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12 May 2021updated 02 Sep 2021 3:37am

The backlash against Torrey Peters’s novel makes me ashamed of our literary culture

If the Wild Woman Writing Club’s stance on transgender women in general is morally repulsive to me, their denunciation of Detransition, Baby’s content is something else. 

By Megan Nolan

God but it’s embarrassing to live in England sometimes. I’d feel the same back in Ireland of course, which is in many respects no better – the greed, the housing crises, a population addicted to voting for conservative governments who disdain them. It’s just that I chose to come and live in England rather than simply inheriting it, so these outrages seem to reflect on me more personally. Why have I come here, I think, upon seeing Boris Johnson effortlessly stay afloat after reportedly wishing death on the people he governs, and why do I stay?

There is one particularly English embarrassment that Ireland by and large does not share, which is a pervasive panic about transgender people. Every country in the world has transphobia, of course, but not all of them so doggedly propose that transgender people are an existential threat to cis women. But it’s easy to forget that not every country shares our media fixation with this issue. When this obsession catches the attention of people across the world, I feel doubly ashamed to live somewhere it is so normalised.

Last month a UK-based group named Wild Woman Writing Club wrote an open letter decrying the inclusion of Torrey Peters, an American novelist and a woman who is transgender, on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. The letter objected to this on the grounds that Peters is transgender and, even more bafflingly for such supposedly “wild” women, for the content of her novel, Detransition, Baby.

Detransition, Baby is about a transgender woman named Reese, her ex Ames (who, after coming out as a trans woman named Amy, has detransitioned back to his birth gender) and his boss and girlfriend Katrina, a cis woman who is unexpectedly and ambivalently pregnant with Ames’s child. The trio muddle through trying to figure out a version of the future in which all three can parent together, since none of them desires the more conventional path: Reese can’t have biological children, Ames’s complex relationship with his masculinity is shaky before the prospect of traditional fatherhood, and Katrina is attracted to a version of motherhood which doesn’t necessitate total sacrifice.

I’ve read Detransition, Baby. As well as being revelatory on some aspects of gender and queer life that many cis and heterosexual people will never have had cause to consider, it’s also just a lot of fun. Peters is a wonderful writer – playful and candid and entirely entertaining. Her book absolutely deserved a place on the list. I felt angry reading the letter because I could see it was intended to embarrass and belittle her. (In response, the Women’s Prize said it “deplores any attempts to malign or bully” any of its nominated authors and reiterated that “anyone who is legally defined as a woman” can be entered for the prize by a publisher.) The letter’s authors wanted Peters to be excluded because they do not consider her to be a “real” woman and generally speaking seem to prefer that she and all transgender women recede into the shadows and take up no cultural space. I, it hardly needs saying, do not agree with this, nor do I support the logic that took them to this conclusion. I don’t believe womanhood is dependent on the ability to reproduce or a requisite body part. Torrey Peters simply is a woman, and transgender women are women.

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[see also: NS Recommends: new books from Rebecca Watson, Ben Machell, Torrey Peters and Eddie S Glaude Jr]

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If the letter authors’ stance on transgender women in general is morally repulsive to me, their denunciation of the novel’s content is something else – artistically repulsive, perhaps. They object to what they deem unsavoury elements, such as one character’s eroticising of their gender, and references to “sissy porn” – pornography that involves a man being forcibly feminised. Distasteful as a given individual might find these things, are we not allowed to represent taboo subjects in fiction now? Are the letter’s signatories truly proposing that degenerate content be banned from art? I seem to recall some other regimes have tried that out, and it didn’t lead to anything good.

This isn’t just a belief held by one particular group. In recent years, our critical culture seems to want characters to behave as though they are providing an instruction manual for life, or at least if they do wrong they should be appropriately punished. I found this while doing press for my own novel: it would regularly be exclaimed of my narrator, “I just didn’t like her!” Who says you should? And who says you have to be an enthusiastic proponent of “sissy porn” to read about it?

It’s such a turgid, joyless way to experience art, and the world, and its sulky hostility is not unrelated to alarm about trans women outside of literature. These attitudes are rooted in fear – which I don’t say to excuse the ugliness that results – but it is fear, I think. Fear of what gains women have made being taken away, and fear of change. But change is not inherently malevolent, and being exposed to something alien to you in a novel does not corrupt your soul. The world is changing as it always has done. You can read a novel about ways of thinking and living that make you uncomfortable, and put it down and go back to whatever sort of life it is you lead, conventional or otherwise.

Women writers are rarely thought to be using fiction for a higher purpose. It is assumed that, unlike men, whatever we commit to paper is confessional, without a hint of artfulnessWe are not allowed metaphor or hyperbole or exaggeration for dramatic effect, and we certainly aren’t allowed to emphasise the darker parts of ourselves in order to explore them. So, really, all the Wild Woman Writing Club did in its cruel, roundabout way was to needlessly confirm Torrey Peters’s gender for her all over again – for if she were anything but a woman, she could write whatever she pleased without it being reduced to a manifesto.

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die