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?

“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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yiiiipppppeee: the Booklist Review

The Booklist review of Tied to the Tracks is in, and as my agent put it: couldn’t be better. I’m relieved and thrilled. The Kirkus review is also in. My agent on this one: For Kirkus, damn good. With the usual snark.

She read both of them to me on the phone, but I don’t have copies or I would post them now.

Edited to add:

here’s the Booklist review:

Tied to the Tracks.
Lippi, Rosina (author).
June 2006. 304p. Putnam, hardcover, $23.95 (0-399-15349-7).
REVIEW. First published May 1, 2006 (Booklist).

Writing under the name Sara Donati, Lippi has authored the acclaimed Wilderness historical fiction series. With her newest novel, however, she turns her buoyant creative talents to the romantic comedy genre with an effervescent tale of a trio of offbeat Yankee filmmakers plunked down deep in the heart of Dixie to produce a controversial documentary about Miss Zula Bragg, literary doyenne of Georgia’s Ogilvie College. While on campus, partners Angie Mangiamele, Rivera Rosenblum, and Tony Russo must work under the auspices of the English department, chaired by Ogilvie’s fair-haired favorite son, John Grant, whose upcoming wedding to the town’s equally fair-haired favorite daughter, Caroline Rose, may be derailed once news of John and Angie’s previous love affair gets out. As the former lovers tap-dance around their still obvious mutual attraction, their friends choose up sides to ensure the wedding either does, or does not, take place. Lippi handles the prenuptial disruption and a dazzling array of hot-button social issues (racism and homosexuality among them) with cool aplomb.
— Carol Haggas

March, Geraldine Brooks

[asa book]0143036661[/asa] I was prepared to like this novel. I certainly like the premise, a story about the father of the March girls (aka Little Women), a character only seen briefly in Alcott’s novels.

So you’ve got this character, a man who joins the Civil War not as a soldier, but as a chaplain. He’s got an unsual background, self educated, thoughtful, radical politics for his time. A New England abolitionist, he can’t stay out of the war. Once he’s in the middle of it, he finds himself contemplating his life. We get most of the story through his letters to his wife and four daughters, and his first person perspective.

My problem with this novel is that Brooks went to extreme lengths to set up the conflicts she needed to draw a particular picture. Were Northerners any better than Southerners when it came to racism? Interesting question. With March as her main character, she could have approached it from multiple angles, but she set up a convoluted backstory. As a young man, March tells us, he roamed the south as a peddler. On one of his early journeys he calls at a plantation where he ends up staying much longer than intended. It is a beautiful place, the hospitality is sincere, he is treated with kindness and drawn in by the owner’s generosity with his library and time. This is the same plantation he will encounter much later in his life, during the war.

It’s the plantation that’s problematic. March’s early experiences there are chock full of cliches. Every character you’ve ever read or seen on screen populating a traditional plantation is here. It almost feels as though the author were ticking off a list as she wrote, a set of atrocities that had to be included before she considered the scenes finished. Did these things happen? Of course. And because they did happen, and because those stories have been told many times, it’s especially hard to make the telling fresh, to make the story new. Hard, but important.

At the center of the plantation Brooks puts on the page is an intelligent, dignified slave woman March is attracted to, and who suffers greatly because of him. It’s to this plantation and to this woman that he returns as a mature, middle aged army chaplain. Of course.

There is so much to admire in the way Brooks writes. Her prose is beautiful, her descriptions are evocative. But in terms of characterization, motivation, plot, there is a clumsiness here which was unfortunate, given an interesting premise and the foundation of the Little Women characters the author had to work with.

first lines

The first lines of a novel or short story are an invitation written in shorthand. Here’s an example:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere nor a chair misplaced. We are alone here and we are dead.

Tropic of Cancer | Henry Miller

The first few lines of a novel have to draw the reader in and hold her captive, which makes those sentences the hardest and most important sentences to write. Browsing in a bookstore I might read the first lines or first paragraphs of twenty novels in a half hour. Twenty different authors + twenty opening lines = days and days of work, but it only takes me minutes to make decisions on whether or not I will read the rest of the book. I’m looking for evidence that I’m in the hands of a real storyteller. Somebody with a voice, and vision.

I’ve said before that I’m not crazy about first person narratives, but these days it seems like I can pick up a dozen novels one after the other and they are all in first person. I keep wondering when this fashion will pass. I am rarely so struck by a first person narrative that I’ll buy the novel, but there are exceptions. Tropic of Cancer is such an exception. I actually remember reading this opening line many years ago, because it made such an impression on me; it was exotic (Villa Borghese), with strong imagery, and there is that shock of listening to a dead man tell a story.

Here’s an example of an opening done with dialog which works (for me) like magic. From Dickens’ Hard Times:

NOW, what I want is, Facts.

In this case it’s the comma and then the capitalization of Facts that makes me sit up and pay attention. People who talking in capital letters are bound to be interesting. Something very different:

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses — and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak — there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

Silas Mariner | George Elliot

To start with this sounds like a traditional story in a traditional setting, saved from the curse of the ordinary by use of interesting details (thread-lace, polished oak). It’s the last part of the sentence, the juxtaposition of the expected (brawny country-folk) with the unsettling (remnants of a disinherited race) that pulls me in.

Another example:

The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

I’m wondering if anybody recognizes this? I’ll spill the beans if nobody wants to speak up. I’m also wondering why the sentence has always stuck in my head. The only explanation I’ve got is the use of the word seemed. With that one word, a world of possibilities opens up before us, and the story might take us to any of them.

And for something completely different, sometimes pure shock value works. Here’s an example:

Three men at McAlester State Peniteniary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figureing, hardly human at all. His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any of the others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life. It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it was but rather like some form of rubber tubing.

Dirty White Boys | Stephen Hunter

I like Stephen Hunter’s books about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger. I had read a few of them before I picked up Dirty White Boys. Maybe I was taken in by his opening because I already liked and trusted the author — I knew enough to give Hunter a chance, and my reaction was tempered by that. Thus a warning: an opening like this, calculated to shock on multiple levels (sexual imagery, racism, crime) might backfire if you don’t have the skill to pull it off. Especially if you aren’t Stephen Hunter.

In summary, first sentences are really hard. Wickedly hard, for me at least. But once that first sentence is solid on the page… the rest of the damn novel still has to be written.