Damian McNicholl, author and literary agent, ponders the dichotomy of writing fiction for politically correct readers or portraying historically correct truth in fiction.
Since Pegasus Books agreed to release my latest novel and republish my 2004 debut that features a very different ending, I’ve been wondering about the question of reader disapprobation and the influence of political correctness in American literature in a world of instant judgment and social media trolling. I’ve also wondered if it’s more prudent for authors to write books that appeal to the widest possible audience and cause the least offence to ensure maximum success and income and stay well-clear of issues regarded as socially taboo or repugnant—issues like animal cruelty, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, etc. And, if authors decide to tackle something that’s controversial, are they bound by an unarticulated reader expectation that the novel’s denouement must align with, if not buttress, the current politically correct view about the explored subject?
My debut novel A Son Called Gabriel was controversial to some in that it explored a very young boy’s looming homosexuality during The Irish Troubles in the 1970s. It contained sexual scenes that, while not graphic, were necessary. Moreover, the work also had character viewpoints that could result in my being lambasted by the US Christian right wing, conservative Catholics, the LGBT community, as well as some people in Ireland, including members of my extended family. I didn’t set out to write a controversial novel. I wanted to write about a boy’s difficult and painful coming-out within the bosom of a conservative Irish community, a subject in which I felt qualified and about which I had something important to say.
To that end, I created an Irish family and community based on what I knew and I developed a plot that was fictitious—except with respect to the coming-out. For those scenes, I wrote the absolute truth. That was always my yardstick. Was I telling the truth of an experience? If the answer was affirmative, I allowed the scene to stay in, including the boy’s utter enthrallment as he watches a handsome young man change from his swimwear on the beach and his exploitation by an older boy in a barn that endured for several years. I knew these scenes would be uncomfortable for some of my readers, but I also felt the truth trumped the discomfort. Otherwise, what was the point of writing the story?
I didn’t set out to write a controversial novel. I wanted to write about a boy’s difficult and painful coming-out within the bosom of a conservative Irish community, a subject in which I felt qualified and about which I had something important to say.
On the novel’s publication, I repressed a growing fear of disapproval from the American Irish and LGBT communities, the latter because I didn’t end the novel with Gabriel accepting that he was gay. In 2004, when the novel was released, the calls for equality were rightly becoming increasingly fervent. But as a novelist, I felt I had to stay true to the period and homosexuality was not accepted in Northern Ireland by either the Catholic Church or the Protestant Unionist majority, given the American Southern Baptist influence in their religion. As it turned out, the LGBT community received the novel well as it attracted great reviews and was also a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. I’d like to think it’s because they recognized the truth that I was trying to tell. The American Irish community also received and reviewed the work well.
Others were not quite so welcoming. One American Irish author of faith who was approached for a blurb declined to provide it because of the content. That stung, until I realized that bigotry is not absent from intellectual circles. Several publishers rejected the novel while it was on submission, using code words in their correspondence that revealed an anti-gay bias. When the novel was eventually published in the UK and Ireland, certain members of my extended family were upset by my portrayal of rural Catholic Ireland and the homosexuality. But the truth was always more important to me than petty bigotry.
With my new novel, The Moment of Truth, forthcoming in Summer 2017, I’m now pondering how animal rights groups and some readers will receive it. Inspired in part by the life of Patricia McCormack, an Irish-American raised in Texas, the novel explores the hard-fought rise of a petite female bullfighter in the macho world of 1950s Mexican bullfighting. Naturally, the work deals with the gritty world of the arena. But the novel’s principal thrust is an exploration of the confined roles that women were expected to inhabit in the 1950s, especially galling as they’d served admirably in a variety of capacities during WWII. Upon the men’s return from Europe and Asia, these hardworking women were then required to return to blissful domesticity, as if nothing had changed. I wanted to illustrate the obstacles, bias, and conflicts those women faced through my heroine Kathleen, who decides to enter a career normally associated with men, if a rather unorthodox career.
Could I have injected contemporary mores about bullfighting into the novel? I could have, of course. But the novel would then be deceitful and fatally compromised.
I love animals and there is no question in my mind that bullfighting today is cruel. But again, for the purposes of the novel, I was guided wholly by the truth as it existed in the 1950s, when the vast majority of the Mexican public (and many in Texas) viewed the bullfight as a glorious battle between man and beast, good and evil, and the concept of animal rights was embryonic. In the end, my heroine’s attitudes towards the bulls changes, though not for the reason people today would expect, much less require. Could I have injected contemporary mores about bullfighting into the novel? I could have, of course. But the novel would then be deceitful and fatally compromised.
As with my first novel, I used the primacy of truth as my compass throughout the writing. On publication, I shall await the response of readers and animal rights groups with interest—and a bellyful of butterflies.
DAMIAN MCNICHOLL is an associate literary agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency and the author of the critically acclaimed novel, A Son Called Gabriel, an ABA Booksense Pick and Lambda Literary Awards debut novel finalist and Twisted Agendas published in the UK. Damian’s latest novel, The Moment of Truth, will be published by Pegasus Books in June 2017.