I am an unsympathetic character. And I take myself way too seriously. I’m too earnest. To top it all off, I am not sure how much you can trust me.
The issue, though, is not that I am all of these things nor that I come across that way in my writing. The issue is that readers, publishers, gatekeepers of literature, do not know how to read characters like me. But how much of this has to do with character flaws and how much of it is really about gendered expectations of readers? And is there anything we can do about it?
Case in point:
In one of my first fiction workshops as an undergraduate, I submitted a fictionalized account of my not-so-pretty coming out story, and the workshop gave it a scathing critique. From the get-go, the workshop focused not on the writing but on the main character, my stand-in. They hated her—passionately. I can still feel the way my cheeks burned as I sat there silently, as was the protocol for workshop, and listened to their critiques. I could feel my skin become splotchy and red from my chest to my ears. I wrote notes furiously to keep my hand from shaking, trying to avoid their faces by looking down at the copy of the draft on my desk.
The workshop patted themselves on the back for being so open to a lesbian story. They insisted the sexuality was not their issue. They wanted to change the circumstances of the story, my circumstances. They wanted them to be less troublesome. At the time of my coming out, I was in my late 20s, old to come out, even for the 1990s. I lived in the South, in a relatively small community. Most egregiously, I was married—to a man— and was having an affair with a woman, with his knowledge and consent—and the workshop didn’t buy that last part at all. I remembered that they wanted the main character to be more likable, was I unlikable? They even suggested getting rid of her entirely, and in that moment, I tried to make myself smaller, take up less space, become invisible.
The problem is, none of this actually happened, or not the way I remember it anyway. When I went to try to find a copy of that old story, to see for myself, to show that I wasn’t so bad, and maybe to rub salt in an old wound, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I messaged my ex-girlfriend, the woman with whom I’d had the affair and who had also been in the workshop, to see if she remembered the story, if she had a copy. She didn’t, because no such story exists. Turns out, I did not actually write that story. She did.
Why had I internalized that critique so much so that I thought it was my own story? Well, it wasn’t my writing, but it was my story, at least in part. All of my memories of that workshop, as vivid and burning as they were, were wrong, but only wrong in that it wasn’t my own writing that was being workshopped, it was me. The shame and guilt of it all, of my dirty laundry being critiqued like that, remains. And I still believe that I am an unsympathetic character.
The workshop did not know what to do with my character, because they didn’t know how to read her. They didn’t know what to do with a character who chose to leave her husband—and therefore her role as a wife and a potential mother—for a woman.
I have no recollection of a follow-up discussion about unsympathetic characters and their worthiness in fiction, as I give in my own classes now, with examples of the unsympathetic characters we love to hate from Holden Caulfield to Humbert Humbert to Kilgore Trout. When we read them, we don’t have to like them; we don’t have to like what they do. We do have to find them interesting. But here-in lies the problem. These requirements never seem to be enough for the woman unsympathetic character, particularly if she is written by a woman. It seems to be very difficult to convince the literary world to find a woman interesting, particularly if she is unsympathetic, and particularly if she goes unpunished.
That workshop experience, however contrived in my head, reminds me now of the idea of the literary lesbian as monster. Bertha Harris discusses this idea in “What We Mean To Say: Notes Towards Defining the Nature of Lesbian Literature.” Up until around the 1970s, the lesbian in literature was portrayed as a predator, a vampire, a femme fatale, and / or a homewrecker—a monster whose only publishable ending was death, punishment, despair, or repenting reform into a respectable straight woman. This is to say, that while not all writers intended to write these devastating endings, editors and publishers required them in order to publish the lesbian character at all. But Harris was writing during a time when lesbian literature was enjoying a heyday and writers were giving us wonderfully positive lesbian characters written against this morality-tale tradition. The new lesbian character was uplifting, assimilating, PC, and she was allowed to have a happy ending, primarily because readers were beginning to demand it. In fact, the happy ending became almost a requirement. Harris argued that lesbian writers had overcorrected and made the lesbian too easily acceptable by straight society—the equivalent of a Big Mac™, something the masses could easily digest— a “relatable character.” This was what that workshop of not-my-story wanted of my character. They wanted a lesbian character that they could, if not relate to, at least feel good about being interested in—one that was polished and prettied up, one they could place into the space they’d so graciously carved out for her in their heads.
But that is not the tradition into which I fit—not my person and not my writing. To quote Steel Magnolias,“If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past,” and I have a past, a sordid one. My writing reflects this. I write or aim to write more in line with Harris’ ideal. She argued that the lesbian character was and should always be an outlaw of sorts, a monster, someone who doesn’t fit in with the dominant, normative narrative, that this is her power, her intrigue, what makes her a great character—and consequently what she has in common with all the greats, from superheroes to saints.
However, what makes her great is also what makes her problematic for too many readers. This lesbian, the lesbian monster character is unsympathetic, and she is difficult for the masses to digest primarily because she has power, she has agency. The agency she has, and what Harris was urging that she have, was that of an outlaw, which provided an escape from the heteronormative nuclear ideal family structure but also gave a hard-hitting critique of the entire patriarchal system which created it. This is precisely when the lesbian as monster becomes a real threat. The issue is that reading any female character with agency feels threatening for too many readers—her agency and the threat her agency poses makes her unrelatable, unlikeable. What makes her a great character also makes her difficult to read.
In my writing now, I am exploring the life of a woman who inspired a famous tell-all novel which ultimately ruined her life because of the reputation she gained. In my version of her life, she leaves her husband and subsequently loses her child when she comes out as a lesbian, and it’s a hard sell, even for me. I’m attempting to give her and her son a happy ending as I turn the idea of the morality tale of the lesbian monster on its head. I am in good company.
In 1952 Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Published in an era of intense heteronormativity and an idealism of the nuclear family, the novel tells the story of a woman who chooses a life with the woman she loves, or the potential for a life with the woman she loves, over her married, heterosexual life with her husband and child. The narrative doesn’t end in death or reform, but she does lose her child, and Highsmith paints the lesbian characters in ways that are more easily digestible for straight audiences—they are both femme, feminine and beautiful. Interestingly, Highsmith says that almost the entire bones of story was written in a fever when she was coming down with chicken pox – as if in defense of the novel. She goes on to chronicle the anxieties and difficulties that came with attempting to and then publishing the book—because it was about a lesbian relationship, and I might venture to say, because it was about characters, who because they were lesbian and choosing to seek happiness in love over the nuclear heteronormative family ideal, were not wholly sympathetic, whatever their beauty and however happy the ending.
Muriel Rukeyser famously said: “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” But this is only true if there is someone there to witness her truth, who has ears, and heart, to hear or read her story. Women writers have a history of writing women characters who are sometimes viewed as unsympathetic because they are denouncing their prescribed roles as women—they are becoming women of power, women with agency, women who do what they want, or try to: from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Laura to Jean Rhys’ Antoinette to Alice Walker’s Celie to any number of Margaret Atwood’s central characters. These narratives have also been unafraid to explore the ugly parts as well as the pretty ones, to explore the uncomfortable and often terrible truths about ourselves. This is often the mark of good literature, and this is what I write towards in my work. But it doesn’t make it any easier when I sit down to write a character I will always fear that readers and publishers will dismiss because she isn’t relatable enough. How many novels by women never made it into print because agents and editors simply didn’t relate to or like the women in them?
The literary landscape is littered with women writers forced to defend their female characters. I’m reminded of the article in Publisher’s Weekly titled “An Unseemly Emotion” where Claire Messud is asked if she would be friends with her character, Nora, a woman grappling with betrayal in The Woman Upstairs. Messud responds to the Publisher’s Weekly interviewer, who seems to be troubled by the fact that her character is angry and not a potential friend, with a perfectly reasonable retort: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? . . . Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? . . . If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In the recent Paris Review article titled “If I Can’t Cry, Nobody Cries”,Tayari Jones discusses her readers’ responses to her women characters in An American Marriage. Both she and the interviewer recognize that one of her women characters is often blamed more than the criminal justice system for the male character’s well-being after his wrongful incarceration. Jones says that her early draft readers were so put off by her characters going against the prescribed narrative of a sympathetic black woman character “standing by her man” that she decided to shift the point of view to avoid some of the backlash. We see no such defenses by male writers of unsympathetic characters, especially male unsympathetic characters, or at least not in the same way, and it seems to be a result of differing expectations readers have for men and women characters, men and women writers.
These differing expectations are, of course, reflections of the world outside of literature. Society expects women to be wives and mothers who are dutiful and nurturing; while it expects men to be successful providers. My students expect me to be more lenientand willing to listen to their problems; while they expect my male colleagues to be brilliant. It only stands to reason that readers will and do expect different things from women vs. men writers and their characters. They tend to expect relatability from a woman writer and her characters; while they expect a good story with interesting characters from a male writer.
This is never more apparent than in the workshop setting. One of my students recently told me a workshop horror story where a woman writer was hounded by the workshop to make her female character more relatable, more sympathetic, and above all, sexier. Sometimes in workshop, the critique moves from being about the character and becomes pointed at the woman writer herself, as if she is or could be the character. Kelly Cherry shares such an anecdote in Writing the World about being the “girl in the black raincoat” that male writers in her class wrote stories about and subsequently published in the anthology The Girl in the Black Raincoat. While she remembers the time fondly and the collection with nostalgia, she says, “… it was not quite what I had intended to accomplish in life. I wanted to have a muse, not be one.” Within the literary world, and especially in workshop, this tide of being an object erodes women’s sense of agency.
And it isn’t just men who are guilty of this. As members of a society that values men and masculinity over women and femininity, and one in which adhering to our prescribed role is of the utmost importance, women are pressured to live up to these expectations, and these expectations are often internalized to the degree that we perpetuate them—with ourselves and with one another, in the stories we tell and those we read.
I recently ran a workshop of a story by a woman about an unsympathetic character based on the mythical figure of Medea who does the unspeakable—kills her child. I found myself wanting to come up with any legitimate reason I could to suggest changing that part of the story, but that was the story, that was what the student wanted to explore. So instead, I tried to focus on and steer the workshop towards a discussion of the unsympathetic character. The workshop tended to want to make her more obviously the ultimate unsympathetic character, a caricature even, of the “mad woman”—much like the “mad woman in the attic” character of Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea aka Bertha in Jane Eyre whom we had discussed earlier in the semester. It seemed the only way we could accept an unsympathetic woman character was if we could “excuse” her behavior due to her mental illness—never mind that the circumstances in each of these narratives illustrates quite clearly that the women were driven to act in mentally unstable ways due to the powers around them that refused to give them agency. Not only was she to be unsympathetic, she was to be unreliable; she had to be.
Now I am left wondering how that woman writer in my workshop felt as her story, her unsympathetic woman character, was being discussed. I hope that she didn’t leave the workshop with more fears than she went in—those same fears I face when I sit down to write my unsympathetic women characters—fears of the hatred and disbelief she will face from readers—if she’s lucky enough to make it past the publishers. I struggle in earnest (too earnestly) to push away the judgments implied in the questions interviewers ask of women writers, the judgments of the workshoppers of not-my-story, and judgments implied in the piles of rejection letters my unsympathetic women characters have received over the years. It turns out, I have never even attempted to write my own coming out story, not even a fictionalized account—primarily because I fear this judgement. But even with my purely fictional characters, I struggle with wanting to make them sympathetic enough. I struggle with the story of a woman many see as a gold-digger at best and a promiscuous slut and a bitch at worst, who lost her title and her son in real life because she was an unsympathetic character in someone else’s novel.
No woman with power and agency is going to be sympathetic enough to justify defying her prescribed role, or so it seems. I think I’m taking myself and my writing too seriously sometimes, but it is so hard to tell these stories, to get my own character to open up and tell her own story, when on my shoulder sits a gallery of judges. What will readers think about her? Will they hate her? Will they hate me?
It’s time to reconsider the questions we ask of our own, and each other’s, writing. We need more women in print, but we also need to read them more seriously. How can we teach readers to read women in a way that isn’t as a judge or a gossipy neighbor? How can we teach readers to see women characters—especially those written by women— as we see men characters? Perhaps it should start with ourselves and our expectations. We can do better in our lives, certainly, but literature has often paved the way for important shifts in culture and society. There are women writers already writing the narratives that show us what women are and can be. We just have to start following them, rather than insisting that they are lost.
BRANDY T. WILSON, PhD, is the author of The Palace Blues: A Novel, a 2015 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in Lesbian Fiction and winner of the Alice B. Readers’ Lavender Award. She specializes in fiction and creative nonfiction writing, LGBTQ literature and Women’s and Gender Studies. Wilson was an Astraea Emerging Lesbian Writers Fund Finalist, a Lambda Literary Retreat Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow in fiction, and a recipient of three Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference scholarships. Her work has appeared in Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, Ninth Letter, G.R.I.T.S. Girls Raised in the South, Pank Magazine, Wee Folk and Wise, and Lumina among others. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Mississippi University for Women and lives in Memphis with her wife and their son. Visit her at www.brandytwilson.com.