Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson, The Better Bombshell, Wolfram Productions, 2013
Reviewed by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Let's face it: we readers are a skeptical bunch. When we open a newly minted book of poems, a novel, or an anthology, we do so with trepidation. We are as hopeful, however, as we are doubtful. Hopeful that which we find between cover and blurb will inspire. Hopeful the books our mothers gift us on birthdays will move us. Hopeful the random books we borrow from the library will become our latest discovery.
When I first learned of Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson's anthology, The Better Bombshell: Writers and artists redefine the female role model., I had my doubts. Austin is a writer and mountain guide and Thompson is a self-taught artist. Not only was The Better Bombshell to include writing and artwork exclusively created for the anthology; these original works were to be produced via collaboration between artist and writer. This, I thought, sounds too good to be true.
Then I actually read The Better Bombshell and, I am happy to say, was proven wrong. Weighing in at 10 x 8 inches and spanning 272 glossy pages—sixty of which are dedicated to full-color and black-and-white paintings, photographs, and illustrations—The Better Bombshell looks and feels like any book recently published by Simon and Schuster or the University of Pittsburgh Press. Austin and Thompson's stable of writers and artists is as eclectic as it is impressive (Dave Barry and Rick Bass are positioned next to writers yet to publish a book). And the range of fiction, non-fiction, essay, poetry, painting, photograph, and collage is as entertaining, enlightening, and inspired as is the anthology's design and execution.
While The Better Bombshell asks some tough questions—"Who is the modern, empowered sexual woman?...Who are the role models of today's young woman? Who should be?"—its strength lies in its cross-genre approach to the questions it poses. The first collaboration of the anthology, "The Amazing, Incredible, Indelible, Human Resource" by Allison Williams, preceded by Hillary Gore's painting of a nude woman posing in a shallow pool, "The Power of Influence," tells the fictional story of Janie, an eight-armed superhero strong enough to "bench press a Volvo" and her unexpected expulsion from the "League of Heroes." The essay that follows, "A History of my Breast Cancer in Bombshells" by Eva Saulitus, depicts the author's experience with breast cancer in ten, second-person sections—a rather radical shift from genre fiction to personal narrative.
Genre shifts again in Roxane Gay's "Important Things to Know," an organic, highly-organized series of third-person meditations on our culture's penchant for judging and labeling women in sections titled things like "Important things to know About Loose Women" and "Important things to Know about Frigid Women." Valerie Miner's "Amazon: 3 Versions," tells the story of a mother and her twin daughters in sections of alternating first person followed by "Ying: Anima/Animus," a photo essay by Paul Szynol that "confronts stereotypes of women, particularly the reductive view of women as the sum of their appearance." Elaina Ellis's "Five Prayers for the Divine Miss Ann Lee" is a series of prose poems. Hanna Brooks Olsen, Timothy Thomas, and Shyn Midili's "Queen of In-between" merges interview, email exchange, observation, and photography to explore the notion that "men and women [are] rarely exposed to examples of what gender is beyond the traditional men-are-like-this-women-are-like-that archetypes..."
All the more intriguing is how little editorial intrusion Austin and Thompson have imposed on their contributors. "Some stories were written," Austin writes in the introduction, "then illustrated; some pairs worked backwards from a visual image. Other collaborators...worked individually to interpret the idea in contemporary ways." The Better Bombshell pairs writers and artists the editors believe do beautiful and important work, not writers and artists they believe will create hard and fast definitions of the modern woman. As a result, The Better Bombshell makes conversation rather than argument, bringing writers, artists, and audiences together under a simple rubric: let's talk, let's work together, let's see where that takes us.
This interactivity results in an anthology that fails to answer the questions it poses; this failure, however, is its success. The Better Bombshell "fails" to answer these questions because there are no answers. There is no "better" bombshell in this day and age. There are no guidelines women must fulfill to be desired or successful or liked in the 21st Century. There are just women. Women in all their shapes and sizes. Women of various purposes and position. Women we love. Women we hate. Women we wish we were. Women we wish were ours.
Perhaps most importantly, The Better Bombshell reminds us skeptics why art (visual and textual) is important in the age of...anything but. Art is not about product. Art is not about argument. Art is about process. Art is about investigation. While much of the art we process gets tossed into the trash, sometimes the art we make speaks to the human experience. Sometimes this work ends up in museums and in books. Sometimes this work is made in one place and presented to the world.
In this case, The Better Bombshell does just that, and the results are well worth Austin and Thompson's efforts. "You may not agree with the voices in this book," Austin concedes in the introduction. "We've had hard comments already...one striking voice of criticism asked if creating a better bombshell was akin to creating a better nigger. But that kind of dialogue needs to be had."