First of all, I feel I must apologize for posting this on TUESDAY. I was originally going to call this blog “Countdown to MONDAY” (as a reference to my upcoming book, and as a nod to the schedule I promised myself I’d keep of at least one blog post a week…!) But I woke up yesterday convinced that it was SUNDAY. My son had had a sleepover so I slept past 6:30 a.m., a blessing that made me feel as if I were a teenager again. I was just pouring myself coffee when a friend called to say “where are you??” I had promised to meet him at the local tennis courts to work out. “SORRY!” I blurted out, gulping the coffee. “I’ll be right there!!!” And that’s how my day went…! C’est la guerre. Oui?
Today I took the train into the city, reading THE HORN BOOK Magazine ( http://www.hbook.com ), and I was fascinated to read Ellen Wittlinger’s article, “Too Gay? Or Not Gay enough?” In it she laments the fact that the Lambda Literary Foundation (www.lambdaliterary.org) has changed the rules for its literary award, so that it is granted to an author who identifies as LBGT, rather than a book that portrays the LGBT experience In explaining the shift, Ellen likens the new terms to those of the Coretta Scott King Awards, which are granted to African American authors and artists, rather than books that portray the African American experience. My understanding of the goal of the CSK awards is that they are intended to support and honor writers and artists who are part of a community whose artistic achievements have been (woefully) under-recognized. The Lambda Literary Foundation’s previous terms (Ellen goes on to say) were more like those of the Sidney Taylor Awards which recognize books portraying the Jewish experience without regard to the writer’s religion. The goal for this type of award, I think, is to encourage a broader inclusion of Jewish characters and themes in all literature, and to help identify such books to an interested audience.
From where I sit, both these outcomes are good ones: I think it’s a good, valid, and fair thing for any group to establish an award that recognizes the contributions of people in that group. I also think that it’s a fantastic thing to encourage the production of literature that reflects the true diversity of our culture, and speaking for myself, from a multiple-minority perspective, I’m only concerned with how real, how authentic the characters (and their settings) FEEL to me, which has more to do with the writer’s skill and empathy and sensitivity than anything else. (In other words, Ellen, you’re exactly gay enough for me!)
I guess, from my perspective as an editor and a reader, I also see, in practical terms, how far we have to go before our literature even begins to reflect the complex world of TODAY, let alone the comfortably integrated, harmonious world I wish my child to see. How else to explain why, in 2010, I had to ask an experienced and fantastically talented artist why it was that his sketches reflected a world that was entirely Caucasian. Was that his intention? I asked him. Was he making a comment on this world, that all the adults and children were white? (It wasn’t his intention, it turned out, and he was happy to have his cast be a great deal more diverse.)
How else to explain why, in 2010, in manuscripts that are submitted to me almost all the characters I see who are Jewish, seem to live in the shtetls of 18th Century Eastern Europe? (Except for those who are the victims of Nazis in World War II). Not that those aren’t perfectly reasonable times and setting to explore. But really? Are there NO JEWS in contemporary America who fret about going to the mall and finding the makings of a Haman or Queen Esther costume that is flattering to the figure as well as acceptable in a Purim carnival?
How else to explain why, in 2010, writers are still feeling compelled to send the gay ex-boyfriends of their protagonists to fiery deaths in auto-accidents?? Can’t the protagonist just cry on the shoulder of his best friend, eat too many donuts and make vicious comments about the ex behind his back? Even better; can’t they just fall in love and have it be amazingly wonderful and imperfect and full of insecure parties and hand-holding-while-watching-tv-sit-coms?
To be clear: I’m really not suggesting that these particular plot points are things “I am looking for.” It’s the natural inclusiveness that I long for, where what makes a character a “minority” is not portrayed as pathology, but shown clearly and precisely through the diamond-sharp lens of character specificity.
Is that too much to ask?