Real versus realistic
In books and in life
My book Things Said in Dreams is written with a female narrator. When one of my female relatives read it, just about the only thing she had to say about it was that it was ok but it didn’t sound like a woman. When my sister loaned it to one of her friends, her friend said she had to keep checking the cover to remind herself that it was written by a man because she thought it sounded so realistically female—like something that only a woman could write.
One of the elements that detractors of TSID’s female narrator point to is that in the first chapter, she punches her mother’s girlfriend as part of their conversation—a playful punch. They say that a girl would never punch someone. “Girls don’t tend to punch people.” Etc. Excuse me. Have you ever hung out with girls? They punch people, too. It’s real—it really happens, I have seen it—but that doesn’t make it realistic for every reader because they have these stupid/limited ideas of what women do. They’re stuck in their stereotypes.
One of the favorite books of our time is The Secret History, which features a male narrator extraordinarily written by a woman. I could say the sex scene in the book doesn’t sound like what I think a sex scene written by a man would sound like but that would be missing the point. Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen has sex as written and thinks of sex as written. And while it might not be realistic to some men, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. What’s in a book is real because that’s the way it is written.
Something that cracks me up about Things Said in Dreams is the story behind this series of four sentences that appear on the second page. The narrator says:
I would make an excellent kidnap victim. I’m pliable. I come with a vagina. I don’t care about my life.
Men (especially) go crazy when they read this text. They object like crazy. They call me crazy. A woman would never say this, they say. It’s completely unrealistic. Well, it may be unrealistic to them, but the funny thing about this piece of text, which is the one most cited when people tell me my narrator doesn’t sound like a woman, is that it was written by a woman.
Around the time I was writing TSID, I was having a flirtatious text exchange with a woman and we were consensually and safely playing out a kidnap/rape fantasy. That text that everyone thinks no woman would say is not only something a woman might say, or something a woman would say, it is something a woman did say. I pretty much copied her text out of our conversation and pasted it into my book.
(I later asked her if I could use it and she said I could use anything I wanted.)
Imagine how funny and how absurd this situation is to me. People tell me this piece of text betrays the believability of my female narrator—the text is unrealistic to them because they have very narrow ideas about women..and they don’t have interactions with women that are nearly as interesting as mine.
The text is documentary—literally copied and pasted from a woman’s text to me. And yet it remains unrealistic to some.
I guess I’m asking us all to consider, in a larger sense, that there is a difference between real and realistic. The world is a broad and wild place, and many things happen here which are totally real—but seem totally unrealistic to us.