This month, Bitch collaborated with women-in-literary-arts group Her Kind to ask poets thought-provoking questions about art and language. Here, poets Stalina Villarreal and Ire'ne Lara Silva talk over issues of likability, art, and how to "write from your cunt."
In a May issue of Publisher's Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer's remark that the main character in Messud's The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn't want to be friends with. "Would you?" she asked Messud, who responded, "What kind of question is that?" and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?
STALINA VILLARREAL: I think of the audience when considering accessibility and pacing, even formal poetics, but character itself seems to exude upon the exposure of rugged individuality, independent of others. For example, one of my poems has a female speaker that admits to having stained underwear from menstruation, and I have been thanked by females in the audience for saying such commonly unsaid truths. Originally, I had thought that the taboo I described with this character would have been unpopular, but as it turns out, the conflict of the plot helps fuel the character's motives. I disagree with the screenwriting convention that each character only has one motive, for three-dimensional characters usually have more than one motive, even if the second motive is minor in comparison. The sister can be a mother and can be an enemy all at the same time, depending on the context.
IRE'NE LARA SILVA: I don't think 'likeability' matters at all. I don't read or write to find 'likeable' characters. 'Likeable' characters aren't often doing interesting things. Sometimes they are, but if you give me a choice between a character baking cookies and dreaming of love or a character waking up from a nightmare of killing their best friend, my interest is more likely to be piqued by the latter. What I want are characters that are compelling—characters dealing with situations that are pushing them to the limits of their comfort zones, their identities, their relationships, their coping abilities, etc. People living through those situations are often not 'likeable,' but we, as readers, empathize because we know what it is to live through those situations, and know that we were perhaps not always 'likeable' in those situations ourselves. Or, we're fascinated by the unpredictability of the characters' responses and what it tells us about them.
The gendered expectations of 'niceness,' of superficial beauty, of 'keeping it together,' fail to offer us opportunities to illuminate the human experience. I learn nothing—as a reader, writer, woman, or human being—if life isn't illuminated, its brighter aspects as well as its darker and less likeable parts. Otherwise, I'm just being entertained. That's not to say that I dislike being entertained—sometimes I want to read a romance novel or watch a sitcom or go to a movie theatre for a big summer blockbuster. And that's perfectly fine—but to suggest that, as a woman writer, my foremost concern should be my characters' likeability, is to limit me to use 3 crayons when I could have 128.
For example, I just finished working on a short story about a character with cannibalistic tendencies who's deciding whether or not to give in to the desire to 'consume' her lover. Likeable? No. Compelling? I hope so.
VILLARREAL: I agree: Transgression is welcomed in literature yet rejected in real life. Or at least we pretend to abide by our own norms yet tend to fall for temptations or to experience turmoil beyond our boundaries. Hence, literature has a purpose in this gray area of subversion, as even the most traditional Western literature depends on conflict to drive the plot and subsequent characterization.
I would even dare to say that humans find an attraction toward otherness, for obsessions of hatred and fear still inspire us to move or hide. The advantage is that an artistic representation of the grotesque is more approachable since it is more removed. The distance but exposure together allow for desensitization—or at least give us room to file more categories in our brain. Otherwise, we would never see monstrosity like the loving vampire or the endearing zombie.
SILVA: I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between an 'artist's audience' and 'the market'. When it comes to the 'market,' the work of art–book, painting, film, etcetera–is a 'product' and its value is determined by what people are willing to spend for it and/or by how many units of it will fly off the shelf. 'Audience' and 'market' are often conflated. Returning to those summer blockbuster movies–their goal is to attract as much of the market as possible, make as much money as possible, attract as large of a following as possible. And so, they use likability as a storytelling shortcut, often using familiar actors, and for the most part, sticking to established plotlines and ways of telling a story. They have 'test audiences' and whole departments strategizing on behalf of their product.
But an artist's audience is a different thing. I think of my audience all the time–before, during, and after writing–because it is my goal to tell a story, to communicate an experience, to invite a response. But I don't conflate my idea of what audience is and what the market is. My work is not a product. I know this will sound idealistic/romantic/naive to many. How can it not matter how many books are sold? My ability to live off my writing depends on it. My work's ability to reach a larger audience depends on it. A press's or agent's desire to publish/represent my work depends on it.
But I didn't come to writing for any of those reasons. I haven't poured time and energy and heartbreak and decades into my writing in order to have to deform/mutilate/hinder my vision, my language, or my stories. The audience I'm seeking, the one I've been writing for, is the audience that needs my work.
I write from my gut. From my base chakra. From my vagina, as a friend once said. Personally, I have an affinity for the word 'cunt.' In my own personal act of language re-appropriation, I like to say (or at least think), I write from my cunt. To write from the heart sounds Hallmark-y, so I will stay away from that, but I mean that too–I write from the seed-filled center of my blossoming heart. All of this to say that I write from a visceral body.
VILLARREAL: While the distinction between 'audience' and 'market' is important, during my education in the United States, I was taught early on that the poetry industry loses money instead of gaining it, that poetry usually pertains to the gift economy more than the actual market. Perhaps the fact that my poetry has only been published in Mexico contributes to this bias. I never think of my work as sellable, although I do put a price on it simply because I live in a capitalist nation; however, this is mostly a compromise in the adaptation of my aftermath of having lived as a red-diaper baby in a contradictory atmosphere.
I'd also like to clarify that I do not associate only 'likability' with 'audience'; on the contrary, I was loosely trying to explain that both love and hatred are essential in art, that the worst art is when the audience is apathetic. As I see art as a sensory form of communication, 'likeability' and taboo must combine for the audience to feel.
My artistic motivation is independent of the audience. My "hidden characterization" is actually quite unpopular. Some writers have even questioned how it is possible for me to have an MFA with my "wild" writing style. I just follow my code and hope that later someone else (an audience member) has a code that can overlap in a Venn diagram, not 100 percent of the time but at least enough to make the person feel (negatively, positively, or both) at least once. Even when audience has booed me off the stage, that behavior still requires energy. Both negative and positive energy electrify me because interacting with others is a shocking yet enriching process. I use the audience's free energy instead of paying shrinks, curanderas, or churches. In a way, I am the vampire of human electrodes; I use both art production and audience consumption as a healing process for my synapses in everyday life.
This is an abridged and condsensed version of the poets' full interview, which you can read over on Her Kind.