Dear John Irving–I have questions

book cover, iN ONE PERSON, John IrvingHi, Mr. Irving:

I need to ask you a few things about IN ONE PERSON, your latest novel.  I’m only 40% done, and I know you are a superstar and I am not, but I have issues.  I have a novel coming out in October with a transsexual narrator, so I think about this stuff a lot.

I will number my issues, just for clarity.

1) This last Saturday, you spoke to a room full of librarians (and me).  The first words out of your mouth were “I guess they didn’t get the memo.  I asked them to reserve the first three rows for the trans librarians.”  The audience laughed a lot, in part because they don’t probably know much about being trans, so they might have been uncomfortable.  But were you trying to be funny or serious?  Your demeanor didn’t tell me, or I couldn’t see you well enough to know.  I’m sure there are trans librarians, though they might not have been in the audience on Saturday morning. Were you really welcoming them, or were you mocking them?  I realize I am not the keeper of trans humor, but in my opinion, it felt weird.

2) I am confused by the way you’re using the word transsexual in IN ONE PERSON. Your book talks about the incredible range of desires one person can have for many different kinds of people (which is truly awesome–we need more books with characters like Billy), but I don’t think transsexual is the right word.

I think you’ve confused sexual identity with gender identity.  Miss Frost believes she’s a woman, as does Billy’s girlfriend . . . Denise?  (I don’t remember, and I can’t look it up, because it’s an e-book!  I hate that!).  Anyway, that’s gender, how you see yourself.  Sex is biological–genes and internal/external sex organs–and being transsexual is matching up one’s body with one’s gender identity.  But you’re talking about sexual preference–who makes our heart go bumpbumpbumpbumpbump.  That’s the core of the book.  And for the record, Billy could desire Miss Frost even if he was a straight guy instead of a bi guy–she sees herself as a woman, and Billy sees her as a woman, too.

I think *your* concept of the word transsexual means “traversing the sexual spectrum.”  However, in regular parlance, transsexual means “traversing biological sex,” as in taking hormones and surgically altering genitals and breasts and/or removing internal sex organs, as well as changing the Ms and Fs on drivers’ licenses and birth certificates.

Then again, maybe you’re just giving Billy words that would have been around in the 50s and 60s, and maybe his vocab is limited, as everyone’s was, by the perceived newness of these concepts.  I don’t know.  But isn’t Billy writing this memoir in present time, looking back?  Maybe not.

3) Even if you’re giving Billy language he would have had in the mid-20th century, he uses the word “she-male”, and I hate it.  I realize that characters can use offensive words to give us insight into themselves, but Billy doesn’t strike me as a guy who likes weird, exploitational, fetishist porn, and that’s what I think of when I hear “she-male.”  I know you just want a word to refer to someone who has breasts but also a penis.  But this word is grating and icky, in my opinion.  And disrespectful.  Billy is an articulate dude.  He could have found another word, I think.

Is this a research issue?  Am I being a stickler?  You are an incredible writer, and you get to create whatever kind of world you want in your book.  I also know I’m being picky.  And maybe things will change as I keep reading (I hope so), but I REALLY don’t want people to get even more confusing information about people who are transsexual.  These individuals have myriad sexual desires, as your characters do, and myriad sexual expressions, as your characters do.  They also interact in myriad ways with the gender binary, as your characters do.  But the word transsexual belongs to someone who changes their sex (though not their genes) with hormones and surgery.  And the trans community (transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing, genderqueer and drag king/queen individuals) needs clear information to be out there.  It cuts down on the nastiness directed at them.

Desire is one thing–a good thing, a crazy interesting confusing joyous thing, as it is for Billy–but gender identity and/or being transsexual isn’t the same as sexual preference.  I wish you could have been more precise, even though it’s your right not to be.

Your friend in words,



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One Response to Dear John Irving–I have questions

  1. Rachael says:

    This is an insightful post, Kirstin. I’m sure many of Irving’s readers would not be thinking of these things and take his words at face value. Perhaps it’s my journalism background, but when I see mistakes or other problems in a book, my first question isn’t, “Doesn’t the author know this stuff?” but “Where was the editor?” These are issues an editor definitely should have caught. Even if Irving means to use language common in the 1950s/1960s, a note in the beginning of the book would be a good idea to explain WHY he made those choices.

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