Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Albee vs. McDermid: what acceptance speeches tell us about women, men, and art

Last month, at the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards, the Lambda Literary Foundation honoured Val McDermid and Edward Albee with the Pioneer Award. Below are their acceptance speeches.

Full disclosure: I have met both Albee and McDermid. The meeting with Albee was not a happy one. (He very probably won't remember it, but I do: he was savage. It took every ounce of my will to not attack him in return. In context, it would have been inappropriate. I'll tell that story one day.) Val, on the other hand, has become a friend. I tell you this so you can take it into account when weighing my opinion; I am not wholly disinterested.

As people and as writers McDermid and Albee come from very different perspectives. As people they've surmounted different obstacles and as artists are focused on different concerns. Even so, their acceptance speeches epitomise the difference between men and women artists and how they see their place in the world.

Albee talked about himself, compared himself to Proust and other dead greats. (Implication: I'm the greatest alive.) He talked of Art as transcendence. McDermid, on the other hand, talked of how she couldn't have been where she was without the pioneering work of those who had gone before her: Mary Wings, Barbara Wilson, Katherine Forrest. She talked about writers and readers as a continuum to be cherished.

Albee's stance: Me. McDermid's stance: Us.

I think the same thing happens on a wider gender level: male writers tend to talk about men only; women talk about both women and men. This is why women writers get disappeared: instead of taking up half the airspace on chat shows and recommended lists, they get a quarter. (If that.) Women's art as recessive gene...

If we don't start deliberately breeding women's art back into the conversation (by, for example, encouraging people to take the Russ Pledge), it will die out.

But I'm getting off track. Albee, I think, has a point when he talks about not being limited by labels. I, too, prefer to be a writer, not a lesbian writer (or woman writer, or sf writer, or crime writer--though I don't mind being an English writer, no doubt because 'English' is rarely used as a perjorative, and therefore limiting, term). His mistake was to not acknowledge that many readers need (and want, and enjoy) queer protagonists or themes in our literature, and then compounded his error by sounding dismissive of those who do. Given the context, he comes across as defensive, self-absorbed, and graceless. It's a pity. But judge for yourself:

For those of you who have never accepted an award, here are the basic rules: don't attack anyone, be grateful, be gracious, be generous. (Also, unless it's a lifetime/special award--as the Pioneer Award is--be brief.) Val McDermid knows how it's done:

Now you tell me: who would you rather have over for dinner?