Tomorrow, I’ll be recording a panel for AWP on “Neurodivergence in Literature,” along with colleagues and dear friends Nick Walker, Alyssa Gonzalez, and Mike Jung.
I’m a co-founder of Autonomous Press; I’ve published multiple works through Neuroqueer Books; I was the managing editor of Neuroqueer; my MA thesis was on poetry as a neurodivergent/neurotypical common language; and my current project is a paper outlining what is is we mean by “neuroqueer,” in which I’m relying heavily not only on the writings of the three originators of the term but also on being able to text them memes at 2 am.
So I guess I’m qualified to pontificate on neurodivergence in literature, lol.
The panel will include specific questions aimed at each of the participants, plus a half-dozen or so general questions. I have already forgotten what the me-specific question is, and I have no idea what my co-panelists will say, so the panel itself is worth seeing. I will insert the day/time/etc. info here when I have it.
Here’s a sneak preview at what’s banging around in my head in response to the questions for the panel.
Opening Remarks on Neurodivergence in Literature
I fully expect to riff off whatever everyone else says at this point in the actual panel presentation. For the purposes of this blog post, which has a somewhat different audience, I’ll start by defining some terms:
“Neurodivergence” is commonly used to refer to everyone whose brain isn’t “normal” (a term with its own problems that I’ll get to in a second). Currently, it’s often a catch-all term for things like autism, ADHD, and PTSD, as well as things like traumatic brain injuries or the effects on the brain from drug use. In disability activism, it sometimes gets tagged “our minds are not fine,” a play on early activists’ claims that physical disability should not preclude them from full social participation because “our minds are fine.”
When I discuss “neurodivergence in literature” for the sake of this blog post, I’m primarily interested in the ways in which author and narrator perspectives diverge from what we think of as “typical” cognition. I’m interested in divergences from both our idea of “normal,” or what already-is common and expected, and from “normative,” or what we believe should be common and expected.
The difference between “normal” and “normative” is one I don’t see addressed in the vast majority of conversations about neurodiversity/neurodivergence, to our detriment. Those two ideas interplay in ways that hugely impact how we understand cognitive, emotional and neurological differences, yet we rarely if ever tease them apart.
For instance: When we say a person is “neurodivergent,” we mean they differ or diverge in some way from some other reference point – typically referred to as the “neurotypical.” What we often don’t do is distinguish whether the “neurotypical” reference point is “normal,” i.e. common or expected, or “normative,” i.e. someone we think should be normal or expected.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a lot.
Also, I personally make a distinction between talking about “neurodiversity in literature” and “neurodivergence in literature,” as well as between either of those ideas and “neuroqueering” as a practice. To me, “neurodiversity in literature” speaks more to who gets to be represented or do the representing, while “neurodivergence in literature” is more about what and how non-normal or non-normative bodyminds get represented. “Neuroqueering” is a specific species of “how,” and it’s not actually the topic here, which is a shame because I’m currently obsessed with it.
What is the Current State of Neurodivergence in Literature?
In three words: “New, but not.”
Literature has always been a way that people explore neurodivergence, just as neurodivergence has always existed within the human population. Humans as a whole have always been neurodiverse.
Right now we seem to be at an inflection point. The #ownvoices movement and similar changes to how we think about who gets to tell stories and who gets to star in them have made publishing more accessible to people, including neurodivergent people, not only to get published but to do so without having to mask their own neurodivergence.
Yet this inflection point comes with its own risks. Every time we define a set as separate from or different to another, we risk balkanizing it. That’s a risk we face with neurodivergent authors and characters currently: That we’ll reach a place where #ownvoices neurodivergent literature becomes a gimmick.
What Are Some Successful Instances of Neurodivergence in Literature (as an author or reader), and What Makes Them Successful?
Some of the most successful examples of neurodivergence in literature do not deal with authors, characters or readers with diagnosable conditions. Often they succeed because no one involved is diagnosable. Rather, the story moves the reader into the position of experiencing neurodivergence without getting to label it “oh, this is what it’s like to be autistic” or “this is what it’s like to have hallucinations” or whatever.
A few mainstream releases that come to mind include Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Each book/series takes the reader on a rather intense departure from what we think of as normal/normative, rational cognition.
Yet in each case, there’s no tidy DSM diagnosis to slap on that experience. What’s the ICD-10 code for “becoming an eldritch being” or “eating a dead murderer’s memories” or “conversing with one’s heart as it walks around outside one’s body”? These authors and their works take readers into that experience without categorizing or defining it, and it leaves a lingering effect on the reader.
What Are Some Examples of Unsuccessful Works?
Nearly every book that tries to present neurodivergence by means of labels ends up reading as a failure to me. Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, for instance, is split directly down the middle as a success/failure, and the moment it makes the turn is the moment Oates outs the protagonist as autistic.
Prior to that point, the reader is immersed in the experience of being a depressed autistic woman in a claustrophobic small town. Oates actually captures that very well (I speak from experience, having been this person). Cressida’s decisions make sense in the context of that claustrophobia and her depression and her deeply rooted sense of being irrevocably different yet unable to explain it to anyone.
But the moment we’re told “Cressida has autism,” suddenly the entire story is about that diagnostic label. Suddenly Cressida is not relatable. The reader gets yanked out of the experience of neurodivergence and back into a world where “normal” is a very tight, specific set of feelings and behaviors.
Labels have such a powerful effect on neurodivergence in art, and it’s rarely a good effect. I have always appreciated, for instance, that Bill Watterson staunchly refused to respond to questions about whether Hobbes was a “real” tiger or a “stuffed” tiger or “just a product of Calvin’s imagination.” The truth of Hobbes, of course, is that he is any/all of the above, all at the same time. To carve off any of those facets in the name of “understanding” Hobbes is to murder him.
Incidentally, this is also why none of the characters in my own novels get diagnostic labels in the text. Several of the humans have diagnosable neurodivergences. But the one time I revealed one to a reviewer, the reviewer managed to miss every other neurodivergent experience in the text – and even to miss some of the labeled character’s most obvious symptoms!
What Do You Hope Will Not Happen Regarding Neurodivergence In Literature?
I really hope the entire concept of “neurodivergence in literature” doesn’t get reduced to a gimmick or a sales pitch.
I do think there’s an incredibly important role for #ownvoices authors and books. But I want to avoid a world where we start requiring authors to out themselves as some kind of diagnostic-label neurodivergent in order for their depictions of divergence to be taken seriously. Conversely, I want to avoid a world where we assume that every author who writes neurodivergence well can be reduced to a diagnostic label.
“No label, no divergence” is just neurotypicality under another name.
What Do You Hope Will Happen Regarding Neurodivergence in Literature?
I hope we move away from the “normal,” “rational,” “common,” “typical,” “expected,” etc. as the default expectation, in reading and in life. I want readers to be ready for anything when they open a book, and willing to go wherever the book does.
My undergraduate class in Short Fiction was taught by a man who insisted that if a protagonist’s actions didn’t make sense, either the protagonist was mad or the writer was a hack. This, to me, is a prime example of neurotypical-as-normative dominating the conversation. There is no room from such a perspective to explore the myriad worlds of the human mind – to expand ourselves via reading as well as to expand the spectrum of human representations in text. There’s only “this has to make sense to me” or “it’s crap.”
I want to see labeling fade away. I want to see neurodivergence expressed in literature as actions and experiences, rather than lists of symptoms. I’d like to see readers get so used to experiencing characters’ mental/emotional states that they stop asking for diagnostic labels and actually find them jarring.
Authors don’t need to prove themselves or their characters by sharing diagnoses. They need to provide an experience that changes the reader. Readers, in turn, need to be open to that experience as one that can change them, rather than pushing it away with “oh, well, if this character doesn’t have these symptoms or that diagnosis then they can’t be neurodivergent.”
And I don’t think the road to that world is as long as it might be. I don’t think it was ever as long as folks like my Short Fiction professor want us to believe. Literature is a malleable medium; it’s always had room for the weird and often delighted in it.
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