2016 Prospective

After the previous post’s exhausting round up of all my 2015 publications, I must now mention I won’t have nearly as many new publications in 2016.

In fact the only confirmed publication I have is:

August 2016: Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives 2), Little, Brown Books for Young Readers


What else am I working on? What else might I like to be working on?

Here is the state of the Kate Elliott in January 2016.

Under contract and actively working on:

Court of Fives 3, the third and final novel in the Court of Fives trilogy.

Dead Empire, the second volume of the Black Wolves Trilogy.

A novelette for an anthology, not yet announced. The story will be set in the Spiritwalker universe.

Under contract, not yet working on:

Another novella in the Court of Fives universe.

The third Black Wolves Trilogy volume.

Not under contract partials: novels or short fiction I have written a bit on, that I am anxious to complete someday:

Short Fiction:

A possible novella that may be part of Dead Empire but might be published separately beforehand.

So much Spiritwalker short fiction:

Monster: Kemal at thirteen

Bloom: Includes the incident in which a teenage Andevai comes to the attention of Four Moons House, but is really a story about how a young woman mage who is a diviner comes to realize her power.

The Architect: An incident that takes place a few months after Andevai begins training at the mage house, told from the point of view of the mansa’s uncle.

The First Thing: Fourteen-year-old Augustus Sidibe stows away on a dirigible crossing from Expedition to Europa, and witnesses a terrible event.

Two post-Spiritwalker stories that to give details would be spoilers for the series.


Jaran universe novels. Yes, there are several more to be written, although at this point I would write them as standalones rather than as a series or trilogy.

Here is the next Jaran novel I would write. It would be a standalone, and it’s working title used to be The Game of Princes but you can see that “Game of” constructions are basically out at the moment. Here is the opening page:

At Diana’s last acting job one of the props had been a centuries-old revolver, still in working condition. When, after the final night of the production, she found herself sitting alone in an empty park with the purloined revolver in her lap and a bullet in five of the six chambers, she had finally understood that she’d crossed a line past which she could no longer return.

So it was only forty eight hours later, having shed her life in a wretched, slipshod haste, that she stood in a dusty hanger among sixty-two other people desperate enough to take this drastic step.

The manager mounted the podium and greeted them with a weary smile. “Remember, we only take volunteers. This is your last chance to turn back. I advise that you do.”

After a pause, during which no one spoke, the manager went on.

“Statistically you have a one in six chance of contracting angel-lung, which will at best cripple you and will definitively make it impossible for you to return to Earth or anywhere because angel-lung interdicts you from vector travel so you can never leave that hellhole of a moon at all, ever again. Never.”

The man next to Diana scratched the stubble of his shorn head, a gesture that made her want to touch her own shaved head, but she had cut that golden life all away from herself and let it be swept aside. Someone else coughed, and then the silence became focused like a drop pulling off the surface tension of water, ready to fall.

“All right, then. Get your staple and proceed along the gangway to your berth in the shuttle.”

They filed into an obedient line, one by one stepping into the cradle.

As she waited for her turn she studied their faces, because emotion was her scholarship and expression her skill. One man had his eyes closed, as if replaying a memory he wasn’t yet willing to erase. A woman wearing a blue cap was tracing a crazy path with her eyes along the ceiling, almost certainly following some kind of nesh game on her neural network. A couple held hands contentedly, their tight smiles of triumph making it seem they had just scored a secret victory.

There were no children.

Children weren’t allowed, only the hopeless, the cast-off, the chronically debt-stricken, and the woman who had pressed the muzzle of an antique gun to her head and decided it would be too much trouble for someone else to clean up and besides that too much of a shock for the young daughter she rarely saw.

Space Opera: I have about 5 chapters of this written because it is my “no pressure just for fun” secret project that I work on when I am feeling stressed.

Invasion: A modern day sff novel, set in Hawaii. Can’t say more because even though I know the entire physical plot (i.e. the order of events) and all the characters, and have 4 chapters written, I don’t have the underlying mechanism (the underlying engine/trick that makes the plot go).

A sequel to Crown of Stars, but set 500 years later, that would (among other things) involve Count Lavastine getting released from the paralytic poison to which he succumbed in volume (um) (whatever volume that happened in). It would also follow the adventures of the Phoenix Guild of traveling sorcerers, an offshoot of the school Liath has (so modestly) founded at the end of Crown of Stars.

Other novels. But it’s too exhausting to list my other ideas, which are legion, because the reality is that I most likely won’t get to most/any of them, even in a perfect world.


I counted up last year’s reading total: 48 books (fiction and non fiction).

In 2016 I want to try to read 52 books.

Also, as my Big Book Classic 2016 project: the Dick Davis translation of Ferdowsi’s The Shahnameh is ON. If anyone wants to join me in this project, let me know. This is truly EPIC writing.



My word for tv, film, games, and other stuff. I will continue playing Guild Wars 2 until I get bored of it, and will watch stuff. I am looking forward to The Expanse and other shows/seasons I haven’t yet seen that came out last year. Also, hoping for a new season of Longmire.


I would love to get my newsletter actually going (it isn’t yet), and my big dream is to create a focused podcast on writing, comics, production, and craft with my daughter and a third person with engineering skills. But that’s for the medium term.

Short term, and more reasonably do-able, I hope simply to blog more in 2016, and to write several long essays like Writing Women Characters as Human Beings from last year or The Omniscient Breasts from 2012. But mostly I just want to blog more in the capacity of a person who is talking out loud and, if all goes well, engaged in conversation with others. In 2015 I got too fixated on the idea that I *had* to produce a certain kind of publicity writing in conjunction with book releases, and in the end this rigid idea created so much anxiety that it exhausted my capacity to write casually about things that interest me and that I would hope to be able to post casually about as a means of sharing ideas and discussion with people who want to read about and discuss such things.

In other words, I want to have more fun and BE MORE FUN in 2016.

Read for Pixels: Kate Elliott Reading and Q&A — LIVE TONIGHT

Early_Blogs2Catch Kate Elliott live online TONIGHT (6 PM PST) for The Pixel Project’s “Read for Pixels” campaign. She will be participating in a reading of one of her works, as well as answering questions from viewers.

If you’re interested, please watch and participate in the Google Hangouts Reading tonight at this link!

The Read For Pixels campaign features live Google Hangout Readings with award-winning bestselling authors in support of the Celebrity Male Role Model Pixel Reveal campaign which aims to raise US$1 million in aid of The Pixel Project and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Enthusiasm Thursday: The Steampowered Globe (Eds. Lim & Samah)

I picked up the anthology The Steampowered Globe, editors Rosemary Lim and Maisarah Bte Abu Samah (ASiFF, Singapore, 2012) because . . . . I don’t remember why. I read about it or saw a mention of it pass through Twitter or Tumblr, and bought and downloaded a copy on Kindle.


Then it sat on my iPad for months, unread, until I went to London Worldcon (Loncon) and had the pleasure of being on a panel with J Y Yang. She was smart and funny, and when I remembered she had a story in The Steampowered Globe, I started reading.

I’m just sorry I waited so long. Except for Yang, the authors and editors weren’t known to me so I came into the experience with, I hope, few preconceptions. This kind of anthology represents what digital publishing offers: opportunity and accessibility. Twenty years ago such a collection of seven stories by Asian writers might certainly have been published but my ability to discover it would have been limited. If the ebook revolution has done anything it has broadened the range of what can be affordably published and how much more feasible it is to get hold of things from all over the world. This is not to say there isn’t a long way to go in in the quest for diverse books, just that I’m delighted that anthologies like this exist and can be downloaded with one click.

I read the anthology back in September and this many months later I still remember what all the stories are about as well as their stimulating visions of colonialism, science, authority, work, and relationships.


I loved the rich language in Leow Hui Min Annabeth’s Ascension, with its clever alternate history of an empress and her natural philosopher.

Claire Cheong thoughtfully explores humanity, freedom, and loyalty in No, They Dream of Mechanical Hearts.

In Viki Chua Morrow’s Knight, science and superstition clash. I particularly enjoyed the way Chua lovingly describes machinery.

Yuen Xiang Hao’s Colours made me cry, and I didn’t expect that. Poignant.

The workers do not like their Union Jacker superintendent in Mint Kang’s delightful How the Morning Glory Grows. So much sardonic banter.

I can’t tell you anything about Ng Kum Hoon’s Help! Same Angler Fish’s Been Gawking for Eight Minutes! without ruining the experience of reading it for yourself. It’s so rare for this kind of story to work for me, but this did.

I asked J Y Yang if she was writing a novel in the splendid world that is the setting of Captain Bells and the Sovereign State of Discordia. I really wanted more. I still want more.

I think what I loved most about these stories was how — for me — they blended familiar sfnal elements with a non-Western perspective; it made the settings and stories feel fresh and brought interesting nuance to each individual story’s approach.

Enthusiasm Thursday: SHADOWBOXER by Tricia Sullivan

“But some days when I get this weather inside me it seems no matter how I want to be good, sooner or later I’m going to let off on somebody.”

Shadowboxer is the story of Jade Barrera, a seventeen year old mixed martial artist with anger issues who wants to fight professionally. Her story intersects that of a Burmese girl, Mya, in Thailand who has the ability to walk from our world into a deeper world that lies alongside and intertwined with ours. I’m not going to try to encapsulate the plot (although it includes drug smuggling and child slavery as well as the world of Mixed Martial Arts) but rather discuss some elements that really stood out for me.



This is a novel that excels at voice. Sullivan’s writing shines. She deftly switches from Jade’s first person narrative to Mya’s third person narrative in a way that feels completely natural within the text. What I found most impressive is how each voice is entirely distinct; leaving aside the first/third person differentiation, there is no way a reader can mistake Mya’s sensitive and observant point of view for Jade’s fierce personality because the language and the kinds of things each character notices, describes, and remarks on fit each girl’s psychology.

Jade fights her own demons and her tough, uncompromising voice and her mistakes and imperfections and her constant pushing of herself to figure things out and do better just make me love her as a protagonist. Her interactions with other characters are consistently fitting to her blunt and yet genuine manner. Mya’s situation is stark and frightening but her compassion and courage, and her intelligence and ability, keep her moving and striving. The language flows through the narrative in a way that reveals how each point of view character acts and reacts within the world.


The secondary characters also stand out. It’s not a particularly long novel and yet the other characters remain vividly drawn and easy to tell apart. The dialogue is just so good. It has the the rhythm of real exchanges and there is always just the right amount of it to tell the reader what she needs to know. I can read and re-read certain of the dialogue scenes because they’re so well done, so dexterous, so agile as they unfold impressive amounts of information and emotion.

How much do I love how Sullivan depicts serious training and the drive to compete? How much do I love the intense, sweaty, physical fight scenes? There are no training montages here, no smooth moves or easy grasp of competence. Jade trains hard in a way I found tremendously believable. Furthermore Sullivan really knows how to fight and therefore her fight scenes read like they’re actual Mixed Martial Arts bouts taking place rather than as if they are literary fight scenes written with Hollywood-style choreography. I’ve rarely read a book in which the fighting felt as real.

In four fascinating essays Sullivan writes about how martial arts are depicted on screen and in novels, and how she wrote the fight scenes in Shadowboxer. You can find all four linked here, and I highly recommend them.

An Illustrated Love Letter to Smart Bitches and Trashy Books

As a teen, I secretly gravitated to comics, especially superhero comics. If I thought no one was looking I would browse the circular rack of comics in the grocery store and I even once, defiantly, purchased with my own money the re-launch with new characters of a comic called X-men. That Krakatoa figured into this exciting adventure only increased its appeal. A sentient volcano! How cool is that!

But I understood that comics were “low” entertainment, not worthy of my time and attention. Unfortunately my fear of being kindly criticized (by sympathetic people whose opinions I respected) for wanting to read comics overwhelmed my desire to read them, so I did not in fact begin reading comics in any number until I started dating the man I eventually married. He read comics. How cool was that?

This was his favorite comic series at that time. He was totally built like this when I met him. SWEAR TO GOD.

Despite the dicey literary worth (as considered in mainstream circles) of science fiction and fantasy, they at least were books and thus slightly less suspect than comics. Furthermore I was fortunate to have a high school English teacher who read, taught, and edited sff, so I read and experimented with writing the genre stories I loved even if they weren’t the realism my college writing teachers thought I should concentrate on.

With the exception of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (which is properly speaking “bestselling women’s fiction,” not romance) I did not really meet genre romance novels until college. Work-study offered me the opportunity to work the night shift at the phone exchange (yes, I’m old) where sat an entire shelf of Barbara Cartland Harlequin novels. Although I loved Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, the Cartland novels, I quickly discovered, were not to my taste.

Too . . . many . . . ellipses . . . she . . . shyly . . . and. . . haltingly . . . breathed . . .

However at this time I was also introduced to Georgette Heyer and some of the other classic romance novels, all far more appealing than Cartland.

What I mostly found out (really, was I *that* sheltered a child?) was that many people read romance novels, even women at a women’s college where we presumably should have “known better.”

Known better than what?

Now we pause and ask ourselves why the calumny heaped upon certain forms of entertainment?

Like me, Lucy Liu is concerned.


I began to publish science fiction and fantasy novels and soon became acquainted with the disdain with which romance novels of any stripe could be mocked and scorned by the writers and readers within the sff genre, which was itself mocked and scorned by the mainstream. Even to write books with the merest hint of “romance” in them was to invite derision from certain quarters of the sff field.

I well recall the time I was on a panel at an sff convention (on what subject I can’t recall) and a certain male writer of hard sf (whose name I will not share), in answer to a question, suggested that he and the other man beside him at *that* end of the table wrote real sf as opposed to us two women at the other end (he waved contemptuously toward us) who wrote material tainted by romance. That I can only paraphrase his words saddens me; I wish I had written down the comment although really it was the confluence of the words, his tone, and the gesture that sealed it, all done in a manner that suggested he knew the audience would naturally agree with him and thereby publicly refute us and our problematic, inferior narratives

This debate and discussion has of course gone on for decades.

For years Catherine Asaro–whose scientific credentials are impeccable and whose sf melds hard sf and romance in a unique way–bravely championed romance as a legitimate subject and as a feminist subject. As well, Heyer has long had her champions in the sff field.

Meanwhile the internet came along and with it the rise of book blogging. The book blogging I noticed first (being an sff writer as I am) fell into two modes: on-line critics who wrote about a certain type of literary sff (often great stuff, sometimes not to my taste) and the explosion of blogs relating to epic fantasy novels. The early years of epic fantasy book blogging skewed heavily to male writers. Romance, or anything romance-brushed, obviously need not apply as serious writing. That was the takeaway.

And then one day I stumbled upon Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I fell in love.



Taye Diggs and Moon Bloodgood in DAYBREAK


I am more of an occasional reader of romance; most of the fiction I read is sff (it’s my first true love if we leave aside my thwarted calf love for superhero comics). I do definitely love a good romance novel, and obviously I’m known for writing love stories into my novels (in a way that sometimes causes some readers to consider my works not really quite rigorous enough to be true sff).

SBTB took readers’ love of romance and shoved it in the face of a world that by and large mocked romance and romance readers. SBTB said, “Say what you will. We see no need to feel embarrassed by what we love to read, and we are going to talk about it in public. With each other.”

I can’t tell you that was their mission statement, but that’s what I took from it. Suddenly there was connection between readers who had felt themselves isolated.

B & G Made in Danmark


In her post on the tenth anniversary of the blog’s beginning, co-founder Sarah Wendell makes this very point:

“I joke that I vastly underestimated two things when Smart Bitches began, one being the number of readers who love romance and feel isolated and alone because they have no one to talk to about the books they love. But it’s not actually a joke – it’s very true.”


It’s very true, indeed.

Diminishing people, telling them that what they love to read or watch or eat or do for recreation is trivial or stupid is a tactic. It’s not always a deliberate and conscious tactic but it serves the same purpose nevertheless: to create a hierarchy of judgment in which some can establish their taste as superior (morally or intellectually) to others and thus judge which books (or even lives) are good and worthy while relegating others to the rubbish bin of history and human culture.

Now let me briefly detour to reassure you that I know some of the books I read and enjoy are trash. So what? What does that even mean?

I’m not getting into issues of writing craft here except to say that writing skill is a real thing and some writers have developed it better than others, but those skills aren’t directly linked to genre. To use an example close to home, all sff novels aren’t automatically less well written than any literary novel (as sff writers have sometimes complained they are told), and if that is true of sff then how is it not true of any other genre?

To some extent I (and I suspect SBTB) are using the word “trash” affectionately and as a means to pushback against the idea that intense stories of human relationship and interaction that center on women’s lives and experiences and on consensual and positive sex and romance are, by definition, trashy or less “serious” than stories that revolve around endeavors and concerns identified by our culture as male-focused.

I know exactly what Rayna and Juliette think of THAT.

Hayden Panettierre and Connie Britton in NASHVILLE

Finding SBTB ten years ago was one of the tools that allowed me to stop feeling I had to apologize for so many things. Book reviewing websites like SBTB, Dear Author, Book Smugglers, and far too many more to list here, have broken open the narrow gatekeeping portals of the olden days, allowing more people than ever to discuss the books they read and love (or hate).

In other words, most of us no longer have to be solitary readers if we don’t want to be. How cool is that? How empowering is that?

This poster from the alternate universe we SHOULD be living in.


As Sarah Wendell goes on to say:

“Having a safe and welcoming space in which to discuss honestly how the books we read make us feel is vitally important.”


Thank you, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Thank you.



Steerswoman review in Cascadia Subduction Zone

After publishing only a single piece of short fiction in 2014, I have my first piece out already in 2015: A review of Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series in the January 2015 issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone.

I do not write reviews. This incident, therefore, was a bit of a fortuitous happening. Nisi Shawl DMd me on Twitter on a Thursday to ask if I could possibly write a review of a “classic” work of SFF by Monday for CSZ’s “Grandmother Magma” series on classic works of SFF by women writers (they had an emergency gap).

As it happens, I had re-read Kirstein’s 4 books (so far) series while traveling last summer so the narrative was fresh in my mind and I had been thinking a lot about what makes her world and characters and plot so appealing.

The review “wrote itself,” as they say.

The January issue opens with an important essay by Shawl on the obstacles inherent in being a PoC trying to break into the sff writing world, and some solutions:

Honesty on the part of working POC speculative fiction authors will give aspiring colleagues a realistic idea of what to expect of their careers.

CSZ’s January issue also includes poems by Rose Lemberg, Mary Alexandra Agner, and Sonya Taaffe, five reviews of current books, and featured artist Tahlia Day.

2014 in Retrospective. 2015 Prospective.

For me 2014 proved to be one of those years more endured than enjoyed, with some memorable exceptions. For those interested in what I wrote over the course of the year, here is a retrospective.


I published a single piece of fiction in 2014, a story (novelette) that I wrote as a valentine for my readers: The Courtship. I call it a coda to the Spiritwalker Trilogy because it takes place a few days after the end of Cold Steel.

No novel in 2014, alas. Which always makes me feel as if I have been unproductive. So here is what I did accomplish:

As I’ve mentioned, I fell behind writing Black Wolves because of my father’s final illness and death in 2013, so although Black Wolves was originally scheduled for November 2014 it was not even finished by the end of 2013.

I completed a first draft of Black Wolves, and subsequently two revisions, for Orbit Books.

I also completed a final line edit and copy edits and page proofs on Court of Fives, my YA debut with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, coming August 2015.

In addition I completed copy edits and page proofs for my forthcoming short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott (Tachyon Publications), forthcoming in February 2015.

I started (and have not yet finished) a piece of short fiction called The Beatriceid, in the style of the Aeneid, but told from the perspective of Beatrice (one of the heroines of the Spiritwalker Trilogy). I also have written about half a short story, “When I Grow Up,” told from the point of view of [spoiler]. I plan to finish these ASAP.


Justine Larbalestier and I launched a monthly book club for Bestselling Women’s Fiction (of the 20th century). We read a novel each month, chatted about it in email and compiled that chat into a post, and invited discussion. I thought this was pretty great, and you can read our posts and the discussion. Unfortunately the press of our schedules overcame us in the second half of the year and we had to put the project on hiatus but we hope to start it up again here in 2015.

This RocketTalk podcast hosted by Justin Landon in which N.K. Jemisin and I discuss bias in the science fiction and fantasy field went really well, and frankly I’m proud of how the discussion unfolded on a difficult and controversial topic.

In honor of NaNoWriMo I managed to write a blog post a day about writing for the first 14 days. You can find a list of these posts at the NaNoWriMo tag/category on this blog.

I wrote up a long squee post about Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy which generated a lot of wonderful discussion both here and on my Live Journal mirror site.

Another squee post: Over at A Dribble of Ink I highlighted the illustrations drawn by Hugo-award-winning artist Julie Dillon for my illustrated short story “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal” Because I will never get tired of talking about what a great artist she is!

In December I again participated in Smugglivus, the annual festival of posts at the home of the marvelous Book Smugglers. This year I discussed the presence of women relating to women in narratives (with a focus on television).


If you asked me what I accomplished this year, I would say: Not enough.

Funny how harshly we can judge ourselves.


I don’t get out much because it is expensive to fly from Hawaii to anywhere. (Why is no one crying for me?)

BUT I did have an absolutely fabulous trip to England and France in August and September of 2014. I visited dear friends, went to a nurturing writer’s retreat in Brittany, and in general soaked up hanging out with writers and sff community people and cramming in a year’s worth of shop talk in one month.

I attended Loncon (Worldcon) in London, which was huge, wonderful, diverse, exciting, and exhausting (in the right way), the best Worldcon I have attended.

I was honored to be one of the Guests of Honor (with Larry Rostant, Charlaine Harris, & Toby Whithouse) at Fantasycon, ably run by Lee Harris. This small literary convention proved to be a really fabulous weekend in York, England.


I’ll be writing. The aforementioned two short pieces need to be finished (I have other Spiritwalker short fiction that is partially written too; in a perfect world I would finish them all by June and bring them out as a short collection, but I’m skeptical I can manage that with my current novel writing schedule).

My novel writing schedule? A YA novel and an epic fantasy novel. I will also try to find time to eat and sleep and exercise and, if I’m lucky, to read.

The rest of this week I will be posting about my forthcoming projects and when you can expect them and where you can pre-order. It looks to be a busy year. I say that as a good thing.

As always, my thanks to my readers. You make this all possible.

Listmaking: Epic Fantasy with Protagonists &/or Settings of Color/Non-White

On Twitter @afrolicious asked: Any suggestions for epic fantasy books with Brown folx driving the action?

People threw out a few suggestions but I thought it would be worthwhile to ask if anyone knows of a list that has already been compiled. I am SURE there is one but I am evidently not googling well enough to find it this morning, pre-caffeine.

Regardless, I thought, why not mention some suggestions here.

There is a very extensive YA Protagonists of Color/Non-White compiled by Rachel Brown here but it is specifically for YA (Young Adult) novels, not adult epic fantasy. She also references a similar list for MG (middle grade) on Stacy Whitman’s blog. Marie Brennan has a Multicultural Fantasy list on her blog. And OF COURSE (ETA) Medeivalpoc on tumblr.

What epic fantasy novels/series can you name that are

1) reasonably epic (how to define epic I leave up to you)

2) include one or more (if in an ensemble cast) protagonists of color/non-white “driving the action”

3) the setting can be anything, of course, although I’m personally interested in how the protagonist interacts with the setting: Is the protagonist an insider, an outsider, or somewhere in between? And, of course, how the setting interacts with the protagonist.

Titles welcome. If you also want to add a brief (brief!) description of why protagonist and/or setting fit the question that would be cool but definitely not necessary.


ETA: Have had to close comments on WordPress site due to issues with spam

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, published in 1958 and set in the early 50s in New York City. The story centers around the lives of five young women who meet when they are all working in the publishing industry and what happens to them then.

KATE: Well. I did not enjoy The Best of Everything. Some parts worked for me, but others I ended up skimming, including a great deal of the relationship stuff because it bored me. I was most interested in the details of working in NYC in the 50s as a young woman, and in the ways the life depicted in the novel might be similar to and different from how it is today. Had there been more about that I would have gotten into the book more.

JUSTINE: I loved all the bits about the working life and would also love there to have been far more of them. But the glimpses we get are awesome and feel so very real. (Down to the casual offers of books to visitors. I remember my own amazement when I first visited publishers’ offices that they would give me so many books.) I really enjoyed Caroline Bender getting one over on Miss Farrow at Publisher’s Weekly by sending in the announcement of her promotion to Reader that Miss Farrow had deliberately left out so that it winds up being printed on its own and not being lost in the longer list of Fabian promotions. Booyah, Caroline, booyah! I loved that back then there was a job title, Reader, in publishing. (In Australia there’s a job title, Reader, at some universities but I’m not sure how many are left. It’s definitely on it’s way out. When I was little I really wanted to be a Reader. I figured you just sat around all day reading, which sounded perfect.)

On this reread I was even more taken by just how vivid the portrayal of workplace harassment is. Her bosses are absolutely vile. That scene where Barbara Lemont is letched upon by Mr Shalimar ending with him drunkenly crawling under the table to check out her legs. Aargh.

KATE: That is one of the standout scenes. Mr. Shalimar is consistently awful but in a way I found believable. I have to wonder if it is based on a real incident.

JUSTINE: Given that the whole book is closely based on Rona Jaffe’s own experiences working in publishing in NYC you’ve got to think it is. I loved that we get to see the fallout of Shalimar public sexual assault. From Barbara’s stoic endurance, knowing there’s not a whole lot she can do about it, through to the repercussions for Shalimar. Because he got so drunk and so blatantly and embarassingly assaulted her at the office Christmas party in full view of everyone he loses face and some of his authority. They laugh at him. After the Christmas party every woman he’s groped starts telling her story and Shalimar is now viewed as the pathetic loser office letch. His superior is clearly anxious that he might have to fire Shalimar.

But, of course, he isn’t fired. Given that his boss, Mr Bossart, picks out his girlfriends from his staff that was never going to happen.

KATE: I have been thinking about why I loved Valley of the Dolls while TBoE left me cold. Part of it is the train wreck quality of VotD; you cannot look away as everything inexorably falls apart. But ultimately I found VotD more emotional and gripping and vivid. Once too often in TBoE the characterization and/or narrative felt too glib, too easy, too sentimental, too pat, and even too moralizing.

JUSTINE: Valley of the Dolls is way over the top. Way, way, way over the top. It’s a technicolour novel. And I love it. But I love, too, the relative calm of TBoE. The relationship stuff in TBoE does not bore me. I cared about all the characters. Especially Caroline. And I found the way they are all steamrolled by the culture that says they must find a man, they must get married, they must not be ambitious or too into their work painful rather than boring. None of them escape. And the only “happy” endings proferred are quitting your job and getting married, or running away with a movie star to Vegas. Um. No, thanks. It was triply saddening realising that not that much has changed almost ten years later when VotD is published. Though at least TBoE offers slight hope that their lives might improve. VotD is even bleaker.

KATE: The men almost without exception are awful, dull, creepy, and/or self absorbed. Possibly Sidney Carter (is that his name? the one who marries Barbara Lemont) came across as a decent fellow but even there it seemed almost too easy for them. Mostly I found the main woman characters boring and frustrating with the exception of Caroline. They are living in NYC yet they did so little except revolve their lives around men.

JUSTINE: All the men are vile. Yes, Sidney Carter is the least vile but even so. I’m not a fan. The whole system is set up so that everything men find interesting about women when they get together is stripped away from them after they marry—especially their work—so they then lose interest in their wives and go out and have affairs with women who are mostly looking to get married. It’s a pretty stupid system dooming almost any chance of happiness.

One of the things I like so much about TBoE is the way the omniscient narrator allows us to see the absolute gulf between the men and the women. When Caroline decides not to be Eddie’s mistress we, finally, get to see his side of things and it’s clear within a few paragraphs that he has no idea who Caroline is. She’s just someone he’s made up. And he, of course, bears no relationship to the man Caroline has fallen in love with. And it is in Eddie’s weak, conservative little mind that the novel ends. Chillingly depressing.

KATE: Yes, indeed. I agree that the gulf between the men and women is well drawn, to the degree that I found it increasingly difficult to read. Perhaps in a sense it is a more depressing book than VotD in that women are really not allowed autonomy or ambition. As self destructive and narcissistic as Neely is in VotD, she does obtain success (even though we, as the readers, knows it will all come crashing down again sooner rather than later), and it is understood by everyone that she would want to be a star and that she has the qualities of a star.

JUSTINE: Though it’s interesting that even in the world of show business there’s the frequent implication that there’s something wrong with Neely and other big women stars because they’re not merely wives and mothers. It’s almost like they’re expected to fail at it because they’re stars. You cannot be both.

In TBoE the assumption is that for women marriage means no longer working. I very much enjoyed how much pleasure Caroline gets from her job, from editing:

“It has started out as a stopgap, but now it had become a way of life. It gave her a sense of value and belonging. Perhaps that, beside ability, was what made her so good at the job that could not now afford to lose her.”

It’s fascinating watching her struggle with knowing she’s not meant to enjoy work, not meant to be ambitious. That she’s supposed to put love first. But she’s seen what can happen when you do that: i.e. April and Gregg’s total self-abnegation in the face of their supposed love. Neither of them has the slightest clue about who the object of their affections actually is.

The disjunct between April’s thoughts about Dexter Key and the reality of him is, well, wow. Dexter reads like a psychopath with zero empathy and an all-encompassing obsession with his own pleasure and avoiding any possible inconvenience at all costs. Hmmm, now I can’t decide if he’s a psychopath or a narcissist. Can you be both?

KATE: I agree with your comments about Dexter’s portrayal (and Caroline’s ambition). I guess that one of the things that bothered me was that it felt almost too much like the other women’s stories were merely there to act as counters to Caroline’s–but in that sense, given that I think hers is the central story and has the most variety–it makes sense in a structural way.

JUSTINE: I love the way Jaffe describes New York City. Unlike Susann there were many elegiac descriptions of the city which rang true to this particular New Yorker. It’s eerie how her description of the midtown publishing area is pretty close to how it is now. TBoE had a much better sense of place than VotD

KATE: Yes, the descriptions of the city felt true to life, although I am not a New Yorker and have only visited a few times. They felt as if she had (as she did) really walk those streets in that fashion. In general the novel felt as if it described things she had herself witnessed and/or done in one way or another.

Having said that, it is an entirely white world. There aren’t even any Jews. I think one woman is mentioned as having “a colored maid.”

JUSTINE: It’s very very very white and very middle-class. Caroline’s mother is the one with a coloured maid. None of the other domestic staff’s race is mentioned. Caroline also imagines that her movie star will have a “sinister oriental houseboy.” That common signifier of debauchery in Hollywood movies. Ugh. In this regard TBoE reminded me of Mad Men, which reflects really poorly on Mad Men whose racial politics should be so much better given the more than fifty year gap between the two.

KATE: Given that it was set in 1952 I was surprised there were no references to World War II. It was as if the war had never happened, which jarred me.

JUSTINE: It’s mentioned: “Travel was a new experience for their generation those early years after the war” and “It was two years before the war broke out in Europe and were all very nervous and full of ideals and we used to talk each other to death.” As well as mention of characters who were in the army. The Korean War is also mentioned. I assumed that part of why Mike Rice is such a mess is because of his wartime experiences which he won’t discuss. There’s a brittle quality to many of the older male characters that I read as PTSD.

(I admit I bristle a little at this particular criticism because it’s often said of Jane Austen’s novels.)

KATE: Hmm. I’m not sure I meant that as a criticism; it was more of an observation. It seemed curious to me that it wasn’t more of a part of people’s lives but I only say that because the war was so omnipresent in my childhood even though it happened long before I was born. But I take your point about Austen.

JUSTINE: Once again, like VofD there is much mention of gay men. They are referred to mostly as “fairies” but the vilest of the young men, Dexter Key, also uses the slur “faggot”. Because he would. Unlike VofD there were no references to lesbians or the possibility that women can fall in love. If there was I sure missed it and this is my second read of TBoE and I did not skim. I’d stake my life on this novel being populated only by heterosexual women. Alas.

KATE: Yes, the inclusion of references to lesbians and women falling in love with each other was the most unexpected element of VotD on my re-read. TBoE takes a more conventional route with its five women and their ultimate outcomes.

I want to add that your descriptions of why you like the book are very convincing and well thought out. I think that tonally it just didn’t work for me. Also I simply never warmed to April, Mary Agnes, and Gregg; Mary Agnes’s tale (for me) was dull although I think entirely plausible and accurate, and the other two I found unbearable because as individuals they seemed to have no scrap of self awareness.

JUSTINE: Thank you. Yeah, if you don’t like the characters or feel much sympathy for them it would make TBoE a tough read.

I know the book always gets billed as about five girls but I definitely don’t see Mary Agnes as one of the main characters. The book is about Caroline, April, Gregg and Barbara. They’re whose point of views you get, they get many more pages than poor Mary Agnes. Mary Agnes barely gets a look in, we don’t see her courtship, we see her fiance only after they’re married and only in the one scene, her pov is far more filtered by the omniscient pov than the other four. We never really see any of her inner thoughts as we do for the other girls. She’s the token girl who does exactly what she’s supposed to do: leave work, get married, have a baby, be happy.

There’s almost, but not quite a sneer, in Caroline’s view of her. I think she’s deliberately portrayed as boring. I also think there’s a class dimension. Mary Agnes is the one clearly working class character. She’s from the Bronx. She’s also not as pretty as the other girls. Frankly, I’m not sure if the condescending portrayal of Mary Agnes is coming from Caroline or from Rona Jaffe.

April and Gregg’s self-immolations really are painful to read. As I say above they’re what happens when the myth of romantic love goes horribly wrong. Though I’m not sure if “horribly wrong” is accurate. All of these girls have been led to believe that love is everything. That marriage is everything. Their actions are actually the logical extension of that. Love really has rendered them blind not to mention delusional and self-destructive. It’s awful.

Barbara’s romance with Sidney Carter is the only successful one because they’re the only two who are actually communicating with one another and actually seeing each other. There’s no disjunct in each other’s views of each other. There’s a friendship there, not just desire. He’s still twenty years older than her and a bit creepy but in the context of this book it’s the only equal non-delusional relationship.

My rose-coloured view of the end of the novel is that Caroline has realised that it’s all hooey, that she was being delusional about Eddie and he’s really just another Dexter Key only with better social skills. Everything is about his convenience. How could he possibly think Caroline would be happy quitting her job to be his mistress and filling in her time waiting around for him by being some old dude’s secretary? Ewww!

So Caroline’s, like, whatever. I love my job. This Hollywood movie star is witty and fun. I can party with him at night and and edit genius writers during the day. Eventually I’ll have my own imprint. I might marry and have kids. I might marry and not have kids. I might even not marry and have a kid. It’s my choice. And then thirty years from now I’ll make a motza selling my tell-all autobiography.

Please join in the comments with your own observations!


For (late) May our next book will be PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything

Justine Larbalestier and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction of the 20th century. We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction,” particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

Last month we started with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. You can find the post and the discussion on Justine’s blog.

This month we’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which happens to have been published the year I was born! Bonus excitement!

The Best of Everything (1958) is Rona Jaffe‘s first novel. It is the story of five young employees of a New York publishing company.

PLEASE JOIN US on April 28/29 (that pesky international date line): in the evening on Monday April 28 in the USA and Tuesday April 29 in the Oz/NZ; morning April 29 in the UK/Europe.

The primary focus of the discussion will be here, on my blog, where you can check in at any time, but at the following time we’ll have an hour’s discussion on Twitter as well:

TIMES: noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time