There is a question that has come up lately when I talk about my book. Rupert Everett’s new film The Happy Prince and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years as well as my own Oscar’s Ghost all explore the aftermath of Wilde’s arrest and incarceration in different ways. Why has this topic suddenly become of interest?
“Sudden” is, of course, not quite the right word. As I understand it The Happy Prince took 10 years to make. I spent 6 years on Oscar’s Ghost and I assume The Unrepentant Years was not written overnight. That makes it all the more interesting that, indeed, this story does seem of the moment.
I was thinking about this when I read a quote from the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov that came up as a Facebook meme. Baryshnikov said that this era of Brexit and Trumpism is one in which it is “a crime to be different.”
When we convict someone of the crime of being different what happens next? What happens to the person who was punished after the public has moved on to other worries? What happens to the people who love him? In an era like ours it feels important to stare this in the face.
For those of us who believe in an inclusive society these are depressing times. We have gotten through hard times before, which is in some ways comforting, but it neglects an important point: We got through it collectively, but many individuals did not.
This 1921 news story, which I found posted on a blog called Strange Company, reminded me of something odd that happened this Christmas, which I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Frankly, I’m not sure I come out so great in this tale.
I woke up on Christmas morning and as is my habit when I first get up, I quickly checked my various communications media, my e-mail, Facebook and twitter feeds. I noted with passing interest that the topic of the day seemed to be that the president had made some claim about bringing back the phrase “Merry Christmas” and this inevitably had people declaring which side of the culture wars they were on.
In the comments on one post was something from a man (I assume) with an American flag image for his picture. For whatever reason, before I headed off to enjoy the time with my family, I responded to what I thought was an a-historical appeal to tradition by pointing out that the Puritans had outlawed the practice of Christmas in the early days. Not that it matters, but my point was that we Americans have never been entirely unified in our traditions around Christmas or anything else. (The whole “War on Christmas” thing is not really about history or tradition, but about declaring what segment of society ought to be treated as the default “real Americans” now.)
By now I was enjoying a house full of kids, parents, stockings and sweets. I noticed the notification when I took my phone out to snap a picture of the cousins in their Christmas light necklaces. This elicited three responses with far more capital letters than I thought necessary. The general themes were that America was founded as a Christian nation and that I was an ignorant fool. His replies made it clear that it was not the specific tradition of saying “Merry Christmas” but the notion of America as Christian that was important to him.
There is something about someone condescending to you that is hard to ignore, as much as you ought to. So I responded. I pointed out that I knew a fair amount about history and that I didn’t agree with his premise, but that it was Christmas and that I had family commitments and didn’t want to spend the day arguing about what text should be on the banners in shopping malls. I wished the stranger a “Merry Christmas.” I expected that we would agree to disagree.
The next time I took the phone out there was another condescending response beginning with LOL taunting me that the only reason I was leaving the discussion was that I knew he was right. He was determined to have the last word.
In spite of myself, as the kids tried to plunk out Christmas carols on the piano, I found myself getting aggravated. “Are you arguing that we should have an official state religion?” I wanted to ask.
But I stopped myself. We had driven 14 hours to be with our extended family for Christmas. Christmas is one day a year. Here we were together, and this annoying and senseless debate was intruding. What am I doing? What should I care if some person I don’t know or respect thinks he bested me? It’s Christmas! I should never have commented to begin with. I deleted my original tweet and all the replies and blocked the stranger so there would be no temptation whatsoever to get drawn back in.
Isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that someone felt so strongly about keeping the “Merry Christmas” in Christmas that he was willing to spend Christmas day arguing with strangers about it?
“And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine, all mine.”-Adam Ant, Stand and Deliver.
This past Saturday I went to Cleveland to visit an old friend and see Adam Ant at the House of Blues. A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Booklovers Boook Reviews about the role of curiosity in inspiring, and giving an author the momentum to write an entire book.
I was looking back at the perennially popular essay I wrote the last time I saw Adam Ant in concert, and I was surprised by the date stamp that said it was four years ago. Adam seems to have gotten younger since I saw him last, which is a good trick. It made me think that maybe I could choose not to age as well.
What I did not realize at the time I wrote that last Ant essay was that the experience of going to the concert would spark my imagination to the degree it did. Had I not been gifted those Adam Ant tickets in 2013, I would probably not have written my second novel, Identity Theft. You never know what will jog that part of your brain. With literary curiosity on my mind, I’ve been thinking about my Oscar Wilde curiosity and my Adam Ant curiosity to see if they come from a common source.
Adam Ant’s current tour is “The Anthems Tour” and I think the anthems are key. Something occurred to me on Saturday as I was watching the opening act, an energetic, fun all-female band called the Glam Skanks. There was a time when I had my own dreams of fronting a rock band. Although I had a decent voice, I never took the steps. Maybe I was waiting for an invitation?
The truth is that I could never put myself out there enough as a performer to be a rock star. I needed to keep a foot in the world of good girl respectability. If I’d been in a band with a name like Glam Skanks what would my dad think?
Slut fear is survival fear. When you’ve been branded a slut, you’re outside of society’s protection. So that was something I was never going to risk. If there had been a real “insect nation” I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to “throw my safety overboard” and join it. Ridicule, at age 13 or 14, is the thing you are most afraid of, Prince Charming.
But the call appealed to me. The desire was there, and I could at least sing the anthem and take occasional vacations to the Insect Nation in the form of concerts. I was an “antperson” in a consumer fashion. I owned the white vinyl and picture discs. I was not a culture warrior. (I did wear unmatched shoes to school once on purpose.) But Adam Ant made me want to be brave.
The fear of being shamed runs through Identity Theft. The vague sense that I missed out on some experiences because of fear finds its way into the novel in the form of the character Lydia. Lydia, a middle-aged friend of the protagonist, half-jokingly says she regrets not having been more of a slut when she was younger, and unwittingly encourages Candi down a path that turns out to be disastrous.
We are attracted to the idea of throwing off social constraints in proportion to our fear of it. Oscar Wilde played on that dynamic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Readers could indulge the fantasy of throwing off social convention, giving in to every impulse and desire. There is a fascination as well with the figure of Oscar Wilde the transgressor. But both Dorian and his author were destroyed by their transgressions, at least that is what the mythology about Wilde suggests. His is the story of the wrath society can bring down on those who transgress. The desire to conform, and the desire to be free of constraints do a constant dance, and we always question our own choreography.
Adam Ant has an Oscar Wilde quote tattooed on his arm. (I have never been close enough to read his arm myself, but Reuters tells me this is true.) It says, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”
For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?
In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”
Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.
But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)
This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.
This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage. (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)
The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster. Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)
This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”
Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.
“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.
This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.
(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)
The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.
What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.
Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.
I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.
A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.
The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:
“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.
After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.
This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.
This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.
Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.
The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.
No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.
As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.
“Life imitates Art fare more than Art imitates Life.”-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying
When my father passed away, a little more than a decade ago now, I went through his papers– articles, correspondence, drafts– and compiled a book of quotations for friends and family. I had cause to revisit that collection again recently, and I came across this observation from a letter he wrote in 1990:
You know, for all my book learnin’, I have to say I’ve learned more about life from ordinary folks trying to muddle through. From a guy who specializes in military procurement, that means he develops tanks and airplanes and such to Army specifications, comes what I think is a truly insightful thought. He said, “an old rule of thumb is if a weapon can’t do its job, find out what it can do and make that its job.”
In other words, let the thing — or the person — define what its job is. As simplistic as this sounds, it rarely happens. The norm is for “them” to define what’s important, and for the individual to attempt to live up to those mandated “specifications.”
This is certainly true. Rather than allow people’s talents and skills to present themselves and making use of them, we go looking for people to match job descriptions we create in advance.
But I would go further and say that it is not only in employment but in life that this is so. We start with stories about what life is supposed to be like, what goals we ought to have, what love is and friendship. There are stories about how you’re supposed to feel when you get an award of suffer a loss. We go along always comparing ourselves to these stories and seeing how we match up. Very few of us start with what we are and make that our life.