What Can We Steal From Alicia Erian’s “Standing Up to the Superpowers”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Standing Up to the Superpowers,” short story
Author: Alicia Erian
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally included in Ms. Erian’s collection, The Brutal Language of Love. The very interesting journal draft: The Journal of Process included it in their Fall 2012 issue (number two), placing a previous draft of the story against the final draft. Random House has been kind enough to offer the story for free on their web site. But why not buy Issue 2 of draft? They seem like really nice people.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Morality in Fiction
Beatrice had a very flirty relationship with her professor, Fetko, who didn’t care for a student named Shipley who asks too many questions in class. “Get him drunk and fuck with his head,” Fetko says. So Beatrice does. She begins a sexual encounter with him and then falls asleep, thereby convincing Shipley he has raped her. Shipley is like a puppydog; he befriends Beatrice in hopes of having a relationship, but Beatrice is pretty lost herself. She flunks out of school and doesn’t see Fetko again until he and his wife come into the clothing store where she works. When the wife goes into the dressing rooms, Fetko asks Beatrice to “say something” to him while he “listens,” and she does. The final scene in the story depicts Beatrice and Shipley as friends; he is still interested in her, but she is just lost lost lost.
Ms. Erian discussed the writing of the story with the editors of draft in-depth, so we have an explicit record of her process. Ms. Erian reveals that she had a friend who confessed “that his first sexual experience had been with a girl who had agreed to sleep with him, then passed out.” We’re all in agreement that the gentleman should have waited; and he felt massive after-the-fact guilt as well. Ms. Erian was no doubt disappointed in her friend, but she didn’t allow her morals and ethics to get in the way of the germ of a good story. As she points out, “I found this story deeply compelling. Anything with great shame attached to it is something I want to write about.”
Ms. Erian would not have had a story if she had focused on the perfectly understandable moral outrage. It can be hard, but it’s important to be objective when we want to write about extreme unpleasantness and evil. The point of the story is that each of the characters occupies a gray area and relates to each other in poorly defined ways. If Ms. Erian or her narrator thought of the story with politics first, then the story would suffer. We all have very strong beliefs and those are great in the right contexts. When you’re trying to represent reality through fiction, the narrative must come first.
Another choice that Ms. Erian made is to drain her narrator of judgment. The narrator very seldom offers criticism of anyone’s actions in the story; instead, it is simply reporting:
- She left his office, stunned. She went home and masturbated, then fell asleep.
- She could’ve scared Fetko, she knew—could’ve threatened to turn him in if he didn’t keep her grades up. But the thought of this reminded her too much of that first night with Shipley:” how, because she had set out to harm him, the whole thing was really all her fault.
- He glanced at the dressing rooms, then back at Beatrice. “Say something good to me,” he whispered. “Say something else,” he said, and she did.
Withholding the narrator’s judgment allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the story. This is not the mark of a writer having weak convictions. Quite the opposite: it’s an indication that the writer is brave enough to take her readers on a journey with her instead of a guided tour.
What Should We Steal?
- Compartmentalize your morality when you construct your characters and plots. Look, no one thinks Hannibal Lecter is a righteous dude. But he must be depicted as a real human in order to make him compelling and realistic enough to chill us. Thomas Harris had a reason for not calling Silence of the Lambs by a different title: Can You Believe that this Terrible Man Ate People? I Hate Him Too! (Sniffles).
- Empower your narrator to withhold judgment. It’s the writer’s job to present the story and the reader’s job to decide what he or she thinks of it.