In Peter Selgin’s pithy fiction-writing how-to, By Cunning and Craft, he offers up my all-time favorite critique of sloppy storytelling: “At some devoutly-wished-for point in our writing, our characters turn into real people, and when we fail to respond authentically even to their most trivial wishes and urges, we kill them off as living, willful beings and turn them into puppets, and the fictional worlds they inhabit collapse.”
If reading that made you nod your head or punch the air or glare at Glee or say “amen!”, you’re going to love our new summer column, Fandom Fixes, in which we journey through gay lady fandom to find out how to fix what’s broken on LGBT TV.
Making TV is like making soup. Producers offer up a recipe; networks (and a growing number of on-demand streaming media companies) supply the broth; writers chop up all the ingredients; directors add the meats and vegetables, however they see fit; the veggies dance with the herbs and the meats brush up against the spices; the editor chooses how much of each thing should go into the bowl; the network tastes it and suggests “improvements”; and finally, the audience gobbles up the soup in its finished form.
Now, here’s the rub: The finished bowl of soup is the thing that counts. It doesn’t matter what the recipe promised, or how the ingredients were meant to taste, or what the herbs and spices have tasted like when mixed together in the past. What matters is the whole bowl of soup. And nobody — nobody — knows soup like the foodies of fandom.
So what you get is fandom saying, “Hey, when spinach and green beans are in my spoon together, it’s the most delicious thing I have ever tasted!” And the network saying, “You’re not even supposed to taste the spinach!” And the writers saying, “Those things got on your spoon together by accident; the green beans go with the tomatoes.” And the showrunner saying, “The spinach will be in a few more bowls of soup in the future, so just just feel lucky and don’t get weird when we don’t pair it with green beans.” And a shrinking (but still vocal) minority of soup-eaters shouting that Jesus hates when spinach and green beans mix together. And the actors smiling and waving and shrugging because the kitchen is a mean place and they’re just happy to be in a bowl of soup.
But what has been cooked cannot be uncooked!
It’s not a bad analogy, that soup thing, because most of us need stories like we need food. Phillip Pullman agrees: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” And Erin Morgenstern: “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.” And Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And Ben Okri: “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” And Kate DiCamillo: “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” And Alan Rickman: “It is an ancient need to be told stories.” And Steven Moffat: “We’re all stories, in the end.”
And, of course, Jasper Fforde: “Humans like stories. Humans need stories. Stories are good. Stories work. Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms—of life, of love, of knowledge—has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath.”
Queer people don’t need stories that reflect their experiences more than straight people need those kinds of stories; it’s just that, by comparison, there are so few stories for us, especially on television. TV shows that feature well-told stories about LGBT characters change everything for LGBT people. It’s no coincidence that the astronomical (again, by comparison) rise of gay folks on television has coincided with the recent rapid-fire spread of marriage equality in the United States — and the overturning of Proposition 8; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; and the Defense of Marriage Act. But we also need to see our stories for internal, soulful reasons. I’ve never met a gay lady whose coming out, or acceptance of her sexuality, didn’t have something to do with a fictional story she read or saw or heard.
So, this summer, we’re going to explore the foodie fest of fandom and tweak our favorite shows’ recipes. Because it matters. Because fandom knows what’s what. And because the folks who create LGBT TV spend a lot of time reading AfterEllen. Let’s sift through the white noise and tell ’em how to keep their fictional worlds from collapsing.
Where should we start?