Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feminism, Censorship, and Writerly Responsibility

Moonrat recently posted a survey that got me to thinking. She asked which very popular books we’ve bought and read, liked, etc. One of the books on the list was Twilight.

Now, I have a certain prejudice against writers that belittle popular works. I’ve heard it so many times, and so often it’s simple sour grapes, that I almost uniformly disconnect from any of those diatribes. Saying you don’t like a work is one thing. Even picking apart why is fine, it’s that going overboard into “terribly written, how did it ever get published” stuff that bugs me. I’m sorry, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s selling in the stratosphere it speaks to people. Maybe it’s not your taste, maybe it goes against the “rules” of fiction writing, whatever, it still speaks and to me, you have to give the author respect for what they’ve accomplished, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not to your own taste.

That’s not to say I don’t hate some popular works. I hated Twilight, in fact. But it’s not because it’s terrible writing and I’m so much better than the author.... it’s not because I think that kind of writing is dragging down literacy, blah, blah, blah. As far as I’m concerned, that kind of thinking is for elitists, and if there’s one kind of “ist” I can’t stomach it’s the kind that makes itself feel superior by belittling others.

Twilight. I didn’t like it because it bothered my feminist sensibilities. That’s it in a nutshell. It bothered me so much, that I started picking out things, like the number of times “ochre eyes” were mentioned, just to have something else to roll my own eyes over. And to be honest here, as a writer, I saw so many areas where her craft could be improved. But to me, that’s a writing thing and shouldn’t be confused with a storyteller thing – bluntly put, it doesn’t matter if I think other authors are better masters of their craft, I can’t fault the storytelling and that’s what she was aiming for. I read the first one all the way through, just to make sure it wasn’t my speed, but I never read the rest of them. Because it bothered me.

She wants to be turned into a vampire – think about this, she wants to die, leave her own family forever, and cling onto his family after knowing this kid for a couple of months!!!! Aghhhhhhh! That’s what bothered me. He sat outside her window and watched her sleep... and it was portrayed as romantic!!!! Aghhhhhhhhh!!!!! Excuse me while I pound my head off the wall at the leaping, bounding, backfall of woman-kind.

It bothered me.

But - It bothered me as a thirty-six year old mother of three, one of which happens to be a girl. It bothered me today, knowing what I know, with the sensibilities I have. But the author’s job wasn’t to capture my sensibilities – her job was to capture Bella’s, a teenage girl in love for the first time. Me, today, would beat the bloody hell out of anyone watching me sleep through a flippin’ window. But that’s today. Do you remember how intense the emotions were in high school? Do you remember how serious everything was, how every little argument was blown up, every crush the end of the world? I do. Ms. Myers did her job. She wasn’t supposed to capture a mature woman’s sensibility at these events, she captured Bella’s. Tell me you didn’t know a girl in high school who thought her life was over when her first real boyfriend broke her heart... tell me Ms. Myers didn’t capture it with all of the angst. Because she did. If we’re honest, she did.

That’s the thing here, people aren’t always right. They don’t always live their lives the way that are best or exemplify a healthy or moral message. And whatever you add to your list of writerly responsibilities, a moral, a theme, a message – whatever you add to it, the cardinal rule you can’t break is being true to the character. When you do that. When you create a sixteen year old with the perception of a thirty-six year old, you’ve lost the battle... the craft might be there, but the storytelling is less than authentic.

The Celebrated Author mentioned that Twilight bothered her because so many young girls idolized Bella, as if she were a role model. I can’t say I disagree. It bothers me that there are girls in middle school reading this that might think dangerous relationships are romantic, etc. But, on the flip side of that coin, who do they have to talk to about it? I mean, seriously, we can’t be thinking of blaming a book for the way young girls think about relationships can we?

I don’t believe in censorship. I think, for the most part, it’s akin to hiding your head in the sand and hoping something goes away. I don’t believe in censorship for kids, either. Don’t get me wrong, you need to make sure things are age appropriate, but that doesn’t mean banning things you disagree with. My daughter’s in middle school and a bunch of her friends have started reading the Twilight series. She’s not interested yet. But if she does decide to read it, I’ll be reading along with her, so that we can discuss it together. Books and media don’t raise children, and when they disagree with the messages a parent wants a child to understand, it’s the perfect stepping stone for discussion.

Thoughts? Anything rile your feminist bone?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Voices In My Head

Writers talk a lot about voice. VOICE - if I could do big sparkly letters that jump off the screen and slap you in the face, I would. That’s how important voice is. Writers know this. It’s the one thing you can’t just learn. It’s outside of craft. I’ve seen writers with natural voices, ones that pull you in the second you read the first sentence – voices that make you smell and see and feel every nuance of where you are and who you’re with in their story. A lot of people call this, ‘natural talent’, but I think it has more to do with trust. They trust their voice. They don’t make any apologies for their voice. They don’t try to change it for the market or hide it from people who are more intelligent or poetic or whatever. They trust. Those people still have to work on craft. They have to tackle plot, and pacing, and all of the variables that mean you need to put your ass in the chair and do the work, but they’re a few steps ahead of the game, because they already trust their voice.

Voice. Everyone has one. Notice I didn’t say every writer has one. That’s not accurate, it’s like saying that anyone not pursuing writing doesn’t have a voice, and they do. Choosing not to use it doesn’t mean it’s absent.

So, what happens if you can’t find your voice? I think it’s a little different for everyone. Some writers will tell you to keep writing and eventually you’ll get to where you know it, hear it. But some of us miss it completely for a long, long time. Again, I think it has something to do with trust.

Now, here’s something that they don’t talk about often – every character has a voice. Erica Orloff just wrote this post about the character’s voice. If you’re a writer, you’ll definitely want to stop there. Your writing should reflect your character’s world, not necessarily your own. Does this mean you have a different voice for different novels? Yeah, kind of. The meat of who you are is still there – writers have tells in their wording here and there, but if you’re switching from urban commercial fiction over to middle grade, well, there better be a pretty significant change in the way you approach it. Your characters have to be whole, and they have to have their own voice. And that voice, your character’s voice, should permeate the novel.

For me, voice was a hard thing to find. What I realized, rather belatedly, was that my best voice, the most authentic voice I have, is guttural. Yeah, you read that right. I kind of knew this, knew that I’m at my most powerful when I’m bringing where I come from to the table – but it hit home more completely for me when I did the My Town Monday posts for Travis, especially this one. I wasn’t trying, it’s not edited – my blog posts often aren’t. Besides all of the wonderful comments, I had emails on this one; it was even linked in a message board for people from my neighborhood. I get visits weekly on that post, from people looking up Cicero on search engines. I’ve had people message me on facebook to tell me that they liked it. So it speaks, it speaks louder than some of the things I’ve agonized over in revision. Not because it’s polished, but because it’s authentic. Because I wasn’t thinking about the audience, I was just being, without worrying about being judged. Trust.

So why the hell did it take me that long? First, I read voraciously. I know, this is actually a good thing for writers, stick with me here. I like novels where the writing disappears and it’s all about story. I like novels where the language wraps itself around you and infuses your senses. I love classics, commercial fiction, fantasy... I love literature and language, and voice... all sorts of voice. So the first part of this is easy to answer. When I started writing, I was mimicking a lot of what I loved in reading... you can see where that might get confusing as I didn’t stick with any one thing as far as what I liked.

I also had an easy grasp of advanced literature from an early age. What got me noticed by teachers was not going to be the same thing that would get me noticed in fiction... Lots of heavy concepts and over-large words... I understood it and loved the flow of that academic voice, but it’s not my fiction voice. And then a lot of the fiction that really resonates with me is on the heavy side. It’s poetic or layered, even the more mainstream fiction that sticks with me for ages, has some bit of something – this spark of brilliance in thought, or concept, or theme.

So there’s the first thing. I adore other authors, but I had to learn to admire their work without squelching my own voice. Instead of forcing poetic prose, I had to get comfortable with what I am, and realize that lyrical is not the only kind of poetry... sometimes blunt and gritty can be beautiful, too. And sometimes pretty words don’t speak nearly as loud as authentic truth.

The second thing is a little deeper. That voice I told you about – I hide it. In my real life, I hide it. I learned fairly early that if you’re outside the neighborhood and can’t speak in a more intelligent way, people think you’re an idiot... actually, worse, they think you’re low class. My accent jumps out when I’m angry, or annoyed. It thickens when I’m around other people who have one. Okay, I’m around a few ‘suburban moms’ and will occasionally let it slip out because I know it’ll make them uncomfortable... I never said I wasn’t a ball buster. But from high school on, I learned to adopt a professional voice to be taken seriously. So that’s in there. There’s an automatic fear in using that voice that I’m opening myself up to judgment... but hell, I’m going to be judged anyway. I just got to the point where I figured, just because they’re judging me, that doesn’t make them right.

So, will I always write in that voice? No. It works for this wip - these characters, this story and most of all, this place. And maybe it’ll be a setting I revisit in future works, but for now I’m keeping my horizons open. There are other worlds and stories I’d like to capture, too. Other things to be said and voices that need to roam.

How about you? If you’re a writer, does your voice change in different novels and settings? If you’re a reader, do you notice a voice change from novel to novel in your favorite authors? And I’m thinking that this might be a good premise for a writing contest. Anyone interested? I think I can even muster up a few prizes.