Inventing a New Language

Because all of those characters have to tell a story
(image by Tomas Martinez, via Unsplash)

I’ve spent a couple of days re-reading Elif Batuman’s extended profile of the French film director Céline Sciamma ( whose movies include Water Lillies, Tomboy, and Portrait of a Lady On Fire). It’s a really extensive and insightful series of interviews and commentaries, in which the writer herself plays a substantial role in understanding the person she’s profiling. Totally worth reading.

But within it, I also found several things that helped me understand my own work as a writer. Sciamma talks about the ways in which movies and books typically speak a masculine language. Not only how we position characters (both bodily and within social organizations), but just the language of conflict and tension and climax, of protagonist and antagonist. And Sciamma has increasingly developed a vocabulary that allows her to not engage in those structures, to tell a woman’s story through a woman’s thinking and seeing.

What Sciamma has discovered is a serious, disciplined way of doing what you want. The discipline comes from being strong enough to not do what you don’t want… Perhaps Sciamma is on to a secret that nobody else has guessed: you don’t actually have to shoot Chekhov’s gun.

I don’t mean to put myself on a plane with an accomplished artist like Sciamma, but there’s a way in which her project shows me possibilities within my own. I’ve worked for a long time to dismantle the expectations of masculinity into which I was born and steeped (and continue to be immersed all day every day). What does it mean to be male? To be a man? To be masculine? Those are not the same project, unless we let them be.

So all of my stories, in their own ways, have had something to do with this project of reimagining what men are, what men do, what men want. And that means that they can be hard to understand for people who are invested in traditional storytelling. Readers are waiting for the conflict, waiting for the trauma, building the tension toward the unspeakable disaster that MUST be looming just off-stage. They’re waiting, as Chekhov said, for us to introduce the gun in act 1 that must ultimately be fired in act 3.

Here’s the introduction of a little piece that I wrote seven or eight years ago. It’s still relevant.

Just recently, I walked through our wonderful local bookseller, browsing the vast array of fiction, flipping through a few candidates. Then I went to the service counter; they love a challenge. “I’m looking for a genre that I think doesn’t exist,” I said. The two women smiled as they prepared to guide me triumphantly to their unseen section of paranormal cookbooks or plumbing memoirs. “I’m looking for men’s romances; books that are hopeful portrayals of men’s emotional desires about their relationships.” Their optimism collapsed, they looked at one another helplessly. I held up the copy of High Fidelity that I was about to purchase, and said, “I know about this, but Hornby’s kind of a genre unto himself.” “Oh, yes,” the older woman said quickly, “he’s too quirky to be part of any group.” The younger nodded, acceding to her elder’s greater wisdom. 

The older woman walked rapidly from behind the counter, and I followed eagerly, anticipating what she’d lead me to. “We have a couple of men who read Nora Roberts,” she said, not even looking back over her shoulder, “or Mary Higgins Clark. They have standing orders for new books. But that’s only three customers, maybe.” And then she stepped quickly behind a door labeled “Staff Only,” closed it after her, and disappeared, perhaps to frantically dial the genre police to report a deviant. I didn’t see her again for the remaining 90 minutes I was in the store.

Unlike her, you can’t escape. So I would like to focus our attention on that question that scared off my bookseller.

Where are the men’s romances?

By which I mean, why isn’t there a genre devoted to the emotional lives of men as we attempt to manage our multiple commitments in the world? Why isn’t there a genre that squarely addresses our earnest, clumsy and often-thwarted desires for desire, for challenge, for love? Why, when we hope for affection and partnership and meaningful work to accomplish, are we presented instead with Fight Club?

As was true of Esperanto, it’s difficult to invent a new language, and even more difficult to have it be taken up by people who feel just fine with the language they already know. For potential business partners like agents and editors, it’s even harder, since the discourse is paired with a business model. There’s a market for gender compliance; we don’t know if there’s a market for gender resistance, especially when men try it. (Women, every bit as much as men, hold expectations for what men ought to be and do. Better the devil we know…)

So you fall into the category of “quirky.” Isn’t that nice.

A few days ago, I was writing about the paratext of books, all the material and cultural stuff around the words that we read just as much as we read the story itself. And I thought again about the question of the book club, in which some celebrity sponsors a particular array of books among her fans. In looking through the array of current book clubs, I was hard pressed to find any that were sponsored by men. (A symptom, of course, of the larger fact that it’s rare enough that men are reading anything. We’ve got twenty years of research showing that women are the primary reading community, that men read far less often and far less broadly than women.)

So, although I’m hardly a celebrity, I’m going to start a book club. I’m going to spend a few days showing you some of my own prototypes of books that I’ve learned from, books that have revealed some new possibilities of men’s stories and men’s lives. It’ll be a treat for me as well, to go back to the books that have been so important to me and think them through again.

See you tomorrow.

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