Monday, September 20, 2010

Rivecca Goes Seriously Comic

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Suzanne Rivecca, author of Death Is Not an Option (W.W. Norton), answers a critic who takes her to task for treating a serious subject with humor. 

After I gave a reading in Bainbridge Island, Washington, a woman from the audience approached me. First she told me I’d pronounced the word “ravine” wrong. Then she asked me about “Very Special Victims,” the story I’d read from, which was about a sexual abuse survivor’s attempt to reconcile her past with her present-day romantic and social relationships. “You seemed like you were trying to make the subject matter into a comedy,” she said. In a crabwise, passive-aggressive way, she was letting me know she was not amused. “Was it supposed to be funny?” she went on. “Are you trying to make people laugh with this subject matter?” If she had approached me as a person sincerely trying to understand why I refused to treat the subject with the humorless sanctimony of a Law and Order episode, I might have been willing to engage with her. But this woman was not trying to start a dialogue. I recognized the place she was coming from, and it was a hushed realm of pursed-lipped, squeamish disapproval. And it wasn’t molestation she was expressing disapproval of. It was the way I’d written about it. She was making it clear to me, with the wearily prim certainty of someone duty-bound to make such things clear to the ignorant and brash, that what I had done was not acceptable.

In answer, I said something about how every single experience has the potential to contain the full spectrum of human reaction and emotion, and that that spectrum includes humor, whether it’s socially palatable or not. She kept staring at me with owl-eyed severity. She seemed surprised that I hadn’t backed down. Then she said, begrudgingly, “Well, you’re good with descriptions.” I said, "Thanks."

When I was in writing workshops, I was often accused of using humor as a crutch. When I deliberately wrote a humorless, utterly joyless story about a nun who fell down and broke her leg, my offering was greeted with somber, measured approval. Not because it was a good story (it wasn’t), but because I had successfully subverted my natural inclination to perceive and articulate life’s absurdity. My feat was treated as a self-abnegating act of moderation and self-discipline. It’s the way Robin Williams always gets patted on the head for his restraint when he’s acting in a subdued drama and thus forced to replace every irritating, hammy tic in his repertoire with a beard and a vaguely British accent. He’s no better; he’s just quieter.

“Very Special Victims” isn’t about how funny molestation is. It’s about how absurdity and the ridiculous are found everywhere, and how sometimes the only vestige of power and agency left to us lies in laughing at what we’re not supposed to laugh it. This tendency is the opposite of flippancy. It’s actually deadly serious. It shows that you’re still alive and that you’re still yourself. 

Whenever I start worrying about people taking offense at the way I approach certain subjects, I think of that documentary footage of Bob Dylan where he’s getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival for going electric. The entire audience hates him, and he’s about to launch into “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he suddenly turns to his band and matter-of-factly tells them, “Play it fucking loud.” And they do.