Okay, I’ll admit it! Sometimes, when I need a little lift-me-up, I troll the five-star reviews of those authors I admire. When I’m in a nasty mood, I hit the one-star reviews of the writers I’m not so enamoured with.
I know, I know, but I gave up chocolate so something had to give!
Reading through comments, I discovered a few common threads but the one which still surprises me most is the idea that writers are just telling a story they made up! To be honest, fiction is about making up stories, but this meme was more along the line of, “Just making shit up as we go along”. Within the five-star reviews was a universal trust that the writer had researched the subject well. At the opposite end, readers were unwilling to except that the author had gained her knowledge from personal experience. It was easier to think they had just opened a book or surfed the internet! In some cases, where I knew the author or at least their personal narrative, it was shocking what readers questioned. They were unwilling to believe these writer’s, all women, had any real life experience. There were instances where readers knew or accepted the writer’s qualifications but commented on feeling “ripped-off”, as if the narrative or plot were nothing more than bad memoir disguised as lesbian fiction. Like the old saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach!” Only in the opinion of these readers, “Those who can, should stop writing and just go do it! While those who can’t, should research and write about it!” Really? I was shocked! The shared notion of these reviews: “You lied to me!” Some readers just couldn’t make the leap along the varied and often unique career paths of many of these highly qualified women. I was intrigued by this misconception and the venom powering it. In my own unscientific research, I came to understand a few issues.
Some, maybe many readers, believe anyone can write. That, in my opinion is almost true, but it’s the wrong question. The real question is not if but who should write? To answer that I spent time looking at my own list of favourite authors. So how much do I read: about 200 books a year, and I will celebrate a Canadian milestone birthday this month, my Freedom 55! (I’m hoping they deliver my ’68 Mustang and surfboard on time!) In searching, I found several commonalities among my favourite author’s, but three interesting memes caught my eye. Within literary fiction, my favorite authors and some of the most successful, all hold advanced degrees. Some have more worldly experience than the others but in each case they honed their skills in research and writing within the academic setting before tackling fiction. Two wonderful examples:
- Camilla Gibb, A Toronto author with several awards, has been short listed for the Giller Prize more than once. She has five best-sellers out including her memoir, This is Happy. A U of T undergrad, she holds a Masters and PhD from Oxford!
- Sarah Waters, holds several advanced degrees including a PhD from Queen Mary U. She has thrilled us with lesbian rich historicals and three of her books have been produced by the BBC.
I have more examples but I think you see the pattern. In the case of these two authors, they began writing at a young age, too young to write of their own experiences but experiences, like our own beliefs, have a habit of bleeding on to the page regardless of a writer’s age. What sets these women apart is their skill in the mechanics of language. They long ago mastered the art of purpose, convey more in fewer words than their less practiced counterparts. Nothing compels a strong plot better than gripping narrative and these women are masters, or should I say Doctors of the art!
The next meme, and ironically the most disdained group of authors, are the gritty, “I’ve been there” types. Not all writers learn their craft in college, and not all college graduates amass the type of life experiences that generates compelling fiction. This group, and one I most relate to, are the career-changers. These are women who chose to, or were compelled to, leave a profession mid-career. A common complaint from readers was a disbelief that anyone would give up such a cool or well-paying job to do something they asserted required no skill, hence no respect. A combined lack of esteem for the writer and an envy of the writers’ time, considered leisurely, was the driving force behind these complaints. Readers repeatedly questioned if the writer was ever a: Cop, Pilot, Forest Ranger, Surgeon, Hockey Star…you fill in the job title. The questions though were not based on the technical aspects of the story, just a repeated challenge of the authors’ professional standing. Another assertion was that the writer must have sucked so completely at their chosen profession they hadn’t earned the right to consider themselves experts. Hence, professional experience used by career-changers was immediately discounted:
“Oh, it wasn’t like she was a real doctor or she would still be doing it!”
Of course the most common misconception was of leisure. I hear it often, “Oh, it must be nice to have the time!” Again, this devotees this misconception believe anyone can write, but add a parting blow, questioning the writer’s work ethic or at least their luck.
There were interesting exceptions. Retirement career writers, women who began writing after retiring from successful careers, were often accepted above authors I considered more talented. And there were additional correlations. Retired school teachers dominate the YA category, while retired college and university professors abound in LesFic especially with the Ever-After crowd. Readership acceptance was tops with this group and I can only assume it comes from a trust relationship created from within the readers own life experience. To be honest, I enjoy the work of many, many writers who sit in this group. They are educated and have a lifetime of experience delivering information to young minds. They are our favourite novelists, yet however skilled, they do not orbit among the dramatists mentioned at the start. Additionally, their work often lacks that certain Plus X reality we see in stories written by the career-changers. Still, readers love this group and I’m glad they do!
In trying to comprehend these very different reactions, I had to look at my own experience as a reader. Now I know I’m on the weird side but I’m sure we can all draw on some commonality. For me, I hated reading in school. Who didn’t? Worse, at the time and I suspect even now, many of the titles chosen for us to read were based on social changes happening in other countries. We learned about American race issues from Black Like Me, and A Raisin In The Sun. There was never a mention of Aboriginal issues in our own school books. Our literary selections came from Shakespeare, Victorian England, or the American civil divide. We never read a word about the French/English family compact. I wasn’t introduced to anything remotely Canadian until University and by then the forced diet of approved literature had tainted my interest. So I haunted places like Glad Day Books, the first Gay place I ever set foot in. In those early days LesFic was a slim offering but the small sampling, mostly of pulp sprinkled with literary works, seared in me an appetite for better and better lesbian fiction. Reading for me became an ever improving skill and fuelled a desire for something more. I wanted literary level fiction and I wanted lesbians. I had tired of the sweet coming out stories. Not that they lack a place in our community but for me it was, “been there, done that”. Worse was the unhappy genre. Like more and more readers searching for substance, I was always on the hunt for a deeper read and books with unhappy endings for the lesbian protagonist abounded, like literary watermark, Well of Loneliness, or mainstream bestseller, Valley of the Dolls. But what about happy? Beyond the coming out stage, I was looking for love. Finding titles like Desert of the Heart and The Price of Salt certainly fit the bill but was it enough? Not for some time.
Reading both good and bad reviews opened my eyes to the prejudices of our own youth but it highlighted one amazing point. Readers now have lots to choose from. The variety of genres within LesFic is staggering. Yes there are lots of police procedurals and cat solving mysteries but the point reviewers missed, and which made my impromptu research such a joy, was in realizing we have created so much for ourselves and the world.
LesFic, while considered its own genre, is today mainstream. I was pretty confidence things were on the right trajectory when I attended the TIFF screening for Desert Hearts in 1985. Still, with Patricia Highsmith’s classic in theatres now and lesbian authors on the best-seller list for fiction, all fiction, it’s no wonder readers feel free to question our abilities and experience. It’s the kind of thing we did at their age but usually in conversation with friends. For me the epiphany wasn’t that readers might question a writer’s authenticity or demonstrate a prejudice for or against their work experience or knowledge. It was the questioning I found so intriguing. We have built an art form! Something bigger than just stories about lesbians, but a world of literature about life, at all levels and stages as lesbians. And our world is robust, so robust we can afford criticism, we can afford to grow in all directions, and we’re good at it. For me it was a Grinch moment. Suddenly LesFic was much, much more!
So, complain on readers, share your thoughts as we share ours. Some may never believe this to be a good thing but the level of interaction, the questions and doubts, say everything: We are here, and our stories, good, bad, and ugly, have carved out a spot in the mainstream and established our place as both equal and unique. As unscientific as this may be, it still sounds like progress.
For a List of my favourite authors, please visit http://sherylwright.com