Why does disability matter in a craft essay?
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve already been told narratives about disability. Allow me to share a disability narrative of my own for a moment: When I first started showing symptoms of fibromyalgia (a chronic, invisible illness), I had to self-advocate aggressively to get a medical professional to believe me. When I finally started using my cane, rounds of testing began until I had a name for what was happening to my body. But the stares and comments started then, too; now that my disability was visible for all the world to see, it also opened me up for moments such as when an employee in the grocery store exclaimed “But you’re not old!” without so much as a “hello” first. In one particular incident at the post office, while I was trying to pay postage on a package to Idaho, an elderly woman grabbed my cane from next to my leg and tried to (presumably) turn it into some kind of lost and found. Before she grabbed it, I had heard her mutter “Well, this can’t possibly be yours,” but I had no idea that she was muttering about me or my cane. I stopped her to tell her it was, in fact, mine (not bothering to go into detail about how I use it for my fibromyalgia). This woman relinquished my cane with a condescending pat on my shoulder and the infuriating observation “Can I tell you? You look good.”
Keeping this particular lived experience in mind, one consideration of disability within the context of a craft essay is the construction of disabled characters. The best place to start might be the ways that disabled characters, when they do appear, are portrayed in unfair ways. The first culprit that comes to mind is what we in the disabled community often call “inspiration porn,” wherein the story portrays the mere existence of a disabled character as brave; this operates as a way for not only the abled characters but also the (presumed) abled audience to feel good and lucky and see the bright side of things. (Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is an oft-cited example of inspiration porn. In an article about its popularity, Emily Ladau specifically cites that “The book overflows with dehumanizing stereotypes about disability, from implications that disabled people are things no more active than houseplants, to assumptions that disability is a fate worse than death.”) This sort of dehumanizing justification of the existence of the disabled reduces disabled characters to plot devices meant to exist only in their usefulness to the abled; by extension, an audience can be reinforced in the cultural idea that the disabled exist only to make the abled feel good, comfortable, and lucky.
Inspiration porn’s logic would tell the woman from the post office that she should feel uplifted after her encounter with me. After all, she complimented my looks in spite of the fact that I use a cane. However, it sent me into a rage spiral that wouldn’t have been polite to express. In fact, I would have been seen as unnecessarily defensive and cruel if I’d said anything about it. Should a disabled person fall short of inspiration in the course of being a fully realized human being who is dealing with what is sometimes a really difficult situation, the rift between expectation and reality can breed resentment.
How does this come into conversation, then, with John Gardner’s description of verisimilitude in The Art of Fiction, where he claims that “authenticating detail is the mainstay not only of realistic fiction but of all fiction” (23)? How does verisimilitude come into play when narrative is meant to be comfortable for an abled audience in a lens that insists on ability- normativity? Because even when disabled characters are included, even when they are (relatively) centered, there is still a resistance to disabled characters who don’t make the audience feel good. The fact is that disabled people don’t exist this way in life. (And there is something ironic about the need to make disabled characters accessible to an abled audience.)
Verisimilitude, in its truest form, works in opposition to easy stereotypes and tropes. The woman at the post office saw one thing about me—perhaps the fact that I was young—and assumed I wasn’t disabled. When I revealed that I was disabled, my existence flattened to her, defined solely by my disability and my ability to “look good” despite it—i.e. my ability to look like a “normal person” despite my disability. She made assumptions based on the narratives of disability— perhaps that disabled and young are incompatible, and almost certainly that my physical illness should present itself with a more obviously visible marker. A clearer physical deviation from the mold of ability-normativity eases the process of othering. At any rate, upon discovery of my disability, this woman didn’t imagine me as a full human—a writer, a mother, someone who loves coffee and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This fullness of character wouldn’t be my function in a story; why should it be my function in real life?
Verisimilitude demands a more nuanced, fuller, rounder portrayal of disabled characters, characters with their own challenges and goals and narratives. The portrayal of disabled characters too often defaults to a fetishization where the disabled are objects of pity or (in worst case scenarios) disgust. And further, isn’t the common exclusion of disabled/chronically ill characters from even tertiary existence in fiction a betrayal of verisimilitude? Perhaps that doesn’t seem like the case if a person in the audience is not disabled/ill themselves, and if they don’t consider the lives of those who are disabled/ill around them. But that doesn’t make it any less a betrayal of reality.
Authenticating detail is going to vary based on the disability, illness, and character, and can be as rich and multifaceted a consideration as any other character trait, though it need not be the center of the disabled character’s narrative, either. So we then have to interrogate the craft element of verisimilitude: whose experience is represented as “authentic” and how often? Do disabled characters need to be justified within the narrative for story purposes (such as inspiring the main character to live a better life)? Susan Nussbaum’s article “Disabled Characters in Fiction” does an excellent job of outlining some of the plot justifications for the existence of the disabled in literature. In Nussbaum’s brief history of disabled characters (the majority of whom are male), they’re often villains, monsters, or victims, and their fate often involves death or being cured. Sustaining life in a disabled body is rarely an option; it is untenable in a world where to be disabled is to be a marginalized other, a world where it’s preferred that the disabled vanish from society, ideally after serving a social function as object, not human (or, in fiction, as object, not character). The pathos surrounding such characters is constructed to be one that resonates with an abled audience.
The invisibility of disability furthers isolation of disabled people in real life. Quality representation as a marginalized person can be affirming. One of the most powerful functions of fiction is to help people feel less alone, but disabled people can’t have that connection with well- written disabled characters who might be similar to themselves if those characters are so few and far between. This dearth of quality representation exists in the workshop, in the canon, and (to a shrinking degree) in contemporary literature. (A brief note that there are exceptions within canon, such as the works Susan Nussbaum writes about, as well as some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories like “Good Country People,” though the quality of these representations and their levels of authenticating detail are arguable in these cases.)
Contemporary literature is beginning to show humanized characters who fall outside of the bounds of the abled mold, which can be represented by mental differences from the abled mold, physical differences, or some combination of both. One example of a character who is not typically abled is Taylor, the protagonist of Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde. Taylor is autistic and has an anxiety disorder and still manages to have a happy ending; the ways that she falls outside of ability- normativity are a part of her character, but they do not define the entirety of her story. She still experiences friendship, romance, and a geeky adventure to meet her favorite writer. In the final chapter of the book, Taylor narrates “I thought I needed to be fixed. But now I see differently. I don’t need to be fixed. Because I am not broken. Many unexpected things happened to me at SupaCon. I laughed. I cried. I fell in love. My worst fears came true. And so did my wildest dreams” (259-260).
In fact, this selection from Queens of Geek highlights the ways in which verisimilitude reaches across to just about every craft element: A thoughtfully executed characterization technique lends itself to realness and roundness. The plot is simplified within this quote, but it shows the ways that a character outside of abled norms can experience a range of very human events, good and bad; it demonstrates how a character need not be abled to be up to the task of sustaining those plot events within the story. This section of the novel also shows voice, and even language, that are flavored by the experience of the character as someone who is not abled; we can see this with the preoccupation with the dichotomy of being broken/fixed, an observation that is organically integrated into the way that this character otherwise narrates as though candidly speaking to those reading her social media posts online. So when verisimilitude is born of attention to the lived experiences of characters’ real-life counterparts, it can create possibilities for authenticating detail throughout a work, a ripple effect strengthening both local and global elements of craft.
Questions, of course, still remain. How many disabled writers do we teach in a classroom? How many narratives feature disabled characters (even where their disability isn’t the plot)? How many different kinds of disability/illness are represented in literature? (Are there characters, for instance, with potentially invisible illnesses like fibromyalgia?) Are we seeing disability narratives/representation in workshop? How often are disabled writers and/or stories featuring disabled characters being published in literary magazines and books? How much of literature that does include disability defaults to depicting the disabled as brave for daring to exist in a world that, through ability-normativity, is not constructed for them?
What can improve this situation? The stories we tell and the stories we praise affect people’s views of the world. A system where we legitimize/de-legitimize certain kinds of stories isn’t ideal, but how do we work within that system to become more aware, diligent, and rigorously inclusive in our writing and discussions of writing? Ideas about the marginalized can be reinforced and then mimicked in real life. How do we challenge an ableist or ability-normative lens? Perhaps most importantly, how do we encourage/center/empower disabled writers? If we don’t start conversations about disability and craft at all, it legitimizes assumptions of ability and all that that entails. But if we grant due consideration to the existences of disabled characters in the world of our writing, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities to make fiction’s connection to life all the stronger.
Audrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native and the author of Queen of Pentacles (Choose the Sword Press, 2016). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in peculiar, Glass Poetry, Foliate Oak, and others. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.