Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Last year at Bouchercon I attended a panel where the brilliant Christa Faust responded to the inevitable question that always seems to creep up in any gathering of writers and readers. Someone asked her about whether or witht he METoo movement should writers abandon stories where female characters are the victims of crimes. Especially sexual crimes. I'm going to paraphrase her answer here but essentially what she said was :
"You can write whatever you want. But I don't think we need that type of story written by a cisgender man anymore. We don't need that anymore. If it's going to be written let a woman write it." 
I thought about her answer for a long time. This week it seemed especially prescient after I watched GREEN BOOK  win the Oscar for best picture.
I know , I know GREEN BOOK isn't a crime film. It's not a noir film. Although changing the plot to include a heist would have been interesting as hell. I mention it as an example of what Christa was getting at. There are certain themes and stories that should fade into the annals of history. 
 A cozy English mystery that depends on a swarthy "foreigner" as a plot device. Dame Agatha used that one ad nauseam . The hooker with a heart of gold. The overly exuberant  LGBTQ  character. I could go on but I think you get the point. 
Certain types of stories have a shelf life. That shelf life drops significantly when those stories are interpreted by individual without a vested interest in accurate representation. 
I can hear some people screaming at their computer screen or phone
"But a movie like GREENBOOK is great because it  has representation! The black guy is the white guy's boss!"
In theory yes. GREEN BOOK  is based on a true story. The script was written by the son of Dr.Don Shirley's driver.  It's inherently slanted to unfold the story from the point of view of Tony. Because the screen writer had no vested interest in making sure the story presented both men as equals. GREEN BOOK is marketed as a buddy story but it plays out like a one man show. And yes the great Marshela Ali won an Oscar for his performance. I think that says more about the prodigious talent of Mr. Ali than it says about the nuances of the script.
 Look I 'm not standing on my soap box and screaming at you about what you want to write. I'm not advocating censorship. All I'm saying is if you choose to write a story featuring themes or characters that you may not initially have a deep understanding of or a vested interest in please make sure you are doing the due diligence to represent those ideas in a forthright and honest way. Tell the characters story not yours. 
And if you can't do that leave it to someone else who can.


Thomas Pluck said...

Well said. I haven't seen Green Book but I was disappointed. I knew the story of Victor Hugo Green and thought it would be about him. Then I read the synopsis and had a tiny hope, because Italian-Americans haven't had a non-mob story since Moonstruck, and my paisans can be racist as fuck (just as we are seeing with Latinx men in white supremacist gangs like the Proud Boys--if your group went from being considered non-white to being white, some of them go all-in on hating "non-whites"). I believe an interesting story that hewed closer to reality--Don Shirley's family says it's a load of bullshit--could have been written. There's a reason even back as far as 1976, Mel Brooks brought in Richard Pryor to write the script for Blazing Saddles. It's like you said--let those who know the story personally tell their story.

Lanny Larcinese said...

...raising the question: What story are we telling? The unfolding plot? The story of the pov character? If so, it must be told through the character's prism, which may or may not be yours or mine or even most's. And what about the author's own prism, i.e., voice, consisting not only of the sum total of his experiences but also how he has processed them, how they were influenced by his life, etc. I believe the plausibility test still serves the purpose, vs. cultural appropriation or sensitivity tests. If the author, or his voice via fictional characters, are assholes and treat characters unfairly, asshole-ness will emerge and repugnance will automatically jump off the page.

shawn cosby said...

Great point Lanny. I think if the author is putting the needs of the characters and also doing all they can to respect the specific situation a certain character finds themselves in then a story will appropriately address issues of identity and representation and complexity. But if I as a writer write about an issue or a character I don't adequately understand then it will ring false. All this can fall under research, beta reads concern is how many times are we being honest about that research ? Are we actually looking at things from multiple pov's or are we assuming we have illustrated those perpectives