A Gate at the Stairs: Writing from a different perspective

Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs a classic coming of age story, set in a Wisconsin college town in the year following 9/11. Tassie Keltjin is a naive 20-year-old, looking to make money babysitting. Her job with a couple of east-coast transplants and their newly adopted bi-racial daughter brings both love and heartbreak into her life. The fear, uncertainty and racial issues of the post-9/11 world and War of Terror have an unanticipated impact on her sheltered life, both through her romantic experiences and family issues.

Moore’s descriptions and elegant sentences capture the post-adolescence of her young narrator perfectly. There’s an almost willful innocence, and sometimes ignorance, behind Tassie’s every move and thought, and the characters—even those that appear only briefly and then disappear—often tell us more about her and her mistakes and misperceptions than Tassie seems to realize for herself.

As a reader, I did run into a real dilemma reading this novel. As enjoyable as Moore’s writing is (as she does have a great style), the perspective and timing of the novel clashed completely with my own experiences. Perhaps I’m over-identifying (and it’s quite likely), but as a native Wisconsinite, who was in college at the time of 9/11, only a year older than the narrator, working as a part-time babysitter and as a classroom assistant in an urban kindergarten class in a Midwestern city with a sizeable college community, the perspective struck me as distinctly East Coast. The attitudes, especially in regard to race and world view, were exaggerated. I could tell that Moore, though she might teach at Madison, is definitely not a Midwesterner or a Wisconsinite. There were stereotypes and just some outright ignorance about the people and places she was writing about (especially Green Bay). Granted, young people exploring the world on their own for the first time will typically look back at their home with a little disdain (I know I did at that age), but since the narrator was looking back over a distance of time, this should have been tempered. It really read as though the mother, Sarah, was the one telling the story at times. Several members of my book club commented that the novel felt as though it were taking place ten or twenty years earlier than it was actually set. The Midwest of the novel is seriously dated.

How do we, as writers, write from a different perspective? Moore crafted a very well-written novel with a beautiful story, but the perspective will probably fail with many who should identify with it. Writers must stretch themselves to write beyond their own experience, but how do we stop short of writing caricatures? How do we capture a truth that we can’t know from experience? This is an issue I’ve encountered again and again: when the male author fails to capture the female perspective, when the author messed up the geography of my city, when I see movies featuring people who work as assistant editors living huge loft apartments…. Am I the only one who has this issue? I love reading stories about people who are vastly different from me in part because there’s little risk of this happening.

As a writer I don’t want to limit myself, but I’m reluctant to try to write from a male perspective. I think it’s incredibly brave when writers reach beyond their narrow world scope and try something different. (And in many ways, I think Fantasy and Sci Fi manage to escape this dilemma because none of us know what it’s like to live in the worlds these writers create.)

I’d be interested to know who you think writes well from a different perspective. What makes them successful?

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