Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Words have meanings

"You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

This classic line from The Princess Bride draws a laugh, or at least a chuckle, as we identify with Inigo Montoya who, of course, knows what "inconceivable" means while Vizzini clearly doesn't.

But is that really the case?  Inigo speaks the line, but as we read it written out, there is no verbal emphasis.  If we didn't have Mandy Patinkin's portrayal of Inigo already fixed in our minds and we had to supply our own emphasis as readers,  that line could mean something much different.

For example, if we supplied an emphasis implying something less than absolute certainty: "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

Well, I think you sort of get what I'm trying to do here.  Spoken words, simply because they are spoken and heard (and sometimes caught in the act visually with all the attendant body language and stage setting) can take on a very different meaning than when they are just written on paper and the reader has to supply the rest of it.

As a writer, I've always tried to supply as much of the sound effects and scenery as I can, to steer the reader in the direction of my original interpretation.  Commas and dashes and (parentheses) and !! and ?? and . . . are among the tools available to the writer, and when I'm writing casually -- such as on this blog -- I tend to use them rather freely.  That's not always possible, of course.  If I were to write a novel the way I write a blog entry or a friendly email, the reviews would eat me alive for infringing on the reader's imagination or not giving readers credit for being able to figure out the meaning from the words alone.  Well, that's my point.

The words alone have meanings, but the way they're used, read, heard, spoken gives them more or less or a different meaning.

A number of years ago, I was struggling to revise a novel to suit the wishes of the editor who had agreed to publish it.  At the time she made the contract offer, she couldn't praise the book enough: its concept, the twists in the plot, my writing.  By the time she got ready to send it to typesetting, it seemed as if there was nothing she liked about it at all.  I won't bore you, dear reader, with the details, but suffice it to say that I referred to this as the edit from hell. 

I discussed my various options with another writer: to do what the editor requested regardless what damage I thought it would do to my original concept of the book, stand up to the editor and fight for my own vision of the book I had written, or pull the book entirely and give the money back.

None of those options looked very good.   The third option, obviously, would have maintained my vision for the novel, but no one else would ever see that vision because the book wouldn't ever be published.  The money was an issue too, of course, but the long term implication was that pulling the book would essentially kill my future as a romance novelist.  So the third option was pretty much out.

The first option, though it would have kept me in the good graces of the editor (and by extension the publisher), required that I deny my own self, my own vision, my own authority as the writer of the novel.  I would have to submit, in the worst meaning of the word, my book and my dignity and my labor to the demands of the editor.  Well, words fail me at this point, but I think you can see that this was not going to be an easy route for me to take.  I loved that book and I had poured a good part of my soul into it, and, well, I just didn't think I would do that to it.

The second option was little better than the others.  Yes, I could fight for my vision of the book, but ultimately the editor would make the decision.  She could ignore my wishes and actually have someone else make the changes as she specified.  She did not -- as she had made very explicitly clear to me -- like "difficult" authors, and by "difficult" she meant anyone who didn't march to her drum.  So I could fight for my book but it would likely be the last time I did so; that editor would never buy me again.

I discussed these options with a number of my fellow writers, some of whom were published at this particular house and others were who desperately trying to get into this house.  Some of my author friends were NYT bestseller status, others were awaiting the release of their first sale.  After a lengthy conversation with one of them, I received a nice little note in which she wrote, among other things:

"Not to value your own work allows anyone else to denigrate it by default. If you're writing a book simply for the money, and don't care about it yourself, that's one thing. But if what you're doing has meaning to you, then you owe it to yourself and to the work to stand up for your own artistic integrity, or you have no right to insist that others take you seriously."

Maybe all I wanted at that moment was to have someone agree with what I already felt was the course I should take, because ultimately that's what I did:  I stood up for my story's integrity, I made an enemy of the editor, and my writing career was essentially finished.  I certainly don't blame the author who sent me that note, which is why I'm not identifying her here. 

But I've realized, too, that the sentiment extends beyond the single manuscript, the single story, the single contract.  It extends to the whole universe of what we call romance fiction.

I left the industry with a bad reputation as a difficult author, with a book I felt hadn't received fair treatment, with a bruised ego and shattered confidence.  But I never dissed romance fiction.  A few years after the publication of that poor novel, I suddenly decided to return to college after a 25 year absence.  I pursued a degree in Women's Studies and I was surrounded by well-educated feminist women who, for the most part, wouldn't have been caught dead reading "a harlequin, a bodice-ripper, a romance."  I spent four semesters educating them about romance fiction. 

They found out romance writers are, first and foremost, writers.  I hadn't taken a composition course in over 30 years, but my papers came back with glowing praise for my writing.  Professors told me they'd rather read -- and grade -- 20 pages of my work than 3 pages of most students' because my stuff was so easy and so enjoyable to read.  Well, duh, I'm a writer!  "Did you think I stopped knowing how to write coherent sentences and paragraphs and pages just because I wrote romance novels?" I asked them.  And too often the response was, "Well, I didn't think romance writers could, you know, actually write."

So I wrote papers comparing different film version of the Robin Hood legend -- through a feminist lens but with a recognition of the inherent romance of the stories.  I analyzed the Russian spy Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons through a feminist lens but with a recognition of how her character was informed by and yet criticized the same gender stereotypes as found in criticism of romance fiction.  And then I wrote that honors thesis about romance novels, about the images of strong women in them, about so many aspects of a genre that most professors, even of popular culture, would rather have walked through fire than be caught reading one.  But because I treated my subject with respect and demanded that my advisors on the thesis also respect it, I got the damned respect.  I had to fight for it, just as I fought with my editor over the changes I didn't want to make to my book.  But I got it.

One thing I never did was to make fun of the genre or play into the negative stereotypes of it.  When one professor disdainfully suggested there was no difference between a romance novel and a soap opera, I pointed out the distinct differences.  When another repeatedly referred to all romance novels as "silly harlequins," I explained not only the differences in the various subgenres but I explained the differences in publishing houses and publishing styles.  When another complained that ALL romances were about weak women and brutal men, that ALL romances contained lurid sex scenes, that NO romances have anything of interest to feminists or serious scholars or anyone with over a fifth grade education. . . . .  

Never, never, never did I go for the cheap shot.  Never, never, never did I play it for laughs.  Never ever ever ever ever did I buy into the stereotypes or let anyone else do likewise.

Maybe I'm too sensitive about it.  Maybe I'm too vested in it, even after being out of the business since 1996.  Maybe I take it too seriously.  But when I'm shown a proposal for an academic study of how sexual relations are depicted in romance novels and the title of the proposal is "Heaving Bosoms and Pulsing Members," I do much more than "take umbrage."  I'm outraged. 

And when I ask a friend, a former English teacher who describes herself as "hopelessly romantic," for her opinion of that research proposal title, she responds,  "Okay, you’re going to hate me, but I laughed myself silly over this. However, I do think it’s wrong. It might work for an essay in English Comp I, however. I often gave my more clever students a little leeway, just to keep myself from being bored to death. And I guess in this day and age when comic books and Dr. Who are proper topic for Ph.D. dissertations, what can you expect? I would hate to have something like that dumped on me though. That’s presumptuous to say the least."

I wrote back that I didn't hate her at all, but I understood about the laughter. 

The problem is, when people are laughing at me, at what I do, at what I believe in, I have this tendency to believe they don't respect me and don't take me seriously.  I suspect they're using me for their own ends, laughing at me behind their hands, ridiculing me when I'm not around.

And just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.

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