Monday, May 30, 2011

Do You See What I See?

I had a dream the other night that Laura Lippman tried to kill me. That's about as noir as it gets, when someone as nice and warm as Laura could be a villain. I mean, if you can't trust Laura, you better live with your back to a wall.

At the time, it just seemed like one of those bizarre things, born out of a combination of odd thoughts that included driving through Federal Hill, talking to someone about The Wire, and the sobering reality we've had to deal with at school, with one of our students recently being shot and killed. Under normal circumstances, I'd prefer not to have my two lives collide on the blog here. But this will be relevant later, and that's why I am including the link.

Now, I wonder if the dream might have been a bit of a premonition, because days later, I find myself writing a blog post on a topic I hadn't even considered a week ago, and referencing a comment Laura made at Bouchercon Baltimore almost three years ago.

This is off of memory, from three years ago, but this is what I remember. Laura was on a panel, and someone in the audience asked why there aren't any black crime fiction authors. Laura was quick to point out that she was surprised the person hadn't seen Gary Phillips that weekend.

In no way do I intend to single Laura out or pick on her for a comment that, in the context it was made, was reasonable. The reality is, her panel wasn't on that subject in particular, nor was there time to dissect the issue in any way that would do credit to it... and unless I'm completely off my rocker, I believe Laura went on to say that. It was just one of those things that came up that someone needed to graciously sidestep, under the circumstances.

So, it is not that the issue wasn't discussed then and there that has me referencing the incident.

It's really, the fact that we never seem to go on to actually have that discussion as a community. In the context of the situation, Laura did what I do so often. She pulled out one random example to disprove an absolute.

But the reality is, attend Bouchercon, attend Harrogate, attend Bloody Words or any other mystery convention, and the overwhelming majority of those attending form a monochromatic crowd.

That being said, like Laura's panel at Bouchercon, the purpose of my post is also not to talk about where our black or Asian crime fiction authors are.

What's really on my mind is the issue of criticism and its validity within any given community, and the question of what responsibility we, as writers, have for the stories we tell.

I love it when Brian tells me he's done something on Spinetingler that's generated a huge controversy, and spawned blog posts and comments by the dozens. Specifically, I love that if there's any fall-out from the controversy, he gets to wear the egg and take the blame, and I can step in as editor-in-chief and appear reasonable and mature while I clean up his mess.

Or not. ;)

The other day when Brian told me that a post on Spinetingler had yielded dozens of comments, with no end in site, I suddenly became aware of the fact that a review of a short story was causing a huge controversy.

The review in question is Benjamin Whitmer's review of a James Reasoner story in DANGEROUS GROUND, a collection of Western Noir stories published by Cemetery Dance.

Whitmer explains, in a lengthy commentary, why he feels the story in question follows the format of an Indian-hater story, and why he takes issue with the story Reasoner wrote.

Now, many of us know James (if not in person, then online and through his writings and our interactions with him, and I'm a huge fan and have great admiration for James). And many of us also know of Ben Whitmer. He knocked my husband's socks off with Pike and won a Spinetingler Award. In fact, I do believe when Brian mentions Ben, there's a touch of reverence in his tone. At least, as much as is possible for a lapsed Catholic evolutionist to muster, but in the same way that I have a dedicated Rankin section in our library, I can imagine a future where Whitmer's works become top shelf works.

We love both authors, and I'm not interested in taking sides. Part of the reason is that I don't believe there are sides to take. Whitmer has acknowledged in the comments what Brian and I already knew - that James and Ben have been in touch. Nobody's asking for the post to be removed. The main people involved here have conducted themselves with class and everyone's fine.

While I have read Whitmer's lengthy analysis, I have not read the short story he's writing about, and that was deliberate. I did not want this blog post to be misconstrued as being about James, or his story. If it's about any part of the controversy, then it's about the comments that have appeared and the way some have reacted to Whitmer's review.

but… what? Something you like to read, or watch or play, is called racist! Or misogynistic! Or homophobic! Or all of the above! This will not do. No. Being associated, even remotely, with racism or sexism is just not on. It’s the worst insult in the world. You can’t cope. Time to get out of this bind. Do you–
a) shrug, accept that it’s possible to enjoy something while acknowledging its problematic aspects, and move on

b) enter berserk asshat mode because you are a fan of this thing and by god you will defend it, and its creator, to the VERY DEATH

c) enter berserk asshat mode because if something you enjoy is called racist/sexist/homophobic/etc then that’s just like you are being called all those nasty, horrible names personally! This must not stand, and by god you will defend yourself, and this thing you like, to the VERY DEATH

If you pick b or c, congratulations! I will hereafter refer to you as sack of shit.

I do believe that we have a responsibility, as writers, to consider what we write. We can't dismiss everything as simply art. If I were to write a story today about an African-American president being caught in some sort of political scandal, it would almost certainly be interpreted as a political commentary on President Obama, even if that wasn't my intention. (I mean, I define courage in the county where I live.)

Whatever we write, however, it can be framed by its time and every single piece of art created is interpreted through pre-existing filters that people bring with them.

I feel fairly confident that people who are gay are more likely to pick up on homophobic slurs than I am. I actually tutor students taking writing diplomas, and one of the assignments in the business writing course involves re-writing various statements, to remove bias. One of these sentences refers to a 'Jewish fire'. I had to look up what that was, and I've had other students admit they had no idea what the term meant.

Jewish students know, though.

We all bring our own filters to what we read, and that affects how we interpret things. Sometimes, it greatly discolors and distorts everything, far beyond reasonable criticism.

Other times, we're dead on the money.

That's why I included the link to the story about the student at my school that was shot and killed. It makes me sick to read the comments people have posted. The blatant racism and discrimination that's reflected by those comments is disgusting.

But this is the world we live in. We afford people anonymity on the web, so they speak without censor or concern for respect, or evidence of their assertions. And it's too easy in a city like Baltimore to dismiss this type of crime because of the reputation the city has.

What kills me is that people don't see the wonderful city that I see. Sure, Baltimore has its faults. Every single place on earth does. But I have spent the majority of the last two years working with students in Cherry Hill. And although I work with special needs students who have unique challenges, the student body at large embraces and accepts them as their own. When I walk into Southside, students hold the door for me, talk to me, and I enter a community. When a boy put his hands on me elsewhere in the city and hurt me, it was the students from Cherry Hill who stepped up to send a message, that nobody was going to hurt me again. Protected. Cared for. One of the community.

A community where I've never been met with racism or discrimination. A community where people reach into their pockets and help others out. A community where people sat silent in the halls, after we learned of the shooting, and young men had tears in their eyes and young women wept.

Marcus always said hi to us when we walked by him in the halls. 'Hi' in Cherry Hill might sound more like, "S'up," but it's a greeting all the same.

There is never any joy to be found in the tragic, violent death of a young person, ever. Unless you're a racist. And I don't even need to qualify my statement with referencing the fact that he was an athlete. Someone who was working on making a better future for himself and his family.

Marcus was a human being. And anyone who thinks a 19-year-old is beyond redemption because of where they live or the color of their skin or who they're related to is a racist, and no better than an Indian-hater.

But I must admit, perhaps today, if I read a story about some young person being killed, with any kind of inference that they deserved it because they were born of a certain ethnicity, in a certain place, and maybe even were related to people who'd made some bad choices… Maybe if I read a story like that today, I'd be pretty offended.

I have a filter. And there are raw emotions at work. And the comments left on a news story about a student prove the existence of racism in our society.

As an author, I have to acknowledge that there should be a separation between myself and the characters that I write, and that the story needs to create that separation. That's part of my job, and that's why I'm not too fond the idea of authors creating protagonists that are thinly disguised incarnations of themselves. If you admit your protagonist is based off of yourself, and then your protagonist makes racist statements, readers have a right to connect those dots.

Authors also have a responsibility to justify the content of the story and make sure it's relevant to the story being told. If offhanded, racial remarks are made throughout and have nothing to do with the story being told whatsoever, then people are going to wonder about the author and the author's views.

Same if the author has women being mutilated for no reason that's even connected to the main story.

Can I write a story about a Native American who spurns acts of kindness and slaughters countless whites in his quest for revenge without being racist, or an Indian-hater? Absolutely. The key is in justifying within the story why it is that the character refused forgiveness and was unable to make a different choice, and it needs to center on the character rather than his ethnicity.

And that's the subtlety of it all. Sometimes, as authors, we intend to convey things that we don't actually put on the page. And sometimes, as authors, we have to own some responsibility for that.

Like I said, I'm not taking sides about who's right in the Whitmer-Reasoner debate. I wanted this post to be about something bigger than that, and that is our fundamental obligation to consider the impact of our story, how it may be interpreted, and whether we've done our job to ensure the story is interpreted in the way we intended it to be.

I want people to realize that racism and bias and sexism… discrimination in all forms... exists. To deny that reality is ridiculous. As writers, if our works are grounded in the "real" world in any respect, we have some degree of responsibility to acknowledge that and be sure our stories don't perpetuate stereotypes or biases we don't intend for them to convey.

As Brian once said on Twitter, "If all the women in your novel are a) hot b) fuckable c) in to the protag d) all or some of the above. Then your book has a woman problem."

And if every male character I write thinks with his dick and spends all his time trying to get into some woman's pants, I have a problem writing men.

You can't write and only ask for people to love you. You have to acknowledge that some may love you, and others may loathe you. If I'm driving in my car and Wintersleep comes on, I have the right to turn it up. And someone else has the right to turn the radio off.

I think racist attitudes are pretty dangerous, but when we circle the wagons defensively and refuse to even have the discussion about discrimination, racism, sexism, the biases of our society and how that may shape our fiction and our community… That's even worse.

At Dachau concentration camp, there's a twisted metal memorial outside. It isn't until you get closer that you realize the metal is in the shape of bones and bodies, piled on top of each other. And in multiple languages read the words, "Never Again."

I watched the Berlin Wall come down, and nobody I knew felt it more than my German friend, Susie, because she had lived with the repercussions of WWII in a way that none of us North Americans had.

As a Canadian, I never fully comprehended the depth of the scars of slavery on the United States and how they still affect generations of people until I married an American and spent time living south of the Mason Dixon line.

It's unfair of me to completely dismiss an intelligently and respectfully offered opinion with no consideration of the potential validity of the perspective offered. I may still come away believing the person wrong, but knee-jerk defensiveness is part of what prevents us as a society from moving past our prejudices.

As writers of crime fiction, I would expect us to be more aware of how the ills of society hurt us all.

Or are those that say people read crime as safe wish-fulfillment/fantasy because we're all just one blow-out away from going postal closer to the truth than I'd like to believe?

And, in other news...

Spinetingler expands in June with the launch of a press. More information to come at


Sarah Tokeley said...

Thank you for this post, it's given me a lot to think about. I'm sorry for your community's loss.

John McFetridge said...

Well, Louis pretty much nails it, doesn't he?

It may even explain why us white guys like post-apocalyptic fiction - we'd rather the world gets destroyed than we have to be number two...

Laura said...

If the question -- which I don't recall at all -- was "Why aren't there any?", then pointing out an exception is only accurate. If the question was: "Why aren't there more?", then we would need more than the q-and-a session at a panel.

Straight white men, as a longtime majority, are used to seeing themselves at the center of things, in the mainstream. Women and non-whites are not as accustomed to that, so they have often read books (and watched films) with straight white heroes. To paraphrase Streisand in Funny Girl, if you're used to having an onion roll every day for breakfast and there's suddenly a bagel, you're like -- hey, who put this weird thing on my plate?

Cable television increasingly reflects a culture of niches, in which people can seek out stories about people who look like them. BET, according to a recent article I read, is having enormous success with shows centered on African-American characters while more mainstream networks, such as the CW, have abandoned them. Mainstream publishing has attempted niches via imprints, but that's problematic, too. I know I would not want to see my books categorized by my demographic. (Middle-aged White Woman Fiction).

More, later. Perhaps. This was posted to my Facebook page, so I thought I should check it out.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sarah, glad you found it thought-provoking.

John, you might be on to something with post-apocalyptic fiction.

Laura, as I said, I can't recall 100%, though both Brian and I remember the answer, but not the specifics of whether the question was "any" or "more". But it still wasn't relevant to the panel and its purpose at the time, and I believe attempting any kind of discussion on the subject would have derailed the panel in question, which would not have been helpful.

I spend a lot of my time wondering how to change what is. And I'm not talking about the crime fiction community when I say that. I'm talking about life, reality. Yeah, I know kids who sell drugs. I drive by some, see others in class. I know kids who've been put in protective custody this year after being shot in another drive by. And every day I'm talking to these kids about getting something more out of life, hoping to make some sense to them.

But I don't know how to show them a real world they can see themselves as part of. Other day, the seniors were voting who had the best smile, who they thought would be most successful, and one of the kids said, "Most likely to be president of what?" I said, "The United States." He turned to me and said, "From this school?"

It breaks my heart.

I know what you're saying about networks and TV; if anything, it validates Whitmer's essay. People buy and accept what they can believe in. The same is true of NY publishing. Case in point was a scene I wrote that was the original opening of LULLABY. A woman, beat half to death, sneaking her way out of the house, terrified her husband would catch her before she could make it to her car and drive 20 minutes to the police station. She gets there, and the door isn't open. Has to use an intercom to ask in. Cops won't open the door. She has to do the report over the intercom before they confirm a legitimate complaint and let her inside. She's standing outside in the snow in the dark, scared half out of her mind her husband's followed her and will catch her before the cops open the door.

She leaves and goes home, hoping to sell a lie in case he noticed she left.

Publisher told me right out nobody would believe the scene, no way would the cops leave a victim outside.

Thing was, the scene was 75% true, and the part about the woman being left outside was 100% true. I know. It was what happened to me. And I walked away because my fear of what would happen if my attacker found me there was greater than my faith in the police at that point.

On some level, we have to all admit that if someone buys a story that conveys a racist sentiment or a stereotype, it's because it can be believed. I know a fair number of people who don't want to read crime fiction because they don't like how women are portrayed, and that goes back to the pulp days. And while we may know crime has evolved as a genre beyond that, maybe we need to consider our image and how to counter public perceptions that are based off of history.

Asked a senior the other day where he was going after high school and he named off a local school, then said it was just until he got in where he really wanted. I asked where that was.

Art institute in Philly.

I love it when someone defies a stereotype.

Jay Stringer said...

Great post, and welcome to our site Laura.

As so often happens when i'm following you with my tuesday post, i'm tempted to try and find which aspect of the topic interests me most and climb into it, burrow away at the discussion in my own post.

But I think it needs to sit for awhile.

What I find interesting is how things change. The world is a large and complex place, and somethings thats offensive in one place, is normal 200 miles further north. These are things that are going to get more and more interesting as the world gets smaller.

A few examples that are a bit away from the post, because they come from my side of the big wet thing;

In the south of England, say about 80 or 100 miles south of where i grew up, the term 'Jock' will be used to describe a Scot. Where I grew up, in the middle of the country, i'd only ever heard it used on TV, in sit-coms. Moving to Glasgow, about 250 miles from where i grew up and in another country, i find that the majority of people up here find the term 'jock' to be highly offensive. Same as "Scotch," which is a drink, but some people think it's a people.

By the same token, where i grew up is a very mixed area. Hundreds of years of being the centre of industry means that it's a melting pot. Every single wave of immigration to hit the UK has hit my region. So i've grown up taking certain things for granted -a certain mix of skin tones, of food, of language. A certain mix of racial backgrounds in peer groups. Certain words and phrases that are never used casually, only by those who intend harm.

But moving to Glasgow at first i was a little set back by what i called "such a white damn city." Glasgow is at a different stage to the Midlands. It's still caught up in violent hatred based on Irish immigration of 200 years ago. The other groups, people that i took for granted as part of the normal make up of home, are to b found in far fewer numbers and are much more recent. There's still more clear ethnic divide to the neighbourhoods, and with it a stronger identity in some areas but a much weaker one in others.

Theres also more casual use of phrases and language that would be unacceptable back home. Phrases that I would never even type unless a character in one of my stories was going to say them. But most of the people using them are not intending to be racist, and i'm not saying Glasgow is a racist city. It's simply a city thats in a different point to mine, a different cultural mix and a different stage of integration.

And then the people who ARE racist, the people who intend the words and know the meanings, are prone to write off the area I come from as "full of- (add ethnic group here)" meaning that moving four hours drive to the north has made me into someone who's hometown can be the butt of racist jokes.

Such problems I had never thought of until i moved.

I have a lot more to say. I write stories set in my home area, and many of the characters are Polish and Asian (though a different Asian to the way you guys use it, yet another difference) and I've had many sleepless nights over what words I can live with using in dialogue.

Jay Stringer said...

One other interesting thing- touching on the TV network and the bagel.

I can't comment on America, but I find it both interesting and heart breaking how such decisions can be made over here.

For us I find that regional bias and class issues are part of the mix.

There's only one region of the UK -to be frank, only one city- that commisioning editors in the media seem interested in.

I can literally see someone eyes glaze over when I tell them where my stories are set.

Ooops, climbing up on my soapbox again.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jay, you could write an interesting series of posts on the subject. And I often find that when we have distance from the locale, we're more willing to accept the points being made. I lived in Cork in the 90s, so my views of Ireland are skewed by a time, and incidents that happened then. Dealing with East German border guards was nowhere near as scary as crossing into Northern Ireland in 1990.

I also remember my own conceit at the time, as a teenager, thinking things like that didn't happen in my country. Then I picked up a magazine and it was the Oka Crisis

And it was my country.

I think, over time, I've learned to consider what I don't see as much as what I do see.

We're re-watching season 2 of The Wire and I've made an observation two years ago I couldn't have made. It's all about life experience since. And it's unsettling enough that I won't relay it publicly, but it has struck me, again, how much we filter things through our experience, or inexperience.

I will say I've gotten some students to read this year, by bringing in graphic novels, and I hope that's the beginning of a move in the right direction.

Oh, and Jay, thank God I'm not the only person who agonizes over the things their characters say. But I'm glad I do. I think it will help me from crossing lines that shouldn't be crossed.

Jay Stringer said...

All good points again Sandra.

I'll definitely need to return to this in a week or so after brewing it for awhile.

One of the challenges I find, and the reason I still so rarely write stories set up here, is where to draw the line.

As much as I think things through and agonize, i'm still ultimately confident with the swearing, the violence and the racial slurs that my characters get up to in stories set back home. But then writing something set up here, then I have the concern that there's an extra filter, that it;s an Englishman writing about a Scottish city, and a city with different racial rules, and I have to think long and hard about that.

I guess it comes down to this; in the area that formed me, i find it easier to remove myself from the story and make it just about the characters. Because it's like i share the same dna as the location and the people. But when writing about an other location, i'm less sure of when it's the characters talking, and when it's the characters talking filtered through my eyes.

But thats a weakness in my own writing, not an absolute rule. It would lead down a slippery slope into something else that i hate; these internet terms like 'race fail' where people think that writers should only write about people of their own race and gender, but ultimately that surely reinforces the problems and reduces the art.

Wow...i should really be saving all these thoughts up...

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, when it comes to 'race fail' I think Carcetti said it best in season 4 of The Wire. Community after community, neighborhood after neighborhood, people want the same basic things. And that's what it boils down to, for me. If I can believe there are men, women, blacks, whites, gays, Asians, rich people and poor people who believe in trust, honesty, values... I can write those people. And if I don't believe in them, I can't write them.

I can write a character who doesn't believe in those things, but it stems from being true about the character as an individual. One of my best friends in high school was half Native, so I have no trouble believing in a Native guy as sensitive, caring, law-abiding and decent. Meet one of my protagonists.

As a Canadian, I tend to say we can't apologize enough for what people did hundreds of years ago. I think there's a time and place for past apologies, but there's also a time when the apologies are dangerous. When people here make comments about slave owners, I'm happy to hide behind being Canadian. It stops them cold. We didn't own slaves, so if you want to hate me it's got to just be about skin color. Not past sins. One student tried selling a line to a teacher about needing a break because of history, and the teacher (who is African-American) said, "What boat did you come off of?"

At some point, the only way to move on is to learn to let all that shit go. Instead, we recycle the issues with different labels.

Nigel Bird said...

I'm out of the loop in terms of the postings, but I think that this piece is cleverly and carefully put together and will make us all (certainly me) take a good look at ourselves (there's no room for complacency here).
Writers aren't free from being tangled up in problems and challenges, in fact I think that they do have some responsibility for what they put out. One of the issues with writing, however, is that by using characters to voice the opinions of real people, there's a fine line that's being tread and things can easily be misconstrued. I thought you handled that issue in the piece too, that it's a case of ensuring that homogenous characters or viewpoints aren't the only ones on show.
Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking.
I also am rather fond of Mr Reasoner and Mr Whitmer, so hope all eneded well.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Nigel, thanks - you've hit the nail on the head. The fine line is making sure that you don't populate a work with a singular viewpoint. That's the fastest way to infer a bias, not to mention make people think you're only capable of writing that type of character.

Unknown said...


I'm late as usual to the party. I read all the posts in the little dust up, or maybe skirmish is the best term. Then I read you post.

I just could not leave without letting you know that I think your post was brilliantly written. Period.

Thank you, Jim Wilsky.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks skees. I appreciate the comment.

Ayo Onatade said...

I have come to this rather late but I can fully understand and appreciate Sandra's comments. Off the top of my head I can think of only 4 members of the ethnic minority/mixed race who write or have written crime novels here in the UK. Of the 4 only two of them are still writing crime novels. I attend Crimefest & St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference on a regular basis. My attendance at Harrogate is infrequent along with my attendance at Bouchercon however I am due to attend both this year. I can attest to the fact that at Harrogate (when I have been there) St Hilda's, Crimefest I have tended to be the only black person there. Does it bother me? It used to. But not any longer. Why, because I am know quite a lot (mainly members of my family and close friends)that read and love crime fiction. I just happen to be the one who is more interested in it than they are and not just reading books. Do I get weird looks when I start talking about books and people are surprised about how much I know? It used to happen but not any longer. The comments have been pretty interesting and I cannot find myself disagreeing with any of the comments made. I hope that I defy the stereotype.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I really appreciate your thoughts, Ayo. I wish we had more diversity at the conventions, but as long as people are reading, that's the most important thing.

Ayo Onatade said...

Thanks Sandra! Much appreciated. I agree that as long as people are reading that's what's imporatnt!