editorial comment

distract me

Today for about two and a half hours it was impossible for me to focus on writing anything that required deep thinking. For that period of time the Girlchild was in the air on her way back to Boulder, you see. A mother’s concentration is crucial to keeping that airplane on course and making sure it lands safely.

So now she’s on the ground, and I will be getting back to work shortly. As soon as I finish this post, and eat something, and stop feeling as if I’ve lost something precious. Because she isn’t lost, I know just where she is, and later this evening I’ll talk to her.

A couple quick things that occur to me in the last couple days:

Suddenly I am no longer compulsively checking the news wires. Has the country been delivered from evil? Are we back in economic and moral good health? No. But there are competent people working on things. It won’t be fast and it won’t be painless, but it feels now like there’s a good driver in charge. So that’s something big to be thankful for.

Also, I have been thinking about all the so-called rules that fiction writers are sworn to uphold by those who would instruct them. I’m one of the people who instruct, on occasion, so I don’t exempt myself from this. The thing is, all these rules (or ninety-nine percent of them) are not compulsory. They are, for the most part, a matter of fashion. Here’s one example of a rule that isn’t really a rule: headhopping, or moving from one character’s pov to another’s within the same scene.

But maybe you disagree. Or maybe you have another not-really-a-rule to mention.

And now, back to work.

public service announcement of a political nature

From the friend of a friend, these thoughts on racism:

What if John McCain were a former president of the Harvard Law Review? What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?

What if McCain were still married to the first woman he said ‘I do’ to? What if Obama were the candidate who left his first wife after she was disabled and no longer measured up to his standards?

What if Michelle Obama had not only became addicted to pain killers, but acquired them illegally through her charitable organization? What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?

What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five? What if McCain were a charismatic, eloquent speaker?

This is what unexamined racism does. When there’s a color difference, it rationalizes and minimizes positive qualities in one candidate and de-emphasizes negative qualities in another.

America is facing historic debt, two wars, a world that’s grown to distrust us, a tottering health care system, a weakened dollar, all-time high prison population, mortgage crisis, bank foreclosures, etc. You are the Boss… which team would you hire?

Obama:
Columbia University – B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
Harvard – Juris Doctor, Magna cum Laude

Biden:
University of Delaware – B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
Syracuse University College of Law – (J.D.)

vs.

McCain:
United States Naval Academy (son and grandson of admirals) Class rank: 894 of 899

Palin:
Hawaii Pacific University – 1 semester
North Idaho College – 2 semesters
University of Idaho – 2 semesters
Matanuska-Susitna College
University of Idaho – 3 semesters – B.A. in Journalism

PS: What if Barack Obama had an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter….

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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anonymity, part 2: cautionary tale

In the spring of 2004, a weblog called Foetry.com made its anonymous appearance. Foetry was not about reviewing poetry, as you might guess, but instead it set out to be the watchdog of the poetry prize and award-giving universe, under the banner: Exposing fraudulent contests. Tracking the sycophants. Naming names. (Every time I read that, I hear the theme music from Superman in my head.)

The claim was that there was rampant cronyism and plain old cheating of a fraudulent and criminal nature going on in the way poetry prizes were awarded. The anonymous blogger set out to expose the wrong-doers, and went about it with gusto.

The furor in the poetry world was tremendous, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Entry fees for contests are all many poetry publications have in way of serious income, but the process has to be fair and transparent. Maybe Foetry was a good idea, but the execution (and I use that word purposefully) was troubling. Suspicions about the motivations of the editor only grew with every new trumpeting of a conspiracy uncovered.

Accusations were broad, loud, and often defied both logic and evidence (detailed examples from an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Many of the accusations were small, but a few were big and messy and litigious. (And how do I know this? Because (here comes the revelation) I know a couple people who were targeted and accused by Foetry, and I know where the facts were misstated or plain wrong. And as it turned out, once the Foetry editor was outed, I know him, as well. Or at least, I’ve met him and I knew his wife pretty well at one time.

Then he got outted.

Alan Cordle is 36, pale and round with thick glasses and soft fleshy cheeks. He smiles often and speaks in a wispy voice, which suits his day job as a librarian at Portland Community College. (San Francisco Chronicle by Tomas Alex Tizon, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 10, 2005)

And here’s where the cautionary tale comes in. This mild-mannered university librarian is married to a poet. Not an unsuccessful poet, but somebody whose career was bobbing along at half mast. The librarian was angry on behalf of the poet, and so Foetry came into existence. (There is so much stuff about this whole kerfuffle on the internet, it would be tiresome of me to repeat it all, so here, some links if you’re interested in the gritty details: the archives of the now defunct Foetry weblog; a detailed article at the San Francisco Chronicle; a summary piece from the New York Times Book section; commentary from the Kenyon Review (a major literary publication); and a discussion of the underlying issues. )

Let me cut to the moral of the story, as I see it. The idea behind Foetry was not bad or unreasonable, but the motivations that brought it into being are suspect. The librarian knew that if he were honest about his identity, everything he had to say would be viewed as huffing and puffing in indignation about honors denied to his wife. Of course, he still might have announced his connections right at the start, and if he had then gone on and done scrupulous work, he could have proved his point anyway. But because he was anonymous, he got over confident and sloppy. He let himself go. Unfounded accusations shrilly voiced do not inspire confidence. They just make people really angry, and angry people who consider themselves wronged want to face their accuser. That’s one of those basic rights we take for granted.

So the angry parties went after the anonymous editor, and the anonymous editor got outed, and his conflict of interest cost him whatever credibility he had left. If he did have strong evidence of major wrong doing, who was going to pay attention at that point?

The editor’s anonymity is what garnered so much attention to begin with, because it raised questions in people’s minds. Was this a Big Name Insider, a Whistle-Blower? That titillating possibility got Foetry a lot of press. Was that the whole idea to start with?

The only thing that seems sure to me is this: anonymity was entirely the wrong way to go about this. If you’re going to express an opinion, it’s best to put your name on it front and center. If you’re going to toss around accusations, then you have no choice, if you want to be taken seriously, but to identify yourself and clearly state any conflict of interest.

Better to avoid anonymity, if at all possible.