Only Myself to Play With

Read an interview with Leigh Bardugo. I don’t read her work, but I was struck by this quote:

Bardugo thinks there should absolutely be a conversation about trigger warnings on books, but she feels strongly if they’re going to happen, they should be an industry-wide requirements, enforced by publishers. “Otherwise, all it does it stigmatize particular books,” she says. There have been no similar campaigns around the work of male horror authors like Stephen King and Joe Abercrombie, she notes.

But beyond that, Bardugo is concerned by the ways that she’s been asked to justify her writing: by trotting out her own trauma as evidence that she’s allowed to do this work.

“In talking about other characters, I’ve talked about the fact that I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” Bardugo says. “But I don’t believe that I should have to put that on display to justify writing a novel. I’m disturbed by the performances we require of women authors. There’s this wall that drops where people feel like you have, by writing a book, given them permission to bring out into the open the deepest parts of yourself.”

Now, I have actual honest to God diagnosed PTSD, and I deal with that every day. I appreciate a trigger warning. But she’s bang on about women and femmes being held to a higher standard (that acts as a functional barrier to entry and to material support). She’s right about women being asked to disclose their trauma. There’s this concept in fandom, “writing to cope,” as if there is no legitimate reason to write disturbing media unless you are traumatized, and so must disclose exactly what you’re coping with to get dispensation from strangers.

That’s awful, but it’s just a new twist on an old, gross thing. Even for women authors reticent to disclose their trauma, their bodies become an object of dissection after their deaths. Shirley Jackson’s fatness and relationship with her mother are subjects of many biographies of her. Here, Flannery O’Connor says “My lupus has no business in literary considerations,” but the immediate preceding paragraph is a man’s narrative of kissing her:

She had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped … I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking experience.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t help but be struck by what a horrible violence it is to be described.

I’ve noted before David Foster Wallace’s corpse is venerated in a way I find distasteful. But the few women who make it into the canon are also dug up, but not for worship. Rather, because a lot of great writers write occasionally disturbing, knotty things, biographers search their corpses for whatever grisly flaw made them write grisly work. Never mind life is brutish and we all have funny relationships with our mothers and boys who didn’t always love to kiss us, we are merely the events that made us. We can’t create like men, we write poorly hidden biographies. There’s an unwillingness to let women and femmes be the authority on their own formation.

A few years back, I mentioned to a co-worker I wrote. He said, “Ah, you write women?” I told him half the world is women and omitted my own dubious identification with “woman.” On a list of a thousand things I am, “woman” and “man” both appear, but somewhere below redheaded-ness and roughly on par with “really into ketchup as a condiment.”

This dude really identified with being a dude, liked to talk to other men at work about his romantic conquests and to women not at all. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere and had to eat lunch together. He’d heard I wrote and seemed irritated to be seen with me, a woman at least five years older than him and very far from his type. I asked him what he read to change the subject. He told me he didn’t read much fiction because it wasn’t important. Just once in a while he’d read a short story in The New Yorker. Like, he liked Woody Allen’s short stories. I said, “Oh, ‘The Whore of MENSA’?” and he sputtered because he’d never heard of Woody Allen’s most famous New Yorker piece. I clarified.

“Never heard of it.” He seemed very irritated. I don’t know if it was because I knew more about his fave than he did, or if it was because I bruised his delicate sensibilities.

He went back to my writing. He said, “But you write women like you, right? Basically yourself. Women like you.”

I thought. I’d recently sold a story about a disabled girl who is ambiguously a grizzly bear, who pokes her grandmother’s eye out and goes and joins the other bears. Wrote and shelved literary novel about a mentally ill woman who fucks a god and beats a man to death with a flashlight. I wanted to share none of this.

“Sure,” I said. Because what are you supposed to say? As Oscar Isaac says, I can only play myself.

That’s true of anyone. It doesn’t tell you anything about me unless you ask me what part of me I got it from (assuming I have perfect self-insight, assuming I’ll tell you, assuming you can hear it as I meant it). And that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Elana Ferrante had the right idea. She didn’t want to be the subject of any of this and deliberately hid her identity until it was uncovered by a journalist. Authorship is a construct with few upsides. As desperate as I am to write and to be read, I’m unlikely to ever be famous. Honestly, a blessing; fame looks fucked. I’ll take it if it comes with cash, but never for its own sake. I don’t want the ossification of a narrative around me, I don’t want the entitlement to my person. I want to put out books and have the books be the product, the thing discussed, the thing with expectations. When I die, I hope to stay dead.

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