I once read a book review that began, “If I have to read one more semi-autobiographical novel about a gay boy coming of age in the rural south, I’m going to scream.”
I know the feeling.
And I say this as a someone who was a gay boy growing up in a rural setting. It was the Rocky Mountain states, rather than the south, but it was also in the Southern Baptist Church. Plus, the tiny town where I was born (and later returned to attend middle school) was—due to economic and historical circumstances too complex to go into at this juncture—inhabited almost entirely by people who were either from the south, or their parents were. Which makes me sympathetic to the phenomenon, but not blindly so.
We can explain part of it with an odd statistic: throughout the 20th century, the percentage of winners of various writing prizes who were from the southern states was far higher than their proportion of the general population. Conventional wisdom was that the southern sub-culture is even more strongly focused on story-telling than other parts of the country. That might be true, though there are so many other things that can influence a correlation.
And while it is true that I have seen a distressing number of stories that could be summed up as “semi-autobiographical tale of a gay boy coming of age in the rural south”, those are merely a subset of another, equally overused, category. I speak of the “semi-autobiographic tale of a gay guy coming out/coming of age/outgrowing club culture” story. Which, during the last 15 years or so, I’ve seen far too often in film form.
Don’t get me wrong, a couple of my favorite films of all time fall into that formula. The plot framework, in and of itself, isn’t bad. It’s the overuse that needs to be addressed. I think overuse happens for a few reasons:
- Good stories involve conflict. The audience wants to see a character confront something and struggle to overcome it. If you want to tell a story with a gay protagonist, there are few struggles with more dramatic potential than coming out in a homophobic society. For a lot of us, coming out leads to a kind of second adolescence, which means a second coming of age/figuring out who we are, most easily portrayed with the outgrowing club culture/hookup culture/et al cliché.
- Those of us who did have a struggle to come out, spent a major portion of our lives feeling silenced. Now we want to tell our story. Never mind that everyone else with writing/artistic aspirations felt silenced, misunderstood, et cetera, and now want to tell their own stories…
- Our own trials and tribulations generate strong feelings in us, so we assume (usually incorrectly) that our tale will generate equal feelings in the audience.
- Finally, you can’t discount the funding and audience appeal. Well made stories in this formula do really well on the independent festival circuit, therefore it’s slightly easier to get funding. So more seem to be getting made perhaps than ought.
There’s not much we can do about it. People will go on telling these kinds of stories. Sadly, for some, this is the only tale they have. But that’s all another problem for another day.
For now, I just want to say, for the record, that the fiction I write isn’t semi-autobiographical. I’ve never been a psychotic cyborg trying to change professions. Nor have a been a gorilla starship engineer. I’ve never been a cop who left the force and became a casino detective because of a killer who got away. Despite the nearly two dozen Christmas ghost stories I’ve written (in every sub-genre you can name: sci fi Christmas ghosts, steampunk Christmas ghosts, murder mystery Christmas ghosts, epic fantasy Christmas ghosts, et cetera) I’ve never, ever been haunted by a ghost in the vicinity of the winter solstice. I’ve never been a shape-shifting fortune teller. Nor have I been a racoon thief, an imperial knight, a lynx sorcerer, a zombie lord, a thousand-year-old pansexual elf, Shinto shrine guardian, dragon, or member of the brotherhood of chaos. I’ve never been a teen-age werewolf hunter (no matter how much I wanted to in grade school!).
So please, stop asking!