The Magical Negro

The title of this post comes from Matthew Hughey by way of Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist. She quotes the professor, a sociologist, in her essay-review of the film, The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel. In Bad Feminist she ‘survives’ Django Unchained IAJU_Bad_Feminist_Roxane_Gay– although I do think that she missed Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word for what it was supposed to be: Satire. She offers praise to Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’s The Butler, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, although with reservations around the role of Patsey in that last film.

12 Years, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, she saw as yet another “struggle narrative,” but it is the feral violence within John Singleton’s Rosewood, also based on an historical event, this time in 1923 Florida, where the White community, on what turned out to be a false allegation of sexual assault, visited horrific violence upon the Black community that warranted for Gay a “voluntary three-day segregation.” RosewoodSetting aside the observation that African-American directors directed all the films that she liked, I want to address a passing comment that she makes at the end of her critique of The Help.

Gay asks and answers a rhetorical question: Can a writer write outside of his or her racial experience, sexual orientation and, by extension, culture, class, and ‘privilege’? As a creative person, as an educated woman, she answers: “Yes” but, as a Haitian-American she is cynical and suspicious of white writers when it comes to race. White writers and Hollywood, in particular, can’t help but write in the Magical Negro, she tells readers.

Journalist John Howard Griffin whited himself out (literally) to a shade of brown in order to write his Black Like Me (1961), a chronicle of what it was to be a colored man in the American South of the Fifties. johnhowardgriffin2-largeThe publication of Black Like Me predated King’s arrest “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the numerous sit-ins that followed and the deputized white men in cars waving Confederate flags to terrorize peaceful protestors. Black Like Me still inspires mixed responses from readers. In 1967, Random House published William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin praised. A year later, with a nation reeling from the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and riots, Confessions had taken the Pulitzer Prize, but not without some backlash, which had come in the form of a critical beating in a publication entitled Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Gay’s questions had been posed back then already. Can a white writer write the African-American experience?

31MCM53B4QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Styron was vilified. The consensus opinion was that Styron had crafted an historical distortion of facts, perpetuated racial stereotypes, and substituted his own racism. That Styron was a southerner, a Virginian, amounted to self-incrimination. Detractors claimed that Styron posits Turner’s Rebellion with his character’s lust for a white woman – miscegenation was a crime until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia – and not with a slave’s suppressed hatred for the society that equated his personhood with private property. The other charge leveled at Styron was plausibility, since Styron’s Turner is a man who uses educated speech and demonstrates obvious intelligence. Another criticism was that Styron had sanitized white slave owners as being kind and decent to their slaves. Readers had long forgotten Northrop and did not yet have Alex Haley’s Roots. To invert Gay and Hughey’s wording: Styron had written Magical Whites and Maniacal Negroes.

How could a white man write the slave experience? Styron responded in the first edition and again, in 1992, with a special Afterword for the Vintage reprint of Confessions. Styron had been candid; he had taken wide liberties with historical facts, using the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication of Turner’s confessions, which served as actual court testimony. Styron had this one document and, no doubt, the biased oral tradition on both sides of the racial divide about the two-night killing spree in August of 1831. Styron was explicit that his work was Fiction.

The preface to Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication is quoted in the first pages of Styron’s Confessions. smallTurner’s language is indeed that of an educated man. His master, Benjamin Turner, had had Turner learn how to read and write in order for him to entertain guests. After the insurrection, Virginia would pass prohibitive laws against educating slaves. Styron’s fictionalization fastened on two discordant historical facts: Turner had escaped the plantation but returned to it on his own. Throughout the original 1831 deposition, Turner exhibits fervent religiosity, claiming visions and an ordained purpose in life. In a word, critics claimed that Styron had besmirched an icon by suggesting that a charismatic, devout Nat Turner, who had hoped his violence would inspire waves of armed rebellion, was a psychopath, no different than Charles Manson, who believed a race war was imminent.

The violence in The Confessions of Nat Turner is graphic: axes and knives were used to murder men, women and children. Turner, however, spared poor white folks, seeing them as no better than slaves. This decision alone suggests a profound insight into race and wealth. Nat Turner was the last participant of the rebellion to be executed. His body was sold for dissection and desecrated. White reprisal after the insurrection was swift and violent throughout the South. A section of Virginia State Route 658 would become a veritable Appian Way, where the decapitated heads of suspected participants were staked and displayed as a warning to slaves. A generation later, John Brown would attempt his abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry.

William Styron would write Sophie’s Choice (1979). There was some criticism around his eroticizing Sophie, but none of the responses to that work ever approached the furor that Confessions had provoked. He was not accused of having dared to write a Holocaust story, or a woman’s story, but the tide of politically correct opinion would change that. In 2010, Yann Martel would court controversy with his Beatrice and Virgil because he was a Gentile writing about the Holocaust. It would seem that Gay is right: only the oppressed have the right to write their own fiction. Black is not only a matter of race, but it is a color that cannot be erased. Black is visible and undeniable. In 2009, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones sparked controversy because the author, a Jew, had written a novel from the point of view of a sadistic SS officer. His crime was not a matter of authenticity, the Holocaust, but one of demonstrating poor taste.

I’ll end here with an observation; this one is from Euripides’s Medea (photo is from a South African production, 1994-96, performed by the Jazzart Dance Theatre.) medeaMedea is the epitome of the woman scorned, but what makes her monstrous is not her gender, nor her lack of maternal instinct, but the simple fact that she is not Greek – she is a barbarian. She, too, is Maniacal. America has not accepted all of its citizens; it has mythologized some as Noble Savages, or as Magical. America sees and fears Black as Other, as Barbaric. The same logic, however, that justified slavery would rationalize Manifest Destiny. Put another way, in this social construct called America, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, society finds “an eye for an eye” a far easier modus operandi than “turn the other cheek.”

Perhaps then, I am naïve: Imagination should have no walls, no boundaries. No privilege. Judge a story by how it is told and how it speaks to this human estate of living, loving, and dying. Don’t judge it by who is telling the story, for nobody owns Humanity.

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Immortal Horses and Two Urns

Like most people, I visit online sites for my news, limiting my interest to relevant news, avoiding crime stories and outright negativity in politics. Perhaps it’s browser history and cached cookies, but I am served up content that ranges from heartwarming animal rescues, rehabilitation and reunions to the heartbreaking and outrageous stories of cruelty. The latter makes me dislike the human species. The moving accounts are that: moving and heroic, glimmers of decency and inspiration, and even the mildest of the bad stories are too reprehensible to mention here. When I read these accounts, I can’t help but think of two obscure incidents in Homer’s Iliad.

alx-68-2-510-_800x800First, there is that danger of projecting our own standards that comes with interpreting any ancient text (same could be said for  a medieval or renaissance literature, for that matter) — anything pre-Descartes and Galileo. Everything is likely symbolic, layered, and not imbued with the same cultural values we ascribe to speech or events. What I say here is most likely not what Homer intended.

If you have read the Iliad, you know that the story is about the last fifty-two days of the decade-long Trojan War, the days of Achilles’s rage (mênis). Achilles sits there on the sidelines until his friend Patroklos is killed. His decision to exact revenge will explore the Greek concepts of glory (klêos), honor (timê), and Fate (moira). The homicidal Achilles, so grief-stricken and obsessed with revenge, abstains from all things human such as eating, personal hygiene, and sex until his wrath is exhausted. In becoming human again, he must die. And what does this have to do with animal abuse and cruelty?


The Achaean Achilles had three horses that drew his chariot. Two of these horses, Balios and Xanthos, were immortal, gifts from Zeus to the warrior’s father, Peleus. The third horse, Pedasos, was mortal and later killed by a spear thrown at Patroklos. After Patroklos dies, the two immortal horses weep for him. He had fed and cared for the two animals; they mourned his kindness to them. Their grief moves Zeus. Hera disturbs the natural order of life and bestows upon them the gift of speech. Xanthos will tell Achilles that the god Apollo had had a hand in killing Patroklos. Apollo had hit Patroklos from behind and stunned him while two others, including Hektor, assassinated him. The dying Patroklos mocks Hektor and prophesizes that Achilles will kill him. My interest, however, is with Hera’s interference. That Homer anthropomorphizes the horses, that he gives them speech, is rare in classical Greek literature. The significance?

There are three tiers of Being in the Greek model of the universe. There are the immortal gods, mortal humans, and mortal animals. All three are beings have awareness and certain limitations. The gods, though immortal, cannot alter moira, Fate. Zeus, for example, endows Hektor with strength, knowing that Achilles will inevitably kill him. The gods don’t experience or know death. Humans are the only creatures that know that they’ll die. They also are endowed with speech capable of expressing their emotions. Animals die, but have neither speech nor knowledge of their own mortality. Zeus says of humans, “there is not anywhere a thing more dismal than man.” He utters those lines out of pity for the immortal horses voice after he sees their tears.

Gods expect supplication and gifts. The horses, while immortal like the gods, do not. Like domesticated pets, they are dependent on kindness. Animals are capable of feeling fear, happiness, and grief. I think that there are plenty of examples without having to cite them. Animals do communicate with each other, though we don’t know their language. Scientists have studied animal communication. Dolphins use clicks, whales use songs, and so on. Another crucial point: animals kill only when they have to; they’ll kill in self-defense or when they are hungry. Humans are, for the most, capricious about violence.

In addition to the two immortal horses and to Zeus’s comment about humanity, the Iliad offers another rare statement in Greek literature, this one in a conversation between Achilles and Priam, about Good and Evil in the world. This is distinct from the story of Pandora’s box. Achilles explains to Priam that Zeus has, outside his door, two urns: one filled with “blessings”; the other, with “evils.” Zeus disperses them with his thunder, at best mixing the blessings and evils because he cannot choose wholly from one urn without drawing from the other. Man and the world, consequently, must have both fortune and sorrows.

5e6a4fde504c81174709d2850898d318Balios and Xanthos wept for their kind friend, Patroklos. Immortal, they knew sorrow. Heads down, manes falling, and eyes tearing, they wept. Perhaps, we are gods to our pets; they are dependent on us for food and shelter; their looking up at us reminds me of yet another powerful scene in the Iliad. Priam kissed the hands of Achilles, the man who had killed all his sons, in an act of supplication. King Priam had ventured out onto the battlefield to meet with Achilles, who had desecrated Hektor’s body, to ask for the body of his slain son. Homer doubles critical scenes. In an earlier act of supplication, the outcome was cruel, far less civilized.

A supplicant would put one arm around the knees of the person he was begging and with the free hand, reach up and hold the other’s beard. A stalemate ensues since the person petitioned cannot move or look away and the petitioner has no obvious weapon. The petitioner, in looking up, is vulnerable, throat exposed. Lycaon, son of Priam, had embraced Achilles’s knees and asked for mercy.

Achilles slit his throat.

Abandoning an animal, young or old, mistreating a vulnerable creature is a betrayal of decency. We are mortal, we may speak different languages, but our pets know our moods, our scent, our hours of arrival and departure and they speak the ultimate language of acceptance and love. If in looking up at us they see us as gods, then we should act better and demonstrate compassion, mercy and nobility. If thunder brings both blessings and evils, then we magnify the former, diminish the latter when we act humane and noble.

(Image 1: 4th century papyrus containing  parts of the Iliad. Simile Collection. Egypt.)

(Image 2: Automedon tames Achilles’ horses. Henri Regnault. MFA, Boston.)

(Image 3: King Priam supplicating Achilles. Tyre, 
2nd century AD, 
marble sarcophagus. Photo by Steven Damron, Creative Commons license)

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Wednesday’s Women: Latina Authors and Their Muses

mayraTwilight Times Books published Latina Authors and Their Muses on 24 Setpember 2015. As I write this, Amazon offers the Kindle version of the 354-page book for 99 cents for a limited time.

Leticia Gomez, CEO & Founder of Savvy Literary Services and publisher of Café con Leche Books, wrote the Foreword. Mayra Calvani, an award-winning author, is the editor and interviewer of 40 Latina authors in this anthology.

This is a brilliant collection of interviews, an inspiration for writers, and a comprehensive introduction to Latina writers, here in the United States and abroad. Each interview begins with the author describing her Muse, followed by a quick biographical sketch, literary influences, a summary of publications and social media details. The interviews are candid and thorough discussions about ‘process,’ their trials and triumphs in life and art. In parentheses, I cite birthplaces for each author in order for readers to see the geography of the Spanish-speaking world that this publication offers. Below, I’ve provided a mere sliver of an opened door onto the conversations each of these talented women had with Mayra Calvani. I will post my review on Amazon and Goodreads soon. ¡Vámonos!

Marta Acosta (California): discusses Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë’s influence on her Gothic and YA novels. She opines on the changing YA market; weighs in on her quirky experiences with publishers, and how she wants to write Latina characters against type.

Lisa Alvarado (Chicago): talks about the catalysts to most of her poetry, the value of a mentor, and what she asks from fellow writers.

Julia Amante (Argentina): tells us her Muse has a sweet tooth. Julia considers the importance of dreams, following them and the imperative for discipline at writing.

Margo Candela (Los Angeles): Brenda, her muse, has helped Margo learn patience with writing, editing, and finding an agent.

Kathy Cano-Murillo (Phoenix): a full-time writer and designer of discusses the blend of skills needed in her writing.

Mary Castillo: (National City, Calif.): Forever Amber, a gift from her grandmother set this author on her path into indie publishing and writing paranormal novels.

Jennifer Cervantes (San Diego): her ethereal Muse has guided her into the realms of magical realism and YA literature.

Leila Cobo (Cali, Colombia): without a Muse, she has found inspiration in those hazy moments just before sleep. Leila discusses the importance of education and Chopin in her life. Barbara Walters and Oriana Fallaci were iconic figures in her teen years.

Zoraida Córdova (Ecuador): talks about NaNoWriMo, the Little Mermaid (and mermen) and fantasy literature.

Lucha Copi (México): this author met her Muse, Gloria Damasco, in a dream and penned the first Chicana PI in English-language literature.

Sarah Cortez (Texas): her mother hand-sewed her first books before she became a poet-policewoman.

Angie Cruz (New York City): Her Muse has a thing for coffee and cooking. The New York Times compared her Let It Rain Coffee to  Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism. That is a monumental comparison.

Liz DeJesus (Puerto Rico): from journaling to writing horror, her Muse is a nameless Arab man. She talks about how a bullying incident has informed and spurred her horror creations.

Anjanette Delgado (Puerto Rico): some no-nonsense words for critics of ‘chick lit,’ a discussion about Latina stereotypes and writing sex (mom is in the audience).

Carolina De Robertis (England): keen observations about the different definitions of ‘success’ in America and abroad.

Lyn Di Iorio (Brooklyn, NY): mentions the hilarious discovery in dad’s copy of The Godfather; discusses how she write the magical in her stories and how an impartial observation of a cauldron used in Santería inspired a novel.

Teresa Dovalpage (Cuba): in addition to writing in both English and Spanish, she talks about the importance for authors to understand all aspects of marketing and promotion for their books. Networking worked best for her.

Carolina Garcia-Aguilera (Cuba): a former P.I., she created the Lupe Solano series, which guarantees “three bodies per book or your money is refunded.” Living well is the best revenge: an agent had told her that she had no future as a writer. Framed letter and 10 novels (and counting) later…

Iris Gomez (Colombia): as an immigration lawyer, she visits the definition of ‘career success’ in the U.S. and the ‘untold story’ of mental illness in the Latino community.

Reyna Grande (México): from living in poverty in México, with story-time on the radio for entertainment, she emphasizes education and explores the immigration theme in her works.

Rose Castillo Guilbault (México): again, readers will learn about poverty, how this author wrote to give voice to farmworkers in México and how sweet it is to hold your published book in your hands.

Graciela Limón (California): a professor of Latin American Literature, she addresses Latina stereotypes and how her writing novels is a gestational process.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa (Puerto Rico): twenty years and eight drafts toward a first novel, a model of persistence, Dahlma discusses continuity, the oral transmission of stories in her Afr0-Puerto Rican family.

Diana López (Texas): reading Don Quixote led her to a breakthrough as a writer. She explores the challenges that she encountered as a teacher in ‘reaching’ Latino teens and students. “Teens aren’t dumb — they’re inexperienced.”

Josefina López (México): candid about hurtful comments from friends and men, about the endless editing notes she has received over the years, and the pains of revision, yet she writes (and rewrites) plays, novels and screenplays.

Dora Machado (Michigan): thunderstorms awe her, medieval and mythological themes thread her writing fantasy.

Maria Gabriela Madrid (Venezuela): speaks about family pressures — she comes from a family of accomplished writers and poets — and her bittersweet need for solitude in order to write.

Michele Martinez (Connecticut): a crime-fiction with serious chops (federal prosecutor and Assistant U.S. Attorney here), she makes ‘talking shop’ about mysteries and red herrings fun.

Sandra Ramos O’Briant (California): a frank and moving discussion of racism, superstition and witchcraft in the Latino community and how writing has helped her overcome personal setbacks.

Melinda Palacio (California): a late-bloomer, Melinda talks (and writes) about the anti-immigrant experience, grief over the early loss of her mother, and Latino stereotypes.

Caridad Piñeiro (Cuba): her Three B’s are not Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but the Brontës sisters, Bond, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Berta Platas (Cuba): discusses fearlessness amongst many other topics, including the pros and cons of writing under a pseudonym.

Toni Margarita Plummer (California): an in-depth look at the editing and publishing process from both sides of the desk since she is also a professional editor.

Thema T. Reyna (Texas): the importance of good teachers; supportive spouses; honoring the writing journey; poetry and networking and an extensive discussion about what makes good, effective blogging.

Lupe Ruiz-Flores (Texas): a childhood experience of flying a kite with her dad led to a poem, to a short story and to her first publication, a picture book. A revealing look at writing children’s books.

Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico): personal essays in major newspapers about her single mother’s determination to raise her children was noticed and it started her unexpected literary career. Solitude – it has its joys and a price.

Eleanor Parker Sapia (Puerto Rico): an insightful analysis of the cross-pollination within the arts, between painting and writing. Watch out for the mysterious grandmother’s friend.

Alisa Lynn Valdes (New Mexico): binge writing and how the improvisatory nature of jazz has kept this writer prolific. Writer’s block? No such thing exists for this writer. She just may write on you if you stand still too long.

Diana Rodriguez Wallach (Pennsylvania): her foray into writing began with a bullying incident, but the motivational kick in the pants came from the paranormal: a psychic told her that she was a YA writer.

Gwendolyn Zepeda (Texas):  like Marta Acosta, she blogged before it was called blogging. Gwendolyn speaks to the need for creative space, vigilant scrutiny of stereotypes, and for writing characters true to life.

Amazon review here.

Posted in Wednesday's Women, Women Writers, Writers from Around the World | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Behind the Trigger, In Front of the Barrel

I read The Coddling of the American Mind in this month’s Atlantic online. Twice. I waded through the inane and insane examples of trigger words and warnings and their consequences that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt reported from American colleges and universities. My conclusion is that no matter which way you argue about triggers, you are reduced to being either a thoughtless jerk or an insensitive asshole.

The definition that the article provides is that “trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” An ‘alert’ is therefore prescriptive, often slapped on works of literature. Can that single word really set fire to the limbic system, the fight-or-flight response? The ‘alert’ belies the descriptive power of words to create an objectionable scene, and that the image perceived correlates to subjective experience. A warning, therefore, is required. The operative phrase is ‘American colleges and universities,’ because the more you read the article, the quicker you realize that trigger warnings and words are a uniquely American phenomenon. This video mocks triggering in Literature 101.

The authors invoked Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, among other examples of literature, as traumatizing texts. Gatsby is indicted for its portrayal of domestic violence and misogyny. The inherent logic behind trigger words goes something like this: students will know in advance that the text contains material that may upset them and that they should prepare for it somehow. The therapeutic ‘somehow’ is mystical. The reality is that students, those consumers of an undergraduate degree earned at the cost of a princely sum, are demanding that their professors provide warnings or, in some cases, refuse to read literature they deem offensive.

cara_red_carpetratingsTrigger warnings are conceptually similar to ratings that we see in previews on the movie screen, except everything is rated R and NC-17, and the descriptors are often a spoiler alert. The warning label on a book amounts to a pair of skull and crossbones on a packet of cigarettes, yet people will see the movie anyway, and we know all the Marlboro Men are dead. The inference behind the warning sticker is that ideas may kill or incapacitate you. Each of Shakespeare plays should warrant enough trigger warnings such that they obscure the title of the play.

Trigger words and warnings have subsumed in their wake a specialized vocabulary from sociology, and moral philosophy and psychology. ‘Microaggression’ is a new word for me. Microaggressions are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” This sounds like a crime without fingerprints. The examples given are either of the thoughtless-jerk variety such as asking a non-white person his or her place of birth or the insensitive-asshole type, like ‘America is the land of opportunity.’ The former, we read, is racist; the latter implies a bitter inside joke, an unrealized truth.

As a writer, I’m sensitive to words because language is my only tool. Whatever I create at the keyboard uses the damn things. The thing itself does nothing, but the aggregate and order of all those words does. Lukianoff and Haidt are messengers, reporting a phenomenon. They offer a brief sociological theory about helicopter parents and how social media has become both a tool and weapon for mass communication. I get that. I see the argument that we might have a generation of hypersensitive young adults poorly prepared for Life and the workplace. I know the Snowflake Argument, the ‘I’m so special and you must accommodate me now.’ Psychology Today articles remind me that narcissism is on the rise, and that modesty is in retrograde. There is a beleaguered professoriate that has to do ‘shadow work’ (Craig Lambert and not Jung), in addition to endless administrative tasks. I am reminded that public education has been defunded and dismantled by the power-elites and that many of these teachers have no job security, no benefits and receive insulting levels of compensation.

I’m the insensitive asshole because I see all of it, understand it, but I’m not buying the full subscription, and here is why. Every generation has been found wanting, professors have never had it good, and I never believed, along with John Lennon, that America was “classless and free.” I do, however, think that there is an administrative caste within the Academy, made up of individuals who have sown the seeds of discord among their colleagues in order to keep their jobs and power intact. No, this last point is not conspiracy theory, but a Machiavellian truth about human nature. Humans in power cling to power, and do what they must to maintain it.

Only in America is the writer a public celebrity. Jonathan Franzen opens his mouth, Jennifer Weiner and others respond, and both Twitter and the Internet gapes open like a black hole. Franzen might be a poor example, because what he says in public does not help his image. Notoriety, however, may boost his sales. I don’t know. I do worry, however, that trigger words may become the new way of stigmatizing writers, a new form of blacklisting artistic efforts. Most writers toil in obscurity and see little money for their efforts. The list of artists with posthumous recognition is heartbreakingly long: J.S. Bach, Henry Darger, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, Nietzsche, Thoreau, John Kennedy Toole, and Vincent van Gogh. In other parts of the world, the writer is often an endangered species; and again the list is tragic. Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. Salman Rushdie himself and his Italian and Turkish translators survived assassination attempts. Naguib Mahfouz survived multiple knife wounds to his throat at age eighty-two.

human sacrificeThe offended student is the big, bad wolf that makes no pretense to being a sheep; the predator is young, opinionated, and self-righteous; but the young are allowed to be opinionated and self-righteous. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” The real problem is that the hypersensitive have blinded Oedipus before the critical question is asked, “Who am I?” The teachers at the lectern have become sheep.

Let me shift metaphors; let me wave a different freak flag for the snowflakes that refuse to melt, resist the slightest twinge of compassion for artists because I don’t believe that the majority of them can comprehend the amount of labor that it takes to write a novel, even in this age of the self-published author. What constitutes ‘Literature’ is not the issue, although that has been discussed for decades. The written word and what it creates and conveys is under attack. Content is controversy.

Trigger warnings strain credulity and satirize assumptions. An anecdote – a friend of mine was tasked to purchase books for a well-known organization that cares for, educates, and houses orphans, the displaced and unwanted children. The books that traumatize those kids are not Sapphire’s Precious or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but stories in which families are kind and unconditionally loving; but these are children. Students in college are young adults, who are supposed to be figuring out how to get their shit together, as the expression goes.

Now let us invert the logic of trigger warnings. Is there a warning for the Paleo-Diet inclined, or the gluten-insensitive because War and Peace has numerous descriptions of wheat fields? Are there labels for guilt for the traumatized southerner who knows that his ancestors had owned slaves? The door opens to the House of Mirrors.

Was Faulkner a racist or was he conveying the unresolved legacy of race in American history? That is the kind of question that belongs in the college classroom. Let students learn that he used the N-word, just as his educated contemporaries did. It is insensitive, but an unfortunate historical reality, just like small white children would call a grown Black man ‘Boy.’ Students should not whitewash that fact (pun intended). Students should also learn that Caroline ‘Callie’ Barr, the former slave who had raised Faulkner, to whom he dedicated Go Down, Moses lived in a cottage on his estate. He provided for all her material needs to the day she died. Faulkner had arranged her burial, had paid for the marker, and had given the eulogy. Human beings are contradictions. One last note, a rebuttal, to students in the Atlantic article who suggested that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway should have a trigger warning for suicidal ideation. It is fallacious logic, a retrospective judgment because the writer drowned herself in 1941, sixteen years after she had penned Dalloway. What were these students reading in high school? Were they offended then?

Then there is the argument that the ‘Customer is always right,’ that college presidents and administrations have to cave and force trigger warnings onto faculty and their syllabi because students are paying stunning sums of cash, mortgaging their futures.

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

Education in America has turned sideways, shifted to the mythical yellow-brick road to enhanced job prospects and upward mobility sometime after World War II. While degree-bearing students do make more than their non-degreed counterparts (and let’s gloss over the inherent class distinction there), 66% of Americans do not have a college degree. Education is Big Business. Enrollments are rising, lenders are drooling, and colleges and universities have become veritable cash cows, with the same legal protections and rights as corporations, using legislation such as the Eilberg Amendment to keep faculty wages suppressed. There is a lot of money to be made, so management will cut to the bone, work the faculty to death and terrorize the rest with job insecurity. Does this mean that the student as customer is always right?

No. To label an intellectual work of any kind as traumatizing is offensive to the men and women who created it. Mein Kampf is certainly not art; it is an odious creation but it has value because it allows students to understand why Nazism came into existence, from several angles. Mein Kampf is a traumatic text because it became historical fact. And to placate a potential Harvard Law student’s objection to teaching “rape law” in an environment that uses the Socratic method is ironic. The snowflakes are asking their professors to drink Socrates’s hemlock for ‘corrupting the youth.” Students should come to learn, to develop a critical mind. A trained mind has the means “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” A critical mind knows how to deliberate and form an argument; it does not react; it does not use thumbs for a Tweet. Answers to life’s difficulties are not limited to 140 characters.

As for Trauma, nobody is immune to it and nobody should discount mental illness and abuse of any kind. The best insight that I can offer is from Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. The legendary archer acquired a foot wound so bad that it was putrid and he was shunned. Odysseus had him thrown overboard. Philoctetes swam to an island, where he became embittered, but learned, over time, how to deal with his physical and emotional pains. Long story short is that Odysseus needed the skills of the master archer. Philoctetes was prepared and answered the call without recriminations. The Trojan War ended because of his arrows. He did what he had to do in private so he could function in public. It was wrong that Odysseus abandoned him, unfair that Philoctetes had a terrible condition, but the moral of the story is heal thyself, conquer one’s emotions and fight to win the war.

Intellectual curiosity will always remind you that The Other exists. Wisdom is a life-long process. The educated person searches, finds it, and evaluates it; and often that method is non-violent, as simple as a library card. Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History or Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors. We grow from what challenges our norms and perceptions. Truly think that you have it bad because your professor aids and abets the heteronormative and patriarchal paradigm by having you read Dead White Males? Compassion International offers this sobering and humbling fact:

Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income.

Why do we learn? Why do we read? Why do we write? It is an ancient question. We do all these things to learn about ourselves, about our culture, for better or worse, to reach across time, to reach near, to understand the different, the strange, the frightening. The most noble of acts is not that of understanding but compassion. Writers write because they are mirrors of truth, heralds of social injustices, and because they have imagination, and they write because they want to tell a story to entertain us. That deserves to be celebrated, discussed, honored and studied. Human creativity should not be labeled. Artists do not threaten humane, educated people; they threaten ideologues with a unique vision of reality. This is why they created the KGB, the Stasi and Brown Shirts to quash opposition. A label qualifies and describes the thing contained and betrays the fears of the individual who does the labeling. To live in fear is a rejection of the precious gift of life, to render a life as one “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” The solution?

velvet rabbitLove. Love of wisdom, or as the Velveteen Rabbit, love until “you become Real.” If you are not inclined to take wisdom from a children’s story, then savor these lines from Raymond Carver, a writer who wrote about daily, relentless traumas:

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

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Noir Abattoir, Part II

I concluded Part I with an assertion that noir is Tragedy, which would seem to contradict an earlier statement that noir is all about attitude. Ellroy’s caffeinated optic of noir is 100% attitude directed at film noir, a visual medium and expression. The ’tude is fatalistic, pessimistic and, arguably, existentialist, a philosophical stance that could be traced back to berets, baguettes, and Gauloises cigarettes in post-war cafés, where discussions about the futility and hopelessness of life got black and then blacker. Put émigré directors such as Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer or Billy Wilder behind the camera and the output is of a shade and shadows, brooding chiaroscuro that is the sinister enticing viewers. I ask that you consider an uncommon literary predecessor to noir literature.

When Otto Penzler and James Ellroy edited The Best American Noir of the Century, they sidestepped detective fiction to give readers an eclectic sample of noir literature. The logic goes something like this: Poe had given us the first detective; pulp authors, particularly Hammett and Chandler, had given readers the Continental Op, Spade and Marlowe, in that order, with their contemporaries writing variations on the same theme. Then James Cain and Jim Thompson came along and offered readers crime fiction from the criminal’s point of view. Whether you are looking at the world through the eyes of PI as a modern knight (Marlowe), a cynical investigator (Spade), a criminal (Lou Ford) or the screws being put to Joe Palooka (pick any film noir), noir literature may have had its subgenres, but it is and foremost Tragedy.

songisyouPart 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. I had indicated, however briefly, that Abbott does something differently with the female protagonist, but I didn’t specify what since that would spoil the story for readers.

Step back in the time machine with Bill and Ted to four centuries before Christ. Aristotle outlined the requirements for Tragedy:

  • An elevated person is brought low through some poorly thought out action (hamartia)
  • Said person realizes it at the worst possible moment (anagnorisis)
  • The play uses elevated diction
  • The audience is witness to:
    • The protagonist’s series of emotions
    • Their own journey of emotions (catharsis)

Substitute drama with literature and the voyeurism changes in magnitude. Reading is still visual; still a form of viewing, where the narrative is imagined. Film is also visual and the narrative is displayed on the screen, keeping in touch with theatre’s tradition of a communal experience. Drama, film, or books may seem disparate mediums, but suffering is the common theme, the ‘serious’ and ‘entertainments,’ to recall Greene’s distinction.

Authors have tweaked the definition of tragedy through the centuries. Chaucer’s Monk Tale in The Canterbury Tales discussed tragedy in terms of the vagaries of Fortune in life, or as we say in modern English: Sh*t happens. Capital S there, and speaking of modern English: Shakespeare did away with elevated diction. Chaucer, a writer with a very un-modern world-view, ultimately upholds Christian morality: focus not on earthly things and pleasures because it is illusory. Spenser, though a Renaissance writer, would arrive at the same medieval conclusion: life is corrupt, people are corrupt, and best avoid the ephemera of this carnal life. Not quite the espresso of existentialist writers such as Camus and Sartre, but bleak is still black and Nothingness includes no morality, as “the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Shakespeare, working in a literary tradition that exploited material wherever it was found, is the granddaddy of tragedians in English drama and literature. Les Reid provided a better summary of Hamlet as both noir and tragedy:

Consider Hamlet, certainly a film noir anti-hero: alienated, cynical, and abrasive in his wit, hostile to the society in which he lives, shrewdly intelligent in his pursuit of his enemy and ruthless when others block his path. His black attire, specified in Shakespeare’s text, suits his dark broodings and the pessimistic outcome of the play. Hamlet deals with all forms of killing: accidental manslaughter, deliberate murder, impulsive killing and suicide. Hamlet ponders on the morality of the killings, but events often outstrip his philosophizing, and the audience are swept along in his wake. Emotions run high, and the interludes of rational thought are brief and ineffectual. At the end we feel sobered by a grim pursuit of justice in which many innocent people have been killed. Hamlet dies, and “the rest is silence.”

The Achilles heel of my argument for noir literature as Tragedy is with the status change of the protagonist, the High brought Low that Aristotle mentioned. Hamlet is a prince; Lear, a king, and Coriolanus, Macbeth, Mark Anthony, Othello, Titus Andronicus are all military leaders. The shamus Spade and Marlowe are commoners in such a pantheon, but is not America, the great equalizer, the democracy, where hard work and abiding by the rules promise a chance at happiness and success?

Tragedy American-style, noir says “fat chance,” and the light in the dark tunnel of a film noir is not just Freudian innuendo, but the freight train named Bad Luck that has a schedule to keep. Noir is about how low can Low get. Male protagonists in noir literature, regardless on which side of the law they are on, or how they got there, do their best to fight a rigged match; they don’t embrace the suck like Willy Loman did.

Part 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. Jean Spangler works her charms, though not with the criminal intention of a femme fatale. Jean-SpanglerShe was a victim (in real life and in the fictional account). Misogyny and women in noir literature is another topic altogether. The femme fatale is often the destroyer of men. I view Megan Abbott’s Story as both literary noir and tragedy. The language is elevated and stylized, but it is consonant with the expectation of the genre. Is The Song Is You tragique à l’americaine because Jean Spangler (or Everywoman’s) had limited options in postwar America? Is the story tragic for her wrong choices (Aristotle’s hamartia) and her inevitable fall from Low to lower? Is there a case for her as anti-heroine, a Shakespearean Cleopatra, who knew the score but wanted to do it her way, on her terms?

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Noir Abattoir, Part I

The word ‘genre’ is an after-thought, a signpost of a word to coach the readers’ expectation between the pages and direct them to the aisles of the bookstore. Genre is an ancient word, derived from the Latin genus, meaning ‘kind’ or ‘type.’ Genre has shifted in nuance, from classification to literary consumerism.

Genre is adolescent: Young Adult; genre is titillating: Erotica; genre is impossible: Science Fiction; genre is real: Nonfiction; genre is speculative: Fantasy; genre is dark: Horror; genre is gendered: GLBT and women’s fiction; genre is possibly racial, as some bookstores, inexplicably (to me, at least), shelve authors by race. I have set aside one genre for a moment to make one last point: genre implies Difference and not just of literary expectations from type of story told, how it begins and ends, and what happens along the way. Genre is freighted with judgments. I think of Graham Greene’s often-quoted distinction, one that he made when referring to his own works: “serious fiction” and “entertainments.” The implication is High and Low literature. I now offer the last genre: crime fiction.

Crime fiction has a curious pedigree. Cheap in price and once called ‘pulp fiction’ for the quality of the printed pages, the genre was affordable and democratic, available at the drugstore. BM-November-1925The prose style was unaffected, down-to-earth, hardboiled, so named for the hardboiled eggs that working men ate for lunch. The reader expected a savvy detective who talked a certain way, carried himself a certain way; readers expected a crime, a customer, and bruised knuckles and faces along the way to some kind of resolution. The client may speak half-truths, complete lies, but the detective did his best with what he had to work with. The PI is always a man, and the she in these stories is either the good girl or a femme fatale. The hardboiled world is masculine, violent, and unpredictable. The detective conducts himself according to some code of conduct, a set of principles. Sam Spade may have slept with Miles Archer’s wife, but he won’t let his partner’s murderer get away with it. Pulp fiction, the genre, no matter how it’s packaged, has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it’s Aristotelian even when it wears a fedora and speaks out of the side of its mouth.

Imagine my surprise when I read reviews of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You on Amazon and Goodreads. songisyouGreene’s High and Low showed up: if Amazon is the agora for demotic opinion where everybody wears their toga, then Goodreads is the genteel salon with powdered wigs. The Amazonians were nearly unanimous in agreement: Megan Abbott (day job is professor at NYU) has served up “the best throwback hard-boiled novel,” while across the digital divide, some Goodreaders dinged her novel, with one reviewer saying: “nothing too new in the ideas department” and “blatantly derivative of all the classic noir writers.”

Ouch. Serious vs. Entertainment?

93% of the nearly 30 Amazon reviewers gave the novel 4 or 5 stars, whereas the 100+ Goodreaders dished a rating of 3.72 stars. The author of ‘blatantly derivative’ went so far as to say Abbott plagiarized Chandler (for the record, I have read all of Chandler’s novels several times and I’m certain that others who have done the same would agree with me: Abbott is no word-thief.) So what gives, Gentle Goodreaders?

The accused, Megan Abbott, it seems, wrote too close to genre expectations and worse, and entered the ring against Mickey Spillane, the dominant writer for the era she chose. Hence, the charge of ‘derivative.’ I disagree. Another dissenting and minor squeak of a complaint was that some Goodreaders couldn’t get Ellroy’s novel, Black Dahlia, out of their heads while reading Song, which is a shame since the two writers have very distinctive narrative voices.

Dahlia is Ellroy before he took the Hemingway weed whacker to his writing and rendered his prose so staccato and so telegraphic that Papa would’ve had a blinking migraine. That aside, Abbott is lush with exposition and her dialogue. I’m not sure, though, that women of that time would have been so generous with the use of the F-word: it may not be alien to our ears, but back then it would have been shocking to hear it from women. Then there was that lone charge that took a moralistic tone: shame on Abbott for drawing inspiration from the real missing-persons case of Jean Spangler. Perhaps, it is sexist that nobody took Ellroy to task with his Dahlia, which was based on the gruesome murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short in 1947. Nobody criticized him because the Short case-file would become a cathartic subtext for his own mother’s murder in 1958. genevaellroy1958The goose gets cooked and the gander struts free. Dostoevsky wasn’t the only author who penned stories “ripped from the headlines.”

Goodreaders may have missed Abbott’s toying (subverting?) genre expectation. Her female character is no femme fatale, though she is ambitious, coarse at times, sexual, and does what she can to survive, as a single mom in a man’s world. Shocker. My edition of Song came with a nice blurb from the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction himself, James Ellroy. He praised Megan Abbott as a “deconstructionist,” among other things, and I think therein is the problem for Goodreaders: they are making that distinction of High and Low such that neo-noir has to be ultra-gritty and über-violent, with lots of sex and profanity, and Low, of the “throwback hard-boiled” variety, which Abbott offered readers, is perceived as static, old-fashioned, retro, and ‘blatantly derivative.’ In a word, a parody: the visuals and language are outdated because we all have seen too many movies called ‘film noir.’ Bogart is the Marlowe moviegoers remember, not Dick Powell, and it just so happens that Bogart spoiled us with his Sam Spade, too. Hammett’s and Chandler’s respective prose set a standard. The noir decades, Twenties to Forties, is a safe world in retrospect, a world, known to us through film and novels, and not our world.

Crime fiction — call it pulp, hardboiled, noir, or neo-noir, expectations have not changed with the genre, even when we confuse it with cinema, its dark shadows and fatalistic tone. Noir has always been about Attitude. Speaking of film noir, Eddie Mueller defined noir as “suffering with style.” Ellroy worded it more colorfully, with:2124014153_e58d02823a

The great theme of film noir is: You’re fucked…That giddy sense that doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you’re six weeks away from the gas chamber, you’re fucked, and you’re happy about it.

Megan Abbott-1

Abbott’s own definition teeters on the melodramatic:

Noir is heightened – all the emotions and feelings – and that’s how the world feels to a lot of us. Desire is intense, greed is overwhelming, the need for revenge… It’s how things feel on the inside before we modulate them in order to be a functioning, non-sociopathic person. When we read noir, we get to see our Id run free.

Rather unfortunate that a few Goodreaders had thought that Abbott had written an ‘imitation’ of noir – a confounding statement, if there ever was one – because I don’t think that she did a paint by numbers. She met expectations and more. Dialogue in noir, as in all fiction, is stylized. What wears thin Then and Now in crime fiction is banter: readers know that sarcasm spoken to a drunk hooligan in a bar invites a future fitted with dentures; readers know that the average dick does not wax poetic as Chandler’s descriptions might have us believe. It’s called suspension of belief. The ‘entertainments’ in Abbott’s evocation of late-forties Hollywood is the Studio System, its stifling hold on all the players, and the options (or lack thereof) for women such as Jean and Iolene. There is a killer of dreams, as there was a murderer of Jean Spangler, and our common enemy is Nostalgia, that belief that life was simpler back in the day; it wasn’t, it was just as deadly. Abbott brings it in tight, distinctive prose; the problem is our rigid expectations and not the writer.

In a future post, I’ll argue that, while detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction, the dark heart of noir is Tragedy, American-style, where Low is brought lower.

Part II next Wednesday.

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The Wedge Through Society

Nobody had expected the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to become the bestseller that it did in 2014, yet another bestseller from yesteryear is equally relevant, equally incisive in its analysis, though its prose is difficult to negotiate at times. Read these observations:

What has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power.

Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you’re just sitting still?

It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

Unlike Piketty who has a doctorate, the author here had nothing more than a sixth-grade education; he would become a successful editor and journalist, a self-made man, when he wrote Progress and Poverty in 1879. 415_large_imageHe dared to ask why poverty increased with material and technological progress, why his America was beset with violent labor strikes and why workers were deprived of opportunity. Henry George had prophesied that Big Business was the greatest threat to the country.

George placed the blame on corporate monopolies, those entities that swallowed up land, controlled resources and set prices. Today, we think that monopolies no longer exist after Teddy Roosevelt sparked antitrust legislation in the early years of the twentieth century, yet revisiting Progress and Poverty reveals how utterly amnesiac and brainwashed we have become in our perspective of capitalism.

We celebrate the entrepreneur as an American hero, though we show some fear and respect when we call the successful businessperson a shark, We admire him or her for their ingenuity, their creative solution to an ineffective process: Henry George would have no quarrel with that interpretation. He would agree with our modern sociological observations and conclusions: poverty begets social injustices, racial tensions, and poor health outcomes.

Where George’s point of view is different than ours is that he believed that wealth and power vested in one individual or a corporation is patently un-American, that the America around him was becoming European, the very social construct that the Founding Fathers had fought against: the robber baron and his company act like tyrants, foster an aristocracy and privilege that furthers class distinction and warfare. George’s conclusion, however, is more than the Haves versus the Have-Nots that we understand today. The robber baron is an individual with appetites, George would say, but state governments have created the unintentional despot. We have forgotten the secret history of corporations in America.

monopoly stakeMany colonial governments before the Revolutionary War were founded as corporations. State governments, after the Revolutionary War, granted corporate charters, using England’s creation of the East India Company as their model. These charters offered special privileges. The first corporations created public works: roads, bridges, and later, railroads. As time went on, the state’s control of corporations decreased, corruption and the size of the corporations increased, as did the power of the few over so many, thereby limiting employment opportunities.
There are jobs in town, but only one boss. Americans in George’s day interpreted Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt as the new aristocracy, like their titled and decadent counterparts across the pond. They had money and they were arrogant, living in opulent mansions, sending their children on Grand Tours, tracing their family trees back to the Revolution and marrying off their daughters to European nobility for prestige and pretense. Today’s wealth disparity rivals that of the Gilded Age. The difference is that in the interim between the sunset of the nineteenth century and the sunrise of the twentieth century, America had several Koch Brothers and each man was determined to have his way with the country’s politics and economy.

Henry George surveyed the landscape and saw that class lines were established and entrenched. While the violence was not equivalent to the French Revolution, the working class was angry and violent: the United States would experience 37,000 labor strikes between 1880 and 1905. America maintains the record for having the most violent labor history for any industrialized nation. Henry George’s book presaged a decade of protest and violent reprisal. He had had the deadly Great Railroad Strike of 1877 behind him Single-tax-posterwhile he was writing his book. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, the formation of unions, and the Pullman Strike of 1892 were ahead of him. George died in 1897. His solution to inequality was to propose a single tax on the rental value of land.

We have forgotten that, up to a certain point in time, Americans had equated corporate titans with tyrannical George III. Then came the brainwashing. Andrew Carnegie may have given his wealth away, dotted towns with libraries; George Pullman and Milton Hershey may have built company towns with their company stores and houses, where their employees could spend their wages, but celluloid dickeys would denote “white collar”; denim, “blue collar.” Class distinction had been established. When the smoke cleared after the labor stoppages in the early twentieth century and especially after World War II, the concentration of power had been redefined in terms of popular culture: consumer choice; a middle class, and the call for less government and intrusion into daily life.

740 Park Avenue still remains the largest concentration of American wealth in the nation, the wealthiest apartment building in the world, and lobbyists in plain sight have replaced men such as Henry Frick, who had done Andrew Carnegie’s dirty work.

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