fools and angels treading: sensitive subjects in fiction

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Monica is very willing to share her opinion on topics other people would rather avoid. I personally appreciate the fact that she takes the trouble to remind me to take off the blinders. In a recent post she says:

Any other controversial issues are eagerly discussed in the romance community: Sexism, gays, plagiarism, kinky erotica, publisher bugaboos, conservative issues, but as a whole they really hate blacks and refuse to discuss black racial issues without hysteria and rancor.

I am going to disagree with one aspect of this. I believe that ‘they hate blacks’ is too simplistic an explanation for what’s behind the silence. It has to do with guilt and fear and laziness and a whole range of other complex emotions and reactions. Are there people who simply hate blacks? Sure. But I don’t think you can say that about most people. Does this excuse anything? No.

Examples of what Monica is talking about abound. The whole Cassie Edwards scandal was about plagiarism, but it was also about Edwards’ racism — or it should have been. I read quite a lot of the discussion on the scandal across dozens of websites, and I can’t recall anybody who came out and raised a related issue. I believe the passion that went into exposing Edwards’ plagiarism had to have something to do with the fact that her novels are unapologetically racist. Every stereotype about Native Americans is elaborated on, every wrong towards them trivialized; Native American men, as they appear in Edwards’ novels, are playthings for white women. Edwards has stated in writing that she is part Native American, and that her Native American grandmother, if she were alive, would love her novels. So we can add self-deception and blind bigotry to the list of her problems.

Why did Edwards’ work never spark a discussion about racism? Why did it take discovery of her plagiarism to open up a discussion of her work at all? And of course, Edwards isn’t alone. There are other romance writers who have gone down this same path, maybe not as often and as thoroughly, but they have exploited Native American stereotypes in pursuit of a story. For example (and I can hear the screams now) Linda Howard‘s very popular MacKenzie series is built on similar shaky and offensive ground.

Racism against blacks is there in abundance, as well. Some of the worst of it (the Mandingo themed novels) have passed out of public favor, but Gone with the Wind (the ultimate example) is as popular as it ever was. Other kinds of racism, more recent and subtle (and for that reason, more damaging) are easy enough to find. Take for example LaVyrle Spencer‘s Family Blessings. The hero is a big, blond, good looking, thoughtful, caring cop; he speaks ‘good English’ and he’s determined to help an ‘disadvantaged’ twelve year old black kid. And how will this be accomplished?

“Yo.”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“I be black.”
“You might be, but no sense talking like a dumb one if you ever want to get anywhere in this world…”
…”I could turn you in for dat, you know. Teachers in school can’t even make us change how we talk. It’s the rules. We got our culture to preserve.”
“I’m not your teacher, and if you ask me, you’re preserving the wrong side of your culture…listen to you, talking like a dummy! I told you, if you want to get out someday and make something of yourself and have a truck like this and a job where you can wear decent clothes and people will respect you, you start by talking like a smart person, which you are. I could hack that oreo talk if it was real, but the first time I picked you up for doing the five-finger discount over at the SA station, you talked like every other kid in your neighborhood…”
“I’m twelve years old. You not supposed to talk to me like dat.”
“Tell you what—I’ll make you a deal. I’ll talk to you nicer if you’ll talk to me nicer. And the first thing you do is stop using that F word. And the second thing you do is start pronouncing words the way your first-grade teacher taught you to. The word is that, not dat.”

(Spencer 1995:102-103)..

I would guess this excerpt made many people (white and black) hoot in agreement, because in general people have come to believe these arguments which are based in racism, self delusion, and ignorance about the way human language functions. The cop character has nothing more to backup his pronouncements about language than his own observations, biases, and the trappings of his own success. This is what you can have, he says, if you start sounding like me. If you do not, you do so out of mule-headedness and stupidity, and there is no hope for you. Be white, or be lost. There’s no logic in this claim, and a great deal of evidence to counter it: Can black people who sound white when they talk count on a rosy future, safe from all racism and discrimination? Equal opportunity at every turn? Is this cop really claiming that if the boy he is talking to would only start sounding white, there will be no more race-related obstacles in his path to a bright future?

Because you know, I’d call that bait and switch.

There are 38 reviews of this novel on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. PW couldn’t find anything wrong with it:

Ordinary people coming to grips with real problems are handled with a sure, restrained touch that makes this latest novel from the bestselling author of Bygones a moving tale. […] While residing safely within the parameters of romance fiction, this novel has an appealing candor that transcends the genre.

It’s true that the hero’s relationship with this twelve year old black kid is not the main focus of the novel, but this scene is meant to make us see how caring, smart, and insightful he is, and how willing to take on difficult subjects in order to reach out to someone who needs his help. In fact, it demonstrates something very different: the author’s own attitudes, which I would call narrow, uninformed, and yes: racist.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I asked myself why I have never raised these subjects in my occasional review. The answer is simple: I don’t review books I find offensive. So now I have to figure out for myself if that’s laziness, or fear of repercussions, or if there’s something else going on that I’m not comfortable admitting. I don’t have an answer, but I’ll see if I can figure it out.

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stripping down to sell books

There’s an article in the Washington Post (“Leaping at the Chance“) about a conversation between editor Nan Talese and one of her authors, Valerie Martin (author most recently of Trespass). The question:

What will it take to get the American public to pay attention to Martin’s book?

They have some pretty outlandish suggestions, but in fact they both know the answers. There are a couple things that would make this happen.

[asa book]0385515456[/asa] 1. With the right publicist and a lot of money, any book/author can be thrust into public view. Show your face on the big talk shows, get celebrities to talk about it, and voila. Best seller. This approach is the easiest and most expensive, and clearly would require Martin’s publisher to invest heavily. Which I am sure they’d be willing to do — if she were already on the best seller list.

2. A scandal is a quicker way to get to the best seller list, which Nan Talese knows very well, as she was the editor of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. (I posted about that here.) You can listen to Nan (on YouTube) telling her version of what happened with Oprah, which is extremely interesting.

3. A scandal that escalates and becomes a legal matter, even better. Ask Cassie Edwards about this. I have no figures, but I’d bet that her sales have not suffered as a result of the plagiarism kerfuffle.

back to business: padding verbs

It is really hard to keep focused when the cyber universe is going nuts, as it has been since mid January. In the last couple weeks readers and authors and bloggers (primarily in the romance community) have been trying to outshout each other until everybody is deaf and hoarse, too. Saying even the calmest, most reasoned thing (and there were lots of people who tried to do this) could get you called outside for a fist fight. I tried to stay out of it for the most part (I’ve already got one Author Behaving Badly badge, after all). Though I admit it was tempting to say some things. Some things that might have brought the mob to my door. I could be incendiary and get lots of attention that way, or I could get back to talking about writing. One simple sentence before I do that:

Plagiarism is morally and ethically wrong.

So there you go, my stance on the subject. Now, about padding verbs.

Right now in fiction the trend and fashion is for very distinct point-of-view boundaries. Head-hopping is frowned upon. A story written in third person will have more than one POV character, and the writer switches back and forth between them. So you experience the beginning of the argument from inside Maria’s head, then comes a break (usually a double return so you get an island of white space on the page) and you experience the rest of the argument from inside Gwen’s head. Gwen sees Maria’s reactions and interprets them, and you get that information in the narration.

Maria lifted her upper lip and Gwen had to turn away or laugh. Mandy was right, Maria did look like a chipmunk when she was mad.

This clearly comes from Gwen and not from Maria, who observes Gwen in her turn:

She’s not going to leave this alone, Maria realized. This is that ridiculous episode with the toilet plunger and the squirrel, all over again.

One of the challenges of this switching back and forth is signaling the switch to the reader without being too blatant. This is managed most usually with little coded phrases

Maria thought (so you are inside her head)
Maria felt (ditto)
Maria saw the color leave Gwen’s face.

This might not seem like a big deal, and in many ways it isn’t. But this constant signaling the reader (yoohoo! we’re over here now, in Laura’s head!) can be a burden.

You might write: Gwen felt the sweat soaking into her silk blouse, or, more vividly: Sweat blossomed under the arms and along the collar of Gwen’s silk blouse. The difference starts with that padding verb: felt. I think of this as a padding verb because it steps between the reader and the action or emotion in order to establish POV. This habit can get out of hand.

I try, when I’m writing, to look for these padding verbs and if I can do without them without confusing the reader’s sense of which character has the POV, I’ll cut the little intruder right there.

Elizabeth saw Nathaniel reach down and grab at a root sticking up out of the ground.

Do we need those first two words? Maybe not. Probably not.

Of course, if you are writing a first person narrative this will not be much of a problem for you because there’s no POV switching at all. On the other hand, you’ll have to figure out a way to keep the reader informed of all the stuff they need to know — but you can’t tell them because the narrator doesn’t know them.

On a different front: I’m delaying the photo contest, and I may fold it into the other, bigger giveaway. The same prizes, so never fear about that.”