Right now, I’m trying to write a review of Fun Home and for many reasons, it’s kicking my ass. And one of those reasons is, I’m trying to phrase a criticism of how the book handles bisexuality. Criticizing a memoir can be tricky because, unlike a fiction book, the main character in a memoir is real and sometimes online where they can read everything anyone’s said about them. So, a critic has to balance showing respect to a fellow human being with giving honest and constructive commentary.
I do not want to deny Alison Bechdel’s emotions growing up with a closeted father and coming to realize her own identity as a lesbian. I definitely do not want to be one of those bisexual activists who insist that the lived experiences of others, especially other queer people, are biphobic and damaging. (There are gay and lesbian activists guilty of this as well, don’t jump down my throat fellow bi advocates). Erika Moen’s comic “Queer Marriage” illustrates what a dick move this is.
The woman at the book reading at least had the decency to keep it about the comic and not Moen herself. But a) her criticism is just plain wrong and b) a book reading is not an appropriate place to give unsolicited criticism. Get a blog, lady. The criticism Moen received basically boils down to “your attractions didn’t match up with what I think they should be so you’re a bad person.” And come on, aren’t we trying to fight that mentality? Shouldn’t bi people who are shunned by straight and queer people because of who we’re attracted to have a little more empathy?
But, you can point out whatever-phobic or whatever-ist aspects of a book and still be respectful. Here are my three tips I have gleaned from being in a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop, reading other reviews and being a writer with a delicate ego.
One, keep it about the text. Don’t say “the author” or, if you’re in a workshop, “you” when giving your criticism. Say “the narrator” or “the protagonist.” This keeps what you’re saying from sounding like a personal attack.
Two, be specific about what you find problematic. Not just in terms of -phobias and -isms. This can also relate to criticisms about tone, plot, characters and all that other fun stuff. This assures the delicate ego of the writer that they themselves are not the problem and said problem is fixable.
Three, when writing a review, pretend you’re in a workshop. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to the persons face. For instance, there is a writer I reviewed who’s work I find extremely sexist. But I wouldn’t go up to him and be like “you and your work are sexist piles of shit.” That’s really rude,
even if it’s true, so I kept my phrasing polite and did not speculate on the writer’s views on women.
So. Let’s see how well I follow my own advice in tomorrow’s review of Fun Home by Allison Bechdel.
EDIT: I want to make it absolutely clear how my review turned out. I did not pick through the entire graphic novel, looking for biphobia to be angry at. I responded to a negative gut reaction and gave it a paragraph. The rest of the review I spoke highly of Fun Home and I never, ever made said anything about Bechdel's personal life outside of what she chose to present in the text.
Abigail Gruchacz is a writer in Asheville, NC. She works a day job to support her craft and hopes to support herself writing one day. You can find her reviews at booknerdblogging.wordpress.com and she tweets as booknerdtweting.