By Danny Gardner
I'm working on a standalone book. The inciting incident for our teenage protagonist is the burden of explaining a stack of detention slips to his mother. A bigoted English teacher who doesn't appreciate the sudden influx of black Chicagoans into his lily-white suburb is off the rails. His term papers are graded not for their clarity of subject and depth of analysis, but according to the street gangs, and welfare, and section-8 vouchers the teacher fears. When debating Orwell's 1984, he's offended at our protagonist's alternate (black) take and kicks him out of class. The school secretary hands him a note his mother must sign or he'll be dropped from honors English. The oversimplified refrain for every black family is teachers are infallible, education is the only key to the shackles of our heritage, Talented Tenth, knowledge is power, blah blah blah. Our hero doesn't know whether he should forge the note his mother has to sign for him to get back into English class or if he should make her aware and incur her wrath. He could be left back over the teacher's lower-case 'w' white supremacy, which would kill his mama, dead as she wanna be. That's pretty good. Liz can pitch that to Scholastic or somewhere. There's plenty of black misery, which is all the rage right now.
A wrinkle: our protagonist is a once magnet-school prodigy turned baby hustler. Words are his basketball. He tested out of high school English, for the second time, in fourth grade. It's a point of pride for him. He scrapes by working until 2am every night as an illegal bar back at the area bowling alley, investing part of his paycheck on House music records, two turntables, and a beat machine, another part on the wholesale candy and snacks he sells from his locker, and the rest goes to his mother. Gang kids try to rob him on the daily but he uses humor and Chitown fighting skills if necessary. His moms, once his champion, self-medicates her widow's grief and is prone to outbursts of verbal and physical violence when she's not embarrassing him by, say, falling off the roof of the house in her underwear as he gets off the detention bus with at least five other inappropriately chatty classmates. Moms has been sober two days in a row so it may be safe to state his case, instead of cop a plea, or make like a forger and thus begin his slide into iniquity. Two solid themes/threads. Enough for a "mama, you gotta get clean" subplot. Once good, now bad mom and
son? Television rights. ABC Famalam. But wait—
He's about to go for honesty when his older brother bursts in the front door bleeding profusely from the side of his head. Our protagonist calls the cops as Moms tries calming the brother and being a mother. As she's been out of it a long while, when she meets this shock, she flips her wig. It's Mama in overdrive, but where have you been all this time you kids needed you? Still the same thread. We've just added an older brother.
Two officers arrive, sans EMT, and they don't assist but question the brother and family without an attorney present, much less a responsible adult. There's now blood everywhere. Older brother curses at one cop about their bullshit. Cop pulls his baton and raises it in their living room to strike an already bleeding teenager in front of his mother and little brother, who also curses them out while he attempts to soothe his wounded brother because the cops will really have to kill him because he's, for real, that kind of Chicago Negro. When he wasn't fighting in the street or back-talking cops two at a time, he beat our protagonist, sometimes severely. That's, what, three more layers. What do we call it? Threads? The cops openly mention the Department of Children and Family Services, which is the frickin' Stasi for any parent of color in Illinois. Foster homes are threatened by the white cops. Brother is still bleeding. New dilemma, but more black misery, so we're still good, but I should slow it down with the threads/themes/convolution.
Same chapter, enter mom's alcoholic Vietnam veteran boyfriend who has priors and is recognizable. More cops arrive. Oh, and those detentions and eventual expulsion from honors English class, the only point of pride in his life? They came from a Jewish teacher who defies everything the protagonist had been taught to expect in the relationship between black folk and Jewish folk. He can't wrap his head around how his natural ally in the resistance of racial oppression could be such a racist. In Chicago, Jewish folks were generally black folk's only source of support in the education and healthcare systems to the judicial system all the way to the city government. His friends' parents say vile things about Jews. Early Hip Hop is quoting Louis Farrakhan a lot. Even using samples of his voice. Distrust between black folk and Jewish folks doesn't match up to the Civil Rights Movement lore, but seem more and more rational as this irrational teacher with his own issues continues to hurt him.
I can hear it now. Whoa, dude. Black anti-Semitism? You have more themes than a Ukranian Wordpress developer. Pick something to write about, already. One or two, maybe three because you're black, and it's miserable, thus it'll sell, but you can't put all that into a story.
So, I should maybe leave out how, the next day, his favorite uncle is murdered and all indications point to the Chicago police. Fam takes a field trip to the Cook County Morgue. Mama is broken again. Cop justice. So many themes. Too many themes.
Hey, I agree with you. It was too many themes when I lived those two days of blackness in the 80s. Far too many disparate threads for a fourteen-year-old, although it wasn't a unique day. The next night, after I get sent home from work early because I dropped a tray of drinks on a bowling league captain who yelled "stupid nigger" in my face, my other brother is headed for the open window on the second floor because he thinks God wants him in Heaven early but it's really the psychoactive laced into the joint the white boys with the Heavy Metal t-shirts gave him but didn't tell him about because they thought his affinity for their white boy things made him a clown ripe for a lethal practical joke. This dood is 6'4", 220lbs. I'm 5-foot nuthin' and almost went to the state finals in Wrestling off forfeits because few schools had 98-pounders for me to match with. I somehow have to stop him from going out the window to meet the Creator, make sure my eldest brother with the head wound didn't share the same joint, and get my term paper finished in a madhouse or I'm repeating a grade, surely the needed excuse for my mother to drink herself to death, once and for all.
This is black American life, friends. The basic difficult life stuff anyone, black or otherwise, understands well, yet compounded by many more plot threads that come crashing through the door, all veritable non-sequiturs, yet each shares immediate priority because you, the protagonist of your own life, have no agency, no power, and no actual rights that help you in the present moment. You have to deal with all of it and still get up for school in two hours. You have to get back on the bus to a chorus of taunts about how your drunk mama fell off the roof of your house in her underwear. That's one day of your individual black life, at fourteen years old. You must follow the same rules and values as everyone else around you, plus survive in a totally different world that those who control the definitions of success disregard outright.
Same as I must follow the common conventions of fiction writing as dictated by people who are white, well-educated, and frankly over-educated for the task of authoring the crime fiction they actually turn out. These are the dogs I have to hunt with. We don't all hunt the same. We're not all after the same meat. What constitutes meat in my hunt is immediately sub-standard fare in the
hunt. I still need the meat that is meant for me, but I have to hunt their meat as well, because otherwise, I'm hunting on the fringes, alone, without a pack. I've done this successfully, wildly so with all the hard work and money I've put in for two years.
Which doesn't mean shit from Shinola.
I’m working on the follow-up to my Shamus-nominated debut, A Negro and an Ofay,
and I've resolved to be a better writer than before, to the point of trashing whole cloth two—yes, two—50,000 word drafts and spending two months studying up on where the reviews say I erred, even giving credence to the cranks who got the book for free and laid out all sorts of nonsense on Goodreads or in emails they sent direct. I want to write a worthy and respected second novel. I’ve gone to some of those places in Elliot’s inaugural tale to see what I could have done better to satisfy some of these charges. That doesn't mean I agree with the dismissive tone many reviewers took toward my novel, even as they praised it. Keep in mind, these reviewers are self-published, have no background in cultural criticism or analysis and certainly no familiarity with the nuances of black life in America circa 2018 much less in 1952, the era the book is set. One podcaster praised the way I "balance so many themes, well enough" for readers to overlook a garbage plot filled with needless convolution, which was derived from my actual life experiences. Another claimed they tired of all the "threads"—at this point the going euphemism for aspects of blackness—and would have rathered a book about Elliot Caprice's interactions with the criminal underworld as a teenager.
The one dig I allowed to incense me was the claim I fashioned a plot to deliver an open complaint about being neither fish nor fowl in the world between black and white myself and that the action (which for me is not about thrills but stark violence that invaded my daily life) is a device to tie up the "disparate" elements. Disparate. As if black folk can pick and choose the elements of our own life stories. He lives in Milwaukee. Go ask black folk in that city if their lives were like Happy Days or The Tales of Elliot Caprice.
I’ve read folks' glee at stories with as much layering as mine in, say, Boston-set crime novels. BBC Television’s LUTHER, which is black without introducing themes of black existence (the preferred manner of meeting an inclusion quota) is more convoluted than a bag of cats. There are fewer themes in my work than the damned Wu-Tang Clan crime fiction in your ear holes on the treadmill right now, but for me, they're considered flaws of amateurism. Then we'll be in the bar at the same time a couple of instances a year and we all have to drink and eat together and I'm supposed to show folks who criticize without appropriate background (and spelling and punctuation) the same respect as Janet Maslin of the New York Times. In that case, it wouldn't be the critic/author relationship. That's the authoritative white man/subordinate black man relationship, the one I abandoned when I told my English teacher to go fuck himself and asked the dean for the appropriate papers to drop out of school, the only instance which I'd forge my mother's signature.
When white folks get annoyed at my many themes and plotlines and threads, they’re looking for the simplicity that they’ve found in books written by white men about white men which have been elevated to canon and represent the standard. Last night, I attended a reading and discussion about the first annotated edition of a Raymond Chandler novel, which I purchased as reference material and I found much value within. Note the standing-room-only crowd held in rapt attention to words published in 1939 most worshippers already know by heart better than the Pledge of Allegiance.
|"It's fun, but they're taking a long time to bring Raymond on."|
Gary Phillips and I might just be the only black folks up in there, and there aren't too many more people of color beyond Steph Cha, who was more finessed than Steph Curry when she handled the line, "Cute as a Filipino on a Saturday night." Ah, standards.
Women, people of color, and those sensitive to marginalized groups have never painted my work with those brushes. My depiction of the complex tangle of threads, themes, or whatever we call life when we want to discount another’s journey is never extrapolated as flaws. In The Criminal Element, Neliza Drew lays out the proceedings in that irascibly-titled first novel of mine better than I ever could, and with the clarity and lean wisdom of a black grandmother with a community she minds from her stoop. Kate Malmon contributed a review that was so stark in its acceptance of the nuances of my narrative, I wasn't sure if I could trust it at first, it made me feel so relieved. Gabino Iglesias went meta-contextual on 'em, linking our present reality, then not yet Trumpitized, with the past I depict before a crisp examination of the service I pay to the mystery-writing standards I try to uphold.
When reviewers and peers with liquor courage bag on my work in marginalizing ways, it’s more of a report on them, and it’s always delivered in the same tone as someone who claims to babysit their own kids as if it's some occasional sub-responsibility of being the man around the house. People who feel inconvenienced by the struggles of others. No matter how unfair an American white man’s life may be, there’s always a woman or a person of color who deals with the same issues, but with less opportunity and resources and less latitude for error when white men’s solutions don’t work for them. These are the folks I write for. If you are a member of the dominant race and gender and you care about those of us who aren't, I write for you even more, because you're holding all the change and I need you to come up off it, with the quickness, so my grandkids can write whatever they wanna and be judged on the merits.
For the other folks, who if they were really smart closed the browser tab containing this screed, here's what you gon' do, and not gon' do, not if you want it all hugs and kisses in the bar at the next Bouchercon:
Feel free to tell me what you think my book needs less of, and where your appreciation for my work ends, if you have a background in literary and cultural criticism or some sort of developed understanding of a world beyond yours. We can Algonquin Round Table that shit IF your opinion contains at least a base understanding of what I, as an artist, intended to do with the choice and how well I executed against that creative intention. What I won't abide is "x sucked, but read it for y, and z," or "I would have liked to see a simpler plot," or some such because, at that point, the actual crux of my work is so deep in your blind spot, nothing else I do within is apparent. It isn't that I don't want to follow conventional standards for these things. It's that they're insufficient to my own reality, the place from where all writers with a strong point of view work. I'm black, thus my reality is incommensurate to yours, and in these times, irreconcilably so. If you possess enough education and cultural interest to want to write a review no one asked for, don't be lazy. Don't write five-hundred words that boil down to, "As a white man who reads mysteries, I was unmoved." Put some damned rigor behind your work. Show me, don't tell me how superior you are. I’ve accepted the responsibility of continually improving my work. You cats are going to have to as well. Few of you are learned and principled critics but peddlers of opinion on your own platforms, but your platforms could be more valuable if you too improve. Step one: knowing what you're reading. I mean, the title includes the words NEGRO and OFAY. The word nigger is common parlance by page six, and everyone says it. It's set in 1952, not the best time for black folk in America. Chapter one provides all indication your white, male impression of the world may not be the lens you want on your camera body as you focus on these seventy-eight thousand words.
Terms such as themes, threads, 'needless convolution,' social issues are too similar to the euphemisms we hear in the worst conversations that are happening around us right now. We both know it's the softer way of saying "black stuff," same as Social Justice Warrior is the FCC-approved variant of the term 'nigger lover.' If you find yourself feeling the least bit cynical about the depiction of the daily lives of folks who don't look like you, that's your indication maybe your opinion of the work is unclear and, if you intend to maintain it, that's on you, but if you cook it up in a review posted publicly, you put a dime in the juke and we're dancin'.
Now, if you want help with that particular problem with your perception, you already know I'm willing, but if your cry for help is a careless mangling of my work in an amateur review, go'on somewhere. I don't know you. I don't owe you for reading a book I wrote. I wrote it. That's my end. If you're from Publishers Weekly, that's a different game I signed up to play. Don't hold back. Hurt me if you must. Otherwise, don't try to be nice. We're obviously not in the same hunt, and the meat you're after isn't good enough for me anyhow. Sorry it's gotta be like that, but it bees like that. Don't blame me. You're the one who purchased A Negro
and an Ofay
when you know you're annoyed at displays of black dignity.