When all painters were men, women were seen through men’s eyes. There was a time when this proposition might have met with puzzlement. Today it might make us consider how we dislike being defined by others.
The thought came to me after a reader of this website contended my fiction is of interest only to blind people and insisted I should target it to that audience. Nothing could be farther from my intention. I want to reach the wider world by creating fiction where visually impaired characters play major roles in everyday settings.
Here’s an anecdote about my mother and me that might show how the experiences of disabled people can merge with those of everyone else, but sometimes with nuances that deepen their meaning.
During college and law school, in the seventies, I had neither the skills nor the technology (a speech-synthesized computer, an iPhone, etc.) to have much success in getting paying jobs; they all required vision. My school expenses were covered by my parents, aided by scholarships. I did get a job at a community action agency one summer and earned enough to cover my expenses for that summer, including transportation from Connecticut down to North Carolina and a July 4 weekend trip to Washington, D.C. to stay with friends. Likewise, my public service jobs the two summers between years in law school enabled me to cover my costs for those months. But it wasn’t until I graduated from law school with a full-time job offer in New York City that I could finally see my way to financial independence.
Independence has many manifestations, including the freedom to make dreams like climbing a mountain or being recognized as a musician come true. But for a disabled person, financial independence represents an especially significant milestone. With it comes freedom from all kinds of other dependencies. Take reliance on family and friends for transportation. In New York, I could take the subway most places I wanted to go, one big reason why I moved here. But to get to off-the-beaten-track places, I could take a cab. Without my own source of income, I’d need to borrow money or ask someone to take me there.
In those early New York years, my mother knew I was looking for a bed with compartments underneath for storage. Compact furniture was, as it remains, the holy grail of New York tenants. I hadn’t had any success finding one that I liked and could afford, but my parents came across one near their Connecticut home. I asked them to buy it and have it shipped down to my place, and I said I’d reimburse them, even though past experience told me they’d let it drop. But a few days later, an envelope came from Mum with a cover note and a copy of the receipt. By return mail, I sent her a check for the amount.
I can still imagine Mum grinning as she cashed it. Why she might have found the arrangement funny is hard to explain, but I’m almost certain she did. So did I, for equally unfathomable reasons. On her side, could it have been delight at seeing me at last no longer their responsibility? Logical, but in our case unlikely. Instead, I think it was something about getting one over, though there was nothing about our transaction that exploited either one of us—the opposite.
Much of fiction depends on the tendency of readers to imagine ourselves the hero of an action novel, the detective baffled by man’s cruelty to man, the aspiring young woman in a Georgian romance, the sailor on an exotic adventure. Identifying with these characters for the time it takes to read a novel can lead to an understanding of people and places outside a reader’s experience.
My adolescent love of Russian literature made me partial to Russian people ever since, if not to their governments. Likewise my youthful reading of James Baldwin made me aware in all my suburban whiteness of sophisticated black people. Virginia Woolf and other modernist women writers introduced me to a feminine sensibility that I like to think has become a part of my masculine sense of self. But for Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1887), I might never have been open to the funny side of a river trip consisting of boredom periodically punctuated by disaster. Many, many books have shown me the way to worlds and people I might otherwise never have allowed myself to experience. So it could be for mainstream readers with fictional disabled characters realistically portrayed by disabled authors.
Despite numerous memoirs and explanatory essays, such as those The New York Times has been running in recent months in the “Disabilities” column, no adult fiction has been given mainstream publication where both the author and one or more fictional characters are blind. Scattered here and there are published works of fiction by people with a variety of disabilities, but they are just that—far and few between. There are none at all by and about blind people, except a handful targeted at the young adult market. Yet the general public is fascinated by the lives of disabled people, as demonstrated by that Times column and the publication of many biographies and memoirs.
Memoir has a different objective than fiction. In a memoir, the author says you will read about a life that is in some way different from yours. By contrast, however much a novel may focus on an unusual character in improbable situations, often the object, or hope, is for the reader to project into the protagonist’s feelings, thoughts and actions.
Why a shortage of fiction by disabled authors? The history of women and minorities suggests some clues. Women writers didn’t gain a significant place in fiction until the nineteenth century. Even then, Mary Anne Evans (1819-1887) felt compelled to adopt the male pseudonym George Eliot. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s created an overdue forum for African-American fiction writers. It is only in recent decades that gays and other LGBT authors could engage broad audiences. Famously, E.M. Forster (1879-1970) feared to publish Maurice (1971), his novel with a homosexual protagonist, during his lifetime, even though he lived well into the sixties, an era we call liberal.
Prejudice is surely at the heart of the slow acceptance of fiction by these groups. Why this should be so remains somewhat mysterious to me, but none more so than the one-time prejudice against women writers. After all, throughout history most men have sought out women as partners. Was it the primacy of demanding physical work? Was it some offshoot of Freudian castration complex? Undoubtedly, the paucity of women’s self-expression resulted from many interweaving factors.
Racism seems to be a cruel manifestation of tribalism, arguably made harsher by the repression of guilt that lurks alongside exploitation. As for writers in the LGBT community, they seem to suffer from a sense of “other” exasperated by society’s overall discomfort with sexuality, notwithstanding our preoccupation with eroticism and pornography.
Does prejudice also play a role when it comes to fiction by disabled people?
There’s a striking difference between African-Americans and disabled people when it comes to their struggles for acceptance. African-Americans face visceral, irrational hatred, while disabled people can confront an excess of kindness. The prejudice experienced by disabled people, then, comes from a justly honored place in human nature: the capacity to feel for family members, friends and even neighbors. It is a rich paradox. Charity can lead to so-called able-bodied people being so eager to help disabled people that they can trample on their independence. This is a complex subject, often explained simplistically, as I’m doing here, but it’s fair to say that disabled people have a disproportionate experience of both the benefits and the harm resulting from “good intentions.”
It may well be that harsher forms of prejudice also exist against disabled people, stemming from people’s terror of acquiring a disability. I sense it whenever someone sees me with my cane as the doors open on an elevator and they decline to step in.
People with cancer and other dread diseases know all about being distanced by others. I haven’t done any research into fiction about characters with such illnesses, although I’m certainly familiar with the cascade of nonfiction by cancer patients and their loved ones. I do recall noting the frequency of tuberculosis sufferers in nineteenth century fiction.
However, illness differs in a crucial way from disability. Illness is experienced in stages, from where outsiders hardly notice to where the ill person might almost not care what the world thinks, and then sometimes to recovery. By contrast, physical disability is typically a constant, mostly undeniable, and subject to the same obstacles day after day.
I speculate that agents, editors and publishers assume, surely unconsciously, that everyone is so afraid of disability that no reader will want to put themselves in such a character’s shoes. Beyond suppressing artistic expression by a significant population, this seeming publishing wall against disabled characters realistically created by disabled authors helps marginalize real-life disabled people. The wider world needs to see beyond inspirational stories and daily indignities to the humanity that fiction best brings out.
Mum’s sending me that receipt changed my relationship with my parents for the good. (Readers might well say at long last!) In law school, I’d been so reluctant to ask them for additional money that my daily lunch was a Snickers bar, and I remember those years as ones of frequent hunger. After that bill from Mum, with twenty-one years of schooling behind me, I could seek funds only from my checking account. Her gesture added to my ever-increasing sense of myself as independent, a matter of mind as well as physical facts.
I don’t intend this anecdote as a “Poor Richard” story with a moral. Much of morality consists of getting others to make the same decisions that worked for us but might not do so for everyone else. Still, autonomy is something we all seek, even if it’s at the level of appearances. Through our stories, disabled people might help others in the wider world realize just how much of life can’t or shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Beyond such lofty claims, disabled people are interested in many things, most of which have little or nothing to do with disability. This website provides many examples. We’re just interested in expressing ourselves, whatever that expression may be about, and being heard. We have stories to tell the world.
So, no, my fiction isn’t meant for an audience of blind people. It’s aimed at opening yet another world and a new set of characters to a mainstream audience.