Friday, November 30, 2012

On Naming Children & Fictional Characters

Sophie and I were both worried about the baby with no name.
(An unhappy looking white woman and baby niece.)
My sister was telling me about a very indecisive couple she knows.  They had a baby and announced its birth, explaining that they hadn't come up with a name yet.  In the UK, you're legally obliged to register a birth within four weeks.  At three weeks and six days, they finally made their minds up. Or at least, kind of - the child now has two forenames, the father refers to her by her first name and the mother by her second.

I can completely understand this.

Names fascinate me. I've always been interested in the origin of names and the way that names evolve, concealing, preserving or celebrating cultural identities. I like the sound of names and the way those sounds conjure up ideas about a person's nature; softness, sharpness, hardness, roundness, grandour, strength, wisdom and frailty. Our arbitrary rules about what makes a feminine or masculine name (which don't apply elsewhere in the world, Peaches). I like the way that people move through different names, diminutives, pet names, formal names, married names, pen and stage names and our ability to change our identity through tweaking or completely changing our names. I like the capacity for the sound of our names to give comfort, arousal, irritation or terror ("They're coming to get you, Barbara..."). In the news, I'm always spotting evidence of nominative determinism; an anatomist called Dr Bone, a bird expect called Prof. Crowe and so forth (I'm sad to report that when I googled the best study I knew into this, I found that it had been debunked - but that only makes it interesting in another way).

So yes, I'm like names.

So if I ever had to name a human being.... well, fictional characters are hard enough.  I spend more time on this than you could ever imagine.  I was relieved when I saw an interview with Graham Linehan who spoke about how the writing of The IT Crowd was delayed because he couldn't quite decide on what Roy's name should be.  And that's the guy who dreamed up Father Ted Crilly.

A fictional character's name, like that of a child, must
  1. Be distinct from the names of other characters (or in the case of babies, nearby children) 
  2. Be memorable enough in its own right
  3. Not have any strong unintentional association with a famous person or fictional character.
  4. Fit in naturally with the context of their life (not really applicable to babies) and 
  5. Just feel right.
1. Coming up with a distinct name sounds simple, but it is much easier when dealing with fictional characters than people. Just within my own family, there are three Michaels, plus pairs of Stephens, Jeans, Christophers and even Rosemarys - none of whom were first born children taking a parent's name. At high school, there were three Elizabeths, three Emmas and two Georginas in a class of just twenty-five girls. Although we cringe (or admire the massive power of fiction*) when we see that Harry and Bella are now among the most popular baby names, the things that influence name choices are usually quite subtle. You may well find the very special name you've chosen for your child is commonplace among her peers, with no clue why so many people chose Pandora this year. (There was a Pandora at school. Everyone got nervous when she opened her packed lunch...)

Yet if you're writing a family or a class of children, you'd be much more careful about repetition. It's probably as hard to write characters with the same name as it is to read about them and keep track. Emily Bronte gets away with it because she kills the original Cathy giving birth to the next Cathy.

It's not just to do with straight repetition - it's terrifically easy to muddle some names, like Mary, Marie and Maria.  Personally I still have to look up which evil wizard is Saruman and which is Sauron and it's a good job Arathorn only featured historically, given that his son is Aragorn. At least, his first born - the family don't like to talk about his wayward vegetarian younger brother Araquorn. 

I soon cheered up but Sophie had needed to think about it.
(A happier woman with uncertain baby niece.)
When my sister and brother in law were thinking of names for their children, they pretty much ruled out the names of anyone they knew well. They even ruled out my favourite, Phillipa, because they know a man called Philip. Some excuse...

2. Memorability should be easier, in theory, if you're writing fantasy or sci-fi or making up a child's name from scratch. But memorability isn't just about being unique. It also helps
  • If a name can be easily spelled. 
  • If a name is easily pronounced.  It really matters.  Sometimes it's not possible, if you're writing in English about a non-English culture.  But it is much harder to hold a name in your head if you can't imagine what it sounds like.
War and Peace is the only book where I actually took notes on the characters because I was losing track. Obviously, reading in translation, I can't complain, but I had big problems with diminutives. So for example Pytor or Peter was Petra to his family and Pierre in some contexts. Which would have been manageable if there weren't five thousand other characters I was trying to hold in my head.

I don't know whether to applaud or condemn Dickens for his capacity to come up with memorable names.  The trouble is that characters in the Dickens parody Bleak Expectations wouldn't exactly seem out of place if they came up in one of his novels; Pip Bin, Harry Biscuit, Skinflint Parsimonious, Gently Benevolent and so forth. Certainly Dickens displays a love of language in his ability to come up with names that give you information about a character; Mrs Todger, Edward Murdstone, Mr Bumble, Betsy Trotwood, Orlick and perhaps most the explicit, Uriah Heep.  But it often feels too much. Mervin Peake and Terry Pratchett do the same kind of thing, but then they're writing in fantastical worlds, with no attempt to persuade the reader that these are people you might meet on the streets of a real city.

Anyway, really simple names, well chosen, can be just as memorable as complex ones; Harry Potter, James Bond or Jim Hawkins, for example. Douglas Adams was great with very simple but memorable names, as well as the sci-fi Zaphod Beetlebrox; Arthur Dent, Dirk Gently, Richard MacDuff and the genius of Ford Prefect, given that Ford Prefect sounds like it ought to be perfectly sensible and ordinary name.

I've also decided there's something about first names with three syllables that benefit a great deal from a monosyllabic last name such as Atticus Finch, Artemis Fowl and Sebastian Flight - such good names!

I'm really struggling to think of female characters in literature who have really fantastic names. Any suggestions?

3. The absence of strong confusing associations should be a no-brainer.  Marilyn was not named after Marilyn Monroe, but having grown up in the 50s and 60s, she still imagines that Monroe is the first thing that comes to a person's mind when they hear her name. Any Kylies or Adeles growing up now may come to consider themselves cursed by their famous namesakes.

One of the strangest criticisms of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is a book all about a woman who doesn't eat unless she is told to, called Ana, and the only female character she likes is called Mia. Ana and Mia (here's the Google results, which come with a serious health warning) are slang terms used by people with anorexia and bulimia, particularly those who support one another's disordered behaviour through on-line community. It seems to me extremely unlikely that the author did this intentionally, but it is jarring and, when intention is suspected, rather sinister. 

4. Whilst there is virtue in not making life especially hard for a child, I think it would be fairly unhealthy for parents to consider the social context when coming up with a name. Hopefully, your child will go out into the world and mix with a great number of different people.  Name them accordingly.

After a while, we were both feeling better.
(Same happy woman and equally happy baby).
Everything about social context is fluid and riddled with exceptions. My parents say that if I had been a boy, I would have been called Desmond, after my grandfather. I have never known another Desmond and all the famous Desmonds I can think of are much older than me and black.  However, I could have been called Desmond, got along just fine and I'm not sure anyone would have considered it that remarkable.

As it is, I can count on one hand the Deborahs I've had personal contact with (I've met dozens in fiction) and nobody's commented that it is a strange name. I am however, aware that before the early twentieth century, it would be a very unusual name for a British gentile. Same with Ruth, Issac and a few other Old Testament names. (I don't think anyone's been called Nebuchadnezzar since Nebuchadnezzar - apart from the second King Nebuchadnezzar, I suppose, and the name was enough to give him nightmares!) 

Here are further considerations:
  • Socio-Economic Class.  Names that don't sit with the class origins of a character jar a lot with me, because they suggest ignorance - for example, when a upper middle class writer has got a Tarquin selling drugs from the council flat he grew up in.  He probably carries them around in a Waitrose carrier bag. However, these trends change very quickly. When I was a kid, Milo was a posh name, then there was a character Milo on kids TV and there are now many young boys called Milo from many different backgrounds. Similarly, I should imagine there are far more British working class Gileses, Cordelias and Xanders around now whose parents enjoyed Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There was a girl at my school called Bali, who would loudly proclaim that this was Bali with an L I (not to be confused with Barley) because that was where she was conceived. I imagine her folks had to be fairly wealthy, whereas these days far more people can afford to travel and use their children's names to commemorate the sex they have had in exotic locations. 
  • Age. There is a slightly ridiculous article on the BBC website about baby names which were unlikely to be rehabilitated called In search of a baby called Derek (which of course resulted in such a response from Dereks and their parents that they had to publish a whole page of them) which, although being a little wide of the mark, does make the point about naming, fashion and the course of time. Although, few names completely disappear (except possibly Adolf), there were very few Dillons about before The Magic Roundabout and (contrary to a terrible film I saw last week), you didn't get many Gavins in ancient Rome. 
  • Religion.  Most British Catholic families I know, even now, stick to Saints names (there's an awful lot of them). Many Muslims and Jews, regardless of where they or their families come from, choose Arabic and Hebrew names respectively. Although this doesn't apply to everyone, by any means, it is a factor to bear in mind. 
  • Cultural Heritage and Naturalisation. One is as important as the other - some immigrant groups will take British names - sometimes even changing existing first and surnames - while others will hold onto tradition. Then, generations down the line, some will revert to traditional names and others will choose British names instead. Which is partly to say that there are no hard and fast rules, but these are things which would be very useful to know about your characters and their background.  Also, if you're writing a story based on a spaceship in the year 3012, with a predominantly white crew with names like Cobalt and Squee, you need to think about why your token Asian guy might be called Rajendra. Also, the white thing.
  • Sexuality. This is entirely in the negative - believe it or not, a person's sexuality does not influence what their parents name them at birth. Some girl's names are butch and some boy's names are rather camp, for whatever reason (Round The Horn did for Julian and Sandy forever), but gay people are no more likely possess them than anyone else. Radclyffe Hall (originally Margaret) had the heroine of Well of Loneliness christened Stephen because her parents wanted their child to be a boy. I mean, I know it was a different time and Hall had never listened to Lady Gaga's Born This Way, but you'd think she'd have realised from personal experience that Stephen would have been into girls even if she'd been called Stephanie.
Sophie was very pleased once we'd sorted this business of
naming people out. (a very smiley white baby)
5. It's got to feel right. My sister and brother-in-law had firm ideas for names for their children, but didn't tell anyone before they were born, just in case the babies came out looking like someone else entirely. Sophie looks like a Sophie, but she might have come out looking like a Wendoline or even a Rover.

Part of this issue is around diminutives. I've known parents who name their child Michael or Catherine, but then cringe whenever people address them (or worse, they call themselves) Mike, Mick, Cath or Kate.  And of course, different people attract, prefer, tolerate or loathe the diminutives to their name. Parents need to anticipate this and not mind, but writers need to understand how this is going to work for their characters.

There must be a reason that nearly no-one ever calls me Debbie, whereas Rosemary is known as Rosie to everyone who first met her as an adult.  I don't know what it is, but if we were fictional characters, our author would need to know. Perhaps we are, and they do! If so, someone needs to work harder on the dialogue - way too many ums and urghs.

People call Gerald Gerry, but at some point he decided that he could no longer tolerate it.  He then made the mistake of correcting his son-in-law's innocent mistake (nobody knew Gerry was a problem), with the now infamous words, "That's Gerald, dear boy."  Years later, he is still frequently addressed as Gerald Dear Boy by various family members.  This little story tells you an awful lot about this character and his family.

When writing fiction, some names come to my head and stick so fast that it would be a terrific wrench to change it.  Others take a lot of thought and I can change them several times as I'm going along.  Even the names of minor characters can require a great deal of contemplation - with some books, you can read the writer's contempt for their minor characters, being all Johns and Janes, Smiths and Joneses.

But to name an actual human being, who would take that name and wear it for eighty or ninety years? I'd need a lot more than nine months to work that one out.

Of course, some people get to choose their own name, sometimes when they transition, sometimes when they want or urgently need a fresh start for other reasons. In a strange way, I imagine that's easier, but I'd really love to know how it's done. When one close friend told me the secret of their original name, I exclaimed with horror, "But I'm sure you were never a [insert the most unsuitable name imaginable]!"

* I recently met a six year old Merlin. It was difficult not to ask how he felt about his name.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bisexuality en Vogue and Other Myths and Legends

For a while, I've been thinking about writing a myth-busting post about bisexuality*.  Then Daniel Warner wrote an article in the Huffington Post, which neatly provides a run-through of almost every myth there is, entitled Bisexuality: Is it Fun, Non-Committal or Just Plain Greedy? (via @GirlWithTheCane) Sometimes, someone will ask a rhetorical question and I find myself compelled to answer. Warner explains,
"As an adult I have never really given bisexuality much thought. When people described themselves as being bisexual I automatically assumed they were gay (if male), trying to make themselves more interesting (if female) or desperate to broaden their appeal and fan base (if famous)."
I recently read that one reason Caitlin Moran's feminism is so appealing is that she doesn't use the word phallocentric. So I won't. It's just that our culture loves winkles, and in the face of the slightest ambiguity, assumes that a person has a preference for winkles (or at least a preference for the kind of people who usually possess them). If a man wears a pink shirt or a flash of paisley, my Dad thinks he must like winkles.  The other day, a friend referred to a boy liking amateur dramatics, as if that suggested he was winkily inclined. When lesbians fail to shave their heads and wear standard-issue dungarees, it is often assumed that deep down, they too have a winkle predilection. We live in a phallocentric culture winkle wonderland.

As a younger woman, the suggestion that I said I was bisexual to seem more interesting (or even sexier) made me feel quite sick with rage. I didn't have the most difficult adolescence as queer adolescences go, but it was pretty tough. Growing up in the environment I did, I was disgusted by my own emotions - not just sexual feelings towards female friends, which felt like the creepiest kind of treachery - but my own capacity for love.  For falling in love with the wrong people.  It wasn't the biggest factor, but this self-disgust contributed to a deep and nearly deadly depression at the age of eighteen. Because, you know, I thought it made me more interesting...

There was a period of history when a number of famous men came out as bisexual before later describing themselves as gay.  I can't imagine Elton John was actually the last to do this, but I can't think of any recent examples.  I do know that the open bisexuality of famous men is still considered spoken about as a stepping stone to coming out properly.  In every day life, bisexual men are often treated as if they're still half in denial about their true sexuality and that any relationships they have with women are somehow a facade.

I care much less about what folks think of me now, but I worry for youngsters coming up in not greatly improved circumstances. Despite often enjoying straight privilege, bisexual people are more vulnerable to mental ill health than gay people. As a youngster, I didn't know how to describe my sexuality, even to myself, and felt I had made a mistake with every new feeling - oh, I must be a lesbian, oh no, turns out I'm straight all along. I was an outsider, but without an outsider community to turn to.  As an adult, I feel a sense of belonging among queer people, at least until the Daniel Warners of this world chip in.
"Bisexual... Liberal Democrat... you also only drink fair trade coffee, ride a bicycle and recycle your newspapers... unshaven armpits and mohair sweaters."
In fairness, all of that is true.  Bisexual people are better human beings than straight or gay people, apart from our tragically misplaced faith in moderate-sounding politicians. And we love mohair.  I once had this mohair sweater with an asymmetrical neckline, and thick black and baby pink stripes - oh, you had to see it - it was gorgeous!
"I have never suffered indecisive people. You make a choice and stick with it. Good or bad, wrong or right, back door or front door, you better know your way in and your way out and just get on with it. Bisexuality seemed lazy rather than greedy. I couldn't imagine anyone who would be thrilled finding out that their partner didn't really mind if they were Jack or Jill, unless, of course, they were both being taken up the hill together."
See, it's like this.  I lack whatever wiring it is which allows people to discriminate, romantically and sexually, between people of different genders.  When I find people attractive, it isn't because of their gender.  There are sexual characteristics I find attractive, but not for their own sake. It depends on what suits a person.  It depends on the whole package.

Less unusually, I don't have a particular preference for colouring, height or body shape. It's not that I'm not fussy - physical beauty matters a great deal to me, but there are different kinds. Similarly, I read widely, but that doesn't mean that when I recommend a book, I can somehow be considered less fussy than someone who only reads within one narrow genre.

Some people only tend to fancy tall people or blond people or big-bottomed people - and that's okay - but for most of us our attraction tends to work on a more case by case basis. For me, gender is part of that flexibility.

As for partners not being thrilled, I have learnt through extensive research that Daniel Warner has a beard. I wonder if it would be a worry to him if a partner didn't have a particular preference for a bearded man over someone clean shaven?  Some people love beards, some people hate them, but lots of people judge a man's attractiveness according to the complete package. Bisexuality is like that... and then again, it isn't.

After all, if a bisexual person fancies you, then they're attracted to you over a much bigger pool of people than if they were straight or gay. They could fancy literally anyone and yet they fancy you. Of course, whether you feel honoured about this depends on who they are (although bisexual people are almost as hot as they are ethical), but if you were into them, why on Earth would you not be thrilled?
"Now, it's fashionable to kiss a girl and like it. It's okay to admit you may have had a dalliance with Jim when you're really into Jessie and it's not frowned upon if you can get it up for Belinda when you're getting down with Bill."
Yes, yes, bisexuality is naturally non-monogamous.

No, of course not!  It's like this.  Some gynophiles have a preference for say, white women with blonde hair - and as I've said, that's okay.  But most of us aren't wired that way (and arguably, there are strong cultural influences on the characteristics we find attractive, so wiring may be the wrong word in any case).

Most gynophiles (I should imagine, I haven't had time to ask) have the capacity to be attracted to lovely women of any colouring. Straight men and gay women don't tend to have a succession of girlfriends who look exactly the same (when they do, it tends to raise eyebrows).

So imagine a lesbian meets and falls in love with a beautiful white woman with blonde hair.  They marry and live happily ever after. Does anyone ever ask this lesbian, "Don't you miss having sex with black women? What about Asian women? What about redheads?  How can you have a fulfilling sex life without including all these people with characteristics you could be attracted to?"

(Nor, incidentally, do other non-blonde women approach the couple and expect them to want a threesome. Nor is her wife likely to demand a threesome with a brown-haired woman she happens to fancy, on the grounds that because our lesbian can be attracted to non-blonde women, she must be attracted to - and happy to open up her marriage to - this particular one. I hope.**)

At one point, I became smitten with Queen Latifah and rented pretty much every film she's ever been in.  She's been in some truly terrible films, lovely though she is.  I later had a phase of infatuation with Tom Hollander and rented every film he's ever been in.  Those films were better, on average.  I consider these two actors to be very sexually attractive, but I acknowledge that they are very very different in manner and physique.

So say I got together with Queen Latifah - it could happen one day. Why does being bisexual mean I couldn't be happily monogamous, when say, the capacity to fancy someone short, slight, white and very very English, doesn't? Is gender really the biggest difference between Queen Latifah and Tom Hollander? Really?

Oh okay, but my point is, not to me.

Of course, some people are promiscuous.  Some people (gay, straight or bi) are unfulfilled having sex with just one person and will seek out a wide variety of sexual partners. However, most people can be very happy with one person.  Most people who are lucky enough to fall in love, fall in love with one person, and are only seriously interested in having sex with that person (some monogamous people have a promiscuous fantasy life, others do not).  Some people fall in love with and partner more than one person, but I've never known a polyamourous person to keep a checklist of characteristics that each partner must represent.

It's all about love, man.  Clearly you don't have to be bisexual to have sex with people of all genders - most gay men, and quite a few gay women I know have had heterosexual sex at some point, whether under social pressure or as an experiment and very many straight people - especially men - have had homosexual experiences at some point. They never had to make a choice and stick to it.  In some cases, they had to find out who they were.  In other cases, they were horny and went where the mood took them.  Reports of pleasure, horror and dissonance vary widely.

But bisexuality, like homosexuality, is ultimately about romantic feeling, identity and love - the big stuff.  If it was just sex, we could all choose to live straight lives and avoid a lot of hassle. And I suspect that, when people are allowed to be themselves, the capacity for monogamy, commitment and devotion is fairly evenly spread across all orientations.

"Bisexuality is en vogue, it's the new black and it's the boy/girl thing that's on every boy and girls lips."
If this were true, there wouldn't be articles like this one.  It wouldn't be okay to talk about people of any sexuality as if it were something between a lifestyle choice and a rude joke.

As a bisexual cis woman partnered to a man, I have three metric tonnes of straight privilege.  But there are plenty of bisexual people who suffer the full force of society's homophobia every day and still have this kind of crap to deal with, even from within the queer community. And that really sucks.

In other news, I had a rant at Where's the Benefit? about Lord Freud and the Risk-Taking Poor.

* To me, bisexual means having sexual desires towards people of both my gender (homo) and other genders (hetero).  Other people believe the bi in bisexual implies that there are only two genders, or that a bisexual person is only attracted to men and women.  Such people may prefer pansexual, and I would prefer to use pansexuality for clarity, only very few people know what it means and it still conjures up images of fauns to me. Not that fauns aren't tremendously sexy, what with cute little horns and tail, the posture of a man wearing high heels and those legs, covered in lovely mohair...

** Yes, this did happen to me.  The odd thing was that the woman in question was straight, was with someone else and had shown no interest in either of us, but these seemed smaller obstacles to my ex than getting me to agree to it.  When I didn't, I was told that I only said I was bisexual to seem more interesting.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Down with Coupledom, Up with Love!

People don't have a whole lot of conscious control over romantic love.

You can, of course, enjoy the state you're in and work to maintain that happy state. So for example, if you prefer being single, it's best not to sign up for But if you want to be absolutely sure, you've also got to avoid lingering eye contact with strangers on buses and in book shops, avoid making new friends with people of romantically-compatible genders and orientations, and ruthlessly ditch old friends at the slightest change in your feelings about one another. You can have sex, but only with deeply unattractive strangers, and even then there's some risk that you might get talking, find that they have a dazzling personality which cancels out the warts, and that third eye, though not matching the others in size or colour, has a certain sort of bloodshot charm in the first cool light of morning.

So however much you love the single life, if you are capable of romantic feeling, a mutually-electrifying bolt may strike.  It's perfectly healthy to work on the basis that it won't, but if it does, your choice will be significantly diminished.  If two people are in love and want to be together, it is unlikely that they will prefer any life without the other.

This is why when I see the phrase single by choice, I wonder.  Some people are, of course, aromantic or not particularly inclined to romance, and others have phases in their life when they're not interested, but that stuff's not a choice either.  However, it really doesn't matter. For one thing, some people can exercise romantic preference in ways others cannot and maybe I can't understand. For another, we live in a culture which privileges the heterosexual couple above all other combinations of adults and family units. Single people are certainly not the most reviled sexual minority (I mean, how?!) but our culture is constructed in a way that makes being single - a state that most people will experience for at least some years of their adult life - tougher than it ought to be.

What gives me the willies is couples who behave as if they have made a choice. It makes me worry that they did. These are the sort who believe that life is always better lived in pairs and that everyone, absolutely everyone would be better off if they were to follow suit.  Due to my medical condition, I have only been single for four days since I was eighteen, so I've never been subjected to the mean things said to single people, but I do hear things said about them. Obviously, there's the universal assumption that single people are lonely, unfulfilled and actively looking for a partner, but the other great offenders include

  • "She could easily find a partner if she wasn't so fussy." You can be too fussy about food when you're eating nothing but baked beans and white bread. You can be too fussy when shopping for a pair of winter shoes when it's already November and you're still wearing sandals. You can even be too fussy when applying for a job you only need as a stop gap.  You can't be too fussy when it comes to love or sex or any significant emotional investment. This stuff is about joy!  In the absence of the joy potential, what's the point?  And how precious is romantic love if you're not extremely fussy?  "I love you, but any number of people would do just as well."
  • "If only she met someone, maybe she'd be able to lose weight."  I've also heard meeting someone as the solution to mental illness, financial hardship and simply being a little bit odd.  I don't know how common the weight loss one is, but I have a family member who says this about any woman who is both fat and single, whatever her life circumstances.  As well as the assumption that all fat people want to lose weight and the assumption that love will do that (what with all those full English breakfasts in bed, boxes of chocolate, romantic restaurant dinners, champagne celebrations, tiramisu-flavoured body paint etc.), it reminds me of a time that pregnancy was recommended to me as a way of boosting my immune system. Not a responsible attitude towards major life events!
  • "He'll settle down once he meets a nice girl."  This is usually heard about young men who are in some kind of trouble or aimlessly drifting, but can be heard about men of any age who haven't met other people's standards of growing up and settling down.  It's this idea of men as naturally a bit savage and useless and women as a civilising force. To me, it begs questions such as, would such a man want such a woman? Would such a woman want such a man? Might the two of them not make one another dreadfully unhappy, given that one is apparently a Neanderthal and the other is a Homo Superior?
Much of any critique of the single life or coupledom is about gender stereotypes. When attached people lament the plight of their single friends and family, it is often gendered; women need someone to look after and men need someone to look after them - and sometimes vice versa, but always in very gendered ways; a man providing money, a woman providing someone to be ambitious for etc.. When the BBC asked for readers stories about single life, some men wrote about their freedom from controlling women and some women wrote about their freedom from infantile men. Several readers felt compelled to mention that they weren't gay or anything. Single, but not gay - who could have imagined such a thing?

(Weirdly, I observe that missionary marrieds are particularly moved by the plight of their single gay friends, and try to set them up with even greater desperation. If straight Susan is single, they'll try hooking her up with the postman who is roughly the same age, shares her love of Thai food and has a cousin who was an extra in Susan's favourite movie (although he's never seen the film himself).  If lesbian Laura is single, they'll try hooking her up with a woman they met on holiday in Brazil, who still lives in Brazil, is thirty years older than Laura and already has a wife.)

Coupledom is, of course, completely overrated and our culture acknowledges this fact at the same time as thrusting it upon us as a model of normality.  You only need to watch your average ad break to see what our culture depicts as normal couples, not getting on very well, resenting each other and buying stuff to make them feel better. The Dulux paint one is my favourite - look at the exchange of looks between these two at the end!  It started out so nicely with the sexy red walls, but now their life has become - like their walls - grey.  It's a fate worse than magnolia! 

There are various practical and financial advantages to pooling your resources with another person. And the idea is that it is nice to have someone else around to listen to your troubles and to be able to have sex without so much as putting your best shoes on.  That's the idea, but it is awash with complexity and trouble unless you genuinely, sincerely and consistently delight in one another's company. After all, you have to listen to their troubles, and maybe they have a headache - or a shoe fetish! Meanwhile, apart from the sex part, all of this could be achieved with close friends or family members (or what s. e. smith describes as a queerplatonic partner), without all the cultural expectation of exclusivity, permanence and the dedication of most of your free time.

Because being in a romantic relationship with someone who isn't even your friend has got to be far lonelier and more humiliating than being single, especially when you've been led to believe (by your culture and perhaps your partner too) that this is a great deal better than the alternative. Lonely people often live in terror of increased levels of loneliness. But here's something I learnt.

After I left my first marriage, I considered whether I had wasted ten years of my life being miserable and lonely. And at times, I had been desperately lonely, have many unhappy, humiliating or frightening memories from being with my ex. However, I also have many happy memories from this period of my life. I didn't see nearly enough of them, but I did have very good times with friends and family. I lived in interesting places and enjoyed the world around me. I read a great number of books.  I learnt to play the guitar. I made stuff, I sewed, I painted, I started this blog. I studied. I listened to a lot of music and watched lots of films. And against incredible odds, I wrote my first novel (which is now prize-winning, if as yet unpublished).

And had I been single, I might have done a lot more of all that and would have been a very great deal happier. Of course, I don't have a clue - genuinely - how I would enjoy being single. I wouldn't live alone because I couldn't, and so long as I found somewhere comfortable to live, I imagine I would be cool with it.  Being mutually head over heels in love (despite the collision and entanglement of legs) makes me extremely happy, but putting all this time, energy and emotion into somebody who is anything less than fantastic? Never again. I have fantastic friends. I have fantastic family members. I am, myself, fairly fantastic. Stephen gets my time, energy and love because he is super-fantastic, and gives me much more in return.

Love is underrated.  Romantic love is underrated, and treated with cynicism in our culture. I think it's tragic the way that the idea of coupledom, a state of gender-based mutual irritation and tolerance, has become the dominant model of what romantic relationships are like.

But all the other kinds of love, and especially friendship, are even more underrated and undervalued. Love is a big part of what makes any of us happy, but it comes in many different shapes and flavours, and rarely involves a conscious choice. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Disability in Fiction - A Load of Lovely Links

Thanks in part to your support, the brilliant Lisa Egan made the Independent on Sunday's Pink List, coming in as the country's 78th most influential LGBT person.  Leave this place at once and read her excellent acceptance blog post on the double discrimination of being disabled and gay.  Hooray! (That's hooray she made the list, not that... well, you know what I mean.)

I've been meaning to compile a list of useful links around the fictional representation of disabled people. This is going to be a work in progress and I would very much appreciate your help.  I've compiled this list by memory and from the links given in the comments, so if you have a link to any resource, blog post or article on this, please add it to the comments and I'll add it to my list.

And by all means, if in the future you write or create something about disability in fiction, feel free to come back and (as long as it is suitable) I'll add it to the body of the post. 


This is Stuffed Olive's project which promotes fully inclusive young adult fiction; "specifically fiction with protagonists from groups with limited visibility in popular culture" including disabled people.

The idea is to compile a database of information writing by disabled people about their impairments, how they are misrepresented in fiction, examples of where they are represented well and resources to help writers represent them better.

Media Representation of Disabled People

Provides a basic and accessible breakdown of the problems with disability as currently represented in the media in general.

Rachel's blog covers many disability-related subjects, but features frequent reviews of books and other cultural materials featuring disabled people.

Lisy Babe's Thoughts on TV and Film

As mentioned previously, Lisy talks about disability in TV and film and she also frequently uses this Tumblr to link to useful or pertinent articles or news.

s. e. smith

is one of the most prolific writers on social justice and popular culture on-line, writing about disability and other identities in film, television and books. However ou writes about all sorts, all over the place, so all I can suggest is that you follow ou particularly at Bitch Magazine, but also Tigerbeatdown, Global Comment and ou own blog, this ain't livin'

The FWD team did loads of book, television and film reviews.  I especially recommend trawling through them if you are a non-disabled writer or lack confidence in writing characters with particular impairments. The FWD team were not any kind of representative cross-section of disabled people and we all have different sensitivities when it comes to this stuff (especially language), but a little reading here would give you a good idea about common mistakes and cliches, together with some of the nuances of good representation.

Bogi Tak√°cs: reviews of literature featuring disabled characters.

Loads of fairly short, very readable reviews featuring common tropes of disability in fiction. Prezzey also has a tag for reviews of work by disabled authors.

Blindness Resources Guide for Fanfiction (thanks chordatesrock)

Advice that focuses on portraying a particular blind character (Auggie Anderson from Covert Affairs), however contains tips and resources that would be useful to anyone writing a blind character.

Articles, Essays and Blog Posts: 

this ain't livin': Writing The Other

s. e. smith addresses the anxiety that writers may feel in writing about people with different identities and outlines the importance of putting character before identity. 

Writing on Stella Duffy's blog, actor Lisa Hammond describes the various fears that can stop non-cliched disabled characters appearing on television, and disabled actors being cast in roles which aren't all about their impairments.

SpeEdChange: "God Bless Us Everyone"

Ira explores the position of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, his history as a character in the book and the subsequent movie adaptations and his changing symbolism over the years.

Bea Magazine: Bitches Be Cray: The Good, The Bad, and the Pretty Little Liars of Mental Health on TV

This is all about recent (possibly current) US TV shows, but Diane Shipley writes well about the use and abuse of female characters and mental illness in fiction.

It's not actually about fiction, but since this trope has not been covered by any of the other links and it is very well written, Unreliable Witness: Experience mental illness? Oh, you must be creative

Lisybabe's Blog: Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult
and So scared of breaking it that you won't let it bend (a review of Unbreakable)

These posts are very specific, about one particular book and film and about the representation of one condition.  But they provide very good examples of the ways that writers and film-makers can latch onto the idea of a medical condition and twist the facts to fit a dramatic story, without considering a readership or audience who have that condition.

The Independent: Why do Bond villains need facial scars?

Victoria Wright talks about the unrelenting trope of the villain maid evil by a facial disfigurement.

Feminist Philosophers: Moving Beyond The Stereotypes

Posts on disability at Feminist Philosophers are a touch disappointing, but the comments thread under this post contains many recommendation for good fictional writing with disabled characters.

These are mostly about addressing common mistakes or assumptions about the lives and behaviour of disabled people including sexuality, attitude towards impairment, the practicalities of life and megalomania. Again, the comments contain some good stuff too. I've also got a Fiction tag which has some other posts on disability and fiction.

The following links are all courtesy of chordatesrock - Thanks! 

Rabbit Lord Of The Undead on how hallucinations & delusions are nothing like on TV

An excellent and personal explanation of one person's experience of hallucinations and delusions, which are, of course nothing like you see on TV or film.

kestrell: What Good Writers Still Get Wrong About Blind People Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Three detailed essays on blind characters in fiction, as well as general stereotypes and misconceptions about blind people and their abilities.

katta: Some Clues on How Not To Write Deaf Characters.

A critique of the common mistakes that writers make when writing deaf characters, with a particular focus on American Sign Language (although I'm sure the same applies to BSL etc - it's about meaning, not words).

The 32nd Flavor: A House Rant, As Promised

Milkshake writes in detail about the character of House and some of the impossible things fanfic-writers want that character to do, including activities that would need a great number of pillows.

Right, what have I forgotten or not seen yet?  Yes, my criteria is fairly loose.