The headline in a recent Time magazine piece condemning a movie for not being ideologically pure enough represents, for me, the tenor of the times. It read: Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender “Mammy.” The article, by Steve Friess, was another dreary admonishment to writers and directors to be more culturally sensitive, to concentrate more on rectifying injustice than on their self-indulgent sense of drama. The transgender character in the good-for-you movie Dallas Buyers Club, says Friess, is bad, because she is not good enough: She is a drug addict and a failure. This is apparently a stereotype.
I did not know it was a stereotype, which means probably that it is not a stereotype, but anyway, Friess is angry that the character is unhappy. An unhappy trans person is a stereotype as bad as Mammy, the hysterical house slave in Gone With the Wind. These stereotypes are “transphobic.” Friess doesn’t come out and say it, but the logical conclusion of his views is that portrayals of trans people should be happy and positive. Such characters should be role models. Depictions should encourage “broad respect.”
Another thing Friess objects to, by the way, is that the character is fictitious. He makes a big deal of this. “Not fact-based fiction,” he rails. “Pure, 100-per-cent fiction.” This is an odd complaint to make of Hollywood drama, one would think, but in fact it is central to his sense of outrage. What he doesn’t like, I think, is fiction itself: It’s the lawless, fantastic, amoral space inside a writer’s mind; it’s the creation of poignantly messed-up characters that do not reflect, at all, the way things should be in an ideal world.
Do we really want role models from our fictions? Do we really want all our female characters to be strong and intelligent? Do we want to insist that every fictional person who ever shows up in a wheelchair has to be confident and problem-free – on pain of getting blasted by disability advocates? Do we want our stories to be empowering? Would those be gripping stories or sermons?
Let’s consider some terrible role models in literary history: Antigone – lousy role model. Hamlet – very bad role model. Frankenstein – hugely problematic presentation of science. Heathcliff – a brutish failure. Anna Karenina – awful role model. Emma Bovary – absolutely terrible role model. Those are terrible works, all of them: all lacking in empowerment. We should in theory have no need to read them.
I am so sick of this. I am so sick of being exhorted, as a writer, to improve the world by representing it in a more hopeful way. And the pressure, I feel, is growing, not just from provincial academics such as Friess but from my own peers, whom I witness daily lacerating themselves – perhaps under the influence of the academics who are the only people now able to give them employment – for their moral failings. They are falling all over themselves apologizing these days, and trying to be better people – apologizing for privilege of one kind of another; believing all privilege is a failing, a stain to be eradicated. Or, conversely, they are competitively claiming lack of privilege.
They have bought the orthodoxies of the academics who have been ruining literature at universities for the last 30 years by insisting that the only worthwhile evaluation of a piece of fiction is an ideological one – that its merit lies in whether it “subverts” (good) or “perpetuates” (bad), whether it furthers the revolution or harms the cause of the underprivileged.
To read the social-media feeds of Canadian authors, you would think we write simply to overthrow capitalism and sexism. They have actually begun to believe that literature is about being good, being better; that it is about improving readers or oneself or, even worse, the world at large.
They have forgotten what drew them to books and movies and plays in the first place: A lot of stories, and people in them, are deliciously bad. They are upsetting. In the best stories, people are morally complex; they are flawed. We read them because the world is flawed, and we want to see it truthfully represented. And because it can be thrilling to be shocked and upset, and even to feel, for chilling moments, what it’s like to be a bad person.
One of the qualities essential to writing exciting stories, whether for page or screen, is an ability to abandon one’s morality. We simply cannot be good writers and good people. One must be able to access one’s darkest self, one’s venality and pettiness and murderousness. How else can one imagine real people? How else can one create conflict that isn’t predictable and didactic?
It is not helpful for an artist to have purely progressive views. Fear of offending is not useful in art. “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime,” said Marxist social critic Theodor Adorno. Personally, I see little distinction between an artistic mentality and criminality. You couldn’t possibly create a compelling story without some wickedness or some fascination with the disgusting. Being good is a hindrance to a writer.
At the beginning of this year, I noticed a social-media trend among writerly colleagues. Everyone was announcing some kind of self-improvement plan in their reading. They were going to read only women writers this year, or writers of colour. Whether this was to correct their own ideological deficiencies or to improve the world at large was not clear. It gives me to understand that their reading is not for pleasure but for moral improvement. I think, then, that they should give up reading altogether. If it’s good, it will be bad for them.