It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.
The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.
I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.
For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.
“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”
“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”
The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.
I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.
23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”