I love it when I read something that makes me think – about my own prejudices or opinions, or about the ways the world works. And fiction can open up many emotions and issues more easily than its more cerebral counterparts.
Perhaps this is why I like books (and films) that deal with difficult topics – slavery, war, crime etc. But you don’t need to delve into the bleakest parts of humanity to explore human nature. Two of my recent FF pieces appear to have sparked discussion on the everyday but critical issue of the battle of the sexes.
Sangria was about a middle-aged couple on holiday in Spain. Don thought he’d hit the spot for romance: Julie had wanted to drink Sangria on the Main and here they were doing just that. Julie could only feel disappointment: after years of hinting and waiting to be surprised, she’d had to tell him of her dream, and now they were there, he was more interested in the yachts.
Liberties is about younger characters. Belle is walking through the corridors of her new school with her friend Alice, when some lads make a crude remark about her. Alice is outraged, Belle takes it in her stride and even professes to be flattered.
In both cases, I was interested by the strong feelings I got in response. Many readers condemned Don, but I was pleased at how many also criticised Julie. After all, Don’s trying his best even if he does fall short, and too many women demand mind reading from their partners (I sometimes count myself in their number, I’m afraid.).
The response to Liberties was even more divided. Some saw Belle as a hussy or at best naïve, others saw Alice as jealous or too easily offended. Personally, I am on Belle’s side – I saw her as a confident young woman who isn’t afraid of her appearance or of the effect it has on the boys, but nor is she desperate for their attentions and approval. To me, Belle has discovered at 18 the lesson that you can’t change other people, only how you react to them. If she had been upset and offended by the remarks, it would have ruined her day not the boys’.
A friend of a friend has started the “Everyday Sexist Project”. I think it’s a good idea in many ways, and I am shocked by how much sexism pervades even in modern society. However, I do think some people get overwrought about innocent things – and I count wolf whistles and catcalls in that category. This isn’t a “boys will be boys” argument … if I’d had space, I’d have shown Alice subsequently making a similar casual remark about a band member she likes. I just think people will always make these comments and, like Belle, I value the freedom to do so.
But going back to fiction, I like it when something I read makes me think and question my views on something, but I LOVE it when something I’ve written has that effect on others, and opens up a dialogue between us. Because one of the magical things about fiction is it can be interpreted in many ways. My précises of the stories about are what I intended, but there’s nothing in the pieces themselves that makes other people’s interpretations invalid. Perhaps, like a Rorschach ink blot test, our reading tells us something about ourselves … perhaps it doesn’t.