Does a Lesbian Slant Make Writing Innovative?
With as much reading as I have to do, for teaching and reviewing and whatnot, and as much driving I have to do (living as I do in a place where, once you get into your car, you must drive at least 20 miles to get anywhere), I take in a number of book in audio format (most often, these days, on CD; for a teaching gig a while ago, I downloaded Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia to my iPod, and listening to it while I ran on the treadmill, I marveled at the strangeness of the structure–until I realized that my iPod was on “shuffle,” playing the tracks at random; note to self: let iPod plot next novel).
Anyway, it’s sometimes hard to know–from listening to it read out loud–how something might read on the page, though I do think a certain music, which becomes most apparent with an oral reading, is critical to really good work. Most recently, I listened to Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, which was certainly fun, but in many ways a throwback to Dickensian plotting and characterization (and, in fact, Oliver Twist is an explicit as well as an implicit reference; a “fingersmith” is a petty thief, and the main character, along with many in the supporting cast, is part of a family clearly fashioned on the Fagin lot).
And though I could see why the book might be immensely popular (an irresistible plot, no matter how corny or familiar), I wondered at the critical acclaim that greeted it. The book was shortlisted for two of the most prestigious prizes in the UK: the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. Did that have anything to do with the lesbian aspect of the story? (On Amazon, the book is described as “the third slice of engrossing lesbian Victoriana from Sarah Waters.”) If you took any old story, from Pamelato David Copperfield (let’s leave Jane Austen out of the equation), and turned the love interest’s sexual orientation, would the story then be of more literary interest or merit?
Of course, that’s assuming that prizes and short lists are meaningful, which it’s only wise to do when one’s winning. And then there’s a writer whose work orients that way as well–but is brilliantly inventive in it own right, the sexuality only incidental: Ali Smith. But I’ll get to her later.