I was cutting it kind of close, but Mutual Benefits Chapter Nine is finally out! I hope you all enjoy it. There’s a lot in it to talk about, none of which I’ll get to in this post. I want to finish my thoughts on representation instead.
Whenever we talk about representation, there’s one aspect that doesn’t get talked about enough (ironically). We can talk until we’re blue in the face about representing races, sexualities, etc, but a big hint about what representation is really about lies in the fact that people aren’t happy if demographics are represented incorrectly. At the core, we’re writing about people. People with personalities. The hugest thing about representation is empathy, and at its core, representing people’s own personalities.
I remember being an awkward kid growing up, and finding erotica websites before I should have. I went right to stories about kids in high school because I couldn’t relate to the ones where people were fully grown up and had jobs. I think I covered this already. What I didn’t say was that reading these stories initially made me uncomfortable. I remember reading about 15-year-old boys who had washboard abs, 10 inch dicks (an asset that I embarrassingly thought was commonplace in 15-year-olds thanks to my new reading hobby) and an easy time talking to girls and getting them to sleep with them within a couple of conversations. I saw myself as inferior, believing that these guys had something I didn’t, instead of realizing that these stories were just poorly written wish fulfillment power fantasies. Given these chiseled Casa Novas dominated the stories I read, I was starting to feel invisible.
All that changed when I read a story whose title I now sadly forget. All I do remember was that I physically smiled reading the main character’s dialogue, realizing that a lot of his lines were things I myself had said to friends word for word before. After a sea of uncomfortable sex stories that I couldn’t relate to, I suddenly felt seen. I felt like a sex story had acknowledged my existence, and that character got his ‘happily ever after.’ No joke of a lie, that could have been the moment I realized that sex stories were more than just material to masturbate to – they could spark joy and other emotions too.
As much as I fall into a trap of sameness, especially in my longform stories (overthinkers, consent, and sarcastic snark), I do my best to expand the representation in my stories as possible. It’s dumb to assume that ‘representation’ means writing the same character over and over but make one white and one black, one Asian, etc. etc. I want to find as many stories, as many perspectives, and as many living situations as possible, and show them, living their lives, being good guys, being bad guys, being human.
As pretentious as it is to go all “nothing was made by accident,” I do try to explore this in small details in my stories. Adam Watson lives in what seems like a cushy suburban house. Notice that Quinn Shen lives in some kind of grimy apartment and isn’t as well-off. He shares a room with his brother. I tried as hard as I could to reflect “never got the privacy of having a room to himself” reflect in his brand of quietness near the beginning, because I want to accurately reflect the demographic of “shared a room growing up” just as much as I wanted to reflect the demographic of “second-generation Chinese immigrant.” Maybe a reader had to share a room with their twin growing up, saw Quinn chastise his brother for not needing to be watched every second, and felt seen. Perhaps they had that same grinning moment I did of feeling seen. And maybe that means a lot to them.
I want to do more than just represent a lot of people, I want to get them. I want to understand them, feel their pain, and share a reason to smile with them. I feel like the end-of-2010s beginning-of-2020s period we live in is some kind of period of divisiveness, where we’re more opposed to each other than we have been for the previous two decades, one where people are seen as weak for trying to understand a position other than their own. (In case someone takes that out of context for an extreme situation, I want to stress, understanding is not agreeing.) I don’t like that idea. I don’t like the idea that being cold and dominating is how you win. Especially as a writer, empathizing and feeling is how we win. My biggest goal isn’t, quite frankly, getting people to jack off. If you do that to my work, please, enjoy, but my main goal is actually that joy, the feeling of being seen and heard, extended to all. It’s something I won’t get right all of the time, and that’s okay. It’s something I’ll be working on until I die.
Without spoiling much, Mutual Benefits Chapter Nine is largely about how fear makes us refuse to look at the soul of another. (If that leaves you saying, “that’s kind of a deep read for a one-dimensional porn story,” it probably is, welcome to me and how I view the world.) It seems only right that I conclude my talk about representation and trying to write of perspectives other than my own by asking you to read, or possibly reread, the chapter I just posted, and try to picture it from another person’s perspective. I may have failed, but I wanted all of the characters in that chapter to be sympathetic on some level. Think what you will of each of the characters, but for what it’s worth, at one time or another, I was each of those characters… and maybe you were too. I’ll talk to you all next week.