Edward, Jacob, and Lisbeth – the ones who required more thought from the authors.

Next time you sit down to write, think about your main character. Is he or she just you in a different context? Hopefully you avoid the Mary Sue trap, but if you absolutely can’t, is your story strong enough to back it up?

Joining the Club

Book clubs, once thought of as social gatherings for rich divorcees who needed something else to do besides drink, have been insanely trendy for the past few years. Let’s attribute this to Oprah.

Sadly, I’m about to quit my second book club in a year. The reason I wanted to join a book club in the first place was because in my post-MFA haze, I realized I missed sitting in a group and talking about literary things. But, I wanted the group to be non-publishing, non-literary folks, who will talk about “good vs. bad” rather than “what did you think of this use of symbolism?” Also, since I’m lazy, I wanted these people to live within a five-block radius from me. With these criteria in mind, I thought I found the perfect group last summer, who advertised themselves as “casual, fun readers” in my ‘hood.

At the first meeting, the “leader” pulled out a spiral-bound notebook and demanded we all discuss the items on her numbered list. So much for casual and fun. There was also “token pretentious guy” who kept leading the conversation back to obscure French authors who had absolutely nothing to do with Middlesex. So I left.

I found another book club, and really enjoyed the company this time. Mostly young professionals with a few baby boomers thrown in for good measure. But, alas, I must leave them too. See, I had this cute idea that I’d not only have time to read for fun, but that I’d also have time to meet once a month and talk about it. Oh, idealistic youth!

For writers, book clubs, that is, the right book club, can be incredibly valuable. It really doesn’t matter what you read or what you discuss. To me, being in any environment where ideas are shared can spark other parts of your creativity as well. It’s also a good idea to see how people respond to certain types of books, literary, commercial, and popular fiction alike. These people are your audience, after all.

Are any of you active members of a book club? If so, do you find it’s influenced your writing at all?

I Just Had the Strangest Dream

Don’t worry. I’m not going to give anything away.

To me, no show has ever fully embraced the concept of “the journey, not the destination, matters,” more than Lost. You didn’t need to have seen the finale to pick up on that. Not to sound too much like Jacob, but life is not about the situation you’re in, but rather how and why you handle that situation the way you do. Lost was a show of ideas and of human nature. It was never, ever, a show about “hey, what’s this crazy island?” Those who are arguing over the ending or still questioning “what’s it all mean?” will probably never be satisfied, and, sadly, those people completely missed the point of the show. I think it’ll be a long time before television audiences are ready to put up with such a concept again, so for that reason, I am sad to see Lost go. 

Moving on.

The end of the most novelistic show on television got me thinking of the most outrageous, satisfying, beautiful, or completely infuriating endings to novels we’ve read. Reactions to book endings usually don’t have blogs or message boards devoted to them, so feel free to geek out in the comments.

For me, my favorite last line might be (I’m predictable, I know), “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” from, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. I’m also partial to the entire last paragraph of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (which I mentioned before here).

As for “infuriating endings,” I think I’m guilty of naysaying. That said, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows made me a little mad. First, for people who did die and people who should’ve died but didn’t. Second, for the “tra la la” epilogue. I’ve heard JK Rowling talk about the book, and I understand why she did it, but when I read it I admit to making my “seriously?” face.

What is your favorite, or least favorite, ending or last line to a book? (Rule: Respect the “spoiler alert” code of not being a ruiner! Thanks.)

Selling Yourself Short

On Wednesday, I read a post on Rachelle Gardner’s blog about separating one’s writing life from his or her financial life. In it, she argues that when writers put their pens to paper with only dollar signs in their eyes, their work suffers. I have to say I agree with this. Thought of being the next James Patterson or Stephen King are often delusional, and chances are you won’t write the next Twilight either. Those types of trends are often completely random, so if you trap yourself in the mindset that whatever you’re about to write will be “the next big thing,” you’ll end up driving yourself crazy. Or worse – into a writer’s block.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like Carrie Bradshaw here, but as I thought more about the relationship between writing and money, I couldn’t help but wonder – do writing goals and financial goals need to be mutually exclusive? If you’re a writer, your number one goal should be producing work that you love and are proud of. Writing is personal and therapeutic and people do it because they need to. Like any art, the best writing comes from the passion behind it.
But writers also shouldn’t be ashamed to expect adequate compensation for the many hours they put into their work. It’s not selling out and it doesn’t make you shallow. If you’re at the point of querying agents, chances are you are trying to turn “what you love” into a viable career option. And really, isn’t that what everyone wants?
I’m not going to sugar-coat the state of the industry. Unless you already are James Patterson or Stephen King, you will most likely not become a millionaire with your first six book deals, let alone your first one. Even when we’re not in/recovering from a recession, that probably wont happen. Sorry.
That doesn’t mean setting financial goals for your writing career is unrealistic. Once the scary querying stage is over, knowing you’re being artistically recognized and monetarily compensated can be a great motivator. Don’t be afraid to know your worth. Selling yourself short puts you at risk of working for way less than you deserve, and then nobody wins.
I am in no way suggesting you scream at your agents every time they come back to you with an offer. (Let me repeat: PLEASE DO NOT YELL AT YOUR AGENTS!) I am simply saying that you should choose an agent who you know will fight for you, agents you can trust to get the most they can for the work you’ve produced.
The sayings “don’t quit your day job” and “starving artists” apply, especially, to writers and they exist for a reason. It’s hard to turn your passions into your job when the competition is already high and the chances of slipping a measly query letter through a slush pile are exceptionally low. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. All it takes is for someone to believe in your work the way you believe in it.
And so I leave you for this LOVE-ly weekend (get it?) with one more affirmation, because if anyone knows what it means to get what they deserve, it’s these awesome ladies! (Warning: this song will stay in your head until President’s Day, but it is so worth it.)

The Superbowl Ups Their Game

While the best word to describe what I see when I look at a football game is “static,” I, like many, sat down to watch the Superbowl last night. (Go Saints!) Granted, I only watch the Superbowl every year for the commercials and (sometimes) the half-time show. The hype surrounding the ads this year was already high due to the allowance of an anti-choice ad and the denial of an ad for a gay dating site. So, more intrigued than usual about the content of the commercials, I was prepared for some mild irritation (Tim Tebow), some laughs (Betty White!), and a whole lotta unnecessary sexuality (Danica Patrick and that other token hot girl from GoDaddy). 

The objectification of women is practically standard in commercials, so much so that it’s now often exaggerated for comedic effect. But last night featured far fewer babes in bikinis than in previous years. (Where there any at all?) Perhaps the folks at CBS thought the hot-chicks-and-beer images weren’t for the post-wardrobe malfunction eyes of the FCC. Instead, the ads took their anti-woman agenda to a whole different level. 

Is it too much for me to call it an “agenda?” Maybe. But when I think back to the Dodge Charger commercial titled “Man’s Last Stand,” I think… maybe not. In the ad, the inner voice of “Average Man” goes over everything he does not want to do during the course of his day, which includes doing his job, coming home from said job, and spending time with (presumably) his wife. Because he behaves the way a human adult should, he totally deserves a car that looks like a huge penis.

Two more ads – I forget what they were for, but then, does it matter? – were especially tactless. One featured Jim Nance announcing that any man who agrees to shop with his girlfriend has “had his spine removed” and obviously needs to get it back by buying something damn manly! The other ad simply listed what “real men” should do during their lifetimes, which include falling in love with woman (subtext: and only a woman!) and then proceed to do much of what the man in the Dodge commercial complained about.

What’s interesting here is that, yes, these ads are obviously offensive to women, but they’ve managed to now include a whole other group of people to offend: men! If I were a man, I would be rightfully horrified at these ads’ portrayal of the such a blatant stereotype of the male psyche. However, if I were a guy, I’d probably think they were speaking directly to me because I, too, would feel trapped and burdened by the annals of life. Guys, if you need a car or other product to assert your manhood, I have news for you – you’re not a real man yet, and buying that car won’t change that. This is a new brand of misogyny. Just because it offends everybody doesn’t mean it counts for equality.


So, to sum up, I’ve learned that yes, I am one of those stereotypical women who are confused by football, but I also learned that women, football fans or otherwise, only exist to look pretty and emasculate men. Likewise, all men secretly hate their lives and resent their girlfriends, wives, children, and even jobs for making them forget their true nature… which is apparently “being fifteen.”

Sort of makes one miss the days of “Open a Bud Light, Have a Stripper Land in Your Lap,” doesn’t it?

Jane Austen Has Destroyed Us All

Since it comes free with my new nook, I’ve been re-reading Pride and Prejudice (pay no attention to that print version on my shelf). Now, before I explain the title of this post, let me just say that this book is easily one of the best written of all time. Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to be different. It proves its timelessness in its prose and plot. Its characters remain complex and familiar and, let’s face it, perfectly constructed. Along with The Great Gatsby and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Pride and Prejudice would be put on my imaginary syllabus to my imaginary class called “This Is Everything a Novel Should Be!”

OK, now let’s trash it.

I first fell in love with Ms. Austen in college. I had never read her before, but through some turn of events, I ended up in a seminar devoted entirely to her. We read all six novels, some of her letters, and (get ready to swoon, ladies!) watched the Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Colin Firth. Before taking this class, I assumed that Jane Austen wrote the fluffy chick lit of her time. In fact, one might even say I had a prejudice against her for this reason.

But, even before her actual writing proved me wrong, I learned that Jane was a huge cynic when it came to love and hated being around children. Surprised and sympathetic, I respected her even more. In knowing her real-life feelings on marriage and children and “what’s expected,” I could see her winking at me from behind the pages when her characters inevitably got their “happy” ending.

Again, I say all of this about her with love and admiration. However, it wasn’t until reading Pride and Prejudice again that I realized the true extent of her cynicism. She is downright cruel in a way that I bet she didn’t even anticipate.

While I’m sure this has been pointed out before in the thesis papers of English and Film majors alike, Pride and Prejudice has been arguably the template for almost every piece of women’s fiction/chick lit novel and romantic comedy ever produced. Not all, but a lot of them. Man meets woman; woman hates man; man hates woman; both find each other attractive; both resist; they keep running into each other; sexual tension builds; man and woman get married.

By creating this formula, Jane Austen was inadvertently responsible for today’s stereotype (reality?) that women fall for jerks. In essence, she’s been ruining the lives of women for 200 years. Sure, it’s paid off in some ways. She is, after all, responsible for Sam and Diane’s banter on Cheers and the careers of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. But she’s also responsible for Bridget Jones’ diary, for all of our diaries that lament over the man who just won’t change his ways. She’s why Carrie ends up with Big!
Even in my favorite Austen novel, Emma, Emma plays the role of the jerk who needs changing, while Mr. Knightly, oh perfect, love-of-my-life that he is, plays the role of the wise outsider, disdaining Emma’s superficiality while falling in love with her. Perhaps Jane was trying to explore the question, “Why do the hot, kinda bitchy girls always win?” But that’s a topic for the men to analyze. I’ll stick with women and our Darcy-complex.

As I’ve said before, sometimes people just suck. In reality, unless something particularly profound happens to them, these people rarely change, so why should we expect anything more in our books or films? I know, I know. Now, I’m sounding like the cynic. So I’ll clarify by admitting that I do see the value of the hope Jane’s formula provides and I believe that love sometimes can be that profound thing that happens to the aforementioned “jerks.” However, these constant, poorly executed remakes are making women appear dumb. I think this needs to stop. If reality reflects entertainment which reflects reality, then one of these things needs to change.

I’m left with two questions:

1) Why has this notion – that is, the notion that we will be the one to change him because deep down, he’s really just Mr. Darcy – been perpetuated for as long as it has?

2) Which came first – literature influencing our relationships, or our relationships influencing literature?

Maybe it’s both, but one thing is for sure – We can drop all the zombies we want into Jane’s work. We can even allow Anne Hathaway to make Jane fall in love on screen and let the malnourished Keira Knightley destroy everything holy about Lizzie Bennett. And no matter how many times we roll her over in her grave, she is clearly getting the last laugh.