By Amy Lane
Skipper shook his head. “See, that’s….” He flailed with his fork, flinging rice indiscriminately. “It’s that whole….” He flailed again. “See, Richie and I were doing it for weeks before we even said the g-word.”
“Goal?” Mason was actually busy ducking rice—it was the only thing he could come up with.
“Gay, Mason. I mean, thing about guys like me and Richie? Sixty years ago and we wouldn’t be working in an office. We’d be working in a factory or a mill or someplace. World changes and we end up in IT—but we’re not suits. We’re not you. There’s this whole… thing—you know and we don’t.”
Mason closed his eyes and tried to think like someone he hadn’t grown up with. “Schipperke—”
“Like that,” Skip said triumphantly. “Like what that damned dog is called! Like how to wear a suit—”
“My dad taught me—”
“See!” Skipper bounced in his seat—and he wasn’t a small, bouncy man.
“Skip, I’m still not—”
“Money, Mason. But not just money, because I met some of Carpenter’s rich people, and they were douche bags.”
“I’m really starting to hate that stereotype,” Mason muttered.
“But see, you’re the good kind of stereotype. You send your secretary down with TheraFlu. You agree to be on my soccer team even though we’re just a bunch of hosers who like to get dirty. You’re a nice guy. But….” Skipper closed his eyes and shook his head like he was coming to a reckoning. “My mother drank herself to death in our apartment, Mason. While I was in school. I had to get a job at a burger joint so I could eat, and all I ate was burgers, and I was a mess! Now I’m not saying everybody don’t—doesn’t—have their baggage. For all I know, your pain is way worse than mine—”
“No,” Mason said numbly, thinking there wasn’t enough Thai food in the world. “Not even.”
“Well that’s good to hear, because mine is bad enough. But guys like Jefferson, like Richie and me, that’s the hand we’re dealt, and we don’t have a safety net to help us get our shit together in a paper bag. So whatever Terry is dealing with, he’s not used to help. He’s not used to words that’ll help. All he’s used to is what he’s got, and he might not even have a picture in his mind of anything better than that.”
Mason’s turn to flail. “Movies—television, books—”
“Well, yeah. But I watch shit blow up on my TV and that never happens in real life. For all I know, those TV people in happy families are just that—TV people.”
Mason found he had to still his breathing, and suddenly words—hateful words spoken by the people Ira used to invite to their dinner parties—hit him full-on. Things like background and education, uttered in tentative tones, like these things were lacking in whomever they were talking about. For the first time in his life, Mason realized what wealth and privilege really were.
And that there was a barrier between the people who had them and the people who didn’t.
# # # #
When I was teaching, there was an incredibly misguided swing in education to teach students how to read “practical” things like DVR instruction manuals and job applications. Things like this were put on standardized test forms and suddenly we had to take part of our educational year to make sure we’d “addressed the standard” of teaching kids to read basic nuts and bolts matter of fact documents.
I know some people are thinking, “Well, great! I can’t read that shit—I wish someone had taught me!”
That’s actually not true—if you know how to read fiction, you can read the instruction book on how to program your DVR—but the belief that it’s true has sort of ruined an entire generation of readers.
Because reading fiction introduces an entire list of skills in addition to simple logic, that technical reading can’t even touch.
Logic is important—but logic is pretty straight forward. Critical thinking, imagination, empathy—these skills are difficult to teach, and they can only be done through the exercise of suspending your disbelief and forming a fictional construct in your mind that you relate to as if it was real.
Since I’m writing for a romance book blog, I’m pretty much preaching to the choir here—but sometimes, I think we forget who we are.
When I was teaching, one of the things I heard most often from kids was, “But is this real or fake?” Reality television had just taken hold in the early 2000s, and the kids (today’s adults, remember) had just latched onto the fact that their “entertainment” had real life consequences. Explaining that watching as fictional people made the same fictional mistakes as real people made could teach us a whole lot more about the world than watching carefully edited real people show off for the television became half my job description.
High school students are self-centered by nature. Explaining why it’s worthwhile to put yourself in another person’s shoes and walk around a bit (thank you, Atticus Finch!) is a hard slog. It’s made easier by giving them a book and having them tell me things like, “Wow, I never thought about letting homeless people live in my house—she must be really kind.” (Thank you, Sandra Cisneros!) Or, “It never occurred to me that my government could be abusing power—why doesn’t anybody question the big orders?” (Thank you, George Orwell!) Or even, “Yeah, I mean, I never really thought about how one bad decision can make you a really bad person—you’d think Macbeth would have known better.” (Thank you, William Shakespeare!)
Reading and comprehending fiction does something to our emotions that programming our DVR just can’t—and we’re seeing the effects of all of that “practical” English literature teaching in almost every layer of our world by now, from social media to politics, to literary criticism.
People—even fiction readers—have forgotten the purpose of empathy.
When I wrote Winter Ball, I had a particular type of guy in mind for Skip and Richie. I’d talked to these guys—they were the guys who helped me with my computer, or the guys who worked on my car. They were the guys who delivered my refrigerator or the guys who sold it to me in the first place. These guys didn’t have a humanities education—but they did have some education. They’d worked hard to get ahead to get a job—they wanted security and stability and a place to call home. They weren’t readers and weren’t thinkers and almost everything they learned about the world (including sex and each other) had to be tasted, touched, and smelled.
When I wrote Summer Lessons, I knew at least one of my characters had to be that guy too.
He is not the standard romance hero—and when I wrote Summer Lessons, I tried to show him through the eyes of a VERY standard romance hero. Mason, well-off, successful, kind, funny, and lonely, is very relatable in romance-landia. He’s “Main Character” material from his dress socks to his fitted suit.
Terry is a tough, horny, dysfunctional mess. He’s not a reader, he’s not a thinker, and it’s not just Mason’s money he has trouble with—it’s the entire way Mason lives his life. While Mason may have a lot to learn about Terry in order to have a relationship with him, Terry has a lot to learn about everything in order to have a relationship period.
One of the oddest things—to me—and one of the most interesting signs of our times—again, to me—is that people have difficulty with Skip, Richie, and Terry.
Or course a Skip, Richie, or Terry in real life would be horrified to know they were romance heroes—that might be part of it. They’re a different kind of romance hero, that’s for sure.
But part of it is that the trick of empathy—of getting into someone else’s head and figuring out how they think and why they do the things they do—is no longer a part of a valued skill set. It’s become much easier to judge a person we don’t understand than it is to empathize with them.
I get it.
I mean, I really do get it.
We work so hard to think about the world, to come to conclusions that will help us do good, help the world more than hurt it, and find hope in people as a whole, we’re used to weighing and measuring and figuring out where an institution or a leader is found wanting.
And when we’re making decisions as weighty as voting for civil rights or deciding where to donate money, that kind of weighty measurement of human endeavor is really important. But when we’re understanding a human being—even a fictional one—is that really the skill set we want to use?
I’ve read reviews of mystery and romance books where people have been so entranced by the villain, his belief that the world wronged him, his sociopathy, his cleverness, that they’ve out and out sympathized with the person doing the killing.
What does that say about us as a society that we’re more anxious to sympathize with a killer than we are to sympathize with man who has not had the benefits of education or birth or specific skillset that we do? A good man—someone who is honest, who pays his taxes, who does not actively seek to do harm—is considered less of a hero than someone who goes out of his way to destroy people? Is that who we want to be?
I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask this question—but I do write romance, and it is the literature of hope. Part of that hope is that humans as a whole can all get along. Part of getting along is seeing where people who are not like us are coming from. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with them—it just means we need to look a little more closely at each other’s similarities and a little less at our differences. One of the joys of fiction is that we can do this figuratively, extend our hearts on an experimental level, see with our minds if feeling a kinship to someone so different from us can destroy who we are.
Most of the time, it’s exactly the opposite.
Just like looking at a villain from his own point of view can make a book more interesting, more engaging and fun, looking for the nobility in the most unlikely of heroes can make us better readers as well.
Mindful kindness has never hurt a soul. Practicing that sort of mindful kindness on fictional characters is one of the best and easiest places to start.