RAGE AND READERSHIP: PORTRAYAL OF RAPE CULTURE IN COURTNEY SUMMERS' "ALL THE RAGE"
When you crack open a Courtney Summers book, don’t expect polite euphemisms or quirky meet-cute relationships. A Summers novel is raw, realistic, and unflinchingly honest: Some Girls Are takes a look at the harsh world of high school bullying, and Cracked Up to Be centers around the best contemporary example of a character you love to hate.
In Summers’ latest work, All The Rage, she takes on a subject some authors would shy away from due to the sensitive nature of the subject – rape, and rape culture. Set in a stifling small town, we follow main character Romy Grey as she deals with the emotional, physical, and social consequences of being a public victim of sexual assault. We recently asked Courtney Summers about her vision for the book, approach to the subject, and personal stance on rape culture.
Q: Kind of a big question, but where did you find the inspiration to write ALL THE RAGE?
I write about difficult subjects because I want the people going through them to feel less alone. I think it's an incredibly powerful thing to see yourself in the pages of the book. And more often than not, I write about subjects that make me angry, which is also a way for me to process them as best I can--rape culture and violence against women makes me angry. I also think fiction can serve as an introduction to or an extension of conversations we should be and are having about these topics and that was ultimately the driving force behind writing All the Rage.
Q: The discussion of rape is a huge, oftentimes inflammatory subject, especially over the past couple years with the events at Columbia University, Steubenville, and with Bill Cosby. Given the polarizing nature of the topic, did you try to write with nuance in mind, or did you approach it rather openly?
I think it's possible to explore a subject without pulling any punches with nuanced writing and I don't think nuanced writing comes at the expense of exploring a subject openly. If the question is did I hold back in my writing due to the polarizing nature of the topic? My answer is no. All the Rage is told from the perspective of a girl who is having a difficult time coping because she has been so failed by the people around her. Everything Romy goes through is inextricably tied back to her rape and her community's failure to help her. It was extremely important for me to confront the reader with her head space, no holds barred, because that meant confronting rape culture and the ways we fail and silence victims and survivors of sexual assault. It's meant to be a wake-up call and if I wanted it to be an effective one, I had to be as honest and open in my approach as possible.
Q: If I remember correctly, we never get a present-day interaction between main character Romy and Kellan (her attacker). Is there a reason you chose to leave out this type of a climactic confrontation scene?
(This answer is slightly spoilery, so reader beware.)
There is a present-day interaction between Romy and her rapist in All the Rage, toward the end of the book. It's brief, mostly one-sided--they cross paths in a hallway and Kellan says hello--and it levels Romy. She has such a hard time processing it as it happens, the reader is almost forced to puzzle out that it did. Kellan takes up so much emotional space in Romy's narrative and I didn't want it to culminate in the kind of confrontation between them that gives her any emotional catharsis because I didn't want Romy to need him to begin her healing. I didn't feel that was appropriate for her story specifically. Kellan is a destructive force. Whenever he is on the page, I only wanted to reinforce that.
Q: You're not the first to write about rape, but you've brought a lot of necessary attention to the negative stigmas surrounding rape culture with this book. Do you think authors have a certain level of responsibility to write about causes and promote awareness?
It's impossible to quantify the value of fiction by subject matter alone, least of all because the needs of individual readers vary. A carefree summer romance can provide escape for a reader who desperately needs it, just as much as a heavy, issue-focused book can validate another reader who is going through the issues presented in that book. So I don't feel comfortable making definitive statements on what anyone should be writing. I think that authors should write the stories they want to write and feel passionately about, but if an author is going to explore a certain topic with the objective of raising awareness about a particular cause, they should do so responsibly. They should ask themselves what their work is adding to the larger conversation and if they are contributing to that conversation or undermining it.
Q: What do you believe is currently the biggest obstacle to eliminating sexual assault?
Silence. An unwillingness to talk about it. We do talk about it, which is important and must be acknowledged, but we still have a long way to go. People don't like to talk about sexual assault because it's easier and more comfortable not to. In a lot of cases, talking about it means examining our own failures. It means taking a good hard look at certain power dynamics and structures and seeing where we might have been complicit in perpetuating rape culture in the interest of protecting that power. We need to keep talking about it if we want anything to change.