I don’t really read many reviews of my writing. It’s depressing and kind of gives me hives, and besides the work is long since written and submitted and there’s no point in self-flagellation, right? Right.
Still, something is kind of sticking in my craw. You see, it has come to my attention that a few of my readers feel I only focus on the dark side of history. They accuse me of emphasizing the sordid and crappy parts of the lives of my literary heroines at the expense of their redeeming or non-depressing aspects. And this revelation has made me scratch my head and think for a bit, especially because it could be said that I’m in a dark place of late. (The widespread flooding of your beloved city will do that, as will a year of weird and sad and soul-draining events that have taken their toll.)
As I think about my body of existing work and my current projects, I admit it could be said that I like the dark side. I’m always looking for the story behind the story, and more often than not it feels like tipping over an old fallen log. You lift it up, a bit of light shines in, and the bugs start crawling out. Nearly every real-life figure I’ve ever taken a shine to has some kind of weird secret or horrible trait. Maybe they were difficult where they should have been sweet, or unlucky in love, or caught up in some weird politics or unsavory racial opinions. Hell, Marie Curie was the other woman at one point. It turns out that much of the history we haven’t heard has been hidden for a reason. Who wants to know that their heroine is a petty, silly, or evil woman? Who wants to realize that the fictitious dinner gathering of historical figures might be a really uncomfortable one?
I remember when I was in college studying history and having revelation after revelation. All of a sudden I could see nuance and gray area and context and it felt exhilarating, kind of like pulling up the log. If the reality of historical figures is not crawling right out of my writing, I’m not doing my job.
As women, we’re taught to suppress our dark sides in favor of a kind of blank sunny niceness that glosses over all of the jagged edges. We aren’t supposed to take up too much space, to be too much of anything—certainly not too problematic, or fidgety, or crass, or all of the other things we (secretly) are. And so we learn to project a smoother image to the world, one that blurs the dark corners. I think we extend this to our history, too. It’s so much more convenient to believe the nicer story, the more comfy one. And it’s so hard to justify our interest in figures who end up being reprehensible, or crotchety, or problematic.
Maybe I’m a Negative Nelly who can’t be bothered to see the fun in history, but I think we’re failing ourselves if we run away from things dark and unsettling. I’m certainly failing my readers if I contribute to a sanitized version of “history.”
Okay, crawling back into my dour, bleak hole…and wondering what you think?