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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Not Yet

Yesterday I was picking up Luke from his Quaker school when one of his friends started telling him about the violent video game he had played at the home of one of their first grade classmates. Then the boy turned to Luke and said, “When you grow up you won’t have to be a Quaker, so you’ll be able to play as many violent video games as you want.”

It’s a good thing I’m a Quaker, I thought, because otherwise I’d wring this kid’s neck.

This moment was frustrating on so many levels. First, there is the obvious fact of my own violent tendencies and the difficulty of being a good role model while harboring vicious thoughts toward children who are only introducing us to the wider culture. Then there is the wider culture and the fact that someone is making a lot of money designing violent games for children. There is the fact that some parents actually pay for this stuff, for reasons I can’t fathom. And there is the frustration of feeling so marginalized by this label “Quaker” than a first grader can dismiss our principles as something one might outgrow, like an allergy.

I’ve been aware of being in the religious minority lately as I’ve worked on revising my book proposal. I haven’t found a publisher yet, so after re-casing the shelves at Borders to see how my book was different from the other mother memoirs, I decided to emphasize the “lefty spiritual mom” label my agent gave me. In the course of my research, I stumbled on a book called The Excellent Wife: A Biblical Perspective, which initially made me laugh. The gist was that God wants us to stop complaining, reject sin, and submit to our husbands. A friend of mine was in the children’s section of Borders with her toddler, so I brought the book over and read her a few choice lines, and we both laughed at the outrageous sexism. Then it dawned on me: this book was published seven years ago, a year before my first book, which hasn’t been in Borders since Clinton was president. If The Excellent Wife is still at the Chestnut Hill bookstore, that means people are actually buying it.

People, indeed. I looked the book up online and found that it’s fairly high on amazon’s sales ranking, higher than my book ever got. And there is also a workbook and leader’s guide available, if you want to get together with other women to discuss the joys of submitting to our husbands. Wanting to find a juicy quote for this blog entry, I went back to Borders and found, to my great dismay, that the copy that had been on the shelf had sold, presumably to some woman in my community who might at this very minute be promising herself that she’ll be a good Christian and start submitting more.

I actually write in Imperfect Serenity about surrender and serenity and the difficult but important spiritual task of giving up our selfishness. But I put this process in the context of a society that still expects women to do most of the surrendering and talk about the danger of assuming that surrender is all God wants of us. Sometimes, I believe, God wants us to make the world a better, less violent, less sexist place. Sometimes we need to step up and complain a bit.

What frustrates me is how hard it is to find a “platform” for this message, to put it in the language of the publishing industry. As those of you who read my blog last summer know, I am not inherently jealous of writers who get good publicity. I was thrilled when my friend Elizabeth Kostova topped the bestseller list. I was excited for Miriam when she got on CNN. But when the author of The Excellent Wife gets a high amazon ranking, I just get depressed.

What does it say about our culture that oppressing women and teaching little boys violence is profitable, while my message is not? Or at least, not yet.


Blogger Anjali said...

For my sanity's sake, I have to believe, Eileen, that your message is the one the majority of people believe in, but that just doesn't sell well because it's common sense, and not controversial.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

I believe your message will find its audience and be successful - it has to. It is important. Stepping back into marketing mode, Anne Lamott does well as a sort of lefty, spiritual mom sometimes - her writing is very different, of course, but she is so successful that publishers are bound to see the money. I don't like thinking about it that way, but I know they do.

That violence thing is so hard. I have a no-violent-media-of-any-kind-before-seven (because of their absorbent minds) rule at my house. Once my older daughter was 7, I started slowly letting things like the Narnia books in, that I thought were worthwhile despite their violence, but it is amazing to me how soon we got to Star Wars from there. I am easily the strictest mom I know IRL about media exposure, but I am still embarrassed by how much, at ten, she has now been exposed to.

She is starting to really reject the Quaker thing, too...not that she doesn't still believe in the testimonies as values, but she doesn't seem to want the religious identity. She is only 10! I did not expect these sort of arguments until later and am not sure quite what to do about them at this stage. Now I really feel marginalized!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, friends. I appreciate the encouragement. I'm really struggling with the questions of much audience size matters to me.

As for the violence, I feel I've given in more than I maybe should have. I finally let Luke see Star Wars this year (at 6 1/2), except for the PG13 one, Episode III. Luke is now planning to make his own PG 13 movie, Star Wars Episode VII, since I won't let him see a PG 13 film. He has recruited several children and a few adults to this effort and actually wrote a letter to Geoge Lucas asking for his help, which was amazing since Luke hates to write more than he has to for school.

I guess part of my fear is that being too strict can backfire. I have one friend whose parents were fervent communists. They banned all forms of popular culture and the guy is now the biggest self-described TV junkie.

As for religious identity, the fact that my husband is Roman Catholic and we are raising the children both adds an interesting dynamic. When they were very young, they preferred going to church because at church they served donuts, while at meeting they serve humus and carrots. But this morning Luke is begging to come to meeting rather than church because he feels so close to the people at meeting. I'm hoping that will count for something in the long run.

7:24 AM  

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