Authenticity in Literature is Not One-Size-Fits-All

| Thursday, August 22, 2013

I am twenty-one years old, sitting in creative writing class. The professor is a slight woman with huge hair and fluttering hands. She stands at the front of the room talking about Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, quoting us passages that make me feel pulled inside out. Things like "Be willing to be split open" and "If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you." All those inspirational little things that tell you to be unafraid.

When I consider those words later in my off campus apartment while waiting for my boyfriend to call, it makes me try exploring my own heart. Poking through the chambers and finding all the things that make me full of love and fear and anger. Cutting through cages of sinew and bleeding black to get to the frightened birds hiding inside. Letting them fly, tears rolling down my face, and knowing what it's like to feel free. They might turn into faeries, or moths, or screams, or starlight. Whatever form they take, they are born of me.

Other members of my class, however, hear these words much differently. They hear those phrases and think it means bare realism, raw gore, and inciting easy and extreme reactions in readers -- horror, offense, disgust. To exploit fear and pain. To do that, they think, is to be a REAL WRITER.

And to each their own, you know? There's nothing wrong with intentional darkness or horror or gross-out fiction, if that's what you love to write. It can be cathartic. It can be valuable.

However. However. They sit and listen to others reading their work and they smirk. They condescend. They say it's too twee, too pedestrian. Their tales of rugged men fucking nubile co-eds and squeezing blood and shit between their fingers are real. They're substantial. They're literature, true literature.

And that's absurd.

Not too long ago, I came across a post from someone wondering why more YA authors don't write "true" teen experiences, with swearing and sex and vulgarity and violence and slurs and all of the rawness that comes with teenagerdom, in plain language. My response to it was mostly 1) of course there are YA books that deal with this? and 2) of course there are many that don't. Because not every youthful experience involves or needs several dozen "fuck yous" and a graphic sex scene to feel authentic.

Back when I was sitting through those classes, there was always that guy. I say "guy" because, in my experience, it was always a guy. Other friends I've spoken to have, by and large, also had that guy. He's the guy who loves to write dark, gritty, dismal pieces full of suffering and sex. He'll lovingly describe the way oil rainbows reflect on fetid water puddles, and then criticize the class fantasy writer about not taking enough risks or being literary enough.

And this is the disconnect and the pressure on writers, including kidlit writers. This is part of the insidious culture that says writing for young people is meaningless, simplistic fluff created by people who just can't handle writing "real" literature. It's this idea that true literature, honest literature, is written with this vein of darkness running through it like a cancer, and that cancer makes it special, and realistic, and next-level. It's the same attitude that says happy endings are an easy way out. That if you don't write dialogue that is exactly as people truly speak, slurs and profanity and all, you're too afraid to face reality.

It's the idea that genre novels are child's play, stepping stones, candy fluff to appease the masses. They're not authentic enough.

This is a concept that I just don't buy into. I can't. Authenticity implies something that's true to your life, that matters to you and speaks to you. There is not one kind of authenticity. A depiction of hetero-male lust and revenge for a bruised ego does not speak to me or for me. Yet we insist this is reality, this is high-brow. Confused teenage girls? They're pop-culture nonsense.

To me, authenticity doesn't come at the expense of making your readers squirm uncomfortably. It comes from within. What are people really afraid of? When you have everything in the world in your favor, maybe it makes sense that your fears involve rejection, and dismemberment, and loss of youth and vigor. When you live your whole life being told you aren't good enough, you're not real enough, you're not smart enough... maybe it makes sense to build a world where those themes are explored in a fantastic setting where you can overcome them and move forward.

When you have little to lose, maybe it's deep and meaningful to explore loss and discomfort. When you feel like every day is a losing battle, perhaps it's more meaningful to build a world where you come out on top once in a while.

Happy endings are twee? They're dishonest? Maybe they're the only flame we have to follow. Remember that your reality isn't the only reality.


{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: August 22, 2013 at 8:11 AM said...

*standing ovation*

{ Andrew Leon } at: August 22, 2013 at 11:20 AM said...

Instead of commenting directly, I will say this: most "literary" fiction is even more forgotten than most writing is in general. The things that tend to stay around in a meaningful way are the things that speak to kids. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island. I could go on.

Just sayin'.

{ Krispy } at: August 22, 2013 at 1:01 PM said...

There aren't enough applause gifs for me to send you that would communicate how much agreement I have with this post. I think, as you said, there are different kinds of authenticity and while there is a place for the dark kind of literary and/or "real" fiction, I don't think the darkness/grittiness/edginess necessarily even makes it good. There seems to exist a conflation of dark with oh-so-realistic/meaningful and that's just not true. :P

I read a post somewhere a bit recently that talked about this trend in movies as well - and not even like Oscar-bait movies. They were talking about this sense that grim-dark style popcorn/tentpole/genre movies somehow made them more works of art versus entertainment. I think this was in a discussion about how some critiques of Pacific Rim called it too optimistic, that it couldn't be a deep movie merely because its themes were about hope, heroism, and humanity coming together.

Anyway, I digress, but I do find it interesting that this valuation of the grim-dark is found across storytelling mediums. Thanks again for your thoughtful post!

{ JeffO } at: August 22, 2013 at 3:54 PM said...

"Real" does not equal "Realistic," and literature--and it's ALL literature--is very much an individual experience. I'm tired of people dumping on other people's brand of literature.

Great post.

{ Miranda Reilly } at: August 23, 2013 at 5:00 PM said...

This is a beautiful post and so true.

I think that perhaps what people like that lack is a willingness to empathize, to try to put themselves into someone else's shoes. It's a shame since, for me at least, the whole point of reading, and writing, is to empathize with different people, slip into someone else's skin, but they only seem to want to see the world through their own eyes. Their view is the only correct one.

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