July Links Roundup: Repent, Harlequin

So many links this month, we’re doing two rounds: literary and political.

Notable science fiction and horror author Harlan Ellison passed away last week at age 84. A giant in the speculative fiction community, Ellison was also controversial for his verbally abusive outbursts and the sexual violence in some of the stories he wrote and championed. There’s no question that he’s one of my problematic faves. This memorial essay by Cory Doctorow focuses on the positive side of Ellison, while other writers on Twitter reminded us of his history of mistreating women, such as groping author Connie Willis onstage at WorldCon in 2006 (see these threads by Bogi Takács and Jasmine Gower, for example).

I see both sides of the man in his work when I reread it now, 30 years after he first blew my mind with “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. (One of the scariest stories I’ve ever encountered, right up there with Lisa Tuttle’s “Closet Dreams”; read at your own risk.) My husband and I both tried to get through Ellison’s iconic Dangerous Visions anthologies a couple of years ago, and had to quit because we were nauseated by the pervy-ness and rapey-ness marketed as bold innovation. On the other hand, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, his classic tale of quixotic but meaningful resistance to tyranny, inspires me in a whole new way as our country comes closer to fascism than ever before in my lifetime. And when I worry that my life is meaningless, I remember the defiant existentialism of “The Cheese Stands Alone” and resolve to move forward anyhow.

As the debate over Ellison’s literary legacy shows, interpretation of a text is never fully open-ended nor fully closed. In the space between, a community of readers develops: people joined by a common sentiment that the text is worth debating, critiquing, and absorbing into their lives, but differentiated by the unique alchemy between that text and their personal imagination. I don’t picture the exact same “Harlequin” that you do when you read the story, and the life circumstances that the story illuminates for you may be similar, but not identical, to mine. In their Harvard Divinity Bulletin article, “What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction,” MDiv student Jade Sylvan suggests this is also true about Scripture, which is one way to explain why we have four canonical Gospels instead of one. Like queer fans who write and share Kirk/Spock slash fiction to reappropriate a mainstream story for an under-represented group, early Christians told varying stories of Jesus to make him relevant and liberatory for their particular audiences.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need…Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery epitomizes the trope of the fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far: furious that her favorite romance writer has killed off his main character, she kidnaps the author and tortures him into resurrecting the character in a sequel. However, on the Ploughshares blog, Natalia Holtzman invites us to rethink the moral calculus of this famous novel, taking a closer look at the protagonist’s aesthetic snobbery and contempt for his fans. Is it actually a projection of the writer’s worst fears about himself, that makes Annie appear so monstrous? This post made me want to read fanfiction from Annie’s point of view. King’s plot is attention-grabbing because of the unlikely gender reversal. In real genre-fiction fandom, it’s far more likely to be male fans having violent tantrums because Dr. Who is female and Star Wars has a black hero.

We’ll end this link-around with some writing advice from two well-regarded contemporary authors. I have not yet read Rita Bullwinkel’s story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018), described in this interview by Sadye Teiser at The Masters Review as “deadpan disaster” fiction, but I felt liberated by her depiction of her creative process. I’m working on embracing both the obscurity of my literary “brand” and the weirdness of my writing. In response to a question about her “craft choices”, Bullwinkel said:

I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and am looking forward to reading his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, sometime this summer. In this interview by Santiago Sanchez at Lambda Literary Review, he shares wisdom on many topics, including the market for queer art, your imagined audience versus your real one, and the pressure to represent your minority group and/or be confined to your personal identity demographics when writing fiction:

I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.

The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need.

Sometimes, when I read a truly outstanding book, I’m tempted to say, “That’s it. I’m hanging up my pencil. I thought I was writing fiction, but I can’t write like this, so why bother?” Then, I remember that this is exactly the opposite reaction I would want people to have to my work. I don’t want to induce competitive despair! Few responses make me happier than hearing that I inspired someone else to write. Chee feels the same way:

I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.

Follow Chee on Twitter and listen to his guest appearances on the Food 4 Thot podcast.

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