Monday, October 08, 2007

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

So, it came up again, the idea that a writer can't really write from any head save his -- or her own. I've had this discussion a number of times, and it still troubles me that people seem to believe this.

Here's how it goes: A writer -- or sometimes, just a serious reader -- will tell me that s/he can always recognize when somebody not of his or her group is writing a story pretending to be one of 'em.

They'll say, "Oh, so-and-so tried, but I can always tell if it's a woman writer pretending to be a man. Always."

For woman/man, you can substitute a raft of others: white guy/black guy; straight/gay; old/young; cop/civilian; military guy/non-military guy.

To which I answer: If the writer is good enough and does the research? Bullshit, you can.

If that were the case, nobody could never write from the viewpoint of anybody save his or her own sex, race, and occupation, and there'd be an awful lot of action-adventure heroes who were fat, middle-aged white guy writers.

I'm not talking about a white Jewish guy telling Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle to "Make it blacker !" I'm talking about finding the common humanity we all share and using it to build a character that resonates.

Sure, there are bad writers who get caught. But there are also good ones who pass.

In science fiction circles four decades back, there was a hot new guy, James Tiptree, Jr. Ole Jim came in and blew the doors off the staidmobiles in the field. Muscular, tough fiction, won awards, got great reviews. Only thing was, ole Jim was really named Alice "Racoona" Sheldon.
She kept it hidden for ten or so years, and only was outed when she mentioned that her mother had died in Chicago and somebody tracked down the obituary and made the connection.

Brightest, most talented writers and editors in the field were fooled, and publicly caught flatfooted. Bob Silverberg went on about how Tiptree had to be a man. In an intro to an A:DV Tiptree story, Harlan said that Katie Wilhelm was the woman writer to beat that year, but that Tiptree was the guy ...

Sheldon supposedly got the name "Tiptree" off a label on a jar of marmalade ...

Me, I'm not a great writer. On my best days, on a scale of one-to-ten, I'll allow myself a six-point-five. Even so, I've been invited to speak at black writers conferences; gay writers conferences; and women writers conferences because they all thought I was one. I've been asked by professional military guys what my unit was in Vietnam, and had surgeons ask where I did my surgical residency.

For a redneck Louisiana cracker who dropped out of college in the sixties and was a hippie and against every war we've had since WWII, that indicates to me that if I can fool people into thinking I'm one of them and I'm not, and that a really good writer can do it blindfolded with one hand tied behind him.

Or her.

If you are a writer and somebody lays this one on you, you can smile and nod and avoid the argument if you want, but -- don't listen to them. You do the research, and I'm not just talking about reading books, but hand-on stuff, you can convince a lot of folks you are more than you really are.

It doesn't have to be real, it only has to sound real.


Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

Steve, that is a rarer skill than you think. Maybe everyone (or most everyone) _can_ do it-- but the fact, most don't. Whether it's laziness, unwillingness, or inability, I couldn't say.

On a related note, have you seen the new Tiptree biography? I've read reviews of it; it sounds like the biographer thinks Tiptree was completely cracked. Nothing there about whether writing under a male pseudo might have been a rational economic choice, at that time...

Steve Perry said...

I picked the bio up and looked at it, but didn't get it. I recall a lot of the Tiptree stuff when it came down, back in the day. She was, as I recall, a psychologist, bisexual, and depressed. Her husband, ten or twelve years older than she was, was getting very infirm. When he was in his early eighties, she killed him, and then herself.

Supposedly, the suicide note she left had been written years earlier, and it was not the first time she tried to do herself in.

I had heard she was bipolar, which was called manic-depressive in those days

Back in the day, women SF writers were looked upon askance by a lot of SF fans, who were mostly young men. (And who still mostly are.) So writing under a male pseudonym wasn't a bad idea for a woman.

There are women who won't read romance novels penned by men, and I know men who write them under pseudonyms, too.

I dunno if she was totally cracked, but she was somewhat off the beam.

Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy used to give out the Tiptree Award every year, funding with money raised from bake sales ...

Dan Moran said...

"Bob Silverberg went on about how Tiptree had to be a man"

I haven't read that piece in a decade at least and I still remember the phrase "ineluctable masculinity."

"Back in the day, women SF writers were looked upon askance by a lot of SF fans, who were mostly young men. (And who still mostly are.)"

You've seen the argument I had with Barnes over Unforgiven -- so, even knowing what I was going to get, I asked my readers to send along their takes on which was harder -- black, gay, female -- and it turned out that it was being a white guy that was really rough. (Not much sarcasm there on my end -- everyone's got static, and being white and male has its own static these days, though it's still better than everything else.)

I may start going to SF conventions. Back in the day I was dreadfully annoyed with privileged young people who felt sorry for themselves -- now those people are my kids and, unsurprisingly, I have a little more perspective on it.

If Sheldon had started younger or lived longer she might have rivaled Ursula le Guin for best SF writer of the 20th century.

Steve Perry said...

Yep, Sheldon's works -- especially the short stories -- were passing terrific. But sometimes that which gives a writer or actor that razored cutting edge can turn in the hand that wields it.

My favorite stand-up comedian, Richard Jeni, a man who had me laughing until I couldn't breathe, shot and killed himself a few months back. He was funny, his life was, to him, terribly depressing.

Shades of Richard Corey.

More than a few people have used their art to deal with unhappy personal lives, sometimes to their (and our) benefit. Spilling your guts onstage sometimes keeps you from doing it at home.

Ever see Christopher Titus do his one-man show?
He makes you laugh about getting badly burned, beaten unconscious by his father, his schizophrenic mother's suicide, and his knock-down-drag-out relationship with his wife.

Right out there in front of God and everybody, all the stops out, public, primal-scream therapy.

As for being the victim of prejudice, sooner or later, everybody gets their turn in the barrel. As a white guy, I haven't spent as much time there as a woman or a black guy or somebody who wears a turban; however, as a writer, I can certainly extrapolate from my experience enough to relate distantly to somebody who catches a lot more crap than I do. If I write that scene well enough, I can get it across: We are all in the same boat. Some of us have better seats, but, we we all started from the same port and all will end up at the same destination ...