The Conundrum of a Unique Book Like Caged Eyes

This week we’re writing about publishing as women, and of course I’m here to put my usual memoirist’s spin on the topic: I’m not just publishing as a woman; I’m publishing a deeply personal woman’s story.

Youch! I know, how dare I?

In Crystal’s Monday post, she mentioned that she wonders how people would respond differently to her novel if she used initials as a pen name, that way readers couldn’t know if she was a man or woman. (Read her post, the studies she brings in are fascinating.) I’ve wondered the same thing, but of course as a memoirist, I’d be found out quickly. You know, by page four or so.

One thing that’s interesting about my story is that the premise is somehow contradictory. It’s a military story – i.e. a man’s story – but no, it isn’t; it’s a story about sexual violence, and only women are to write about that. It’s a story about sexual violence, but wait it’s set in the military! Those two have never before been paired together in a memoir. Caged Eyes throws off readers from both sides of the gender aisle.

(Note: I hate to sound like such a gender essentialist, but this is the reality of our current climate.)

Many publishers didn’t know what to do with Caged Eyes. Publishers typically can handle stories that bend a standard narrative in only one way. So, let’s say I was a woman but publishing a traditional man’s story about war and flying and blowing up shit. That’s cool. Those stories sell. You can find a whole list of them on Amazon. Or let’s say that I was a man and I put a seemingly more emotional, personal spin on a typical warrior trope. That’s good to go too, although it would help if that veteran had some kind of prized war medals so that his masculinity wouldn’t be put into question.

But Caged Eyes defies those expectations. Many editors who are feminists weren’t interested, because military? No thanks. Editors who are into the military weren’t interested because rape? Big no.

(Side note: Every year in the U.S. military, more men are raped than woman. But sheesh, we aren’t supposed to talk about that.)

The problem continued when it came time to publicize Caged Eyes. For instance, feminist media that publishes extensively about sexual violence wouldn’t come near it. Because, military. And vice versa. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t offended that more feminist outlets weren’t interested in my work.

Further compounding my dilemma was the fact that I was writing a memoir in the first place. Memoir, all too often, is a genre that’s labeled “confessional.” It’s highly correlated with women writers and it’s often seen as “less than.” Less meaningful, less important, less entertaining…less everything.

A woman’s personal story is less likely to be considered political. I wish I had sources for that. (If you do, please let me know.) But just imagine that Caged Eyes was instead a memoir about going to war in Iraq. Imagine how that memoir would be situated in public discourse differently. Imagine how that memoir could be a call to action in ways that Caged Eyes ought to be too.

When women are successful at publishing their memoirs, they are marketed to women, in only our womanly spheres, but no more than that. Ladies, stay in your lanes, please.

I was one of the lucky ones. I found a great agent and publisher and one or two nods by big-name media outlets. My editor (Gayatri Patnaik, have I mentioned lately that she’s one of my heroes?) saw the value in my story. She saw it is as the political statement I intended it to be. Despite it being personal. Despite it being written by a woman. Despite it being neither strictly one thing or another.

But I worry: what about all the women veteran/survivors coming after me? I know of many who have their manuscripts nearly ready to go. Their stories are just as important, and in fact, unless we start to be heard in masse, we will get nowhere. But in order for that to happen, these standards have to shift.

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Lynn Hall is a memoirist, activist in the movement to end sexual violence, ultra-runner, and crazy cat lady. Her memoir, CAGED EYES: AN AIR FORCE CADET’S STORY OF RAPE AND RESILIENCE, was published by Beacon Press in February 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, The LA Times, Hippocampus Magazine, The Sexual Assault Report, The Manifest-Station, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and elsewhere. In the summers, Lynn copes with publication anxiety by spending too many days in the Colorado mountains, and in the winters, with pans of brownies. She lives in Boulder with her partner and their 23 cats. Just kidding…she only has five.

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