• Do no harm

First Do No Harm

Producing art for consumption is an interesting business.

I didn’t know much about publishing when I started putting out books in 2014. I was largely motivated by desperation (having a “We’re cutting your hours…again” meeting with one’s boss will have that effect sometimes, perhaps especially when one has a dependent human at home). I made my own covers. (They were quite possibly the literal worst.) I edited as well as I could, which I am told was adequate (variations on the theme “Doesn’t have typos on every page, five stars” were among my first reviews).

In short: I could manage the administration of book publishing. The files, the metadata, the keywords. But I had no earthly idea who the audience was, or what the market looked like.

It’s not all that wise to jump into a business only understanding some of it, but I’d listened to all the podcasts, I’d done research. I thought that I knew enough. But that was before I got to know my audience, before I had a clue about the genres that my readers enjoyed.

Long before I fully grasped that I didn’t want to be part of a lot of things I’d stumbled into. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m Kris. I write queer fiction. And I have made some significant errors in my time publishing queer fiction, so I thought I’d share one of the more glaring.

First do no harm.

The thing about art is that powerful art can be painful. It can hurt in the good way, and sometimes it can hurt in the bad way. But you can’t make truly powerful art without risking that someone, somewhere, will be hurt by it.

And it may sound rather pretentious, but I do aspire to making art that has meaning. For someone. Somewhere.

I try not to hurt people. Theoretically. But the process of writing stories has for me always been about writing into the corners of things that are intense, things that are joyous, inspiring, excruciating. The only way I win at this game is to keep challenging myself to write deeper, with more clarity, with more scope.

Sometimes I really, really fuck it up.

I once started scribbling a series of porny shorts for a friend. I’d had a vision of this complete prick of a security guard watching a college kid jerk off on closed circuit. And man, I could get inside this guy’s head. I work hard at getting inside character’s heads, but it’s not always easy, and it’s particularly not easy for me when that character’s values are wildly different from mine. (Viv Thurman, y’all. Viv fuckin’ Thurman. SMH.)

But Bad Campion? I fucking knew Bad Campion. Inside and out. I knew what pissed him off, what turned him on, how he thought, how he felt, how he fucking breathed. The stunning sharpness of Bad’s interior landscape was irresistible, and before I knew it (on top of the books I was writing at the time, which had hard deadlines), I was deep into the story that is now Bad Comes First. And it was a challenge, because Bad is a sonofabitch, and not the type of character I usually write, but I fucking relished writing him. Red and Bad were a roller coaster and I was fully on board.

One is supposed to say, about one’s mistakes, that they weren’t pleasurable. But writing Red and Bad was a fucking ride and I loved nearly every second of that first book. Red Comes Second was harder, because I wanted to write a relationship that falls utterly apart and then is put back together. I wanted to write what happens when the sexy one-off turns into a tentative relationship, and then that tentative relationship goes completely to hell. The smart thing to do would be to walk away, but these guys were gonna be stubborn, and I wanted to see what happened.

And the last few scenes of Red Comes Second might be some of the best writing I’ve ever done. Of course, once Hugh Reynolds gets involved, all bets are off.

This seems, so far, like a relatively happy story. I had an idea, the character voices were clear, I wrote the idea, and I had a fucking good time doing it. Except for one thing. I fucked up. As previously mentioned.

I’d written a book I knew to be problematic. Bad eroticizes misogyny from the first page, and I’m not a fan of eroticized misogyny. I DNF that shit when I stumble upon it. But man, his voice was so fucking clear, so fucking true, that I ignored my good sense and wrote him that way. And at the time I thought that everyone would see him as a misognistic, fatphobic, rat bastard. Which was how I’d written him.

But not everyone saw that. Because people draw their problematic lines in different places, and some people like to imagine that the things they like (particularly the things they get off on) are not problematic at all.

I was twelve the first time I ever saw someone talk about liking something problematic. I was in a summer transition program for the local junior high school, taught by a couple of young women who seemed impossibly polished and cool then, and were probably no older than twenty, if that. They were addressing us girls about sexism, and fully owned that some of the songs they loved were sexist songs. That it was okay to love those songs, as long as they could also think critically about them.

If only everyone had that moment, when someone impossibly cool said to them, “Hey, the second ‘Big Butts’ comes on I’m dancing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s objectifying women.”

I loved writing Bad Campion. But I knew he was a misogynist, fatphobic prick. And–more relevantly–that he didn’t see an issue with his behavior. You can write some twisted shit in books as long as you allow the characters to be self-aware about their twisted shit. But Bad…isn’t. Doesn’t want to be. Doesn’t fucking care.

When you play all by yourself in your own little sandbox, you can do whatever you want. (I should say: you can do whatever your psyche can tolerate, which for me has never been whatever you want so much as it’s been a lot of things, probably, but use your judgement). I did not transition to playing in a much bigger sandbox, with a whole lot of people, very well. I crossed lines I wish I hadn’t crossed, wrote some shit I wish I’d written differently, and published things that I would not, today, publish.

And hopefully, I’ve learned to do better. To be better.

When a compliment…isn’t.

One of the reasons I’m writing this essay is because it would have been helpful to me to read, once I’d worked out that, in fact, I’d authored and published some material I didn’t feel well represented my work, about which I was quite ashamed.

It’s not precisely accurate to say I was ashamed of those books. I wasn’t. I adore Red, and I could kick Bad around for a few more stories, no problem. Their supporting cast is varied and almost entirely queer. Their chosen family is complicated.

But if I’d known in 2014 what I know today about the likely readers of those books, I wouldn’t have written them the same way. You will not find eroticized misogyny in any other book of mine (I don’t think, though it’s possible it shows up to demonstrate someone’s allegiance to calling out eroticized misogyny). And, as it stands now, you will not find it in Little Red and Big Bad. Because I revised that shit right the fuck out.

And god, I feel so much better.

I’ve gotten emails and messages about those books. From women and men. (Not, as far as I know, from anyone who is neither a woman nor a man.) Every single person who’s ever reached out to me about them has complimented me on writing them. A fair number of those compliments have been tinged with…

…wait for it…

…misogyny.

“You don’t write like women write!” –“compliment” from a dude.

“It’s so nice to read a book where men act like men!” –“compliment” from a lady

Those…are not compliments.

It was never my intention to write not like a woman (and before anyone wants to chime in that I totally write like a woman, that’s also not a compliment, and I’ve heard that one before, too, so save your breath; I’m quite certain I write like myself, which is the only role I can lay claim to). It was never my intention to write a book in which men act like men.

I don’t even know what that means. And if Bad Campion is the kind of man people assume men should be, I want no part in that world. Bad Campion is a fucking asshole. He’s the guy who thinks political correctness is bullshit and social justice is a punchline (mostly, unless it’s directly to do with him, and even then it’s touch or go). He’s not a good guy, he’s a bastard. And he’s no more a real man than any other dude character I’ve ever written. His shittiness about feelings is not a feature, people, it’s a fucking bug.

To change the things I can…

I mentioned to a couple of people over the last two years or so that I might revise the books, that I was uncomfortable with them. Without exception, everyone I suggested that to told me not to do it.

Uh, so, I did it anyway.

After a lot of fucking thought, I realized that the only thing keeping me from changing the bits of those books that made me feel lousy was this sort of vague notion that I shouldn’t be allowed to fix them. That I’d fucked up, and that Bad’s relentless “pussy” and “clit” references were going to hang around my neck like a goddamn red A for all of time, highlighting my poor judgement, ensuring I never get too big for my britches.

I am humbled. God knows. But I’m also a fucking artist, and I’m making shit in the world, and I erred on this one. Whether or not you were personally offended by the misogyny in Red and Bad, I was fucking offended by it. It made me feel ugly and foolish. And so I’ve taken it out. The stories have not suffered for this change. In fact, email me if you’d like a version in which Bad Campion is just as shitty, but doesn’t eroticize misogyny. If you like the guy, your relationship with him will be just as complex–he’s still an asshole that you still find yourself sort of grudgingly rooting for–but while I’d still argue he’s a misogynist, he’s not getting off on misogyny.

(I was gonna pull his mad fatphobic shit, but it’s mostly about Sue, and Sue…holds her own. By which I mean she throws a stapler at his head when she feels he gets out of line. It’s not necessarily a healthy working relationship, but it’s very sibling-esque, and I enjoy it. Naturally, I may look back on this decision in a few years and question it. Time will tell.)

I try not to hurt people with my books. I try not to hurt readers casually with words. I try not to hurt people by failing to warn for things that should be warned for. Sometimes I fuck up. And when I do, I try very hard to fix it.

Featured image is “Do No Harm” by Denise Krebs on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.o

August 1st, 2018|Categories: blog|