Bad Dates and Fiction

What does a bad date look like in a work of fiction?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve written a novel in which the protagonist is sexually abused as a small child. As a teen, she isn’t capable of voicing her discomfort in dating. Stemming from her early abuse, her inability to speak her mind has great consequences, including an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m also thinking about this because I am one of the believers that stories

Dept. of Speculation is a great example of a nuanced and conflicted relationship as well as a must-read for its powerful language. All in a very quick read–exactly the kind of literary fiction that asks you to fill in the gaps of intention and motivation.

change lives. When a story is told well enough, its reader can experience an internal change. His brain can be rewired, and he can find himself in empathy with people he hadn’t thought much about before. I want to quote this full paragraph from Scientific American that summarizes the case:

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” [social psychologist David] Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Other studies suggest that it’s not just literary fiction that does the trick; a reader immersed in a good narrative–in a book, on a screen–gains greater social acumen and empathy.  

The Haunting of Hill House is a great classic example of genre fiction (horror) that delves into a woman’s motivations for her behavior.

Conversely, I have a hunch–and here I have no data–that we read too many fictional ‘good dates’ that are nothing more the rom-com version of sexual tension. A couple of people meet, they don’t have anything in common, they don’t like each other, and they fall in love. What happens when we read or see this too often? Will it, too, create an unseen pattern in our brains? If so, why do we keep writing it?

I think there are two reasons: we know that if there is no conflict, there is no story. And people read this stuff.

Writers need to take some responsibility for their work. If we want to see change in dating behaviors, we need to be more nuanced about what a conflict is–all sorts of things get in the way of two mutually infatuated people. People do and will read about them.

Additionally, we should all be having a discussion of the difference between that place where women feel harmed and simple bad dates so that we can, as quoted above “fill in the gaps to understand . . . intentions and motivations.”

Proof that we’re unclear on the difference between bad and ugly is found in the arguments of  cultural pontificators about the case of Aziz Ansari. Some women see the article about his date with an anonymous 23-year-old woman as a story of sexual assault; others as revenge porn. Still others are trying to find a middle ground, seeing this as a story of how fraught and complicated dating is and how men and women still don’t get each other. (The very reasonable and thoughtful LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian summarizes the blowback in two related columns here and here.)

Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into the sort mud slinging and name calling that does women no good. The Babe author Katie Way called out HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield for calling out “Grace,” the subject of the article. Unfortunately, Banfield refers to the Ansari evening over and over as a “bad date,” when it is something uglier than that. Way responds by ripping into Banfield with one of the most juvenile ad hominem attacks you’re likely to read. “Ashleigh, someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write-up made that burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.” (The complete email is printed in Business Insider.)

Fiction writers, including those who write for the screen, can help get the train on the rails. Rather than continuing to watch people blame one another, let’s ask, “How can we help people to stop participating in encounters that at the very least, make us psychologically uncomfortable and fill us with regret?”

I’m not thinking of a discussion of the workplace, which thankfully is finally being placed under the microscope–or at least under the magnifying glass. I’m only thinking about dating and the use of the term ‘bad date.’ Because, as a society, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the–felicitous?–point of bad dates yet. If a mere bad date were the issue, stories like “Cat Person” would never go viral.

A bad date is still a mutually respectful one. Two consenting adults go out to find out a bit more about one another, to discover whether or not they’re going to click. If they do click, that’s a good date. Often they don’t. When one realizes this, he or she says so, and they part ways. That’s a bad date. Nothing traumatic, no lingering ill will, no future counseling sessions.

For some excellent writing about emotional motivations and relationships that outsiders can’t understand, but that become clear to the reader, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a great novel.

Let’s start the change in our imaginations, where most good things begin. Let’s more carefully craft the point of view in scenes with good, bad, and genuinely ugly dates in our fiction. Let’s stop calling any work of fiction with a female protagonist that deals with the complications of female life ‘women’s fiction.’ Thus labeled, no matter how good a job the author does in portraying female ‘intentions and motivations,’ these books will not be marketed to men, and men are not going to read them. (I’ve more fully expressed my feelings about this label in this Literary Journeys column.) Let’s change the fiction that changes mental patterns because that’s what changes behavior.  

We all know we have to change that narrative.

Note: I wrote this several days ago and decided to let it stew. Meanwhile, I saw an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jennifer Weiner about how reading romance novels can help men understand what a good date is. (She uses the term ‘bad date’ in the way that I’d like to get away from, but she makes a good case that romance novels include some solid sex ed and answer the question ‘What do women want?’) I primarily read commercial, upmarket, and literary fiction. But I have read some romance that I’ve really enjoyed. Ara Grigorian has been able to avoid the whole throbbing manhood/member thing and write about pairs of thoughtful adults who find one another and love. I reviewed his novel Game of Love here.