On truth and fiction

A friend recently told me about something odd that once happened to her in a writing class. The assignment was an exercise in showing rather than telling: write a short piece in which one character discovers that his or her spouse is having an affair, without anyone explicitly saying so. Inspired by a comment the instructor made to a male student in the class, my friend wrote a piece in which a man finds out that his wife’s involvement with her business partner, another woman, extends beyond the strictly professional.

After this piece was read as part of the class critique process, my friend says that her classmates assumed she must be a lesbian and hit on her steadily until the end of the semester — men and women alike. As it happened, my friend was newly divorced and not interested in a relationship with anyone of any gender or orientation, so this was an especially annoying development. The experience further made my friend extremely cautious about sharing her writing within a group of any kind — what if she wrote about a character who was a serial killer or a user of illegal drugs? Who knows what kind of crazy things her fellow writers might assume about her!

I told her I always assume that everyone is bisexual, though I prefer the term ambisextrous (it sounds less clinical and more fun). I figure I can’t go wrong — I’m neither surprised nor caught in an awkward position when someone expresses or reveals a sexual preference. She found this delightfully funny, and I hope it reassured her that not everyone leaps to judgment about an author, especially when it comes to fiction.

I didn’t ask her how long ago or where this happened, though clearly it didn’t take place during her undergraduate days at a respected southern Bible college. Nevertheless I was startled that students in this day and age (relatively speaking) would draw a conclusion like that from such scant and flimsy evidence. I was even more surprised that students in a fiction writing class, of all places, would imagine such a direct correlation between an author and the details of her writing.

My non-literal way of reading must be even further out of the mainstream than I realized. Maybe all the hysteria surrounding Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code, for example, accurately reflects the state of the American mind rather than the lunatic fringe. If so, then perhaps the educational system aimed a bit wide of the mark in the late 20th century with its focus on standardized testing and quantifiable results. Public responses to literary offerings may be a far more informative measure of educational success than grade point averages and test scores.

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