Last year, Craig Silvey’s third novel was published, his first since the hugely popular Jasper Jones in 2009. Honeybee, a story about a troubled trans teenager, Sam, and their unlikely friendship with the older widower Vic was considered, on publication, to be fairly offensive by many trans readers, myself included. Offensive because it is a cis man writing a trans teenager with all the predictable tropes: a troubled home life, suicide attempts, ambiguous language that evades gender until a big ‘reveal’. I watched the book come out, I watched it sell well, and I watched as not one reviewer engaged with it as a literary critic. No one considered it worthy of literary criticism, seemingly on the basis of its relationship to transness. I hate being a trans person when a book like this comes out, not because I feel unsettled in my identity, but because I hate being treated like I’m too fragile to understand the stakes of fiction by critics who aren’t assessing it as such.

Anticipating the backlash that was to follow Honeybee’s release, Liam Pieper wrote ‘a novel is a static document and to lament art for imperfect politics is lazy criticism.’ I’ve been thinking about this phrase ‘lazy criticism’ and how it applies to incidents such as this, authors writing outside of their experience. I think Pieper is right in some regard, something lazy happens, but I don’t think we’re really acknowledging what that laziness is avoiding.

An author writing outside their experience often ends up reducing human experience, rather than expanding it, by leaning into assumptions and stereotypes in order to construct character. I know this and yet I am not someone who thinks that cis writers should not write trans characters or inhabit trans perspective through their characters. I want to approach fiction believing anything is possible. Not ‘dragons and friendship and overcoming all the odds’ possible, but rather that the materials an author can draw from are infinite. I exist, transness exists, and I don’t want to have to compartmentalise and discard that part of myself when I read because an author has been told they won’t get it right and shouldn’t try. (Personally, I think it would make life easier if transness was part of the fabric of more people’s worlds, not fewer.)

In her 2019 essay ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’, Zadie Smith finds herself with a belief in fiction and a belief in her need as a fiction author to inhabit voices different to her own. Over the course of the essay, Smith turns from Walt Whitman’s ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ as a guiding principle, finding fault in the word ‘contain’ which feels arrogant and colonising, and towards a phrase found in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, ‘fascinated to presume’. ‘This presumption does not assume it is “correct,”’ Smith writes, ‘No more than I assumed, when I depicted the lives of a diverse collection of people in my first novel, that I was “correct.”… I am fascinated to presume, as a reader, that many types of people, strange to me in life, might be revealed, through the intimate space of fiction, to have griefs not unlike my own. And so I read.’ There is temperance to this principle. It suggests that we don’t read to approach experiences identical to ours, but conversely, that we take steps backwards from difference. We seek out the knowledge from fiction not that we are the same but that we aren’t so unlike each other.

When a book like Honeybee comes out (or, say, a film like The Danish Girl, or a TV series like Transparent: cultural works where an expression of transness is assumed by a cis artist) public commentary often avoids criticism of the work. With more collaborative mediums, I understand the distraction more. There are real people involved, real trans actors, who are denied employment with a frequency that seems to have little to do with talent. With a book, made entirely from imaginative elements, there is something absurd about the hand-wringing over real-world impact, the hysterical shrieks along the lines of: What will the trans people think, Don’t upset the trans people, or from the bolder cis critic, Why do we have to tip-toe around the delicate trans people? Sick of it! There is something off about it. It’s like an air-ball, a big effort with no connection.

Take, for example, Melanie Kembrey’s feature in the Sydney Morning Herald. Headlined, ‘Craig Silvey’s new novel is bound to face scrutiny. He’s OK with that’, Kembrey quotes Silvey’s publisher, Jane Palfreyman, ‘We are prepared, Craig is prepared.’ We see a concerted effort, even before release, to predict and side-step criticism of Silvey, the author, and little attention paid to Honeybee, the book. This kind of coverage ignores the work of the book and chooses instead to set up an imaginary argument in which they either defend or condemn its author. Why is this? Perhaps, in an effort to make literature seem as urgent as other forms of culture, journalists, critics and editors focus on the only real people involved: the author and the audience.

I don’t think trans audiences need, expect, or want, to be condescended to in this manner. I quite often like, or at least find satisfaction in being bullied, vilified, and made uncomfortable by a book. I have a life! When a book like Honeybee comes out, I end up feeling patronised more by the criticism that assumes I need a book to be nice to me, than the book itself. The great thing about a book is that if I don’t want to read it anymore I can just stop and not think about it again. I’ve been reading for most of my life, and trans for only a fraction of it, and the thing I want from fiction hasn’t changed: I want that moment when I am overwhelmed by my own belief in what I’m reading.

This isn’t to say I am not personally affected by bad portrayals of transness. When Honeybee came out I thought of the 2014 American novel Adam, by the cis author Ariel Schrag. Adam is another YA book marketed to adults. Adam is a cis male teenager who travels to New York to spend a summer living with his lesbian older sister, Casey. Hanging out with her queer friends, in queer spaces, Adam is mistaken for a trans male and, having met the girl of his dreams under this guise, decides to keep up the charade. In Queer communities, Adam is a controversial book. Through the unsympathetic and self-interested perspective of the cis male protagonist, transmasculinity and lesbianism are often conflated.

‘Uh, OK, weirdo,’ said Casey. ‘Anyway, I’m queer, or whatever.’ She was trying to play it off like it was nothing but still let Adam know she was mad at him for saying it. How could she not expect him to be surprised? His entire life all she’d ever done was go on about how much she loves girls and has zero interest in guys.

I read Adam when I had just started transitioning and it was, certainly, complicated to read. If you are writing a cis character there is a cultural reinforcement of that identity. What it means to be cis is considered the norm, and so on such a sturdy foundation all sorts of exciting, toxic, daring experimentation can take place without potentially reconfiguring what it means to be cis in the cultural imagination. To experiment dangerously with trans identity is more complicated. There is no such reinforcement so there is the very real possibility that any time transness is put on the page, certain readers will take it literally as ‘what transness is’. When I read Adam, it felt challenging and at times upsetting, but within the fixed environment of a book, I felt safe knowing that in my private experience, my understanding of transness didn’t need to change unless the book convinced me, unequivocally, to change it.

Reading a book is an independent cultural experience in a way that not many other encounters with art forms are. It is not the same as a TV show where everyone is watching, talking, tweeting about it at once. Even those times when everyone seems to be reading an ‘it’ book are different. You will ask fellow readers ‘have you read it yet?’ You will answer ‘not yet’, ‘it’s on my list’, ‘I read it a few weeks ago’. Something about reading books is always a private experience, never absolutely in sync with others. You can be confronted with new ideas in a book and have time alone to metabolise them before you take them into broader culture. There is not the same pressure to fit yourself into a book’s reception like there is with other cultural works. The reader holds the power. The pressure is on the book to find a way to nudge and nestle into your beliefs. When I read Adam I considered the differences between what it was to be a trans man and what it was to be a cis man. I noticed the genuine flimsiness of some of those differences. I looked at the toxicity in queer culture from a cis perspective and felt, yes, averse to the non-consensual voyeurism of the cis protagonist but simultaneously acknowledged that some of the observations held validity, and that validity lay beneath the protagonist’s conscious understanding.

The writing felt layered to me, complex and exciting, and so I began to let it in. That is, until the climactic scene when Adam and his girlfriend, Gillian, have sex. Throughout the book Adam uses tape to secure his penis under a t-shirt that he keeps on, citing his ‘gender dysphoria’, and over the top he wears a strap-on dildo that belongs to Gillian. At the end of the book though, when it seems to be getting closer and closer to the moment that Adam’s lies will be revealed, he and Gillian have sex next to a lake at ‘Camp Trans’. Gillian tells Adam she wants to feel him inside her, ‘just you, not the thing’ and Adam takes off the dildo and enters Gillian with his other penis and they both climax as Adam tells her, ‘I’m not trans’ and she replies, ‘I know.’

The function of transness in Adam had seemed to offer an interesting, removed-yet-intimate, perspective to explore identity and difference, and it worked in many ways. The deception and issue of consent dangled throughout and it was queasy-making but it was fiction, and it was interesting. However, when Adam has sex with Gillian, the effectiveness of that device disintegrated. Wait, I thought you took me into Adam’s perspective to show me something, I thought you were in control, but now the climax of the book is asserting that I am different in this way that I have no possible emotional access to. When the film adaptation of the novel came out Schrag spoke to the issue of consent in this scene: ‘In the novel, Gillian knows he’s cis, and he knows that she knows,’ Schrag said. ‘It’s a fine line, but I did consider it consensual, just psychologically complex.’ But this ‘knowing’ was nowhere in the preceding text. It came as a confusing shock. It was an expulsion of trans identity. If Gillian knows he’s cis, and Adam knows she knows, then all along the only person expected to entertain his transness was the reader. Transness was suddenly symbolically discarded and excluded. Putting my emotions aside, it never made narrative sense why it happened that way. I felt tricked by Schrag. The textual function of transness was revealed to be irrelevant and it made everything else in the book appear unrealised at best, and a total accident at worst. I couldn’t believe in the text anymore and I couldn’t count on Schrag to know what she was doing within it.

This question of whether or not cis authors are ‘allowed’ to write trans characters or address trans identity in their work is a convenient spectacle. In Australian reviews of Honeybee, it was described (by cis critics) as ‘heartbreaking but also heart-warming’, ‘compassionately told’, a story of ‘love and solidarity, a celebration of the kindness of strangers who become family and friends’, Silvey had written ‘emotional, heartfelt moments and a rich ensemble of characters’. Critics focused on the fact that Silvey had attempted a sympathetic portrayal of a trans character, that the story was emotionally driven. Dissenting opinions mostly considered the impact on publishing, ‘At best, he demonstrates that Australia needs more trans stories. But at worst, he takes the space to tell trans stories away from the people that have lived them.’ Liam Pieper and Fiona Wright were the only critics to consider narrative elements but even this was in reference to the emotional impact of Honeybee, rather than an assessment of literary value; Pieper writes, ‘The narration deploys deliberately vague language around pronouns, for example, eliding an important facet of trans identity’, and Wright writes, ‘there’s something about the way that Sam’s gender identity is treated as a reveal, as something startling or surprising, that sits uncomfortably with me.’ Alex Gallagher, one of the only trans voices published in response to Honeybee, writes, ‘No matter how tender or heartbreaking a narrative it is, it’s exploitative for cis authors to centre a trans identity … in a way that feels like the most valuable thing a gender-diverse character can offer readers is their trauma.’ Gallagher’s article in Guardian Australia is a great (genuinely ‘heartfelt’) articulation of the ethical issues surrounding the appropriation of narrative voices. But still, Gallagher approaches the work as a cultural critic. Gallagher writes, ‘Picking apart the specific instances in which a cis person has done a poor job of portraying trans experience is a boring exercise, one I’ve done countless times about countless ill-advised works.’ And it’s here where I want to break away into a different discussion. One that focuses not on the way Honeybee, and other titles, might accurately or inaccurately portray trans experience, but in the way they use transness as a narrative literary device.

A work of fiction is a work of invention. Everything in it is constructed, so everything has a purpose. When I think about writing on the sentence level I always think of Amy Hempel’s interview in The Paris Review:

sometimes a flat-footed sentence is what serves, so you don’t get all writerly:

“He opened the door.” There, it’s open.

I like that as Hempel encourages us not to overthink our sentences, she reminds us that everything, even a door, has a logic. If a door needs to be opened, a character must open it. This is one of the central challenges that a fiction writer faces, how to construct everything, every texture and gesture of a world, and make it appear untouched.

Honeybee is a work of realist fiction. The reader is intended to believe in Sam as a real person with real griefs. But this is not a book that is able to persuade readers to accept Sam unthinkingly, at least not this reader. Honeybee is focalised through Sam, so we are constantly in the company of their voice, seeing the world through their eyes. Silvey’s narration is channeled through short, repetitive sentences. It’s a similar style when we hear Sam speak. Presumably this stilted voice is designed to serve the cause of persuasive characterisation, to make us believe that this book is being narrated by a young person, that we’re hearing a cautious young person speak. And yet, this naive voice fails to capture any of Sam’s character beyond age. Sam is intelligent, they can make quick jokes, they can steal supplies from the supermarket to provide for people they care about and think on their feet when caught.

Once I had everything I needed, that’s where I went. I didn’t rush. There was nobody back there. But when I went out the exit, I saw a man sitting on a milk crate and smoking a cigarette next to the door. He looked at my basket.

“The fuck are you doing?”

“Some lady just slipped over in the freezer section. She’s screaming. I think she hit her head. I came back here to find someone.”

It’s not necessarily that Silvey hasn’t imagined a complex character, it’s that he’s failed to write Sam as one. Instead of the style of their narration capturing a complete psyche, it instead captures just one aspect, their youth, and lets the rest of their character come out through action and dialogue. There is a world in which the distance between a character’s narration and their actions highlights a sense of alienation. A more successful example of suggested alienation can be found in Silvey’s conscious decision to avoid pronouns for Sam. If we give Silvey the benefit of the doubt, and accept that this isn’t just an evasion to later serve the function of the gender ‘reveal’, this decision works as a reflection of Sam alone on the precipice of great change, just before decision. But the larger elements making up Sam’s story (narration, action, dialogue) don’t work harmoniously to further effect this. The sense, instead, is always that there is something untold because the push and pull of what is written and what’s left out is disorienting.

While Silvey maneuvres carefully around using gendered language to refer to Sam and demonstrates a reservedness in his writing of Sam’s voice, he is far less careful with his construction of Sam’s history, and particularly his equation of trauma and trans identity. In the first eight pages alone there are two suicide attempts and a sexual assault. By the time Sam’s gender is referenced directly on page 43 there have been two more suicide attempts, and the reader has learned the details of Sam’s mother’s addiction issues, and a history of unstable housing. The stark contrast between our permitted intimate knowledge of Sam’s past with their impenetrable present narration, doesn’t make Sam feel alienated but rather makes Sam seem deceptive and conditions the reader to sense that Sam is hiding something. And yet the hostile responses of other characters, like the man on the milk crate, to Sam, and the layering of traumatic backstory upon traumatic backstory, seem to direct the reader towards sympathy for them. It doesn’t work. While the gaps left between the quick, simple sentences, and heavy, exploitative traumas are cavernous, there is, strangely, no attention given to the possibility of a nuanced, complex inner life for Sam to connect it all.

When Honeybee came out there was a strategy in the marketing to highlight the research Silvey had conducted in writing it. Even before the book was released, Silvey declared in multiple profiles that he was writing from a perspective totally outside of his own. Barry Divola wrote,

Acutely aware that the life of a trans teenager is not something he’s experienced, he was at pains to be as accurate as possible, reading widely, consulting Australian transgender organisations and meeting many trans and non-binary people in order to try to understand their lives.

And yet, the focus of the narrative around this trans girl is their relationship to toxic masculinity. Similar themes arose in Jasper Jones, and this is presumably where Silvey’s own interests lie. A more interesting feat of authorship and invention might have been for Silvey to focus on this character’s relationship to femininity. One has to wonder: what did Silvey’s research open up for him?

There might be no bigger failure to surprise than Silvey’s inclusion of a drag storyline in this book. Sam’s interest in drag and friendship with drag queens is a conduit for them to pursue, or go through the motions of, a character journey they are already on. Drag doesn’t add anything unique to the discoveries they are already making and the drag queens they befriend (particularly a close friendship with a queen called Fella Bitzgerald) could really be anyone, as they offer out of the box guidance:

You’re strong. You’re beautiful. And you’ve been formally adopted into the House of Bitzgerald, girl. Like it or lump it. And I’m here to tell you that you can heal. You can be who you want to be. And you’ve got a big, bold, meaningful life ahead of you.

I found myself thinking that this inclusion of drag could have been intriguing, if handled differently. If this book engaged intellectually with drag, the writing could have been self-reflective and critical. There was opportunity for a deeper consideration of the function of a ‘reveal’, which has become a ubiquitous element of live drag and that could have added a dimension of awareness and insight to Silvey’s reveal of Sam’s gender. But as it is, the conflation of trans gender and drag seems like the cobbling together of anything Silvey found interesting in his gender non-conformity research. His research is clear but the end result is like a toddler who comes in from the garden and shows you a bunch of sticks and leaves. Every flashback has the quality of being both specific but disconnected from the other flashbacks, as if Silvey has merely compiled the traumatic stories of various people.

Variations of the glacial phrase ‘I looked at him for a long time/they looked at me for a long time/she looked down for a long time’ recur throughout Honeybee. That the pace is excruciatingly slow when describing present action is another reason Silvey cannot embody Sam convincingly. And yet things accelerate when flashing back to anecdotes that reference Sam’s historical experience of gender, discovering the documentary Paris is Burning or self-harming with a cigarette lighter. Here the prose becomes breathlessly excited. In these specifics, we sense the author confident, no doubt leaning on some of that research:

I started going on random webcam sites where strangers could see me.

I wore sunglasses and brushed my hair over my face. I was shy and nervous and I never spoke to anyone, I just wanted to see their reactions. It was usually older men. Some of them clocked me and laughed or frowned and left the chat session… It made me feel even more dirty and ashamed, but it was an addiction. I hated myself afterwards, but like always, the next night I couldn’t wait to do it again.

There is something transcendent about fiction when it can be both specific and universal. I don’t mean universal as a stand in for something watered down, but rather writing that is so sharp and complex that it must provoke new thoughts. Perhaps some people read Honeybee and decided trans people weren’t so scary. In these cases I’d argue some dust was merely cleared away, something removed that shouldn’t have been there to begin with. There is nothing in reading Honeybee that felt transcendent to me. There isn’t any lasting moment where I stop being a person reading and believe I am tapped into a true creation, something otherworldly.

If a work is recognised as being ‘problematic’ – that is culturally insensitive or politically unaware – it is one of the rare times Australian critics will allow themselves to be critical because then criticism isn’t so much about the work, it’s about protecting the audience. I expect that no one, not the author, or critics, or publisher wants to ignore the potential that a book that might harm people. But using identity, and all of its vulnerabilities, as the only lens for criticism limits the potential of what a literary scene and industry can be and do more broadly. Evaluating books, being critical of them, is part of the pleasure of loving books, of reading being a passion and cult. A culture of rigorous criticism makes me want to read more because the conversation, as well as the work, is high-stakes and exciting. Language can be twisted and sharpened into cataclysmic formations. It’s thrilling when it is and it’s okay for our criticism to ask for more of it by evaluating the use of language and narrative, not just a book’s emotional impact.

Earlier, I said there was nothing transcendent in Honeybee, but that isn’t entirely true. There is a scene early in the book, before Sam’s gender has been situated, where they watch a woman on the beach:

When I woke up it was afternoon and there were more people around. Someone was cooking on a barbecue nearby and the smell made me hungry. I saw a woman sun baking on the beach in a white bikini and big sunglasses. She stood up and walked towards the water. She moved so confidently. I stared at her breasts and her hips and her thick legs and her oily brown skin. Then I got up and left.

There is a yearning here and I wasn’t sure which direction it moved in. There was the possibility that it didn’t have to have anything to do with wanting to be that woman but just about watching someone who is embodied move and Sam’s detached perspective felt so far away from that. This felt nuanced and genuine and balanced. It complicated the binary and unmoored gender and in this very small passage I wondered, is this intentional? Had Silvey succeeded here? Then I turned the page and Sam is watching Beauty and the Beast and that subtlety is followed by such a clunker as, ‘I felt bad for the beast who was lonely and trapped in a hideous body. I was happy for him when the curse got lifted,’ and I realised Silvey’s success, like Schrag’s, was most likely entirely accidental.

I want critics to consider what function transness plays in a text. It isn’t necessarily damaging exploitation to employ transness as a narrative device. Writing is art and anything can be utilised, but it has to work aesthetically and structurally and it has to push the work forward. I think the failure that often happens when cis authors write trans identity badly is this: transness on its own has no narrative function. When cis writers try to use transness it sticks out because it’s placed where something useful should be when it’s not useful at all. Transness is not a metaphor for anything. We’re trans because we say we are. And if we decide we’re not trans anymore, we just say that and it’s done. It’s very literal. Like a fiction story, it exists because it is said.

But that isn’t to say transness can’t be utilised in combination with other elements. When I think of instances of transness being used as a narrative device successfully, I think of the character of Paul in Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Here, Paul isn’t explicitly trans. He has the magical ability to transform his body at will, and as he travels through American landmark cities of queer subcultures, and meets new lovers and friends, he transforms his body. This ability interacts with notions of possibility, of queer theory made real, of queer history, both real and literary. The suggestions of transness in this text don’t suppose transness is new in literature just because it might be a new concept to some readers. Paul’s ability references Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or, more obliquely, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

In Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, Rosenberg re-imagines Jack Sheppard, the thief and pickpocket who would go on to inspire the character of Mack the Knife in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, as a trans man. Dr Voth is the trans male academic who makes this discovery in an old abandoned manuscript and we follow Voth’s own story in the annotations he makes. In this work, transness interacts with the nature of written histories and structural suppression of identity. Confessions of the Fox is postmodern, romantic, historical fiction, an operatic romp. Transness here assists in uprooting and dislocating any sense of categorisation. Transness is a tool in the text but it isn’t the subject. I wonder if the success of these trans authors isn’t because they are writing their own experience but rather because of their intimate understanding of the interactions transness can facilitate, their understanding of the possibilities of transness as a catalyst.

A more recent example of this can be found in Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby. Through the character of Reese, in many ways a narcissistic and manipulative trans woman, we see the sorts of insecure self-mythologising and competitive comparisons that, without a validated external culture, can emerge from trans interiority. Reese looks around at the culture of queerness and transness and can break it down instantly, dismissing her peers and herself in one fell swoop. But there is a scene at a funeral that breaks through this tendency:

What no one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of the season.

Reese’s perspective in the novel always enforces a self-protective dryness. She is deeply engrained in a queer community and yet her love for this community, and its love for her, is often expressed through snark. Queer people do this to each other. How could we not? The life experience we have in common is a realisation, at some point, that we are considered different. Forced into this position we can become obsessed with this difference – whether we’re poking fun at it, or intellectually deconstructing it, or denying it, it is an ever-present preoccupation. Peters manages to write this tension into her characters. What’s more she doesn’t let that tension hang, she pierces it at just the right moments, so that we know what we’re seeing.

Funeral after funeral has taught her to sit in the pews awaiting a moment of puncture: when some tiny detail pierces the smooth carapace of her indifference… Whatever that detail happens to be, when it finally penetrates Reese’s jaded and chitinous exoskeleton, for whole minutes at a time, the rage, self-pity, and lacerating frustration toward the thwarted, victimised nature of trans lives sears her directly, so that she twists and wracks her body, her emotions pedaling like the legs of an upturned beetle. To embrace that pain directly, to let the sorrow linger on her vulnerable interior without caveats or irony or armor, offers a purification. In those moments, she knows that she is not a psychopath. That she loved a friend who is gone.

Peters confronts the real traumas that trans people must face but her writing reflects the push and pull of trans interiority, the constant bracing, punctuated by brief moments of relief. She doesn’t simply exploit the drama of traumatic events but considers the deeper implications for her characters’ consciousnesses.

The author is a point of origin for a work, but in understanding its result, they should have nothing to do with it. It limits what a work can be to have to think of its author. An author doesn’t have to draw from their own experience, or rather, the work doesn’t have to rely on what they are drawing from their experience. Personal familiarity might be there as seasoning, but what a good book really is, is the transcendent thing that anyone can access but not everybody does. An author gets there, blindfolded, by intuition. I suspect this is also why trans authors often use trans functionality more effectively: they don’t need to overthink it.

Why do we avoid direct literary criticism of trans characters and themes? When cis writers don’t consider the literary function of what they are doing, if they just jam the word ‘trans’ into their manuscripts, latching it onto a character to see what happens, it will be bad art. When this happens I don’t want to be turned into a whimpering child. I don’t want critics to step in and tell the author not to be mean to me. I want critics to look the work square on and say, this isn’t good.

Maybe the question we ask in our literary criticism shouldn’t be, why do we let privileged authors write marginalised characters? But rather, why do we let any author publish words that don’t amount to anything? Passages with a steady pace but no edge, sentences and stories that ‘do the trick’, may sound pretty, but don’t amount to anything transformative or meaningful. I’m not scared of fiction that doesn’t understand me. I’m scared that in Australia, eventually all we’ll be left with is dull writing that we’re too bored to even question.