So I went to my very first ever con a couple of weeks ago! I suspect (as usual) that I’m going about the whole writing thing bassackwards — novels first, then short stories, then an agent; book deal, then ‘breaking in’ at a writing convention and learning about craft and meeting other authors. Le whoops. At any rate, it was Canadian (hooray!) and quite small (even more hooray!) and I still find myself glad that I didn’t choose some gigantic mega-con with squillions of people and panels and events and parties and stuff for my first con. This was one hotel, two rooms. And in Montreal, so I could also spend time with my best friend and his family! (Which included explaining to the new puppy that yes, I was family, and no, that meant that my toes were not food. Or toys.)
I had one reading scheduled (to which no one showed up, so my co-reader Kate Heartfield and I bailed and went to the panel we wanted to go to in the first place) and one panel, which was better attended than I had expected, to my (fitting) horror — ‘Reclaiming Lovecraft,’ I think was the deliberately provocative title, which probably had something to do with the attendance. This was the first panel I’d ever been on, and I was terrified that I was going to be excoriated, attacked, mocked, and/or possibly butchered on the spot. I mean, it’s a contentious subject; he’s a contentious guy; he wrote contentious stuff. There’s really no getting around it.
And yet, for fifty-five minutes, that’s precisely what we did — got around it. Deked, zigzagged, flopped, parkoured around it. We started by acknowledging, necessarily, that he was an asshole of several flavours: misogynist, classist, racist, anti-Semitic; that he feared and hated anyone different from himself; that even his friends at the time, who were certainly no saints, could be found on record saying ‘Jesus, Howard, tone it down.’ (I daresay they would have said ‘Calm your tits’ if he wasn’t also afraid of tits.)
And then we simply veered off into admitting that yes, we, the three of us, two Jewish people and a brown woman, took Lovecraft’s stuff, played in his sandbox, perpetuated his mythos, used his names. We praised his prose and his gift for imitation, his erudition, his classical education, his creativity, his (and I didn’t know this) assistance to other weird young writers. I got to do a shout-out to my beloved Lord Dunsany. We picked out the tropes Lovecraft used that we either had stolen wholesale, or shredded and reconstituted for our own works. We spoke of the great fears that he had lived with — not just certain groups of people but very large things, very old things, things that were too far apart, vegetables, fish, sea creatures in general, the ocean (well, we all figured that one out), the dark, intimacy, germs, the space-time continuum, certain combinations of letters and numbers.
I think (if I recall correctly; there was a lot of adrenaline going around at the time) I said flat-out the one thing I had wanted to say on that panel, which was ‘If you’re like this, and you know it, then what is your duty to refuse to engage with it in your work?’ And no one took me up on it.
But I’m still thinking about it, two weeks later. I’m uneasy; my brain, my writing brain, feels like an unsettled stomach. I said what I wanted to say but I don’t think I said what I meant to say, which was: Someone help me, for God’s sake. Help me calibrate. Someone wiser and older than me, with a few million more words under their belt, or a goddamn MFA or something, help me. Because I don’t know how much of oneself should or can be in one’s fiction. Because fiction still means ‘made up’ and I don’t understand why I seem to persist with this definition when it seems to be falling out of favour. Because that ‘should’ and that ‘can’ necessarily come with a ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘cannot.’ Because when people publicly dogpile an author who has repellent things in their novels, what they say is: You put racism in your book; you, the author, must be a racist. You put sexism in your book; you, the author, must be sexist. Now we hate you, and no one should read your book. You should fail as a writer and you have clearly failed as a person. Some of that, certainly, is due to the limitations of 280 characters (sorry, I mostly hang out on Twitter; Facebook got too annoying a thousand years ago, and Instagram is mostly for puppy pictures). But the general sentiment: help me understand that. Everyone sounds like the folks who non-ironically shrieked ‘JAMIE LEE CURTIS USES A GUN IN HER NEW MOVIE DESPITE PUBLIC ANTI-GUN STANCE OMGWTFBBQ.’
The actor is not playing herself against her will in the film. The novelist is not writing an autobiography. The only impulse I understand is the one to say ‘This author, in their real life, is an asshole; I will not give them my money.’ That seems legit to me. But everything else: I want to know where the filter goes, where it’s expected to go. If you are an asshole, should that be in your fiction? If you’re not (????), should that be in there? If people are expecting your fiction to accurately represent you as a person, and you’re not an asshole, and you write some assholey stuff, what happens to you then? What happens to your work?
Should you only be putting who you are, what you believe in, your own personal values, into your fiction? Does that depend on what those values are? If it doesn’t, what does it depend on?
I think, idly, of a long-ago trilogy of novels that will never see the light of day — they’re juvenilia, but I mean the irredeemable kind, too bad to be polished up and sent off to my agent now, sort of a series of giant plot holes with some banter for garnish. I think of one particular asshole in those novels, and how fun he was to write — how fun they are, in general. Villains are always more fun than heroes, and the worse they are, the more fun they are both to create and to read about. This villain ends up in jail, of course, and is relatively blase about it. “Now I can work on them kids books I always wanted to write,” he rumbles to the judge.
And I think of him, in his cell, this hypothetical author, transported suddenly to 2018. He’s buckled over his yellow legal pad in the dim light, pencil nub trembling. All of the things that could go into this book — his childhood of beatings and emotional neglect, starvation, trauma, the laundry list of animals and small children he beat up, the burnt barns and warehouses signed with his peculiar manner of arson, the people he killed in his various gangs, the ones he killed accidentally while on unrelated criminal business, or buying groceries, or getting his shoes shined, the trail of teeth and fingers he’s left in his wake, the broad groups of individuals he hates (rival gang members, police, rich people, Jewish people, black people, Irish people, gay people, the elderly, children of any colour, all women not interested in him, gay people, people dressed better than him, etc etc) — what do they do? We crane our heads over the ill-hued page, and see that upon it, he has written, in shaky capitals, “ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A LITTLE KITTEN, AND SHE LIVED IN A CHURCHYARD.”
This lug could write a whole book like this and no one would ever know who he was or what he believed. Would parents all over the city be appalled if they read ‘MISS WHISKERS AND THE BROKEN MILK JUG’ to their children and then discovered who wrote it? Does it matter? Does it matter if it’s the other way around? If someone who, say, didn’t support killer clowns wrote a book prominently featuring them? If someone who, say, didn’t support an endless journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland and barbecued (well, grilled) babies wrote a book with that in it?
Or, to make it more personal, why should anything I am or believe escape the filter between truth and fiction — the filter that our villain possesses to write his bestselling kids’ series — and make it into my novels? Or, should it at all? What difference does it make when we’re all making things up and writing things down? I’m not writing a catechism. Or moral guidance for a youth church group. Or a how-to manual on how to do anything in life. Or a textbook. Or a travel guide. Nothing in a novel needs to be true. Nothing that is true needs to get past the filter unless it’s useful for the plot; and even then, I wouldn’t expect people to believe it, because it’s a novel. Verisimilitude is not the point; you are not trying to recreate the world. You are just telling a story. A story that can have, or let’s say might have, nothing to do with who you are.
Was that a filter that Lovecraft should have used? Nothing good would have been lost from his writing if he had done so, right? Virtually all of his stories would have stood up just fine if he had kept some of the shittiness from them. It’s fiction, Howard, I shout back through the ages. Hate whoever you want, but remember that you are writing fiction. It’ll turn out that Roald Dahl and CS Lewis and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and TS Eliot and VS Naipaul and Shakespeare hated a bunch of the people you hate too, but their names will not be remembered the same way yours will, as the Absolute King of the Bigots, because not a ton of it made it into their actual stuff. Why didn’t you leave it out of your actual stuff, you ding-dong?
Final thought for the day, because obviously I don’t have answers to a single one of the questions I’ve asked in this uhhhhhhh I was about to say blog post but really it’s more of a free-form stream of consciousness ramble that I randomly broke into paragraphs, but one of my agent-siblings seems to have thought the same thing today, and I randomly ran across one of his tweets.
Hell yes. This is accurate. And raises questions of its own, about easy/hard, about effort, the results of effort, whether effort and success are linked, the role of mentors/teachers both in personal growth and artistic skill, but… yes. He’s right. Accurate. Accurate. Always. But what do we, as novelists, do with this knowledge?