Sunday, September 20, 2015

story sins

While writing "Infection," it was easy for me to imagine a reader finding misogynistic notes. A woman damages a man's sexual organ, symbol of his manhood, through her own psychosis-fueled philandering. Hemingway, who I think everyone finds some misogyny in, had something of an obsession with men being cuckolded and the loss of a man's vital masculine force through a woman's influence. I could see analogies being drawn.
I felt like there were other elements in the story that offset this effect. Evie injured Steve's phallus, but Maria helped to restore it, literally and figuratively. She didn't do this because it's the woman's role to restore a man's confidence in his sexual prowess, she did it because it made her happy to do it. That's one reason I chose not to make her too "feminine" looking according to contemporary expectations of what that means. She is boxy and strong rather than skinny at all costs. Her body is developed according to her own notions of what she wants out of it.

There isn't a whole ton of Steve and Evie's backstory, which was one of the things Blake Kimzey, my literary service editor, critiqued. We know they were in an evangelical church together as teens in Ohio, that they didn't fit in with the church kids, that Steve left for Chicago to play blues music and Evie followed him sometime thereafter. Since Steve's final act is a rejection of the opportunity to move forward that life offered him, we can assume that maybe Steve wasn't a completely innocent victim of Evie.

So I thought there was enough there that this wasn't a hate anthem to loose women who break your heart and give your herpes. There wasn't an underlying resentment of the female. But it wouldn't have surprised me if an editor at a journal or a reader of a literary journal, someone with a background in analyzing literature but not a whole lot of time to devote to analyzing one story, found it in there. Nobody sits down to read a story, turns off all electronic devices, eliminates distractions and says "I will now fully devote myself to giving this story my fullest, most thoughtful attention, giving the story the benefit of the doubt in every circumstance." It would be easy for a distracted reader, even a good one, to find that a woman gave a man V.D. and think "this is some woman-hating shit like in Hemingway" and move on. Worse yet, you might get a sympathetic editor to print it, and then a critic decides to treat the perceived misogyny at length. You've still got the piece itself to defend yourself, and all those parts you think mitigate that one fact in your story, but now the critic has already influenced the way others will read it. You've lost control of the meaning of your own words.

Every writer faces this. Blake told me to quit worrying about rejection from editors and other things I can't control. But I find it extremely frightening that something I wrote might be described with such an awful word as "misogyny." Worse yet, that a critic would jump the tracks of examining the intent of the text and head right into the intent of the writer, calling me, personally, a misogynist. You have to write about dangerous stuff and walk a line in writing, or else there's no point to it. But in a society that is getting worse and worse at reading, it's a guarantee that you'll be misunderstood. I can't imagine how comics write jokes about race or child molestation or other awful things and then go out in front of a crowd where someone is likely to not see how the joke is funny. Worse, to have the joke fail because it really isn't funny, and it actually does deserve to be called a racist joke or a sick joke. You're up there on stage. It's only seconds before they go from saying racist joke to racist comedian. You didn't mean it that way, but all the audience has to go on is the joke they just heard.

If you write, you will either say something you didn't exactly mean, or you will be misread, or both. Probably both, and probably every time. It will take exactly one reader to have someone see something in what you wrote that you didn't intend. Blake gave this story a very thorough reading, but when he listed themes he saw, this was his list: money, class, art, charity, love, regret, and a host of others. I didn't think money or class were at play at all. I more or less gave American capitalism a pass in this story; Steve is poor because he's a slacker, not--as thousands in Chicago who don't have a voice in "Infection,"--because the economic system has let them down. When Steve wants to improve his position in life, a job is there for him, and he does. I was paying Blake to read the story well, and he did, but he still didn't see in it what I hoped he'd see. If I had to give a theme to the story, I'd say it was something like "People have the ability to spread both faith and doubt to other people, like an infection."

A lurking commenter on this site once told me to write for myself, let others come along if they wish, and assume the rest are just too dumb to get it. This attitude seemed like hubris to me--if one of us is wrong, why should I always assume it's the other guy? But there might also be a sort of wisdom in this. Defensive backs in football are known for being cocky. Even after giving up a big catch, they will still talk like they are unbeatable. There's a reason for that. If you act for a second like you can be beaten, you're already beaten. So you have to act like you're the best. Give up a touchdown, whatever. It wasn't your fault. The receiver pushed off. He'll never do it to you again.

But I'll bet that defensive back still looks at the film to see what he did wrong. He'll learn from it. He'll practice to never make that mistake again. He'll build it into his muscle memory, but erase it from his conscious memory. He has to play fearlessly, and he will, because he's never been beaten on the next play.

So after a year of writing followed by a year of not writing, I'm ready for writing again. One purpose of this blog was to work out doubts about whether writing was even worth the trouble. It's served its purpose. My next story will be the best fucking thing you've ever seen.  



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