A Brief Word to the Literary Police

I just had someone–a friend of four or five years, who I am hoping to Christ right now doesn’t read this blog–refer to my latest story, when I showed it to them, as ‘chauvinist’.

I’m a voting, reading, cooking-when-I-damn-well-feel-like-it, full-time-working sort of woman. I’ve never worried about how to ‘catch’ a man, and the thought of whether or not men find me attractive doesn’t keep me up at night. It certainly doesn’t set me to water cleansing or tummy tucking or insane amounts of exercising, either. I’ve never looked at men as being, by nature, my superiors, nor do I put up with that attitude in anyone I come across. I have a wonderful boyfriend. I shave my legs when I damn well feel like it.

This said, you can imagine my surprise.

Then I reread it. I flipped through the pages, entranced. And–by damn–it was sort of chauvinist.

Because the main character, a sad and empty man, is a bit of a womanizer.

Because he isn’t a whole person. Because he had an absent father and a mother who was often too busy with other concerns to spare him much attention. Because he needs, in the course of the story, to learn and to grow. Because he doesn’t treat anybody well, up to and including himself.

The story, so far, doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (if you don’t know what this is, check out Chris’s post here at Modern Fantastic about it). This isn’t to say there aren’t some strong and independent women in the course of the story, but it doesn’t. The sole viewpoint character is male, and is therefore a part of or overhearing every conversation in the story.
But does this mean it’s chauvinist?

I don’t think so. It might surprise you that I, a woman, have a fairly positive view of women overall (except the assholes, of course. But there are always assholes). My character, even, would, if he took a minute to think about it. His chauvinism hurts him, in the course of the story. The way he looks at women, in the complex tentacles of the Orestian myth, ultimately causes his downfall.

Because this is a story of his corruption, loss, and decrepitude as a moral human being. He isn’t ‘likeable’ in a lot of ways, though he is in some. He isn’t a friendly face. He’s a haunted and disturbed man.

I’m bringing all this up because I was very surprised at my own reaction. This person–again, a friend, who I’m sure knows I’M no chauvinist–put a damning word in front of my story.

I think, in our politically correct era, we tend to do this too much. A story that calls attention to chauvinism isn’t necessarily chauvinist. A story that calls attention to disparities between races or classes isn’t necessarily racist or classist. Literature was once the tool satirists used to flay open our society, expose the ugly bones and beating heart for what they were, bits and gristle. Sexism or racism or classism–all those isms that we decry regularly on social media sites, and hopefully also in public–are ugly things, and they belong to ugly people.

But even the nicest characters–even your viewpoint characters–are often a little ugly inside. And there are racists in our world, boys and girls. There are sexists, classists, homophobes and nationalists. These are ugly things, but they are a part of the world we live in. And, sometimes, these people don’t even recognize what they are.
And, sometimes, these things have to be shown too.

When I stub my toe, or cut my finger, or break a glass, I don’t say ‘sugar’. I say ‘fuck’.

Somebody else might say sugar, but I don’t.

That’s just how it is.

If I were writing a story about myself–if I were my own character–I wouldn’t have me break a glass and then go ‘oh, sugar biscuits!’. This isn’t true to my character.

I’m not condoning any of the isms we’ve mentioned. I’m just saying: sometimes, they exist.

Sometimes, a story is about people who look down on women, or who are racist, or homophobic. You might not be proud of this–you might not like it–but it’s a part of your characters. You can trust your audience, hopefully, to recognize that this isn’t a positive part.

And if your story holds an ugly truth, you shouldn’t sugar-coat it. If the ‘ism’ is part of your story, make it a part of your story. I lose a lot of respect for a writer who can’t bring themselves to tell the truth. I know I’m not the only one who does.

5 thoughts on “WRITING WEDNESDAY: Literary Po-Po

  1. Chauvinism isn’t necessarily men above women. It’s also women above men. I have a chauvinistic woman in my Soren book. She thinks men exist to sex, to build things for her, and to buy her dinners. That’s it. And they are objects.

    That being said, your book elicited an emotional response. Success. 🙂 I’m a little excited to read your characters. Like, I wanna know. Anywho, I also agree that society spends too much time going, “Ummm! Mommy! I just read about a *whispers* asshole.” Which is good, I think, because there’s a lot of room for shock value! Yesss.

    1. Huh! The More You Know. I always thought chauvinism was male over female specific, and sexism was the general term. Off to look at root words now, like a good little literary choo-choo.

      Its honestly not even a shock value thing for me–are any of us, really, shocked that chauvinists and racists etc. exist? Why, then, do we get so up-in-arms when they appear in fiction? If you write a story about Pompeii, it doesn’t mean you’re happy that loads of vacationing Romans suffocated and burned to death. If you’re writing about wealthy white people in the antebellum South, they more than likely weren’t abolitionists (though some were, I suppose). Your main characters do, I think, need to be SOMEWHAT likeable to work as main characters–witness, sir, all the problems you had with The Magicians. 😛 But even likeable people have unlikeable parts. And if there isn’t something wrong with them, where’s your character arc? What on earth can your character learn?

  2. Absolutely agree. If we ignore things like this then we’re not being remotely honest in our fiction.

    I’m writing a trilogy and my main character is racist. She absolutely believes that the other race in her country is inferior to her own. She treats them appallingly. She contributes to their oppression.

    I’m not racist. Nor am I condoning racism. I hope the trilogy condemns racism soundly, but of course the story is told from her POV … which is happily racist.

    I feel like this misconception comes from writers adhering to the “show don’t tell” maxim, whereby we’re showing our characters being horrible and hoping the reader will draw the conclusion that this is not ok. Without the need for us to add “but this view is totally wrong!!!” throughout the story. Unfortunately some people need things spelling out …

    1. I dunno. People might need things spelled out for them, but dear Lord do I hate it when doing so ruins my story. I figure if my novel is that much of a problem, they’ll come up with a Surgeon General’s Warning for it eventually. 😛 (“What? Racism is bad? Nooo-ooo. I thought ‘racist’ meant ‘person who loves running!’)

      I had a friend (who shall go unnamed, because I love her very much) who wrote a story about a wealthy Southern family in the antebellum South. It was a pretty typical storyline (think Gone With the Wind, but with vampires) except for the fascinating fact that the entire family and all of their friends were abolitionists. Did this enter into the story in any meaningful way, except ‘oh yeah and they’re not racists?’ No. No, it did not. This is more what I’m worried about here: I mean, if you want them to all be abolitionists that’s great, but you’re going to have to take a chapter or so to write meaning into it, and by the way, how’re they running this plantation? Obviously, they’re paying somebody. Who? How? How fairly?

      Sounds like you’re dealing with it as honestly as you can, and good on you for not making your character into something she wouldn’t be for the purpose of what is, authorially, face-saving. People know racism is bad. Or, well, most people do. For the people who don’t: a conclusion is often more powerful when based on your own deductive powers, says I.

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