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?



  1. I am trying to institute an "affirmative action" policy in my reading, since I noticed it was distressingly male-author-based. Except for Non-fiction, actually.

  2. John-Henri HolmbergJune 7, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Here, if you haven't seen it before, you have one presumably major male author actually talking about women writers. As usual, it turns out that they're really not worth talking about …

  3. Mordicai, cool.

    John-Henri, let's not feed the trolls.

  4. Not to excuse Albee, but he's been being told how special he is for a long, long time.

  5. Mark, haven't we all :) Best to not believe your own press, though.

  6. no one has called you sexist yet?!

  7. Anon, hey, we're all sexist. Sadly. But I'm talking about behavioural tendencies/culture as I see them/it. Not about inherent capabilities. And, of course, making sweeping generalisations based on specifics. Bad Author!

  8. Sounds like the guy could learn a little something about humility and graciousness to me. And it sounds like he didn't think of himself as much of a pioneer in LGBT writing. I found Val McDermid a much more likable person as well as a gracious one.

    I like his thing about not being limited by labels, but I question his list of his own minorities.

    I wonder though how much of the difference in their attitudes comes from their age/time period they grew up in as well as their gender.

  9. I like your comment; my partner and I often say things like 'He sounds like a guy you could go out for a beer with and listen to stories'. Not so much in Albee's case. Alas, I've heard just as many women as men like Albee.

    I was talking with a colleague, who, like you, has sat through these kinds of ceremonies from all sides (judge, recipient, viewer). 'It's not about me', an odd thing to say, when you've been gifted with an award. For me an award is an expression of being part of a community, perhaps an exemplar (and can you ever live up to that?). Val's acceptance captured that sense.

  10. Albee: “A writer who is gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self and write about the needs, the beauty, and anguish of us all.”

    Who says the needs, beauty, and anguish of gays and lesbians isn’t the same as for everyone else? I think that’s what bothers me about people who claim they are “writers who happen to be gay” and not gay writers (or lesbian). Granted, he’s probably rebelling against the stereotype that gay men are nothing but the sex act.

    Nicola: “'English' is rarely used as a perjorative, and therefore limiting, term.” I see your point, but I see this differently. I see any pejorative or limitation of “lesbian writer” as their problem, not mine. So why would I eschew the label? But I also know that I am not young and will never have to depend on my writing to support myself. Whole ’nother topic.

    Albee again: “I think it’s a writer’s responsibility to be able to become whomever one writes about.” Set aside for the moment that he feels he writes a woman better than women—I’m sorry, but he does not “become a woman,” unless he undergoes some hormone therapy and surgery and then lives in our world for a few decades. He can only become what he imagines a woman to be and that might be pretty darn good (I’m deficient in familiarity with his work, so I should probably just shut up). Or, maybe what is important to a man is also important to a woman so that when he writes female characters, that universality shines through.

    I believe it’s the writer’s responsibility to be able to get the reader to become whomever she reads about. I can read a story with a straight male or female protagonist and feel fully invested, caring, and aligned with that character—if he or she is well written. So if I’m writing a lesbian character and a straight man or woman reads my story, I want them to identify with my character as she is. I don’t believe I have to write a character who is like my reader in order for them to feel comfortable.

    I’d have Val over if only to listen to that accent! Swoon…

  11. Elaine, it's the notion of transcendence that bothers me, I think. It implies leaving behind. I prefer to think of bringing myself, my lessons, my readers, the genre (etc.) with me--elevating us all, not leaving anyone or anything behind.

    I need to think about this some more.

  12. Yes, I agree with that!

  13. 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...

    Oppression isn't genetic lottery. It's a social phenomenon. If you take the passive voice out, women writers don't "get" disappeared: men disappear women writers.

  14. ide, yes. You're right. Men disappear women writers--women do, too, but not to the same extent.

    OTOH, men and women can help recover women writers, which is my current focus.

  15. Not sure how this ties into this, but the whole label thing worries at me. One of my favorite writers growing up was Frank Yerby (my mother had a trunkfull of his novels). I devoured them---The Saracen Blade, The Devil's Laughter, The Golden Hawk, An Odor of Sanctity---all historical adventures. He wrote better than Eddison Marshall in similar veins. Love it.

    Later I found out he was black, part of the Harlem Renaissance gang that included Richard Wright, James Ballwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, though seldom included in any overview of them. I then found out that he was given a hard time by that very group for failing to write about black issues. They thought he was not doing what he "should" be doing.

    Yerby's response was that he wanted to be a writer---not a black writer, but a writer. He was interested in writing about other things than the plight of contemporary blacks in the United States.

    The irony came when he finally removed himself, much as Ballwin did, from America and went to live in Spain---and there began to write seriously on African-American history, producing some of his best work. It was work, though, that in its way transcended contemporary politics and became more trenchant because of its historical background.

    He continued to write about "other things" as well, including the plight of post-Holocaust Jews.

    I would be hard-pressed to see any of his choices as "wrong," including his desire to be regarded only as a writer, rather than a black writer.

    Not sure where I'm going with that, but maybe it's in that transcending the limitations imposed from outside should always be the goal, even if said limitations are passive, benignly proferred as a community response and meant as support. I think I hear something like that coming from Val McDermid, while Albee perhaps considered something like that but muffed it.

  16. Nicola, hi, I'm coming in on this way late but just watched the footage today. I'll keep it short: a didn't have a problem with either speech. Didn't find EA "defensive, self-absorbed, and graceless." Like him, you, I'm a label peeler. I won't make excuses for him because it's not my place and again I don't know him. Just saying they both had inspirational words coming from two different places which I don't agree are called Man and Woman. We never really know why people say the things they do (unless we're writing them).

    I don't know who'd I'd have over for dinner.

  17. Sela, oh, yep, no doubt mileage varies. But, eh, that's what makes the world so interesting...