Recently my friend A. K. Lee, who is a wonderful fantasy novelist, interviewed me. It was quite a thoughtful interview, and you can read it here: Write as You Are.
I recently rediscovered a short story I had written a few years ago, featuring an absolutely wicked queer couple. It is the antithesis of what I usually write, which is quaint domestic character studies. And I thought the story was fantastic. A fun, murderous romp.
I remember writing it and believing “no-one will ever publish this because the gays are evil”. Now I am thinking of including it in a collection of short stories for a contest.
I well know the “evil queer villain” trope, where the villain is coded as effeminate, or trans, or pick any flavor of queer. I am well aware of the negative representations of queer people. I fully understand and appreciate, therefore, the current social push to represent queer people more positively. It’s important to counteract hundreds of years awful representation.
But there must also be room to let queer people be . . . bad. Monstrous, even. We are as capable of murder and violence as anyone else, as unpopular as that “take” may be.
Queer people are well, human. The “evil queer” sought to paint us as inhuman. Because of this, when we are written, it is imperative to present us as complex human beings rather than simply “good” human beings. The former gives us our humanity, the latter just goes back to making us inhuman on some level. Even a positive representation must show parts of us that are unflattering, or which contradict some of the positive.
Similarly, when we write evil queers, they must be complex human beings. A murderer may show tenderness and express love even though they kill people. In this way, it becomes a subversion of the “evil queer” trope. Instead of distancing us from our humanity, it brings us closer to ourselves: those carnal, bloody desires which sometimes make our hearts caper.
I am not sure I succeeded in my own story. We’ll find out. Until then, I would actually like to see more well rounded queer villains get their slice of the murdering pie.
I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.
So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.
While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.
But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.
Dear 22-Year-Old Me:
After getting over the shock of discovering your older self is, in fact, a man, and hairier, smellier, and grubbier than you currently are, I expect you might be a tiny bit disappointed. (But not with the impressively groomed facial stubble.) I know that you didn’t expect your life to be like this, thirteen years in the future. I think you expected to be a university professor by this time (ha ha), rather than some dude who works part time as an adjunct. I think you also expected yourself to have written and published a few novels by now, and might look on this scruffy character — who will be you — as something of a failure. Not only is he one short bastard, and not only has he not even finished a single novel, he does not even give two shits about writing novels anymore. He has all these — novellas and short stories — just simmering away on his mental burners. But what does he really have to show for those thirteen years’ time, creatively speaking?
So I am working on the fourth draft of my novella, Bloom. I am discovering a number of things about the project and earlier drafts.
I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white or white-passing. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.
I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.
This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.
In my time as a writer, one persistent myth I’ve noticed, which clings to even seasoned writers, is that one should wait for inspiration. One doesn’t need to force words out with something as tedious and dull as discipline. Just let the words come naturally, as if by magic which came from rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole.
Just like rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole, the idea that most writers can get anywhere without discipline is false.