Truth vs Stereotypes, or Do Grandmothers Giggle?

by Janis Patterson

In these days of fraught political correctness when being offended at something has become almost a career choice, we as writers have to be very careful about what we say. We must always be on our guard against using stereotypes and prolonging misconceptions. But sometimes it’s hard.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story for inclusion in an anthology centered on wedding days. I thought it was a pretty good piece – four generations of women in a family (girl, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) and their reactions to a wedding coming up the next day. Of course – as you have doubtless already noticed – I am a dyed in the wool contrarian, so naturally I had to do something different. The bride in this case was the grandmother, who was marrying against her mother’s and daughter’s wishes – the granddaughter was in favor of the match. During the course of this familial sturm und drang the grandmother/bride and granddaughter have a special moment and the grandmother giggles. This is when the reader first realizes that the bride is the grandmother, not the granddaughter.

I thought it was a special moment.

The editor thought differently. She almost exploded with angry disbelief. “You mean the bride is the grandmother? And she giggled? Grandmothers,” she stated unequivocally, “do not giggle.”

I replied with my usual tact and polite restraint that I was a grandmother, and I giggled frequently. In fact, a dear friend once stuck me with the nickname of ‘Giggles.’ The editor was openly disbelieving. Well, after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion the giggling stayed in the story, but the editor was most vocally unhappy about it and we’ve never worked together since.

Another story, this time a stand-alone novel, another year if not another decade and another editor. I had my characters out driving in the remote wastelands in the Texas panhandle. This is the area where you can drive for two hours and never see another car or sign of human habitation. My characters found a bad car wreck, but the driver was still alive. They picked him up and drove him to the hospital in whatever town was closest. (It’s been years, and I don’t remember…)

Well, the editor went ballistic. How, she asked, could I be so uncaring and stupid as to move an accident victim? My characters should have called (as if there were any cell service out there) for an ambulance and waited with him until the ambulance arrived. To do anything else, she yelled, was irresponsible.

I tried to explain that in that part of Texas it would be irresponsible not to get the man to the hospital as quickly as possible, as he might die in the time it took an ambulance to respond. This editor – who, by the way, was openly proud she had never been west of the Alleghenies – was completely disbelieving, and turned down the book simply because of that. She had offered me the out of rewriting, and (if I really insisted) making them closer to a town where an ambulance was a logical inclusion, but I declined. The loneliness and isolation of the area were too deeply interwoven into the story – almost a character in itself – and part of the moral understructure of the book. We agreed to cancel the contract.

Yet one more story about a New York editor, though it has little to do with a book. I had worked with this editor several times, and was tossing around an idea about a couple being trapped in an ice storm. She absolutely hooted at my idea of setting it in North Central Texas, because, as she said “everyone knows Texas is tropical!”

Well, apparently the weather gods were tired of Yankees being so ignorant about Texas, because within a very few weeks we had a paralyzing ice storm that pretty much shut down the city… and it was the middle of April. There were photos on the front page of our newspaper of horizontal winds and trees breaking under an inch thick coating of ice. Smiling with unrepentant glee, I risked life and limb skating over the ice to get a fresh copy of the paper from a nearby box, stuck it into a big padded envelope and sent it to her. I didn’t even include a note. The subject was never mentioned again.

So – even when it does not even touch on the ungodly mess of political correctness (which to me brings up images of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride) we all have to be very careful about indulging in the lazy shortcut of stereotypes and misconceptions. We write fiction, but to be believable fiction, it has to have a firm grounding in basic truths.