Jamie Quatro wrote an excellent article on Tuesday for the Paris Review, entitled “What Does Your Husband Think of Your Novel?”, and it’s absolutely worth reading the whole thing. So instead of giving you a synopsis of her work, which, once again, you should read, I’m going to give you another perspective – my own.
Quatro’s article explores the double standards in fiction writing between men and women. Female writers often face questions that diminish their creative talents – “What does your husband/significant other think of your novel?” and “Is this autobiographical?” are two that get repeated, albeit paraphrased, most often. Women have a harder time penning shocking material, because readers often assume it’s reality.
1. It is more important and interesting to talk about you, the author behind the work, than it is to discuss the work itself.
I get it. The ability to tell a fantastic story means you have to toe the line between believable and unbelievable. It’s an art form, it’s not a biography. If you’re looking for realism, check out my photography.
When you ask about my personal life, you’re missing the point.
The point isn’t about whether or not the thing happened. It’s whether or not the thing happening has made you feel something. Something good, something bad, that’s irrelevant. Just feel anything. It’s like how the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. If you’re having a reaction, it’s done its job.
2. I recognize certain things in your work—the town where you live, the number of children you have—so everything else must be true as well.
Most writers aren’t interested in writing about what we’ve actually done. Most of us write to find out what it would be like to do things we haven’t done. It’s a chance to take the roads not taken. To solve mysteries, on the page, that we’ll never get to solve in our lives.
I struggle with this one the most. My favorite story of my own is the tale of my first period – and how Jack Nicholson bought me tampons and showed me how to use them. It’s based in fact, but I wouldn’t call it non-fiction.
Fiction begins with small, lower-case truths, then translates them into a larger lie that ultimately reveals the largest truths. “None of it happened and all of it’s true,” said Ann Patchett’s mother.
Whether or not what’s written is fact is irrelevant: it’s about the underlying truth within. It’s not about the series of events, its about the emotion and global truth leading the way behind the scenes. When you’re asked whether or not things you’ve written about actually happened, it diminishes your worth as a creative, reduces your talent to express emotions and tales. I spend my days daydreaming “what ifs” that I find particularly interesting and exploring those paths, those truths, until I find something that allows me to tell my truth in a new and interesting way. Asking me if things have happened to me, or if the story is autobiographical is the same as asking me if my creativity is a farce.
3. The way I feel reading your book must be the way you felt while writing it.
If you feel ashamed or aroused or uncomfortable reading my fiction, that’s bloody fantastic. That’s why I write: black marks on a white page reaching across time and space and palpably affecting another human soul.
My mother is often shocked when she reads my work. She likes it plenty, and (according to my sister) brags about how talented and creative lil ol’ me is all the time.
Recently, we came to the conclusion that my writing style is provocative. Because it is! I like the dark and twisty, the uncomfortable. I find sadness and pain more interesting than happy endings and romance. I also find it more realistic. The stories I want to share are those that make people think, not make people feel butterflies in their stomach. Of course, not that there’s anything wrong with writers who convey that bubbly happiness. If anything, I’m jealous that’s in their skill set.
But just because you might feel uncomfortable about what you’re reading doesn’t mean I’m uncomfortable writing it. I often hear “I can’t believe you’re writing about your menstrual cycle!”, but I hardly ever hear that they didn’t enjoy the story.
4. A man who writes about sexual infidelity is normal, while a woman who does the same is morally suspect.
Men, women: Let’s assume the female writer needn’t have lived out the narrative to write it. Let’s assume that she can have an imagination that is subversive and sexually transgressive.
Honestly, this is the same as #2. As writers, we spin tales, exaggerate, indulge ourselves and our fantasies and fears. Explore mysteries that scare us, share innermost secrets in hopes someone can relate. But, without a nicer and more pleasant way of saying this, we also lie our asses off. Except when you’re a writer, you’re not lying, you’re storytelling.
Except when you’re a woman, all of your stories are a direct reflection of you, whether or not they actually are. People don’t ask Chuck Palahniuk if he started his own line of fight clubs or spearheaded a Project Mayhem-like terrorist group. So why is it if a woman writes about sexual liberation or whatever that there’s some sort of stigma or judgement involved? Why do women have to be demure? Soft spoken? Reserved?
Life is lived in the raw moments, so why should raw moments only be acceptable from male writers? Now, I understand that was a sweeping generalization, because both men and women have created some remarkable and eye opening work. But women routinely are given a hard time for expressing the same creativity that is accepted and applauded when written by a man.
I have never been one to stay away from danger. I’m a moth drawn to a flame, and the flame is my own desire to see the world as it is. I don’t want a sugar-spun coating. If I’m writing about a damsel in distress, it’s because my damsel’s distress is particularly interesting, and the pain and emotion she feels is something I want to explore. I don’t want to save her. I can’t save her. I can only watch from afar as she lights herself on fire and describe the tragedy I’ve felt by watching a beautiful creature self-combust.
That doesn’t make me a sadist, a misogynist, or anything of the sort. That makes me a writer who finds the darker aspects of life more interesting. More common. More relatable. Life is difficult and full of despair, and ignoring it won’t make it better, so I write about it instead.
And because I do, I get comments about how I should write about “nicer things,” “ladylike things.” But maybe the problem isn’t about what I’m writing, it’s about who they’re reading. If you want to read something nice, read someone else’s work. Someone who specializes in those nice things. Because I promise you, they’re better at it than I could be.
Featured Image Via Huffington Post.