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The Cruelty of Truth

While reading and researching for an upcoming project, I came across Alan Dale's (pseudonym) 1889 book A Marriage Below Zero (so old it's free to read online). Two things struck me right away: this plot sounds an awfully lot like my own My Dear Watson, and despite the dismissal of the book as anti-gay melodrama, it's actually a very amusing read. Keep in mind a quote by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) as we go on: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

It reminded me that My Dear Watson has gotten that same sort of criticism, and that one reviewer went so far as to say, "I couldn’t, in the end, give My Dear Watson five stars, purely because of the discomfort it caused me." This is something I disagree with many of my critics about, that if a book makes them happy it must be good, and if it doesn't make them happy, whether or not it's well-written, it simply can't be that good. I'm not the first author to have this gripe, here it is explained by William S. Burroughs in an essay called "A Review of the Reviewers":

Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. To use an analogy: suppose the Michelin Inspectors were equally devoid of consensual criteria for judging food. Here is one inspector... "food superlative, service impeccable, kitchen spotless", and another about the same restaurant ... "food abominable, service atrocious, kitchen filthy." Another inspector strips an Italian restaurant of its stars because he doesn’t like Italian cooking. Another would close a restaurant because he disapproves of the chef’s private life or the political opinions of the proprietor or complains that the chicken on his plate is not roast beef.

Admittedly it is more difficult to set up standards for literary criticisms but such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? Certainly no one can be justly condemned for not doing what he does not intend to do. 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition.


To illustrate this point further, I happen to have a side job ghostwriting smut fluff for money, because it's a sad fact that the less I ask readers to think, the more I'm rewarded. I started ghostwriting while attending a PhD program and teaching a Rhetoric 101 class, trying to keep my head above poverty (I quit after one semester of that abuse). I wrote a story set in Victorian London (with vampires and werewolves and male pregnancy, oh my!), a historical time I know pretty well, since I've written both a fifty page scholarly thesis on queer coded language in the literature of the time, and My Dear Watson, which came from the same research. One of the reviewers for the smut story said, "Are you kidding me? The first paragraph reads like a grade school book report, and it gets worse from there. This author needs an editor or maybe a college English class." With what authority did that person write? Absolutely none. I was the professor, and this arrogant person reading silly porn with their free time told me to go take an English class. There are writers who adhere to a 'the customer is always right' mindset, and they are not good writers, they can't be; those writers work in customer service, and that's the opposite of telling the truth.

Which brings us back to A Marriage Below Zero. In Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, Mark Lindsey Mitchell and David Leavitt have this to say about Alan Dale's book, and its critics: "Such a criticism [that it's a melodramatic anti-gay novel] is misguided, however, because it equates the author's viewpoint with that of his heroine, whose perspective counts; how often have the Constance Wildes of the world had the chance to tell their stories? A Marriage Below Zero is a cruel book, yet its cruelty is the cruelty of truth." I too have been accused of hating Sherlock Holmes because the character of Mrs. Watson has issues with him (I am not my character). It is unfortunate that in this world of fan service many female readers will be quick to call Mrs. Watson and/or myself a bitch for getting in the way of the gay couple's true love, when that's not at all how the world works. There was no real choice for women of the era, and what about the Constance Wildes, indeed? What about all the women whose one great hope for a comfortable life was to make a happy marriage, who then get abandoned because their husbands were caught in their own impossible circumstances? Why should one minority be blamed for the other, especially now, when there's so much more cognizance about punching up instead of fighting amongst your fellow oppressed?

I do appreciate the reviews that can see the difference, but there's a lot of the human condition in this urge people have, to hate the truth-teller instead of the truth. The same reviewer who called My Dear Watson skillfully researched and "a haunted and ultimately failed love affair," took a star off simply because the truth was too sad to enjoy. For my next historically researched book, the same reviewer doubled down on the opinion that what is cruelly true must be bad to treat fictionally, or to allow impressionable people to read. Based on the true crime case of Leopold and Loeb (1924), my Homo Superiors was knocked down even further to three stars based on this thought process: "The book is intelligent and well crafted. But it celebrates nothing. It teaches us nothing. I hope Fields’ fascination with the unhappiest aspects of homosexuality does not become the hallmark of her writing career. I don’t think I could bear another book like this." The truth is not always celebratory (in fact it is rarely so), and one's feelings should not dictate criticism this way. If one feels hurt, and sick, and disturbed after reading about a pair like Leopold and Loeb, then I must have done an excellent job in portraying them, because that's how they were. Remember the criteria: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? My goal in Homo Superiors was do show how easily two smart boys can become killers (it happens a lot, there's nothing historical about that; it's recursive, happens all the time), and my goal in My Dear Watson was to show how a true love can still fail. It's a tragedy, yes, but how is it fair to grade a tragedian on the scale of 'what makes me happy is good'?

As with A Marriage Below Zero, so it is with me. Alan Dale's first-person female character was written with such amusing sarcasm that at times she felt practically modern (despite her circumstances as a young dupe married to an unhappy gay man). That tone was a true balm for me, who often wondered if my sassy and assertive Mrs. Watson was anachronistic--apparently she was not! You might say, as my unhappy reviewer does, that a historical context makes the difference: the world was bad for gays and women once, and it's relatively better now, so isn't it irresponsible to dwell on sorrows? I don't think so. What world do you live in that you know no self-loathing homosexuals, dismissively ignored women, unhappy marriages of convenience, or horribly mislaid plans made by those who don't have the power to out-smart the system?

The truth is cruel, and I won't be blamed for that; take it up with the world.

Writing Tips - L.A. Fields

I've been asked to share some author tips, and so here they are, three pieces of advice: Writing Tips - L.A. Fields

(Ignore that living in Texas bit; I don't really live here, I simply exist here, serving time like one does in prison, against one's will.)

Anyway, for you TL;DR types of readers, the short version of those tips is:

1. Listen to me.
2. Are you listening?
3. Don't listen to me.

That's good advice if you want to take it!

Learn about Loeb and Leopold

There is a new Leopold and Loeb website! I could have used this while writing Homo Superiors, but the next author of an L/L representation will have it all at their fingertips. I'm the most recent feature at the end of the fiction page . . . for now.

My short story collection Countrycide is $1 in ebook version all week: here.

Homo Superiors is on the radar for another review: here.

Read my books! Some of them, all of them, throw a dart at the stack and choose that way or go with the cheapest, that’s up to you, but get on it.

Homo Superiors: Audiobook

The audiobook for Homo Superiors is out today!

Listen up!

Homo Superiors: the Fan Playlist Edition

A fellow Leopold and Loeb devotee/fan of my interpretation, Homo Superiors, has put together a playlist. From the title's song origin to the list content, I agree! Here are the fan-songs, plus a secret blog-bonus Easter egg below them (the songs I listened to while writing the book in the first place):

Such Strange Little Birds
(title from "Even Though Our Love Is Doomed" - Garbage)

"Oh! You Pretty Things" - David Bowie

"That’s My Boy" - VAST

"Perfect" - Alanis Morissette

"Paper Planes" - M.I.A.

"Add It Up" - Richard Cheese

"Rich Kids Blues" - Lykke Li

"I Think I Found the Culprit" - Jack White

"Lurk" - The Neighbourhood

***

"Oh, You Pretty Things!" is where the book's title came from (you know, Nietzsche by way of Bowie), so that's a crossover tune, and the ones on repeat as I wrote:

"Birds of Hell Awaiting" and "Killing Strangers" - Marilyn Manson

"Pups to Dust" - Modest Mouse

SO: now I have a few new songs to go interrogate until they're memorized. What a wonderful chore!
Here's another review for Homo Superiors, and it's a good one.

Highly intelligent Noah and Ray are quintessential "frienemies" in this gripping modern day retelling of Leopold and Loeb.

My favorite part of this review is that it realizes the boys are equals; not everyone understands that each part of this duo gives up as much as he demands, but this analysis does. They don't really trust or even like each other that much, yet they depend on each other, desperately. That's the trick to them, yeah.

The fresh, witty albeit perverse dialogue between Noah and Ray keeps the pages turning, and while it's easy to sense their story will undoubtedly end badly, you can't help but wonder what deplorable act they'll come up with next.

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L.A. Fields
la_fields
L.A. Fields
L.A. Fields is the author of The Disorder Series, the short story collection Countrycide, the Lambda Award finalist My Dear Watson, and Homo Superiors, a modern retelling of Chicago's Leopold and Loeb crime.

She has a BA in English Literature from the New College of Florida, and an MFA in Creative Writing - Fiction from Columbia College Chicago. She lives in Dallas, TX with a cat and a day job.

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