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Why the Literary References in The Lede, Including a Character Named Romeo?

Updated: Jan 16



One of my objections to contemporary literature on the market today, including fiction, is that it largely overlooks the literary tradition. Writers go to school where they're required to read the classics and where they're often inspired by works written centuries and even millenniums ago, but in their writing they make no mention of that giant inventory of stories that often brought them to write in the first place. Often they give the impression that they invented story lines and characters out of whole cloth, as though they were unique to them––I won't mention any names. Meanwhile for decades movie directors have been "quoting" film history openly––it's one of the signs of greatness in that genre––and DJ's nowadays do it in the form of sampling. In fact it's quite common among them, as if it too were required in order to prove their chops. Yet many writers seem to think if they were to sample the works of their literary forebears it would signal a lack of originality and creativity.



Having taught literature for three and half decades––some works, like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, I must have presented and discussed in class well over a hundred times––it would be impossible to deny that they've become part of my literary DNA. Not just the ancient writers but authors across the ages, including Sappho, Horace, Ovid, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Sterne, Melville, Dickens, Woolf, Morrison, Rushdie; they're the obvious examples. If I were to compile a list that mixed both the well known and more obscure writers it would be long indeed. In a sense I wanted them all "there" in my novel, in ways subtle and obvious, not just because they shaped me as a writer but because they created the universe of words in which every writer finds herself. Never mind the Foucauldean and Derridean notion of the death of the author, that or the truism that it isn't so much we who use language but that language uses us. The references in The Lede go to not just high literature but popular culture as well.



Beyond that, as a queer writer confronting a largely straight canon, I wanted to "queer the canon" as the saying goes nowadays. It's a way for queer authors to write ourselves into a body of literature that excluded us, particularly after the dawn of the christian era. An obvious example of that gesture can be found in Michael Cunningham's The Hours. That work looks both backward and forward in its effort to evoke, expand, critique, and perhaps envelope Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; that is what re-readings, and re-writings, do, even in the case like Woolf's novel in which queerness is implied. Since The Lede is a novel about young lovers who live, metaphorically, on opposite sides of the tracks, and who just happen to be queer, it made sense to me to invoke the great lover of all young lovers, Romeo, and to try to put a modern spin on him. Of course his status as the lover among all young lovers is debatable, even in Shakespeare––the Bard wouldn't be the Bard without calling the intentional purity of every character into question––and I've tried to magnify those qualifications in The Lede. Also, were Shakespeare alive today, there's little doubt he would have been a great deal more forthright about his reservations, that is in our post-heroic age. Finally, his romantic duo doesn't make it past their mid-teens, or is it tweens? It was an interesting thought experiment for me to imagine what might have happened had they survived. What would the nature of their affection be after years together? Would they have "come out" to their parents? Would jealousy and insecurity mar the apple? Would gathering years, growing familiarity, working life, outside influences, gender differences, different personalities, and class differences take a toll? I wanted to imagine what might have happened were we to follow them into adulthood, albeit in a queer context.


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