BY KAT SETZER
The first time I read Stone Butch Blues, a seminal work in gay literature, the writing was so bad I wanted to gouge my eyes out in pain. I’d recently started dating women, and two of my best friends decided to make up a syllabus of lesbian media so I could get caught up on all the gay culture I missed during the first twenty-three years of my life. Purists at heart, they wanted me to read the literature in chronological order, so I had to trudge through pseudo-classics like Stone Butch Blues and Rubyfruit Jungle before being allowed to read novels by, say, Sarah Waters, who managed to be short-listed for the Booker award.
I had just begun my second year of grad school. Coming out so late in the game—after a long-term relationship with a man and numerous other boyfriends over the years—seemed quite different from the coming-out processes of my friends, who all had a pretty strong grasp on their sexual orientation by the age of fourteen. When you’ve already created an identity for yourself, it’s hard to restructure it to include a facet that so many have entirely integrated into their person. I wasn’t going to start visiting lesbian bars or watching gay performance art or taking part in lesbian book clubs if I wasn’t into bars or performance art or book clubs before. Oftentimes, the only unifying factor in the lesbian social groups I saw was the member’s sexual orientation—which left me wondering, if I didn’t explicitly become friends with people because they were straight, why should I explicitly become friends with people because they were gay?
So instead, I just tried to get caught up on the culture.
Stone Butch Blues chronicles the life of Jess Goldberg, a lesbian coming of age before the Stonewall riots helped solidify the gay rights’ movement and bring it to the general awareness of U.S. society. She’s what’s known as a “stone butch,” a mannish woman who, because of life’s travails, has emotionally turned to stone. Over the course of the novel, readers watch Jess learn to woo femme women, battle the cops who regularly raid the gay bars in upstate New York, and fight for union rights at the factory where she’s generally hated by her male coworkers. She eventually turns to black market testosterone therapy to allow herself to hide behind the guise of being a man, losing her relationship with a woman too tied to her identity as a lesbian to date someone who appears male.
The whole book reeks of autobiography, since a quick glance at the Leslie Feinberg’s author profile reveals that ze (Feinberg’s preferred pronoun) started off working as a typesetter (like Jess) before moving to the factories and working as a union organizer (like Jess) and eventually becoming a part of the GLBT movement (like Jess). As is often the case with books that are veiled autobiography, the novel has numerous plot tics that don’t seem entirely necessary to the story, such as a few extraneous lovers, thrown in because they happened to be there.
While the structuring of the novel may not be entirely damning, the prose itself would make my writing professors cry. Take, for instance, a scene when Jess’s long-term partner, Theresa, leaves:
Theresa stood up and moved toward me. “Please, honey. I can’t. I just can’t stay with you if you do this.”
Rage boiled in my throat. “If you loved me…”
Theresa’s face was cold and angry. “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”
My eyes filled with angry tears. “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”
The overwrought, cliché writing doesn’t have a place in even the most rudimentary of writing assignments, but here it is, in an award-winning novel.
And yet I trudged through this and other books like it. Although I complained—often incessantly—about the quality of the books my friends lent me, I found myself unable to stop reading them. In this way, I read Rubyfruit Jungle, a picaresque-style novel following a young woman’s ascent through society by being beautiful and sleeping with beautiful people (I don’t really member much about the plot other than that), Lieutenant Nun (which was actually for a class on Latin American Women’s Nonfiction, but hey, it was the same time frame), which follows the life of a cross-dressing soldier who woos ladies and drives men through with her sword, and even a collection of old lesbian pulp novels from the ’50s and ’60s I found for myself while researching the years in which Stone Butch Blues took place. And, of course, there were bits that I did like: Sarah Waters’ novels, which include a trio of books following lesbians in Victorian-era England as they work as thieves or transvestite escorts or drag kings; and Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, an out lesbian, that tells about her discovery of her father’s closeted homosexuality after he dies.
The books that stuck out to me were the terrible ones, the ones that I should have put down—would have put down, at any other point of my life. Ostensibly, they were pieces of history, tools for understanding the modern day by looking at where the gay community came from. Stone Butch Blues spoke not only as a seminal piece in lesbian literature, but also as a piece of the transgender-rights movement as well—a voice heard even less often than gay or lesbian voices. But, as would be expected by anybody with a basic understanding of human psychology, even if I said I was reading these books for the history of it, I was really reading them in search of a better sense of myself, for a catharsis in the stories of others’ whose worlds had shifted as much as mine. Ironically, I couldn’t find myself in the pages, because these characters came out young and shaped their lives around their sexual identities.
As perhaps would be expected, my own writing changed—a fiction writer at heart, I plummeted into writing memoir, shifting at the last moment from writing a collection of short stories for my Master’s thesis to a collection of personal essays about, you guessed it, coming out. Even though I argued that nothing had really changed about me, just that I’d added girl-sex to my repertoire, which had, until then, been devoted entirely to boy-sex, it did feel as though my brain had been entirely thrown off track. Something about learning to date women—crazy, emotional, just-as-neurotic-as-me women—had rewired my brain, taken over all the synapses in a homosexual coup.
I struggled with “regular” books, unable to focus. Aside from the lesbian literature, I didn’t read as much anymore, and my own writing—my steady, persistent submissions to literary journals—disappeared. The few things that I did send out failed to get published, and my identity as That-Overachiever-Who-Will-Be-A-Well-Published-Author-Sooner-Rather-Than-Later had been suffocated, the body left in an alley to rot. Granted, I understand this is partly the result of an MFA program and that whole big fish/small pond syndrome, but it seemed as though coming out had resulted in my writing a bunch of crap I hated. Maybe I should have become a computer science major in college like my parents had wanted.
It’s only now, well over a year since graduating with my MFA that I have started to feel similar to my old self as a writer, waking up in the middle of the night with paragraphs of prose that have to be transcribed RIGHT NOW and accidentally wasting twelve hours with a (non-gay) book.
In fact, I picked up Stone Butch Blues again recently, when I was toying with the idea of setting a story in the same pre-Stonewall butch/femme culture. Rereading the novel caused me to revisit why I had considered the book bad at all. My friend’s copy of the book had gone missing (I may or may not have accidentally lent it to someone else, who moved away; note that I am not the most trustworthy book-borrower), so I found an anniversary edition online, complete with afterword from Leslie Feinberg!
Imagine my surprise when I found well-constructed sentences like these in the afterword:
Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independent from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own lived experience.
WTF, Leslie Feinberg? You’re literate?
As a writer, I know that you can’t assume that the writer and the character are the same. Thus, this novel may not actually be the product of someone saying, “Hey, I led a crazy life. Why don’t I write a story about it?”
Realizing that Feinberg’s failed structure and style may not reflect hir own insufficiency as a writer forced me to re-assess hir novel and my judgments about it. Perhaps Feinberg actively created a voice that would best embody the stone butch: a young woman so emotionally scarred that she’s constructed walls about herself, making her unable to communicate with others with any amount of grace. Jess struggles to convey emotion, so her reflections come out stilted, overwrought, or cliché.
On the other hand, many authors have written emotionally stunted or uneducated characters without relying on clichés. Thus, we return to the same initial question: How much does the importance of a novel’s subject matter make up for its inadequacies as a text?
Or, on a more personal level, does unpublishable, cathartic writing still have importance in a writer’s development? Are three years in an MFA program not used to finish a novel, poetry chapbook, screenplay, what-have-you, a waste of time and money? Art is a means of making a sense of ourselves, of the world. Despite my reading and writing, I don’t think I ever entirely figured out what changed mid-way through grad school. I do think, though, that my search for self-discovery caused me to read books that I normally would have dismissed—upon seeing myself differently, I had to reevaluate how and why I read literature: art for art’s sake had lost value, while the less pristine prose proved its merit.