The spring my first book came out – a collection of stories, several of which detailed an erotic but unconsummated emotional affair – I was invited to speak at an all-men’s book club. I was excited such a club existed in my town. I told them I’d love to come. Southern male readers of fiction with serious literary habits!
The meeting was held in the home of one of the members. About a dozen men showed up. We milled around and made the usual small talk. We ate good Mexican food and drank good Spanish wine and eventually gathered on sofas and chairs around the coffee table. I gave a brief talk about my “creative process” – something they’d asked me to discuss – and opened it up for questions.
No one said anything. Men shifted in leather cushions and flipped through their copies of my book. It was hot out. Someone kept opening and closing the sliding back door in little screechy increments. Maybe no one actually read it, I thought.
Finally the man sitting in the chair across from me flung his book onto the coffee table. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll just say it, because we’re all wondering the same thing: What in the hell does your husband think about your work?”
I can’t remember what came out of my mouth. Probably the laugh and the “he’s my first reader and he’s always been a hundred percent supportive” line I would grow accustomed to trotting out in the following months, when the same question surfaced again and again – from strangers after readings, from acquaintances in my town. What I do remember is what was happening inside my brain: What does my husband’s opinion of my book have to do with anything?
And: If I were a male fiction writer, writing about illicit sex, would you ask what my wife thought about my work?
Let’s be clear: “What does your husband think about your work” is a ruse. Beneath that query is the real question: Did you, the author, do the things the female character does in your narrative? If so, how’d you get away with writing about it? Isn’t your husband hurt? And aren’t you ashamed?
A general curiosity about the relationship between a writer’s real life and her fiction is natural. How does an artist work? I could argue that there’s a compliment behind the autobiographical query: if a reader feels I must have lived through an event, that tells me, in part, that I’ve written convincingly. And given the similarities between some of my characters and myself – a married woman with children who lives in the South – I understand how certain readers might assume there’s a comprehensive, one-to-one correlation between my fiction and my life.
But I don’t take these questions as compliments. Rather, they feel like expressions of doubt as to my imaginative capacities as an artist – specifically as an artist who writes about female sexual longing and transgression. I wrote about a woman who lives in the South with her husband and children while she battles cancer. Not one reader has asked me if I’ve had cancer. I wrote about a woman with children whose husband is a suicidal benzo addict, and who nearly gives up her religious faith because of it. Not one reader has asked if my husband is a suicidal benzo addict, or if I’ve nearly given up my faith because of it.
So why the questions about the sex often couched as curiosity about my husband’s response? Buried in these questions are four dubious assumptions:
1. It is more important and interesting to talk about you, the author behind the work, than it is to discuss the work itself.
It’s remarkable how quickly we turn our gaze from artifact to artist. When Walter Hooper asked C. S. Lewis if he ever thought about the fact that his books were “winning him worship,” Lewis replied, “One cannot be too careful not to think of it.” When you ask about my personal life, you’re missing the point. This finished book we’ve sent out into the world – that’s the pearl of great price. If we’re going to talk about anything, that’s the place we should start.
2. I recognize certain things in your work – the town where you live, the number of children you have – so everything else must be true as well.
Most writers aren’t interested in writing about what we’ve actually done. Most of us write to find out what it would be like to do things we haven’t done. It’s a chance to take the roads not taken. To solve mysteries, on the page, that we’ll never get to solve in our lives. The artistic imagination is a powerful thing. It’s all I have, the tool of my trade. I feel profoundly, ruthlessly protective of it. When a reader makes the assumption that a writer is simply recording the life she’s lived, that reader is discounting the artist’s primary gift.
Fiction begins with small, lower-case truths, then translates them into a larger lie that ultimately reveals the largest truths. “None of it happened and all of it’s true,” said Ann Patchett’s mother.
3. The way I feel reading your book must be the way you felt while writing it.
If you feel ashamed or aroused or uncomfortable reading my fiction, that’s bloody fantastic. That’s why I write: black marks on a white page reaching across time and space and palpably affecting another human soul. But how do you know I felt those same things when I was drafting? (Much less how my husband felt reading my drafts?) The passages that feel “confessional” or “erotically charged” to a reader might be the very places where I felt distanced or intellectually elated in the act of composition. And it was precisely because those were the places where the artistic imagination was free to roam.
A friend of mine who writes nonfiction told me she feels the same thing when people tell her they appreciate the “vulnerability” of her prose. Funny you think I was being vulnerable, she wants to say, because when I wrote that, I just felt like a fucking badass.
4. A man who writes about sexual infidelity is normal, while a woman who does the same is morally suspect.
Here we reach the crux. The questions “how does your husband feel?” or “how autobiographical is your work?” actually mean, “did you commit these sexually subversive acts?” The assumptions and judgments are gendered. How are we still, in 2018, dealing with the notion that men think about illicit sex as a matter of course; but women – well, women should be more demure? If we’re going to live in a society where we aren’t taken advantage of and/or shamed in our personal and professional lives, surely we can begin by not shaming one another for our sexual imaginations. Or questioning that women are capable of that imagination to begin with.
Men, in particular, both mythologize and undermine female artists. But women do it to one another, too. On a recent press trip, a woman told me my latest novel, Fire Sermon, was “memoirish” and “confessional.” She said it blurred the distinction between life and art. This from a woman I’d never met. Yes, the character uses a confessional tone, I said. The character writes journal entries and prayers as ways to assuage her guilt, longing, and grief. Perhaps that’s what she meant by memoirish? But my novel was not a memoir. Those journal entries were not my own.
Last night, I did a Q and A with a local writing group. One of the first questions was from a woman: “You set a lot of your work locally … so is everything you write autobiographical?” I mentioned that I was, that very day, working on an essay about the question “what does your husband think?” “That’s what I wanted to ask!” she said.
Men, women: Let’s assume the female writer needn’t have lived out the narrative to write it. Let’s assume that she can have an imagination that is subversive and sexually transgressive.
And let’s assume the artist’s husband feels pretty fucking badass to be married to her.