Reading for Fun and Compromise—My Ongoing Search for Feminist Literature by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergI love reading fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy literature. However, since the birth of my daughter I have been pondering the stories we tell and the language we use a great deal; and I have begun to feel a little bit like my ‘fun’ reading almost always involves some kind of compromise. For instance, when I first started reading  Song of Ice and Fire by George R. Martin (the series which inspired the HBO hit series Game of Thrones), I greatly enjoyed the series. The five competed books are ripe with intrigue, complex interpersonal and political relationships, the rebirth of magic in a world, and characters you love to hate. But, continuing to read and watch this series unfold, I have grown to suspect that Martin may hate women because he seems to punish them over, and over, and over again. The most recent book, A Dance with Dragons is so full of sexual violence it is actually hard stomach.

Of course, The Song of Ice and Fire is an extreme example from a series well critiqued for its patriarchy and violence. But let’s consider another series hailed for its strong female protagonist, said to challenge patriarchal norms: the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. The main character, Claire, is a woman out of time whose more liberated sensibilities challenge the past to which she has transported. I read the first book in this series, but found it, frankly, extremely rape-y.  Like so many romance novels, the protagonist is constantly threatened with sexual violence. And who is the sexual predator of the book? The hetero-patriarchal overlord who is seeking to exercise his unilateral control? Or, as reality might suggest, someone the eventual victim knew and maybe, even trusted? No. The rapist is homophobically depicted as one of only two homosexual characters; and the other gay male in the book, while not a rapist, is laughed about and ‘avoided by all the young boys.’

Discussing a different fantasy book, a dear friend of mine told me about how someone he knew, upon reading a racist characterization within the book, closed it and never picked it up again. An interesting idea. I found myself asking: what would happen if I refused to read any book that had a sexist characterization within it, or a racist one, a heterosexist one, a colonial one, etc.?

Now, I am not talking about books that critically deal with or acknowledge sexism or other aspects of kyriarchy. Neither am I speaking of the important act of pointing out and critiquing kyriarchal ideals within the vast history of Western literature and identifying oppressive codes in contemporary stories. What I mean to say is, what if, when I wanted to read for fun or simply for the pleasure of reading, I were to put down any book that demonstrated buy-in to kyriarchal ideas, overtly or even in micro-aggressive ways? I have flippantly responded to this question, “then, I may never read any piece of fantasy literature again.”

While a rather hyperbolic reaction, this stance is based in some important realities: according to many deconstructive theorists we cannot escape the domination coded into our language even if, as feminist theorists and theologians like Carter Heyward, Catherine Keller and Judith Butler have argued, we can refract and so, manipulate this domination. Yet, despite the ‘truthfulness’ of my response, the question, “could we just put the books down,” raises many other important questions.

  • Should we just put these books down?
  • What does it mean to be a feminist reader when reading for pleasure?
  • To what extent are ‘we’ hurt or simply contributing to oppressive culture when reading certain books? (And the answers to this question changes dramatically depending upon the ‘we’ one is speaking about.)
  • To what extent does one hurt by not participating in certain narratives?
  • What connection to existent culture is necessary to create enjoyment? And, if we could take out all the oppressive codes, would a book still be enjoyable?
  • Is it possible to write books that do not in some way depend upon existent kyriarchy?

12211173_10153254150658546_1774448589_oIn regards to the last question I list above, I find myself thinking about books I’ve read that I do consider anti-oppressive and liberative. Just this weekend I was reading a Huffington Post article about one of these series: Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books. Octavia Butler is an critically acclaimed writer who deals poignantly with issues of race, class, gender and sexuality within her science fiction narratives. Earthseed was an amazing series. I want to say I ‘enjoyed’ the three Parables she constructs because I did… but “enjoyed” also doesn’t seem quite the right word these texts.  When I started the series my sister actually warned me that I had to wait to finish reading all the books until I wasn’t pregnant anymore because I might find them too devastating in my hormonally driven heightened emotional state (I didn’t heed her advice by the way). The story is a hard one—so real, so violent, so terribly sad, comingling victory with terrible loss. Very good books, but not terribly fun—and deeply engaged with the kyriarchal narratives in which we live.

I believe that feminists have a responsibility to refract the narratives of oppression while remembering and living in the reality of our very close relationship to violence.  Which for me, means that we must continue to engage ‘compromised’ narratives in some ways… though in what ways and to what extent depends upon a great deal of factors.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

In the meantime, as I negotiate my role as a feminist reader-for-fun, I am also continuously looking for books—looking for books that refract the codes, looking for books that are fun while changing narratives, looking for books I can see myself in. writer Marie Cartier has given me list of authors which I am working through now (thank you again Marie!).

I’d love to hear about the feminist books you love and enjoy; and about how you handle these questions as you negotiate reading for fun and the sometimes compromise this entails.


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Books, Feminism, Fiction, General

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23 replies

  1. I’m just going to go ahead and say it. I have written fiction that may fit your requirements, particularly The Maeve Chronicles, a series of four novels featuring a feisty, outspoken Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. Many people have written novels about Jesus, but the Maeve Chronicles are her story from the beginning (when she is born on an Island in the Celtic Otherworld to eight mothers) to the end, when she returns to Britain just in time for Boudica’s uprising against Roman occupation. I would describe the novels as historical fiction with elements of fantasy. I did massive historical and onsite research to have as clear and detailed an understanding of time and place as I could. Then I gave my imagination free reign. Like Octavia Butler, I deal with many tough subjects including rape, incest, oppression, war, exile. But the books are full of humor and grounded in embodied feminism.

    I grew up literally in the church, the daughter of an Episcopal priest. My earliest memory (age three) is of plotting deicide. Maeve (as she is called for much of the series) helped me (and I believe others) heal ancient personal and cultural wounds while finding a way to love what there is to love in the gospel story.

    I write four posts a year for FAR. My July post usually features an excerpt from one of the books. This month Maeve is writing the July post as she has what to say about the pope “elevating” her saint’s day from a memorial to a feast. It never occurred to her that it wasn’t a feast, and she does not consider being put on par with the apostles a promotion. She is nobody’s disciple! Stay tuned and do check out her story. Not sure I can post links here, but my website is


    • Thank you Elizabeth! :)


      • I will definitely stay tuned. I am aware we have great authors here on FAR (the post is really to open a conversation)– and I appreciate this general introduction to your work as well!


    • I wondered about that papal action too, Elizabeth and Maeve! Good thing I didn’t wait around but celebrated without Vatican approval! Anyway, July 22 is my birthday so Maeve and I celebrate together!


  2. I too am a “feminist reader-for-fun” and so glad you asked us to make recommendations regards feminist literature. Thanks so much Sara.

    As regards a novelist, I would recommend Ursula K. Le Quin and maybe start with her book called THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, a work of science fiction. She also writes children’s books, and short stories, mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. In addition she did her own translation of the ancient Chinese TAO TE CHING by Lao Tzu. And in that regard she shares something, which is reflected in her own writings — she says: “Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else.”


    • Thank you Sarah- I have read her Earthsea novels, and have had “The Left Hand of Darkness” recommended before– I really need to check this one out!


  3. Please share with us the list Marie Cartier gave you. And thanks too to Sarah for her recommendations and Elizabeth’s books which I will definitely find.


  4. What a great post, Sara. You ask poignant questions. This one, “•What connection to existent culture is necessary to create enjoyment?” I found particularly apt. The community in which I grew up did their best to keep the “existent culture” at bay, thinking that “the world” was the source of all depravity. So, for example, stories not considered “fit” were literally cut out of our readers in second grade. During high school (boarding school), every piece of literature brought in from the “outside world,” needed to be examined by the faculty who had the authority to deem it “fit” or “unfit.” (Most was “unfit.”) Ditto for music. Valiant attempts were made to keep our community unsullied from the influences of the culture in which we lived–“existent culture.” Of course, ultimately this kind of censorship doesn’t accomplish the dream of “being in the world but not of the world.” It actually cripples one’s ability to be “wise as serpents but harmless as doves.” One has little connection with other humans since such censorship (limiting the kind of books read) builds walls and promotes ignorance. The second part of that question: “And, if we could take out all the oppressive codes, would a book still be enjoyable?” No. There would be little context, right? Without context, there is little connection. (There’s so much more one could discuss here.)


    • Thank you for your thoughtful response Esther– I was raised in an evangelical community, which definitely emphasized being “in the world but not of it.” My parents were not into censorship of reading materials, which was good for all of us– but I definitely saw this kind of a dialogue happening around me, or with friends, etc.
      I agree that we need our present context engaged in order for us to have connection to books. Though, I do find myself wondering, how far can we push this and still be engaged? I read a science fiction book not too long ago which was hailed for its ability to really make “aliens alien,” so to speak– to access the non-human in its outer-space creatures. Yet… even writing the word “alien” makes me so wary of the politics of “making people into aliens.” … What parts of our exploration of the unknown in our own minds through literature is about expanding who we are, and what part is about exclusion and creating walls… A difficult tension here.

      Thank you again!


  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Personally, I look for literature that messes with the existing myths and offers peaceful and egalitarian visions for humanity’s future. I offer our two adventure/fantasy novels for your consideration: “The Coming of a New Millennium” and “2004: An Olympic Odyssey”. I’m happy to send free copies to any FAR subscriber. Contact me via if you are interested.


  6. Perhaps my suggestions aren’t what you’re looking for, because they’re young adult fantasy fiction vs. adult, but I love Tamora Pierce’s books. They were favorites as a child (an early introduction to goddess and feminist concepts, actually!) and I still love them today, reading them out loud to my sons at night before bed. I also very much enjoy Robin McKinley.

    I have a very low tolerance for books that involve violence against women and I do usually quit reading them.


  7. Ursula Le Guin Always Coming Home, Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and for a retro one The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart. I read mostly women authors which helps, Elizabeth Moon has two series I love the Serano series and the one the Paksenarion series. The first is sci fi and the last is fantasy. David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, that feature future space worlds with what happens when people of the same idealogies inhabit planes that only have that idealogy such as fundamentalist planets v a planet that subscribes to the ideals of the French Revolution v ones that have gone back to owning slaves but in this case they are clones and what happens when they revolt v planets were everyone allegedly is equal. Diana Paxson and of course, Marion Zimmer Bradley if you can ignore her personal life. There are many if you are adventurous enough to experiment.


  8. I, too, would love to see Marie Cartier’s list. And anyone else’s. I am in a book club and would love to recommend this kind of book.
    (I once asked Starhawk – who may meet your criteria – about the violence in her fiction and she said that without conflict, there is no story.)


  9. so glad my list of books is working for you! I love all the women I suggested- let me know your favorites!


  10. I would highly recommend S.L. Farrell’s works, particularly the Cloud Mages series. All his books feature strong female protagonists and astounding fantasy worlds based on Irish mythology. There are even a few well-drawn homosexual characters whose sexuality is not the sum total of their being, but simply a facet of it.

    He has also written a few science fiction books which I also recommend, but their titles are escaping me.



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