Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’


‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.


Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.


What to do when tragedy strikes?

The obvious resentment, of the screenwriters, towards male bonding annoyed me for two reasons. Spending-night-and-day-lying-on-the-bathroom-floor-in-a-prom-dress-then-manically-baking was behaviour coded as Understandable Under The Circumstances and therefore to be pandered to, whereas the wilderness-fishing-trip-with-token-gays-and-surgicalhandsfriendly-slapfight was captioned as “This is stoopid”. And it was. And this was even before The Writer’s Strike, when all American soap plots got lost.

Albert Borgmann, in his magnificent misunderstanding of the work of Robert M. Pirsig, in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago, 1987, p.201), speaks of a great American tradition of “speakers of deitic discourse” but the writers of Grey’s Anatomy were clearly not referencing either Melville or Thoreau. At least not directly. The episode entitled “Where The Boys Are” (S3, E7) appears to parody the insane, urbane and bucolic antics of the archsexist Denny Crane from Boston Legal, especially in “Finding Nimmo” (S2, E3) aired earlier. This parody is not, I feel, simply a missed opportunity but masks a feminist resistance to any positive reference whatsoever to the diverse cultural phenomena in the late 80s/ early 90s which collectively became known as The Men’s Movement.

The other reason why missing the mark (no pun intended for that show!) in this portrayal of male bonding annoyed me is that this feminist gloss distracts the gaze of the viewer from the patriarchal set-up of the show. On assuming their positions of hegemonic power, Baroness Thatcher, Pope Francis and President Obama have a characteristic in common: the identity, kinship or allegiance of a minority or oppressed demographic – of gender, class or ethnicity. This enabling characteristic also functions in the portrayal of the kind and wise king of the castle called Seattle Grace Hospital. So while the women in this hospital milieu are (mostly) compassionate and the men are (mostly) stoopid, it is the former who are (mostly) consistently written as prioritising the latter.

So why was this patriarchal power play so popular? Viewers are not stoopid even if the writers are. My excuse for watching the first couple of seasons was that I could change the DVD language to French. My excuse for season 3 (for which my DVDs did not have this option) was that I needed a break from self-publishing gay fiction and ethical controversy. I tried other languages but whereas the French voice actors were philosophical, the Italians were emotional and the Spanish had all the histrionics of a Mexican telenovella. There’s an unconfirmed rumour that the show is actually a knock-off of a Turkish soap opera called Doctorla, or vice-versa. Listening in other languages made me realise that this show is not philosophical at all. At least not in our post-Socratic sense of measured ethical duty. It has all the characteristics of Greek tragedy, albeit with some New Comedy and the occasional licentious Satyr Play thrown in.

Forget the flash of flesh or the lure of learning anything useful about medicine. The real hook in this show, the weight that gives it some gravitas, is the portrayal of the human condition: tragically caught between a rock and a hard place, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The soap opera that we all daily perform is all about making choices, many of them hard and most of them without the comfort of faith that we may not, in time, bitterly regret our actions. Or, what may be harder, that we may never have absolute ethical clarity and perhaps never feel able to confess to our nearest and dearest that the furies of conscience continue to persecute us.

At these times, under the circumstances, even in a social set-up that continues to be unfair, it may be understandable to refuse to take any action other than lying on the bathroom floor or heading into the wilderness – accompanied – even if it is stoopid.


           (Death Mask of Agamemnon, sculpture Alfred Gilbert, Creative Commons Licensed photo Martin Beek)