Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How not to stifle yourself as a writer

I don't know the answer to my own question. For now, pretending no one comes between the printed page and me is my solution.

When writing posts for this blog, no matter how marginal, no matter how microscopic its audience, because it is being published I think about how my words are perceived, misinterpreted, or how they could be twisted to fit someone else's agenda. It's an exhausting way to write because until this doesn't come naturally to me. Since I haven't published any of my fiction yet, that aspect of my life is still, well, mine. The idea that something I've written might offend someone is still an abstract concept.

I've written before about "writing the other," and how writing characters different from oneself, particularly less privileged characters, is often a challenge. But it doesn't have to be if you already know how to create nuanced characters. I do this by making all my characters essentially uncodified, but I'm also aware that when the times comes, it will be inevitable that someone won't like it.

And that's okay.

Need an example? Jonathan Lethem came under fire recently for creating exoticizing gay characters of color. I can't say I'm surprised:
A trope has emerged among straight writers creating gay characters in literary fiction–gay men marked by their physical beauty in fiction, which has grown tired: Julius Clarke from Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children, Ethan, from The Tourists by Jeff Hobbs, and Owen Dunne from Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. Each of these books has held my attention and sympathy. But the flattery found in their inclusion of gay characters and themes among a wider cast has spoiled.

Problem is, they all look alike. No really. All of them. All are drawn with exotic looks (olive-skinned, brunettes each),“exotic” to a white body at least. All of them are sexually rapacious, and trade that favor for professional success. And in at least two of those three, the characters’ exoticism possesses enough magic to seduce its way into the bed of men known heretofore as “hetero,” the most convenient route into a narrative built on broader, more “literary” concerns being that one sidle up to a straight, white man. (Lambda Literary)
I think it's important to note that gay writers like Alan Hollinghurst, whom I count among my inspirations, also exoticizes non-white characters, but it's doubly crucial that Lethem, who is straight, "get it right" on both counts. It's not that I think the criticism is unfounded, but, at this point, it's expected. The problem arises when, as a writer, you start writing in anticipation of those criticisms to the point that your writing becomes flat and stifled, but ultimately politically correct.


  1. Read the piece again; those instances are cited as *counterexamples* to how I present my character in Dissident Gardens. JL

    1. Thank you. I see my error now. I think my original comment stands, though, about differing standards.