Another entry in previously-published essays. This one was first published in the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, Vol. 1, issue 1 (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 2000). It has been reprinted a few times, most recently in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, ed. L. Timmel Duchamp (Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2010).
There isn’t a culture on this earth without some kind of storytelling tradition, whether it takes the form of a wrinkled elder in some dusty village spinning tales of gods and demons, a sleek publishing industry churning out romances and thrillers, or a Hollywood production company filming teen splatter pics and syndicated genre series. As individuals and societies we are shaped by story: our culture and sense of self literally cannot exist without it because we only know who and what we are when we can tell a story about ourselves. We learn how to tell our story by listening to the tales that are out there and picking through them, choosing some details and discarding others. If something happens to us that doesn’t match the plot lines and characters we are familiar with, we don’t know how to classify it or describe it, we don’t know where or even whether it fits. It does not become part of our story. As Henry James once remarked, adventures happen only to those who know how to tell them.
Imagine you’re a young boy being raised in a large Christian fundamentalist family. You grow up thinking that everyone in the world believes in a particularly vengeful, unforgiving god—you might believe in that god yourself simply because you don’t know it’s possible to not believe. If one day you pick up and read The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell in which a priest who loves the world and loves god is abused beyond endurance and loses his faith, it will change your life. Now imagine how it would be if you are a young girl living in that same household, told every day that women are lesser beings and weaker vessels, that the only purpose in your life is to marry and have children. You’re invited to a friend’s house and she turns on the TV. On comes Xena: Warrior Princess, and for the first time you see a woman who is faster, stronger, and smarter than anyone in her world, a woman who always wins and always gets what she wants. Your world is shaken to its foundations. When you go back home, you have secret dreams of resistance; for the first time, you understand the concept.
Stories give us role models and offer us tastes of other possibilities; even seemingly inconsequential experiences matter. Let me use myself as an example. I was raised in a very traditional English household where, thirty years ago, exotic food items such as pasta, rice—even mushrooms or peppers—simply did not appear on the menu. I ate some variation of meat, potatoes, and two veg every day of my life. If I ate lamb, it was roasted; potatoes were mashed or baked; beets appeared only in salad (which to the English of that time meant lettuce, sliced boiled egg, spring onion, sliced tomato, sliced beets, and salad cream). As soon as I left home I fell on the foods of other cultures like a starving wolf. I’ll never forget the first time I ate in a Spanish restaurant: lamb (cubed and marinated in lime juice, garlic, mint, and rosemary), served with patatas bravas, beets, and black beans. The same basic ingredients I had tasted before—meat, potatoes, beets—but so very different. I went home and the next day tried to make something like it for dinner. I didn’t use a recipe—I didn’t have to; it was enough to know that such a taste was possible. I kept trying, experimenting, because I knew it had been done before, and although I didn’t get it exactly right, I ended up with something quite individual, something I liked better. My very own recipe.
People do this all the time with new stories, and the truth or fictionality of the story doesn’t much matter; what counts is the story itself.
At the end of my second novel, Slow River, there is an Author’s Note which reads, in part, “There is a disturbing tendency among readers…to assume that any woman who writes about abuse…must be speaking from her own experience… Should anyone be tempted to assume otherwise, let me be explicit: Slow River is fiction, not autobiography. I made it up.” Like most fiction, this is a lie, but true.
Although most of the things that happen to Lore in Slow River never happened to me, I have felt most of the things she feels. To some extent, all good fiction is emotionally autobiographical. It’s impossible to describe a particular emotion well unless you’ve experienced it: a man who has never been in love or woman who has never been hungry won’t be able, respectively, to describe characters who love or hunger. This doesn’t necessarily mean, for example, that you have to be scared of spiders to write about a character who is arachnophobic, only that you have to have experienced fear itself. The adrenalin surge of fear—shaking muscles, dry mouth, and racing heart—is universal, so once a writer has experienced it, it’s relatively easy to transpose it to another key. All the primary, basic-drive feelings—lust, anger, hunger—are universal; it’s the circumstances under which we feel those emotions, and how we then choose to act in those circumstances, that are the subject of fiction.
But I’m being disingenuous because, of course, Slow River bears a much closer relation to my life than just the emotions I ascribe to its various characters. To understand why I thought such an Author’s Note necessary, or even relevant, you need to understand why I write, or at least part of why I do so.
One thing I have learnt about myself is that I enjoy forming theories. Give me a bunch of facts that appear related, and I’ll do my best to come up with a theory to explain it all. It’s a game I play: always trying to figure out how the world—people, plants, political systems—works. My favourite theories are the ones in which several other theories interconnect. One of the ways in which I use fiction is as a test ground for these theories.
The theories I test, revise, and test again most often are the ones about myself, the ones that try to answer the question, “Why and how did I become who I am?” (The fact that “who I am” is not a constant doesn’t make this any easier, but it does provide endless material.) An inevitable corollary of this question is, “Why and how did other people become who they are?” Slow River is largely concerned with a question that nagged at me for a long, long time: How come I spent many years living a rather squalid existence (no job, no prospects of making money legally, few scruples), yet managed to find my way out, to the quite staid and respectable life I have now, when others in the same situation never escaped? In the course of writing the book, I found that the answer to my question was that the question itself was not valid: people are never in the same situation. They might appear to be, but the similarities are superficial. In the novel, for example, although Lore and Spanner seemed to be in the same boat—no money, no family, no official existence, no resources but their bodies and their wits and the ability to use both without conscience—their situations were utterly different. Lore had been born to privilege. Her sense of self, her experience, both practical and cultural, her view of the world as a generally tameable place was at odds with Spanner’s. Lore could hope and Spanner could not. In the same way, you and I might appear to be in the same situation but we would have come to it from two vastly different places, via different paths, and bringing with us different internal resources. Our emotional and practical responses to the circumstances would be, like us, unique. When I understood this, my understanding of my whole past and all the other people in it changed; many of the value judgments fell away: I wasn’t better than others, or worse—just different. The story of Slow River mattered as much to me, the writer, as to any reader.
One of the things I enjoy about this kind of hypothesis testing is that it’s not me going through all that trauma. In fiction I get to turn up the heat and watch my guinea pigs run through the fire. More heat makes them scurry faster and brings things to a conclusion more quickly than in real life, and it’s more interesting for the reader. So although the city in Slow River is based on the city I lived in for more than 10 years, although I, too, moved from a comfortable background to pennilessness overnight, my family was never mega-rich, they never abused me (physically, emotionally, or sexually), I have never been kidnapped nor scammed the media, I’ve never lived under a false identity, and I haven’t any particularly esoteric knowledge regarding the running of any industrial processes. But the feeling, the emotional process, that Lore experiences living by her body and her wits resembles my own.
Many writers do this. This is probably why so many readers think they know an author after reading their story or novel. However, it is a grievous error for a reader to assume anything about a writer based solely upon that writer’s fiction. For one thing, you can never tell which bits are “true” and which bits are “fiction”; for another, to assume that some particular part of the fiction is autobiographical is to belittle the writer’s imagination. (See Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, an excellent book, for more on this.) For example, when the reader thinks, “Gee, here’s this white dyke who lived in the UK writing about a white dyke who is living in the UK and who was abused by her mother; therefore, the author must also have been abused by her mother,” s/he is saying the writer couldn’t imagine her character being any different from herself. Such readers don’t know logic from a hole in the ground. Funny how they never assume that because my character is fabulously rich (or stunningly good-looking, or quite deadly with her hands) I must be too. There again, being rich and good-looking and able to defend oneself are Good Things, and the farther a person seems to be from the cultural norm (and in this time and place the default is still set at Straight and White and Male), the less likely other members of that culture will be to ascribe positive traits to that person. One of the stories our culture constantly tells itself is that Different equals Bad, or at least Less.
Every society has its own set of master stories, or cultural clichés: men are stronger, the infidel is less than human, the rich are more important. A storyteller, whether a novelist, singer or screenwriter, should be aware of these. Every time a cliché is uttered, it becomes stronger; the master narrative is reinforced. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that a writer’s job is to change the world, that all fiction should be radical, positive, motivating, and so forth; I write, as I’ve already said, for myself. Nor am I saying that writers are responsible for what a reader does with the dreams and images we create with our fiction. I’m saying only that we should be conscious of the fact that our work affects others.
I receive countless emails from readers who tell me my work has changed their lives. One woman, married and the mother of two, emailed me from another country and said that, after reading my first novel, she was finally able to understand some of her feelings: she was a lesbian. After reading my second, she had the courage to do something about it. One man told me at a signing that reading about Lore’s struggles in Slow River had helped keep him sane during a terrible period in his career. Another woman in Atlanta told me that after reading Ammonite she’d left her solid, corporate job to pursue a dream of being an oral storyteller.
It’s partly because I know how deeply fiction can influence the lives of readers that I dislike stories that reinforce the status quo, that reiterate the old, master patterns of our culture (particularly those dealing with issues of power and prejudice). Some of these narratives reinforce consciously, some unconsciously; I prefer the former. Unconscious reinforcement is the result of bad writing, usually a combination of clichéd phrasing, laziness, and lack of imagination. With conscious reinforcement, I know the writer has done his or her job, and will most probably have made an attempt to explain in the text why a character believes in the status quo, which at least indicates to the reader that another way is possible.
One recent trend in science fiction (and fantasy) that is an ugly but effective reinforcer of the status quo is what I call Sex & Servitude SF. There are two main types. The first is fiction in which the main character is or becomes a slave or bonded servant who falls in love with her (and I use the pronoun deliberately) owner. The reinforcing message here is usually that (a) love conquers all, (b) anything is better than being alone, and, sometimes, (c) some of us are just born lesser beings and need someone to tell us what to do. The second type dwells lovingly on physical torture, often sexual, in which the torturer is usually (though not always) male and the victim usually (though not always) female. A more subtle variation of this second type is one in which some kind of sexual threat or constraint is present but covert. The message here, of course, is that women are victims: we have been, are, and always will be.
Not all fiction with these tropes reinforces the status quo. Generally speaking, the better the writer, the less likely they are to fall into all the old trap of stereotyping (though there are stunning exceptions). Cliché is the great reinforcer. Examine it—the person, the situation, the culture—with a clear eye and strong prose, and the cliché melts, because the reader sees individuals in particular situations. We understand that this happened to them for particular reasons; that a different choice or different circumstance would have led to a different outcome. In other words, exposing the cliché, writing it out, renders it powerless because we see alternatives.
One of the most depressing stories I have ever read is Joanna Russ’s “When it Changed,” a novella that demolished stereotypes with one hand while reinforcing them with the other. Whileaway is a planet where, nine hundred years ago, Earth colonists landed and a virus killed all the men. In the story’s narrative present Whileaway is a world of thirty million women and girls. Russ gives us a gleaming vision of women as autonomous, whole human beings—human in and of themselves, not in relation to men; her characters marry and have children, they love and hate, are smart and stupid, tall and short. Women, she tells us, can do and be anything they want. And then, with the return of men from Earth, and the way the inhabitants of Whileaway respond, Russ smashes the glorious vision to pieces. She says, in effect: Men can come and take away women’s autonomy and humanity whenever they want. By refusing the imaginative leap—of showing the reader how eight or nine hundred years of freedom from prejudice would alter a woman’s psychological response to a man, alter feelings of relative self-worth and self-esteem—she reinforces the cultural stereotype, which runs: “Women only have what they have because men allow it; men are bigger and stronger and therefore will have their own way in the end.” All it takes is two sentences from the narrator, Janet, speaking on the day the men arrive on Whileaway:
He went on, low and urbane, not mocking me, I think, but with the self-confidence of someone who has always had money and strength to spare, who doesn’t know what it is to be second-class or provincial. Which is very odd, because the day before, I would have said that was an exact description of me. (1984, 17)
It is, indeed, very odd. In the context of Russ’s setup, Janet’s attitude makes no sense to me. She has never felt herself to be second class in her life, why does she start now? If anything, she should feel utterly superior to these beings: they don’t speak her language properly, they don’t understand how the Whileawayans have children, and they look like “apes with human faces.” They are bigger, yes, but I don’t imagine for a minute that if Janet met a bigger woman she would respond this way. It is only someone who has grown up in a sexist society who would be programmed for such feelings of inferiority.
When I first came across “When it Changed” I was about nineteen and re-discovering science fiction at roughly the same time that I was discovering feminism. They were my new toys, bright and shiny and exciting. “When it Changed” left me feeling bewildered, crushed, and angry. It seemed to be telling me there was no point to anything I was trying to do. These days, being a more sophisticated reader, and knowing Russ’s work, I suspect that Russ used cliché deliberately to shock readers like me awake, to say: It doesn’t matter how much women change themselves; unless the men change, too, there’s no point to any of this. But I’m not sure, and, frankly, those two sentences are still an unexplored (in the text, which is what we’re talking about) cliché; they therefore reinforce, by simple repetition, the master story with all its stereotypes.
One of science fiction’s traditions is that in the future many prejudices will magically disappear; I’m used to reading fiction where racism and sexism and homophobia barely exist. Last year I read a debut novel that broke this tradition. The novel is set in a very near future seemingly extrapolated in an uncomplicated fashion from the present world (there are a few, slight differences). The protagonist is a smart, good-looking, strong woman with a fair amount of professional expertise and general life experience. So far so good. Then as I read I realized the author was breaking the usual sf tradition of diminishing prejudice. At first, I assumed that the author had broken the tradition deliberately and with forethought to make some kind of point; I kept waiting for that point, or at least an explanation. When none was forthcoming, I realized that she had simply ignored the tradition and substituted instead an unexamined cliché: that men will always be more politically powerful than women and will abuse that power, sexually and otherwise. Given the changes in sexual politics in the workplace (in Europe and North America, at least) just within the last two decades, simple extrapolation would have led to a corporate climate of the near future being even more favorable towards women than at the present—yet the main character allows herself to be sexually intimidated and used by a series of men in the work place, for no reason that I could see. It made no sense. This kind of sexual harassment has been illegal in the US for years, and any smart, strong, savvy woman who experiences it has recourse to various professional and legal responses. If a fictional character (sf or otherwise) chooses to suffer silently, we need to know why, what the special circumstances might be, in either her character, or her situation. The author of this novel, though, gives us no special or particular circumstances; her premise seems to be that women have always had to have to put up with that kind of thing, therefore they always will. She reinforces the master story. It irritated me; I felt as though someone had tracked filth through my nice clean, optimistic little genre, which made me sit down and try to figure out why—which is why I have written this essay. So I suppose even bad stories bulging with cliché have their place in expanding our lives.
If we want to expand our choices we need new stories—new tastes—to entice us from the old and familiar. Coming up with these stories is not always easy. Not only is struggling with the master narratives and trying to visualize new concepts, worlds, or ways of being, quite difficult, those of us who do so are often sneered at and accused of escapism. For example, some readers complain that the only sex in Slow River is lesbian. “It’s not like that in the real world!” they cry, to which I respond, “So what? And why does this bother you so much?” Sometimes I paraphrase Tolkien: those most likely to be upset by the notion of escape are the jailers.
Stories are important, precious, necessary. They are the tools with which we break free, with which we hack out new paths to untrodden places. Stories are not frivolous. Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, has been criticized for being fanciful, for ignoring the constraints of gender, not dealing with the harsh facts of life. In Arguing With the Past, Gillian Beer states that Woolf moves her fiction away from the arena of real life facts and crises because she denies the claims of such ordering to be all inclusive. In other words, just because the master stories tell us that something is as it is does not mean that this is all there is, or that more (or difference) is not possible. We need only to climb onto the back of a new story and take that imaginative flight into the unknown. If when we get there we like what we see, we can choose to incorporate it into our vision of ourselves. It will become real, part of the story of our life.
- Arguing with the Past, Gillian Beer (London, Routledge, 1989)
- Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (New York: Del Rey, 1993)
- Slow River, Nicola Griffith (New York: Ballantine, 1995)
- How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (London: Women’s Press, 1984)
- “When It Changed,” The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (New York: Baen, 1984)
- The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (New York: Villard, 1996)
- Orlando, Virginia Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1928)
 Forty years now, sigh.
 Hypotheses, I suppose, given that I can’t test them properly.
 I also lived in my real city a lot longer than Lore lived in her fictional one.
 This is especially true in the early stages of our careers; I haven’t done it for a while.
 I’m not unusual in this regard; lots of other writers hear the same thing.
 Since I wrote this, a woman came up to me at a signing and told me that Ammonite had saved her life. She was not being metaphorical. Hearing that turned my life inside out like a sock.
 It was Samuel R. Delany who pointed this out to me, when I was a Clarion student in 1988.
 In a book discussion on the fem-sf listserv in the mid-’90s, it was suggested to me that Janet may have been experiencing a normal reaction, which one person likened to how it feels to be the smartest person in High School and to then arrive at university to find, for the first time, people smarter than yourself. Upon reflection, I don’t buy this. Janet is not an adolescent but a mature woman who has, presumably, met slightly stronger or taller or faster or smarter women before—it’s a world of thirty million people—yet never before felt like a second class citizen.
 Star Trek is partly responsible.
 It isn’t, a misreading I find interesting. It’s a misreading that has become less frequent over the years. Norms are changing.
 I’m grateful to members of that long-ago fem-sf listserv for pointing this out.
2 thoughts on “Living Fiction, Storybook Lives”
Even tho I was a US govt Equal Employment official for years. dealing with everyday employment problems and solutions, HILD excited my senses as to reality across the ages. Ignorance prevails in many fields of endeavor, and stories of female soldiers and resistance fighters has cave caused many masculine minds ti open. It has been a challenge for me to let the feminine in to my inner world.
@Charles: Thank you. I think people are people; this notion of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is just marketing…
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