In Which We Confess to Our Secret Life as a Lamb

May 18th, 2005 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

We don’t believe in much, but we do believe in the collective unconscious. It fascinates us how certain themes seem to resonate through the ether, settling here, touching down there, moving on, only to reappear in another form. This week, it is the notion that you must be something to write about it. Our very first story was written from the point of view of a lamb — we were seven and making our first foray into the world of things we knew nothing about. It never occurred to us that we couldn’t be a lamb, if only for twenty-two or so handwritten pages (even then, we were long-winded).

You hear it all the time: write what you know. In some instances, this may be plausible. But for those who write about aliens or vampires or cowboys or Eskimos or knights in shining armor — for that matter, lambs or pigs or spiders — this must be perplexing advice. What is the point of an overactive imagination if you can’t exercise it in every manner possible? How dull such a life must be.

Such was the attitude of a few feminists who discovered they’d been duped by a mild-mannered clergyman posing as anything but (old scandal, new to us). The reaction was shockingly not you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby.

Academics and intellectuals found the affair painful to elucidate. If it were true that the balkanization of literature was justified by the supposition that only people who belonged to a certain category of people could truly understand, write about, interpret, and sympathize with the experiences of people in that same category, so that, for example, only women could write about women for women, and only blacks about blacks for blacks (the very careers of many academics now depending upon such a supposition), how was it possible that a Church of England vicar had been able, actually without much difficulty, to persuade a feminist publishing house that he wrote as a woman, and as a Muslim woman of Indian subcontinental origin at that? Was he not in fact telling us, as presumably a good Christian should, that mankind is essentially one, and that if we make a sufficient effort we too can enter into the worlds of others who are in many ways different from ourselves? Was he not implying that the traditional view of literature, that it expresses the universal in the particular, was not only morally and religiously superior, but empirically a more accurate description of it as an enterprise than the view of literature as a series of stockades, from which groups of the embittered and enraged endlessly fired arrows at one another without ever quite achieving victory?

Setting aside that this is like nails on our feminist chalkboard, it makes one wonder what the goals of (and we do love this, so indulge the moment) “a series called Virago Upstarts—that is to say, parvenu termagants…” could have been. Were they trying to tell stories or hold a political stance? Their reaction suggests the latter, which is all the more interesting because:

Interestingly, however, no one criticized Rahila Khan [the author’s pseudonym], while she was still thought to be a Muslim woman, for having written about the lives of white working-class boys.

Turning this around, this week, a male romance author ventured out into the all-chick culture, asking how women felt about men writing in this highly feminine genre. Well, yeah, it was all political correctness and light. Of course, men have been writing in the genre forever (or so it seems). They are forced to take feminine names, a modern twist on the George Sand/George Eliot model. These men are considered brave. And perhaps they should be — attending the national Romance Writers of America conference is an exercise in bladder control. With 2000+ women in the hotel, it’s hard to find a men’s room that hasn’t been converted.

We recently read a book* where a fifty-something man wrote from the point of view of a fifteen-or-so-year-old girl. Of all the characters in the book (except the cat), we felt this girl was the most real. Through her eyes, we relived that part of life designed for lobotomies. Should the author be vilified for convincing us he’d suffered through the pain of being smart, female, and stuck in high school? Or should he be applauded for eliciting memories that make us feel like we’ve had a tooth pulled…without appropriate drugs.

In some things, fiction requires a veneer of reality, but no more. The things that happen in our day-to-day lives are too unbelievable for the page. As someone said to us over lunch today, “You can’t make this stuff up.” If you tried, it wouldn’t be considered plausible. In the end, however, does it matter if the gun is a Glock or Beretta — or does it matter that the story was so compelling that being away from the book made you itchy?

* – Empire Falls, soon to be a major television event and UCLA Extension class. In that order.

File Under: Tools and Craft

1 response so far ↓

  • The Vintage Reader // May 19, 2005 at 3:20 am

    Okay, about men writing romance: two words. Jennifer Wilde. Would the phrase “bodice-ripper” have been coined without Love’s Tender Fury?

    I don’t have a problem with men writing romance as women–or even as men, if they go ahead and call themselves romance writers. What I do have a problem with is that somebody like Nicholas Sparks or that guy who wrote The Bridges of Madison County can write some fairly average romance novels that are deemed “literature” and become bestsellers, mainly because of the Sensitive Guy persona their publishers are selling along with the book. If a woman had written most of those books, they would have been published in paperback with one of those fuzzy LaVyrle Spencer-type covers. They still might have made the bestseller list (if the author was big enough) but they wouldn’t have gotten the kind of attention that Bridges or The Notebook got. If there was a movie, it would be a Lifetime original starring Faith Ford, not a Major Motion Picture starring Meryl Streep.

    I’d write more, but I’ve got a sudden urge to go up to the attic and find my well-worn copy of Dare to Love. 🙂