As a writer, I am most noted for historical works–though as I and the world get older, history becomes more “wait–I was there” memory. My next novel, for example, is set in 1985, making it the first book I’ve written set in an era in which I actually lived.
The thing is, “history” is as recent as yesterday. And like yesterday, it has memory and feeling and life beyond that of a date or time or place recorded in a record or newspaper. It lives, somewhere, in someone’s memories … and if those memories were written down or spoken aloud–or commemorated in some way or shape or form–we who were NOT there, who did NOT share that particular bit of history-as-memory–can kinda sorta participate in it, too.
I’ve always been fascinated with history because I am fascinated with people. I want to know what someone thought and felt, what they experienced, how they enjoyed and how they endured. I try reach a point where I feel as though I recognize and understand that human truth, whenever it took place, and then write it so that my readers understand it, too.
One of the major tools I use to “channel” the past is by examining what it left behind–a sort of latter-day archaeology. Archaeology was a focus of mine while earning a Master’s Degree in Classics, and I’m one of those academics who support archaeology as an overall more trustworthy record than the written one. Writers have always embellished and propagandized … but pottery fragments rarely lie because they were not purposely placed or arranged. “Time capsules” buried fifty years ago don’t reveal the past–they reveal how the people in control of those capsuled wanted people in the future to remember the past.
So, starting today, I’ve decided to document some of the ephemera that I use for inspiration. This is stuff, mostly inexpensive originally, that survived the ravages of time without any certain purpose or agenda. I have traveled with some of these pieces and used them in talks, lectures and book signings, as I believe in the power of physical touch, of interaction with an object, to better understand and literally feel the connection we all have to what has come before us, whether it was a century, a decade or a week ago. Each piece invites us to use our imagination, our sense of empathy, our sense of communication. Each piece causes us to reevaluate our view of the past and our position in the system that created it. Each piece captivates us, challenges us and ultimately enriches our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The “junk drawer” says more about human psychology than a metric ton of self-help books. Pouring through it can also be fun as hell.
So are you ready?
Up today is Gay Bobbie Pins from Gay Products in Atlanta. That’s a giant flip off to you, Chick-Fil-A …
I’d date these from the 1950s-early 1960s, based on the line drawing and the two-color printing. Plus, a dime for bobby pins was not that cheap, considering you could buy a burger for a quarter in the late ’50s. I can’t remember where I found them–probably at a flea market or estate sale. They’re also not used but, very importantly, they were KEPT. No one threw them away despite the fact that whoever originally owned them did not find them useful.
The answer as to why may be on the back. [NOTE TO TREASURE HUNTERS: ALWAYS EXAMINE THE BACK OF ANY “JUNK” YOU FIND]. In pencil at the top: “Cheer up — Do your hair! David”
Now things really start to get interesting. Did David write this contemporaneously? Or did he find an odd survivor of the past and write it at a later date? My view is that this is a contemporaneous note for a few reasons–one, he probably bought these because of the “gay” label as an effort to cheer up someone, and two, bobby pins haven’t been used to “do hair” in a very long time, and three, the idea that “doing hair” is undoubtedly a method of cheering up someone–presumably a woman–speaks to the era.
Still, I find David fascinating. He bought this for someone he cared about … who was it? He doesn’t address the person by name. That casual lack of address makes me think a wife or girlfriend. Why was she in need of cheering up? Why did he think “doing her hair” would fix whatever the problem was? My imagination runs amok with these bobby pins … I can see David as gay or straight, involved personally or not, a co-worker or a husband. I don’t see him as a brother, though that’s still possible, of course.
And then we are left with the indisputable fact that these bobby pins were kept, unused, for at least fifty years. Was it because they were a gift from David? I’m presuming he gave them to a young woman–who was she? What was their relationship? Why did she not use them–were they a treasure because they were a gift from him? Or was it all just an accident of time? What do you think?
Novels have been created around much less … such is the power of the junk drawer time capsule.
CPTSD. A set of initials that stands for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Five letters that I wrestle with every day.
CPTSD differs from PTSD in that it is generally caused by ongoing, repeated, inescapable trauma … the kind endured by prisoners of war, the incarcerated, and abused children. I fall into the last category, a subject I don’t normally discuss, but find it necessary to do so now.
My parents were wonderful, highly intelligent, unique and progressive people, whom I loved dearly and miss daily. But my father had been abused—severely—as a child by his father, who, from what I can learn from distant family lore and genealogy, was almost certainly mentally ill and probably abused by his own father. My dad lost his mother at twelve, never had a chance to acculturate socially, and was on his own from the age of fourteen. His early childhood—if one could call it childhood—was fraught with inescapable danger, alcoholism, ignorance, fundamentalist religion and abject, starvation-level poverty in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky.
My father was never able to escape the horrific wounds of his own CPTSD and, like the majority of abused children, was abusive himself. The fact that he never strayed into criminal behavior and that his brilliance allowed him to accomplish meaningful things despite no opportunities for even a basic education (he was essentially an autodidact) is testimony to his innately gentle nature and desire for peace both inwardly and outwardly. But without help—without some external resources and guides and intervention for both my parents and me—the pattern repeated.
My CPTSD is triggered, unsurprisingly, by danger from which escape is difficult or impossible. It was triggered by Trump’s election and has not relented, in its physical, psychological and emotional toll, for four years.
One of the side effects of CPTSD (which is like having “fight or flight” turned on every minute of your existence) is the adrenaline rush that propels the “fight or flight” response. On November 9th, 2016, I saw and felt the pain and suffering around me—from friends and colleagues who are NOT suffering from PTSD or CPTSD—and envisioned a way to channel all of our collective misery and my CPTSD-fueled energy into something positive. Nasty Woman Press was founded that day.
With the energy, hard work, commitment and generous financial support of like-minded friends and the amazing law firm Davis, Wright, Tremaine, Nasty Woman Press became a 501 (c)(4) non-profit, with its first anthology, SHATTERING GLASS, poised to release on June 16th, 2020. All profits will be donated to Planned Parenthood.
It was difficult to decide on the theme and beneficiary of this, our first release. There are so many, many problems we face in this country and globally … racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia, xenophobia, environmental degradation … a long, long list of ills and viruses far more deadly than even the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19. And racism, for as long as I can remember, has been the particular sore that has wracked me, affected me on a guttural level. I’ve spoken about it on numerous occasions, during speeches and panels and lectures; I write about it in every one of my novels.
And it has struck me, through therapy and self-realization, why … first, because of my upbringing and experiences and empathy and morality and passion for justice and actual, real equality under every system, everywhere, but secondly because in America, being a person of color means you’ve been subjected to systemic racism, which in itself embodies all the trauma and causes of CPTSD.
Persistent, inescapable victimization? Check.
Humiliation and abuse and complete denigration of identity? Check.
Trapped in a situation where no one hears or sees your pain or chooses to deny or ignore it? Check.
Completely powerless and at the mercy of figures of “authority” who use their power to abuse (and often kill) you? Check.
Wanting to be hopeful but unable to be because things never change? Check.
In other words, though I will never experience racism because of white privilege—and therefore can never truly know its abject pain and hurt and denial of self and the absolute evil of being inflicted by it—I can still recognize it, still call it out, still scream and cry and feel this injustice of injustices like a knife to my throat. Most importantly, I can fight it with every fiber of my being.
For me, my CPTSD has made me feel, so keenly, the horror story of both history and contemporary events: from Auschwitz to ICE “Detention Centers”, from “White Christians Only” in want ads to Stephen Miller whispering in a would-be tyrant’s ear, from the myth of “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to the reality that the rights of women to own their own bodies are being destroyed while the “rights” to own a machine of war and house it in your garage are well-funded and strident.
CPTSD is always self-destructive but is often outwardly so as well. For me, because my exposure to diversity early in life, coupled with my parents’ principles and dedication to social justice, shaped me as much as it did, I have been able to channel it into trying to help victims and take down villains—both in my fiction and in real life. Despite growing up as an only child in many rural and out-of-the-way places, I knew Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx and Asians from a very young age. Both my mother and father were progressives, though majority society didn’t call them that back then.
My first babysitters were an elderly African-American couple. I still remember the soft mints in the candy dish by the big leather chair, the smell of pipe tobacco and the kindliness and quiet of their house.
When I was five or six, a white girl came to our house to baby sit me. She was probably about twelve or thirteen, the daughter of a distant neighbor (by this time we were living on a ranch outside Tacoma) or possibly part of the 4-H group my mother was teaching to knit. I remember her trying to install hate in me … a bewildering, confusing experience. She used the n-word, which I’d never heard. And when my parents came home, I asked them about it.
By the time my father had hung up the phone with the girl’s parents, telling them, among other things, to stay away and never come to our house again, I understood how serious a violation this was, how wrong. And then he and my mother took me aside and told me that while there were words that some people found offensive, there were other words that had only the purpose of hate and hurt, and that those words—the word the babysitter had used—were the truly bad ones that no one should ever say.
When I was seven, we moved to rural northern Florida, and I was able to witness that hate and hurt first hand, even if my mind couldn’t fully recognize what it was as yet. I experienced the smell of endemic, racism-engineered poverty; I tasted the gross inequalities of what was, in 1972, a region of enforced Jim Crow segregation.
My father helped a Black man whose truck broke down on an old back road in rural northern Florida. I didn’t understand until later why the man seemed so frightened when my dad stopped to help. He and his family stayed with us for a day or two. My father received death threats at his job.
My mother tried to pay a hospital bill and was ushered into a separate (and nicely furnished) waiting room that was “whites only.” When segregation was supposedly illegal. It was one of the rare times in her life when she exploded with anger. She called various entities, but in northern Florida, in 1972, racism was in full flower and full power.
I remember when we moved to Colorado (we left Florida as soon as possible) and my mother had to explain to me why her friend, who happened to be white and happened to be married to a Black man, was suffering. When I was older, and had long made California my home, I remember learning about friends, who happened to be Black men, who were routinely followed by police and followed around by shop owners or workers.
I remember all of these things and much more, watching Diahann Carroll on Julia and probably being the only little white girl in Port Orchard, Washington, who owned a Julia lunch box; Shirley Chisolm running for President and Barbara Jordan during the Watergate hearings … three women, three heroes. And I also remember the hope and pride—actual pride—I felt for the United States of America when Barack Obama was elected President. And then—the shame, the ineffable shame and horror when in 2016 they elected a racist and criminally malignant narcissist whose worst impulses are only held in check by his incompetency. And for that, we must be thankful.
I am thankful, too, for something else—something that my experience in northern Florida gave me. For a short time, we lived in a little town named Quincy–traditionally low-income, traditionally Black. I attended what was essentially an all-Black school. And I was welcomed and learned and grew … much more so than in the essentially all-white school I eventually had to attend when we moved closer to Tallahassee.
My second grade teacher in Quincy was an African-American woman of quiet strength, gentleness and gentility. It was she who put the first mystery book into my hand, from the sparse little library the school had to offer. She gave me The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, my first Nancy Drew. I wish I could find her and thank her for changing my life in such a profound and important way.
We are all the sum of who we meet, what we see, what we are told. How we listen, absorb, learn. Hate is taught and so is love.
Yes, I contend with CPTSD from a damaged childhood. But even that has made me better understand the traumas I don’t experience and will never experience because I was born white. And until that ends—until there is no American trauma by race, by gender, by sexuality, by religion, by economic class–I will be doing my best to use my own trauma to fight against the traumatization of others.
Like most people my age, I’ve consumed massive amounts of entertainment. And occasionally, I’ll digest something—usually some product outrageously hyped—that goads me to levels of outrage so deep that I feel compelled to set the world aright and explain why said product should have been thrown across a room, flushed down a toilet or left completely on the cutting room floor, rather than being foisted upon the unwitting consumer.
Now, I pride myself on my ability to usually avoid such experiences … I mean, who needs that kind of aggravation? I live in San Francisco, which means I get plenty of aggro just driving to Union Square. But I thought I’d be safe with “Gone Girl.” The book was labeled “domestic noir” (on Wikipedia); the film garnered praise and an Oscar nom for Rosamund Pike. What could go wrong?
Oh, what a tangled web we weave …
If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, turn back right now. I mean it. The rest of this blog will be dealing with issues related to the much-publicized plot twists. You’ve been warned.
Before I explain why “Gone Girl” is the most insultingly archaic piece of misogyny to come down the pike (sorry, couldn’t resist) in a long time, I need to add a disclaimer. I have not read the book. I expect that the book is a better (and hopefully more balanced) experience than the film. However, because the author of the novel, Gillian Flynn, also penned the screenplay, I am making the assumption that the elements she prioritized in the film, narrative and character-wise, were what she considered indispensable. The film was long (2 1/2 hours), so length is neither excuse nor defense.
So what’s wrong with “Gone Girl?”
Forensic/police procedural plot holes large enough to insult any thinking person.
For me, this is a misdemeanor in comparison with the film’s other offenses. I mean, I understand plot mechanics—I’m a writer. We often force ourselves into the position of needing to make the impossible seem plausible. But because this story’s lauded twists depend on Amy’s criminal genius, said criminal genius better be believable. It isn’t. What happened to the injury that supposedly caused all that blood loss? What happened to the video tape that showed her arriving at Desi’s house willingly? Why weren’t the red panties tested for DNA? Why did no one recognize her? Why didn’t anyone test the ink on the journal or question why it was only partly burned but alone in an incinerator, waiting to be found? And why is it that not one of the medical personnel who examined her for her supposed rape reported that she showed no sign of previous pregnancy, as her medical records had indicated (from faking the urine test)?
I guess the ultimate lesson to be learned here is that if you’re going to have a mentally imbalanced stalker obsessed with you, make sure he’s incredibly wealthy and as sweet as a teenage doctor.
It’s the media’s fault.
Some people have asserted that the actual meaning of the film revolves around the media/public demonization/deification of Nick. I beg to differ. If you want to see a really good film that illustrates media manipulation, try “Ace in the Hole”, a Billy Wilder film noir. If you don’t have two hours, listen to Don Henley sing “Dirty Laundry.”
“Gone Girl” is not about the media. In the contemporary arena of reality TV and 24/7 “news” coverage, the media obviously plays an important role, but the film is not “about” the media. “Gone Girl” is about shocking people, either with a plot twist, with language, or with manipulative female evil (more on that later).
And the point of the film is?
News flash: crime exists. Men, women and children commit it. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things. Middle-of-the-road people do, too. Anyone who has ever lived with any violence in her life—or who has suffered from loss, family mental illness, drug abuse, etc.—understands this basic fact and ceases to marvel at it around the age of seven or eight.
In “Gone Girl”, we are given a portrait of a highly intelligent, wealthy, beautiful, presumably successful woman who is presumably a passive-aggressive sociopath. Because this mental condition was not a barrier to her societal success, it would be far more interesting to explore its roots than to shout about its existence (Was it fostered by an odd but fascinating competition with her fictional self? Was it her narcissistic parents? Did it manifest itself in other ways? Maybe the book explores some of these themes—the film, with the exception of a minute allusion to her parents’ fictional heroine, does not).
No, it seems enough for “Gone Girl” to just say, with pride, that Amy is a bad, bad bitch. Her husband is intended as an emasculated weakling who may actually get off at the idea of his wife’s psychosis and domination. There is no exploration of how his affair with a student (a crime itself) may be reflective of someone trying to reestablish the winning hand in a power struggle.
Because these characters were not explored or developed—or the filmmakers chose not to do so—we are left with two despicable characters. That’s not so unusual for a noir. What is unusual is that the lack of depth in character exploration means that they are not only despicable, they’re boring (a far worse crime in a movie). Pike does an admiral job of infusing a cardboard character with as much life as she possibly can, but in the end, that’s not enough. And what we’re left with is a big “shocking twist” and an ending that reads more like a day’s worth of therapy for a very damaged marriage, and, of course, the fundamental reveal: women can be nasty, too.
Which brings me to the worst of the film …
I don’t throw the term around lightly (I’ve been called all kinds of things), and Gillian Flynn had no idea when she wrote the book that 30 women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape and assault would be ridiculed, mocked and disbelieved. But for Ms. Flynn to say that her creation of Amy is a “feminist” act—simply because Amy is a sociopath—is the most asinine and outrageous piece of author denial I’ve ever witnessed.
Ms. Flynn needs to read more.
How about Semonides of Amorgos? Translations aren’t too hard to find. He wrote about the different types of women in the world, nine of whom are highly negative, all of whom are compared to animals. This was the 7th-6th series BCE.
Or she could try the Bible—both approved and unapproved bits—stuff about Lilith and Jezebel and Delilah and the godmother of us all, Eve. There’s also the Ramayana.
Still too old? Let’s see, there’s the Pandora myth or Pygmalion story (best read in Ovid), or we can skip right to Dickens or, let’s see, Henry James “The Bostonians” or Lady Brett in “The Sun Also Rises” or Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust”. Of course, we can cut to the chase and list “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity” and nearly every noir novel and film written or made from 1940 to the present.
The fact is that smart, successful, beautiful, sexualized women—women with power—have been portrayed as transgressive criminals of one type or another for more than 2000 YEARS. Traditional noir elevated the formula into a lyrical art form. “Gone Girl” is absolutely, positively, unimaginably unoriginal in this regard which—as I mentioned above—seems to be its entire raison d’etre.
This bothers me because my career has been built around a character and a series created to countermand the very stereotype for which Flynn is applauded. I consider Miranda Corbie not just a personal choice but an ethical one. And let me be perfectly clear: whether or not my books ever attain the financial success of Ms. Flynn’s, I will always be proud of the choices I’ve made.
Let me be clear here, too: I can understand creative chafing. I’m not suggesting that the very fact of writing about a woman who fakes a rape is, in itself, unethical. But if you’re going to write about something so heinous, so potentially damaging to the millions of women who are sexually assaulted and too afraid to report it—then, by God, what you write had better be so good, so deep, so memorable and so alive that it doesn’t leave the grimy residue of female self-hatred behind.
Unfortunately, the grime is not gone. “Gone Girl” is just another layer of two thousand year-old dirt.
“Books should, not Business, entertain the Light …”
So wrote Abraham Cowley, 17th century English poet, in Extract from Poetical Blossomes: A Wish. But what happens when books are the business?
It’s no secret that traditional publishing is an unprecedented upheaval, roiling through changes affecting everyone in the equation from publisher to distributor to agent to author to bookseller. The dynamics of publishing have irrevocably changed; but so have the socio-cultural dynamics of entertainment—and life in general.
We live in a global society that is becoming increasingly fragmented, the glass monolith of world-wide reach broken into mini-shards of online communities formed, filled, abandoned and forgotten. Remember MySpace?
Businesses, large and small, attempt to tap in to these communities, to access the customers they depend upon to stay viable. Communities spring up around all hobbies, habits, activities (both legal and il-, both savory and un-), and political niches. We can tailor our lives around built-in predilections, preferences and biases: we hear the music we know we’ll like, we see the news we want to see.
I believe this mass panic of macro to micro is a result of the unprecedented, global reach of the internet and the effect it has on the human animal. Mass media is not easy for us to process—anthropologically, we are a tribal, cooperative species, and a tribe on a scale of 4 and half billion is actually short-circuiting our ability to connect.
So what does this have to do with books? Quite a lot, actually.
The traditional publishing formula, complete with traditional wisdom, holds that hand-selling, personal recommendations, perseverance, marketing and time create bestselling success for an author. A series, I’ve been told, builds; the key is to keep writing good books and to keep the publisher behind the series. An author of stand-alones is supposed to follow a similar path, building awareness and recognition with each book. Time, though, is not something that huge corporations like. They prefer profits now and quickly.
This is one reason why authors prize independent book stores: they cultivate actual, physical communities of people—not just online groups—built around a love of reading and a love of experiencing a space with fellow readers. Unlike giant, bean-counting, Wall Street-watched corporations, independents follow their own course, hand-selling, setting up events, helping spotlight new and midlist authors on the proverbial road up to becoming a bestseller: they are an integral piece of the success formula, the one outlet that will connect readers to authors and provide that crucial time needed to build a readership.
The best of them follow this route because it’s their heart and soul as people—and because it’s good business. It separates them from the faceless corporations they pit themselves against on a daily basis, and gives them something the suits will never experience: a true sense of community. That’s what keeps them alive.
Unfortunately, it’s no secret that many independents are suffering, largely due to economic pressures of cheaper books online. More and more close every year. Those that are surviving or even thriving are managing to provide service and connectivity in an increasingly disconnected market and depend upon their community, just as the community depends on them.
Portland is a great community and the city loves its books. Yet tragically Powell’s Books, the Portland-based, self-proclaimed largest independent in the world, has, as I’ve reported on Facebook, seemingly joined the ranks of the walking dead, the souless corporate zombie nation of books-as-widgets, of authors as pains in the ass.
A quick recap: I’m published with Macmillan, a midlist author, albeit one with more than my share of critical acclaim. A Macavity award winner, an LA Times Book Prize finalist, lots of other nominations and a couple of other awards. I suffered a three-year hiatus between the second and third books of my series because I lost my parents; my newest, CITY OF GHOSTS, finally launched this month to stellar reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Bookreporter and Publishers’ Weekly.
I travel on my own dime, where I can, when I can, and do so in order to connect with booksellers and readers. A list of some of the great and wonderful stores I’ve visited and will be visiting is on my website—all fabulous independents. I enjoy events, and am successful at them. My readers are loyal, and I’m glad to say that they increase in number every year. I planned to add Portland, as usual, to my list of stops.
I’ve signed at Powell’s twice and bought books from them many more times than that. I met Michael and Emily Powell at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival when I was a Prize finalist. I had a wonderful time at the Beaverton store. Powell’s booksellers are terrific people. And thus I was shocked when the company events manager—in a supercilious, unctuous and yet reptilian email—”declined” to have me in for a signing. The reason, apparently, is that my sales aren’t “high enough”. What constitutes “high enough” has not been spelled out for me, and this despite the fact that they seem to feature non-genre authors with lesser footprints than mine. I am apparently no longer worthy, despite the awards, despite the Wall Street Journal, despite it all.
Before receiving this decree, we attempted to reach a person at the Beaverton store—to let them know about the good reviews on CITY OF GHOSTS (since they were carrying it)—we were put off by centralized customer service employees who admitted that they were employed as gate-keepers. When we tried to buy a book, we were routed to a center. Not a book store location, but a center. Finally, one person confessed that the management had instituted a “fence off the booksellers” order … no person, no author, no reader, no customer, could speak to an actual bookseller unless he or she walked into a store and cornered them in person.
That’s when I decided to share this story.
Now, I actually have experience in retail. I know first-hand about small business and community-building. For nearly ten years, my mother, partner and I owned and operated a comic book/pop culture store in San Francisco. We were a new generation of such enterprises; one of the few, if not the only woman-owned in the industry.
As part of creating a successful small business, we forged a community; events were a major part of the experience. We had many, many artists and writers in: people like Kelley Jones and Erik Larsen and Mike Carlin and Denny O’Neil and Mart Nodell. We also featured much less well-known artists and writers: one example were the creators of a very small press comic with an African-American hero we heavily promoted for Black History Month. Why? Because we believed in the cause and we believed in the comic—and because “good” business practice can be both ethical and pragmatic.
Let me add two more points: unlike books, comic books ARE NOT RETURNABLE. We took real risks in promoting people. Our returns were not always financially the same, but they all contributed to the overall success of the store and certainly to our satisfaction in it. And—unlike bookstores, who receive steeper discounts and co-op for promoting author events—we received no financial incentives of any kind.
Powell’s, unfortunately, has turned a corner. They’ve embraced the dark side. They are, sadly, not the only ones. Independents that demand a guarantee of return on an author-funded appearance? Dark side. I’ve signed with NYT list authors who’ve had one or two people attend. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING, other than the kind of bottled lightning that catches on when something reaches a cultural threshold of recognition—can guarantee a line at the cash register. The financial rewards for the author and the bookstore can come later, and over time—when a customer needs a recommendation, when someone’s looking for a signed book.
If independents want to survive, and I pray that they do, they need to strengthen their communities and strengthen their personal connections, not diminish them. They need to partner with midlist authors willing to do events, not rebuff them. The best of the indies already do, and we need to support them, sign with them, buy from them and keep them alive! The worst of them, like Powell’s, are cultivating an attitude of gate-keeping that is beyond comprehension. Does it really cost so much to host an author when a) the books are returnable and b) you’re receiving co-op? Minimal risk, maximum chance to increase your business and build a stronger community?
As a poster child for independent success, Powell’s has enjoyed a stellar reputation. But it should no longer do so, and, in fact, should be held accountable for the gulag-like changes instituted upon its workers, its customers and its community. I’ve been told that this more-corporate-than-corporate model unfolded after Michael Powell’s departure, and it’s heart-breaking to see his bookstore crumble so ethically and spiritually, if not yet economically.
Sadly, Powell’s no longer entertains the light.
I, for one, will be spending my time, my energy—and my dollars—at bookstores who do.
I’m heading to Thrillerfest and New York City this week, and the prospect of traveling to the Big Apple again made me think about a few of the reasons why I love it.
So, from a West Coast perspective, mind you … New York, New York.
1. It’s the ultimate, fabled, legendary City of Cities. Sure, the Mama Rose line in Gypsy is true: “New York is the center of New York”—but it’s also the most urban, dense, entertainment-rich and storied city in the world. It’s an artistic treasure and an artistic treasure house, an inspiration for everything from Gotham City to a Miracle on 34th Street, and a focus of literary gold for Fitzgerald and countless other greats. My ancestors on my mom’s side arrived here, like millions of others, cleared through at Ellis Island and made a wish on the Statue of Liberty. History abounds at every corner, noise, hurry and bustle is 24/7, and the city’s profoundly global diversity makes it, at the same time, profoundly American.
2. Neighborhoods. They can be a block or a borough in size, but they are real and they are fabulous (to paraphrase Teri Hatcher). Small, unexpected touches, like baskets of flowers hanging from light posts and mom-and-pop stores in place of large chains can make New York feel like a very, very, very busy small town (on caffeine). Everyone has their favorite take-out place, their own dry cleaner, their own deli. New York is big … but it’s also personal.
3. The Food. Hungry at 2 am? No problem. You can find a tasty chicken kebab right outside on 42nd. Late night at a show? No problem. Pizza places are full through 2 am and beyond. Craving an egg soda and maybe “real” pastrami? No problem. Diners still abound and every neighborhood has a good one. For real bagels, real pizza, real anything, New York is the ultimate food capital of the world. Well, except for salads and sourdough (my San Francisco) or hot dogs and Polish food (Chicago).
4. Looking up. I love Art Deco, unsurprisingly. I can’t get enough of Streamlined Moderne, and San Francisco, while the Jewel of the Pacific coast, boasts plenty of Victorians and far fewer Deco masterpieces. The Chrysler Building is my personal favorite, but no skyscraper, however tall, can ever top the Empire State Building, the most magnificent, proud, and dignified tower in the world.
5. The people. I love New Yorkers. They are direct and to the point and don’t waste time. I’ve never understood the “rude New Yorker” cliche. What I find rude are people who do something thoughtless or dangerous that hampers your own activity, whatever it is, and then try to dismiss your aggravation as not being “laid back” enough. Hey, I was born on the West Coast, and I’ve got a very New York gesture for passive-aggressive “laid back” offenders.
There are a million reasons to love New York, which is why there are a million stories, songs, paintings, photos, films and celebrations of it. But here’s the one I’ll leave you with, one most of the world has recognized since 2001: New York is resilient. New York is heroic.
You know, I really had ambitions to write a long, thoughtful blog. When you’re a writer, you’re always writing—even when you’re not at a keyboard. The blog was starting to take shape in my head, and then …
You know what they say about best laid plans. Actually, it was Robert Burns, not “they”, and what he wrote was:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley,
He wrote “To a Mouse” in 1785. One of my favorite poems, actually. But I digress …
So what is keeping me from writing my planned opus, you ask? The fact that I’m getting ready for a trip to the American Library Association national conference and in the midst of booking signings for the upcoming CITY OF GHOSTS launch. Oh yeah, there’s also the small fact of needing to get a whole lot of writing done on CITY OF SHARKS (tentative title for the next Miranda Corbie).
So … until I get back from the ALA in Las Vegas, I’m relying on Mulligan Stew this week. Which means I dig up any ol’ bit of miscellany that might prove interesting enough to share.
What I found was a sonnet I wrote twenty years ago (when I had time to write sonnets). I wrote a number of them; always loved the challenge of the rigorous meter and rhyme scheme and resolving couplet at the end.
Here ’tis. I’ll be back next week after a sojourn in Sin City, and though I don’t expect the trip to inspire any sonnet-writing, you never know …
Sonnet on Reaching the Age of Thirty
By Kelli Stanley
Time’s sickle swings; his arcs draw ever near
While careless Laughter yields to wistful sighs,
Each pass of Phoebus’ chariot gleaming fear.
Persephone-like, the Earth we bid goodbye;
No more to smell the meadows blessed with green,
To reap the harvest bounty of God’s grace,
No more foam-flecked, blue-gray horses, Sea god scene;
Unkindest cut, no more to touch thy face.
And in such thoughts sinking, now graven heart stands still
Too ready, forsaking Fortune’s destiny;
In fear, dread drowning pulse of tree and hill
Frozen; cheating Death by dying free.
Then heart remembers, wise and old with strife—
While yet Love lingers, eternal is thy life.
This means I’m certifiably middle-aged and that means I’m much, much more dangerous.
When you get older, I find, you tell the truth, consequences be damned. You have more tolerance and less tolerance, simultaneously. You don’t put up with the slings and arrows in the name of “learning” or “experience” or bear fardels with any blind, youthful enthusiasm.
So I thought it was time I tackled the five fears that are usually uppermost in the mind of a writer … and the responses you need to send them skittering back to the shadows where they belong. I hope these help fight the dark days, both for published authors and those who are striving to be.
I’m sure I will be re-reading my own advice often … because, even at 50, it’s a lot easier to dish out than to follow.
1. I can’t write/have lost my ability to write.
This is the fear most common for first-time writers, but it hits everyone, no matter how many books you’ve actually written. If you’ve managed to complete a novel or non-fiction work and you’ve gone through the agent/editing process and you’ve managed to get it published, I’m sorry—the pain doesn’t end there.
Every subsequent piece of writing will seem like the first time in terms of self-doubt, self-sabotage and torture. Sure, that first book was pretty good—you just re-read the first few chapters and what stank like cow piss to you when you were writing it now smells like Chanel—but now … now, it’s all over. Now, you’ve forgotten how. You’ve developed amnesia, Alzheimer’s, too much self-consciousness, too much awareness, yada yada yada …
Here’s the response: if you’re suffering self-doubt, you’re normal. It takes an enormous amount of energy, compulsion, and ego to create in the void of a blank page, and sensitive, creative people (you know the type) don’t often have the unbridled egos necessary to handle it 24/7, especially with a publishing deadline. The good news is that if you’re wondering whether or not it’s good, your work is already better than 98% of books that are self-published on the internet, many of which suffer from an arrogance that crosses into delusion.
Thank your demons for proving that you’re not delusional … and keep writing.
2. No one will read it.
This fear is more the province of a published writer, as new authors are mainly concerned with finishing the book. But if you’re lucky enough to see your work made available, this, too, will be one of the fears that keeps you up at night.
I call this one “launch sickness.” It tends to manifest itself when a new book hits the racks and magnifies with how much money you or a publisher is staking on the book, because—believe it or not—that adds significantly to the pressure. Do not envy those people with billboards advertising their books … their sales have to pay for them.
Hollywood is strewn with the sun-bleached bones of failed epics (Lone Ranger, anyone?) massively bloated projects that failed. While six figure advances in publishing are very, very rare these days, the more success your books have, the more pressure there is for you to achieve more, particularly if the publisher is staking any money on huge print runs or an ad campaign.
Still, even for a modest book with modest expectations, this insidious fear will creep into your bones and whisper that your book is going to get buried. The publisher isn’t putting up much money—no one will read it. The publisher puts money in it—not enough people will read it. It’s got you where it wants you.
Here’s the response: Ignore the whispering. You have no control over your book once it is available to the public. Do what you can to call attention to the fact that you’ve written a good one, but honestly—everything else is up to the universe, and the universe is rarely thought of as a just and balanced place. So try—very, very hard—not to worry too much about readership. The accepted wisdom is that with enough material in the marketplace, they will find you.
Hope and faith come into play … hope that they will find you, and faith that there are enough of your kind of readers out there to begin with.
3. Those who do read it will hate it.
Except, of course, for our families and friends. In fact, all good reviews come from people who like us, right? That’s the only possible reason for a good review, or so says this particular little demon. So we ignore the good ones and remember the bad ones, unless we have the discipline to not read them at all.
OK. So the truth is, we need as many readers as possible to stay in the business of being authors. But good books, let alone great books, rarely appeal to masses, especially when said masses have been given free reign to exercise opinions … some of which, more rightly, should be exorcised.
I’ve always felt that readers help create a book, and I still hold to that belief. A book truly comes to life when a discerning reader brings his or her own imagination and vision to what you’ve created. I love to meet them, I travel to conferences and bookstores and events in order to do so, and they never fail to amaze me. I’m incredibly, enormously grateful to them and, indeed, would not be able to continue writing without their support. Journalists and bloggers and writers and librarians, true reviewers, literate people of all stripes … the business of writing itself would not function without them.
Note, however, I said “discerning” reader. That does not mean “every” reader—in fact, quite the opposite.
What if someone hates your book? What if a whole bunch of people hate your book? And what if (gasp!) they leave a “review” about it on a website? How do you react?
It depends on who wrote the review. Solid, well-thought out criticism is always worth seeking out, even if it’s painful to swallow. But a vitriol filled diatribe or a comment that could only be called stupid? Not so much.
Here’s the response: If you think it’s a good idea to pluck a random person off the street and give that person control over your happiness, then by all means listen to grammar-challenged opinions excoriating your work.
Do you stop writing? Do you stop writing YOUR way, change who YOU are, because a comprehension-challenged nitwit doesn’t like the kind of books you write and decided to read yours to get his or her hate on?
You can clearly label your book in one genre and have people who hate that genre attack it for exactly what makes it the genre that it is. You can be read by people who have no problem with graphic serial murders but who get very worked up about honest conversation using Anglo-Saxon profanity. You can have people try to correct things that aren’t mistakes and get mad at you for telling them they’re wrong. People can bully you, lie about you, lie about your work, and broadcast it to audiences as intellectually and socially limited as they are.
As an author you can be be attacked and pilloried and subjected to personal insults, be envied and therefore hated by people who desperately want to be published, in short be treated to all the indignities and injustices of celebrity without (at least for 99.9% of authors) being rewarded with the money that celebrity usually brings.
So ask yourself: do you really give a damn if someone whose taste, intelligence, social conscience or mental or emotional health makes them a person you a) wouldn’t respect or b) should avoid decides they loathe you, loathe your book, or leaves an insulting review?
Is that why you write, why you continue to work and sacrifice and labor through the course of a year and sometimes more?
Remember: being hated by some people is a compliment.
4. If I don’t achieve X, I’m a failure.
This is probably the most deceptive of all writing fears, because it changes in scale with circumstances.
To a first-timer, this could mean “If I don’t get published.” To a NY Times Bestseller, it could mean “If I don’t get to #1 on the list.” To a critically-acclaimed author, it could mean “If I don’t get a good review from the NY Times.” To someone who has been writing for many years, it could mean “If I don’t finally win an Edgar (or Pulitzer, or LA Times Book Award, etc.).
Down this path lies madness. The perfect self-sabotage is a never-ending series of qualifications for success.
Here’s the response: Do not let outside forces define what success means for you. This means you have to define it, which is damn hard to do (see #1). Nevertheless, defining your purpose in writing, your attainable goals (not your dreams, which are dependent on other people and other circumstances beyond your control), and your own success is very important to your well-being.
Come up with something you can live with. Something like, “I want this to be my best book —my best book according to me, that is.” Hold to it, and hold it fast—and don’t get sidetracked by any other definitions of success. If they happen, they happen. You’re a winner, no matter what.
5. I’ll be forgotten.
This is the one you get after you’ve been published. It’s also known as “I’m gonna lose whatever small success I’ve had and die unknown and unread, my books pulped into recycled paper and my e-books wiped by a virus.”
That title is a little long, so let’s keep it simple.
This is actually another (in a way) beneficial fear, because (like #1) it proves that you are humble and have a sense of the big picture.
I revisit this fear quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a classicist by training, and I’ve translated fragments of authors who were noteworthy in the ancient world and who are now mostly lost, whose work was not transcribed by monks or was destroyed at Alexandria. Despite their contemporary glory, they are doomed to be known as footnotes in obscure passages from Plutarch.
This could also be termed the “What does it matter, anyway?” fear. Basically, it’s what comes up when you’ve successfully fought all the others.
Here’s the response: Millions of years from now, our sun will explode. Should we stop writing and worry about how our books are going to be saved or should we just write the best damn books we can, following the response to #4 about defining our own success?
Sure, we can pull back in time like a giant cosmic camera, imagining the future, imagining the fate of our work, our cultures, our species and our planet. And after all that, take a stiff drink and bring our worries a little closer to home and do something to combat global warming.
What matters is the here and now: finishing your book, working to make it the best it can be, and trying your best to get it noticed.
I’m turning 50 this week. I woke up and suddenly have been around for half a century. And that feels old.
This birthday is a tough one. All birthdays are, since I lost my parents, who (as an only child without any close extended family) were not only my best friends, but the keepers of my history and the validation of my memories. But the older you are—especially on “landmark” birthdays—the more those memories of where you’ve been and who you were become faded … and there is no magical Photoshop filter to recolor them.
The thing is, you’re supposed to become wiser with age—that’s the plus side. As a child and a teen, I was always told that I was “older than my years” … now, of course, I want to be told that I’m “younger than my years”. Hopefully my preternatural wisdom has now not only chronologically caught up with but has actually been enhanced by this half century of life experience. Herewith, then, are 50 observations, bon mots, precepts and aphorisms … certainly not the sum total of what I’ve learned at 50, but a few pointers along the way.
Character is built on the edge of despair. (My father’s favorite maxim.)
You may regret what you don’t do, not what you do … so do it. (One of my mother’s favorites.)
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Tap it.
Honesty is not always the best policy, but it’s the only way you can maintain your own integrity.
Being hated by certain people is a compliment.
We are all part of the fabric of nature—sew and mend, don’t rip.
Be kind to all animals—including people.
Star Trek (original series, of course!) is the blueprint for our future.
Communicate by whatever means necessary, but always communicate.
Most business books contain one good point summed up in a pithy sentence, then spend 300 pages in embroidery.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
No one, including the people who love you best, can read your mind.
Death is as difficult a process as life. Honor it.
Don’t strive to be perfect. Strive to be the best you can be.
Opinions are like anuses. Everyone has one.
Expand your tribe.
Every generation thinks succeeding ones are spoiled, soft and witless.
Lean on your friends and prop them up when they need you.
Pop your head outside of your customized box and discover something new.
Know your generation’s faults and vulnerabilities.
Set your boundaries and defend them.
Re-read the “Desiderata” regularly.
In fact, read more poetry in general.
Try not to judge too much—remember that other people may be having a rotten day, too.
Trust your instincts in any situation where you feel danger.
Tell your children that you believe in them, and show them that you trust them.
Don’t let any relationship become a habit.
Look up once in a while.
Always travel—it grows your brain and your heart.
If you can’t travel, read about other places, cultures and times.
Talk to elders and treasure their memories.
Life is not just. Understand that, but keep fighting to make it so.
Don’t live your life for someone else’s approval.
Hug a tree, and marvel at the wonders of nature.
There are some absolutes in life. Recognize them.
If you’re stuck in traffic, make the most of it—play an audio book or learn a new language.
If you spend too much time preparing for the worst, you’ve lost some of the best.
Leadership is not a macho catchphrase. It’s responsibility.
War is never a good option, but sometimes is the only option.
Always respect a uniform, but always question authority.
Obviously, the library fun won’t be around-the-clock, so in checking out possible theatrical entertainment, I discovered “The Rat Pack is Back” show, and promptly booked tickets.
I’m not usually one for “tribute shows”, a genre I didn’t really recognize as a genre until I wandered through the Ticketmaster site. But the yearning for a Las Vegas that was demolished with the Sands and finally passed away with Eydie Gorme still envelops me; the Las Vegas of my parents, the Las Vegas of my dreams, all neon and snap brims and cigarettes and Old Crow bourbon on long, shining wooden bars.
The Las Vegas of the Rat Pack.
The hero of the Rat Pack, the Boss before Springsteen, the one and only Chairman of the Board was, of course, Frank Sinatra. A man as ineffably cool as his startling blue eyes, a voice that made bobby soxers swoon and middle aged women grow misty over their Pink Ladies.
I own most of Sinatra’s music; I’ve listened to Sinatra’s radio shows from the ’40s; I’ve seen most of Sinatra’s films, from musicals (Anchors Away) to five star dramas (From Here to Eternity) to his action/adventure/PI phase (Tony Rome). I know most of what has been written about Sinatra and some things that haven’t. And in addition to considering him one of the top three talents of the entire twentieth century, I think he was a very good and decent man.
Yes, I know about the “broads”. I also know about the organized crime connections. Sinatra was a man of his era in many ways and a man beyond it in others.
The fact is, when it comes to the treatment of women, the United States was and is grotesquely sexist. If you don’t believe me, check out the responses to the recent Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, a topic designed to protest the domestic and global dehumanization and hatred/fear/abuse of women exemplified by recent events in Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Santa Barbara. The misogyny this affirmative hashtag has engendered is deep enough to drown in.
You could also take a look at the response to Hilary Clinton’s run for President in 2008.
Hatred and contempt of people based on race and sexual preference has been partially driven underground and has, in some places, diminished. But hatred and contempt of women? Not so much. I see more misogyny every day on social media than Sinatra’s ever been accused of. He may not have been a proto-feminist, but he was certainly no bully and from all accounts, he was, if anything, rather Victorian in his gallantry.
He was, however, a proto-progressive on matters relating to race and religion, and he famously put his money where his mouth was, recording a great anthem (“The House I Live In”) for an America dealing with an upsurge in what would later be termed “hate crimes” immediately after it had defeated Nazi Germany.
Stories abound about Sinatra’s ire over the contemptible treatment of his friend Sammy Davis, Jr.; when it came to standing up against racism and anti-Semitism, he really was the Chairman of the Board.
About those organized crime links. The thing is, Sinatra was Italian. Italians live and work and breathe within a system of personal relationships and networks. I lived it Italy long enough to understand this, and long enough to have experienced it.
Case in point? As a foreign student living in Florence, I shopped for groceries at the Mercato Centrale (the central market) which, at the time, consisted of many, many small, individual shops (the green grocer, the chicken lady, the pork butcher, the pasta maker, the bean seller, etc.). You get the idea.
The one bread seller in the market was always inundated with a mob of women crushing against each other and the small, glass display case, trying to get the attention of the girls who took the orders. One young bread seller seemed to empathize with an American student trying to speak good Italian … and it was on this bread seller and her favor that I depended, week after week, to secure my focaccia and everything else. She’d skip right over some of the louder and more aggressive Italian signore, and make sure I got my bread. God bless her … I hope she’s had a good life.
In short, Italy has had more governments than Joan Rivers has had facial surgeries because Italians invest more in familial, personal, local and regional relationships than they do in the idea of a distant, representative authority.
This is also the way Sinatra operated. He prized those relationships—and the loyalty that went with them—above all else. For an Italian, especially of his generation, they actualized his very identity and signified security and survival.
It was the Kennedy family’s betrayal of this loyalty that actually sent him toward the conservative side of the political spectrum in later years.
So yeah, I think I understand some of the Sinatra mystique, and, while I don’t expect much from this tribute performance, I do hope it will make me recall the time I saw the Voice himself … a wonderful memory, like so many wonderful memories, engineered by my mom.
She grew up in Harvey, Illinois, and was good friends with a young man named Tommy Dreesen. Mr. Dreesen grew up to have a fabulous career as a stand-up comic, and later became the regular opening warm-up act for Frank Sinatra.
Long before that, however, on one of Sinatra’s last tours—held at the now defunct and much-missed Circle Star Theater—we had a chance to meet with Mr. Dreesen backstage when he and my mom reunited and shared some personal stories and family history.
The concert was amazing. Sinatra was old, yes, and relied on memory prompts. But he was still the Boss, still the Chairman, and when he performed “The House You Live In”, he still sang it with the same conviction he had fifty years earlier.
I caught a glimpse of the man backstage, while we were in Mr. Dreesen’s dressing room. You could feel his presence, feel his energy, diluted with the years, but strong and sure and fierce. And those eyes …
I’ve only seen eyes that blue and that piercing twice in my life. Once was when I saw Frank Sinatra … and the other was at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.
Somehow, I think Mr. Sinatra would have enjoyed that comparison. 😉
Remember compare and contrast? It still remains one of the most useful tools in the grade school era repertoire, and has lead the world to innumerable discussions on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon, and Superman vs. The Hulk.
Film sequels provide a particularly apt opportunity to explore similarities and departures and, most importantly, lead to questions about why those decisions were made—both originally and the second time around.
Today, I’d like to riff on two films—one very well-known, the other not-so-much. If you haven’t seen either The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring the formidable Bette Davis, or The Unfaithful (1947), directed by Vincent Sherman and starring the under-appreciated Ann Sheridan, you might want to go do that now … spoilers abound below.
The Letter is considered (by TCM and most critics) an “essential”, a masterpiece, a quintessential viewing experience. It’s a beautifully made, chilling film, and Wyler’s direction is sublime. The Unfaithful—which was, indeed, a remake of The Letter—isn’t considered much at all, except by noir aficionados, as it was made in the noir-defining post-War years, and that’s the category into which it is generally lumped.
The basic plot line both films share is a short story (1924) and self-adapted play (1927) by W. Somerset Maugham, addressing the eternally fascinating subject of feminine betrayal. You might remember the theme—it’s been around since before Genesis.
The creaky tale has been filmed a number of times, both in English and other languages, with the Wyler/Davis version receiving the most critical attention and praise. The Unfaithful is a reworking of the same story … but oh, what a difference a war makes.
Auteurism and Bette Davis fandom aside, let’s compare and contrast the plots of these two films. Here’s a breakdown of the basic plot of The Letter:
A bored wife (Leslie Crosbie) is stranded in a foreign (colonialized) country while her amiable but physically and emotionally distant husband travels to his various rubber plantations and leaves her at home. One sultry evening, she shoots and kills a man whom she claims was trying to force his attentions on her (the word rape is never uttered); the act is committed in front of the native workers on the plantation and in front of the film audience.
Unfortunately for Leslie, her husband’s clerk makes it known that he knows of a letter in which she pleads with, cajoles and threatens the dead man, begging him to visit her the night he is killed. The letter is actually in the hands of the dead man’s Eurasian wife, who is willing to sell it while the clerk acts as a go-between. The couple’s best friend, an attorney, arranges for the sale, which empties her husband’s bank account (he’s oblivious). Leslie is acquitted of murder, but when the husband finally realizes the money is missing, he confronts her and discovers that a) she was in love with the dead man and b) she killed him deliberately out of jealousy, and c) she still loves him and isn’t sorry for it.
Leslie wanders outside in a daze, where she’s knifed and killed by one of the natives at the behest of the dead man’s wife, who now has both money and revenge. [The fact that Leslie must be punished is not in the original story, but was insisted upon by the 1940 Hays Code.]
Rather noir, right? Yet The Letter is usually described as a melodrama (which it is), as if it could only be one or the other.
Now, let’s take a peak at The Unfaithful:
Chris Hunter is living in Los Angeles in one of those swanky new ranch houses, waiting for her husband to finally get home from one of his many business trips. She seems happy and is viewed as “too good to be true” by her husband’s cousin Eve (Eve Arden, in a delicious turn); Eve, in fact, is the kind of audacious broad that throws herself a “Divorce Party”, which Chris attends.
On the way home, as Chris is walking to her door, she’s attacked by a man in the shadows, his hand over her mouth, and pulled inside the house. We see in silhouette a violent struggle.
Cut to her husband Bob waiting at the airport; she was supposed to pick him up. He phones, and we see from his face that the news isn’t good. Bob arrives, relieved that his wife is all right, but unsettled by the fact that she apparently killed a man in self-defense. Their best-friend attorney Larry arrives (he’s actually Eve’s divorce lawyer). Chris tells the cops that she didn’t know the dead man; that he’d shown up and demanded her jewelry.
At the precinct, she is confronted by the dead man’s wife; he’d been an artist and a not-very-good husband, prone to wandering off and not telling his wife about it. Still, the wife violently reacts to the accusation of attempted robbery, and hysterically accuses Chris of murder.
A bit later, Larry (played by the wonderful Lew Ayres) is contacted by a smarmy art dealer, who offers to sell him a bust of Chris sculpted by the dead man; the artwork clearly proves she knew him and therefore lied to the police. Larry confronts Chris, who admits she posed for the man but stopped when he tried to get “too personal.” Terrified that a scandal would hurt Bob’s business, she lied. Larry advises her to come clean; instead, Chris tries to buy the statue for $10,000, only to find that the art dealer has given it to the sculptor’s vengeful wife.
The wife eventually shows the piece to police, who arrest Chris for murder just as she’s confessing to Bob that she actually did have an affair with the sculptor, but that he truly was trying to kill her—and that she’d been lonely after their two-week old courtship and wartime marriage. Bob refuses to forgive her as she’s hauled away to face trial.
Larry gives an impassioned defense of Chris, reminding the jury that she’s on trial for murder, not adultery. Eve explains to Bob that he’s being a jerk by not forgiving his wife. Chris is acquitted, and, through Larry’s machinations, it looks as though Bob and Chris will at least try to start over.
The Unfaithful is a terrific film, and arguably less “noir” than its predecessor. So, without further ado, let’s compare and contrast.
1. Message movie vs. escapism
We know we’re not on a Malaysian rubber plantation from the opening shot of The Unfaithful. A palm tree-lined suburban street accompanies an omniscient narrator voice over that tells us “The problem with which [the story] deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” The most fundamentally significant thing about the film is that it is seeking to be topical and explicitly, rather than implicitly, moralizing. We are told by the Voice of Authority that something is wrong with our present society, and we are shown a street in “Anywhere, USA” to prove it.
The “exotic” setting (and the concomitant, underlying racism) of The Letter has vanished, as has the escapism of the earlier vehicle. Malaysia may as well have been Oz for most American movie goers, and there is an obvious connection made both in The Letter’s script and direction between the oppressive heat and foreign (read “savage”) surroundings as contributing to Leslie’s crime. The Unfaithful does not portray a Joseph Losey version of Los Angeles in which a quiet suburban street can provide the same link between crime and setting that Wyler’s film does (see The Prowler); that would come later.
The Unfaithful is intended to pack a message; The Letter is intended as escapism.
2. Race and Gender
The gender roles, actions and implications of The Letter are unexamined and taken for granted; rather, the cultural tensions and explorations revolve around colonial practice and race, and, on one level, can be seen as upholding long-held racist beliefs; the wife sins when she is taken away from white society and left alone in a “savage” environment. The dead man was married to an Asian woman (changed to Eurasian in the film, as mandated by the Hays code—the character was brilliantly played by Gale Sondergaard); this alone was enough evidence for Maugham’s generation to understand that the philanderer was a lowlife.
Race is jettisoned in The Unfaithful, and instead, we are led to examine the interactions of both genders. Instead of a cold Bette Davis mercilessly gunning down her lover under a moonlit, sweltering sky, Ann Sheridan’s character is actually attacked; the audience is party to her vulnerability, not her guilt.
In fact, the film obliquely refers to a problem of violence against women, especially sexual violence. Though written in 1946, the film wasn’t released until June, 1947—six months after the Black Dahlia killing. Given the Los Angeles setting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dialog uttered by the detective was alluding to some of the crimes against women (i.e. Diane Sparks murder in 1946, etc.)
Maugham was uninterested in exploring issues of female frustration or loneliness or guilt and is, perhaps, most famous for one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman in the annals of literature—and that’s a lot of misogyny—in Of Human Bondage. Women in The Unfaithful move from centuries of blame and guilt to a more nuanced portrait in just seven short years.
3. Woman vs. Woman
In the 1940 film, Gale Sondergaard’s character has Leslie killed in retribution of the murder of her (cheating) husband. Before this, she humiliated Leslie by throwing the titular letter on the ground and making the woman pick it up.
The real dynamic here is woman vs. woman; they both loved the same weak and despicable man who was unfaithful to each.
There is no female bonding; no Letter to Three Wives and certainly no First Wives Club. There is just raw jealousy, depicted as an inherent state of female identity, leading to social chaos and murder.
The Unfaithful, however, offers a different dynamic in the character of the felicitously and symbolically named Eve. On the surface, she is bright and brittle, celebrating her new-found divorce and not particularly team Chris. She is perhaps the iconic woman, in contrast to the actual heroines of the story, who both bear names that could be either masculine or feminine (Leslie and Chris).
It is Eve who delivers the punch at the end, who provides the message we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot. It is Eve who offers a reasoned and reasonable explanation to Bob for his wife’s behavior, and it is Eve who tells him he needs to take some responsibility, too.
She is a woman who is defending another woman, just on the basis of being a woman in a difficult situation, not out of friendship (as does the attorney Larry); as such, it is Eve who is the clearest thinker and the most uncompromisingly moral voice—all this in the mouth of a (scandalous) divorcee.
4. Forgiveness Does Not Equal Weakness
Leslie’s husband in The Letter is a dope. He’s distant, he’s dim-witted, he’s a sap. He joins a long line of noir saps in being such a sucker for a dame that he’s willing to forgive and forget if she just tells him she loves him.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Bette confesses that she still loves the dead man.
Queue up Gale Sondergaard.
Zachary Scott excelled at playing sleazy, villainous types, but in The Unfaithful he manages to project just enough decency to convincingly play a man who eventually understands that forgiving his wife does not mean he’s a sucker. He’s helped greatly in this by the fact that Chris is no Leslie; she loves her husband and actually was violently attacked.
Forgiveness is a powerful, powerful message, and one that must have struck home with the millions of couples who married quickly and, post-1945, repented at leisure.
5. It’s the War’s Fault
If The Letter could be said to have a moral, it would be:
A. Don’t trust women.
B. Especially out of the country and among “uncivilizing” forces.
C. They are inherently overly emotional, conniving, and devious.
Ultimately, the explicit lessons of The Unfaithful are as follows:
A. Divorce is bad, forgiveness is necessary and you should try to work it out (the post-War attempt to stabilize a society reeling from cataclysmic social changes).
B. Women aren’t all conniving gold-diggers and cheating hussies. They have feelings, too.
C. Don’t blame each other; blame the war.
When asked if it was “his fault” he was shipping out to another continent, Eve upbraids Bob thus:
“You knew you were going when you met her. Let’s face it, that’s why you married her—what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim. You didn’t marry her … you just took an option on her.”
Bob: “She could have said ‘no.'”
Eve: “Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.And then you were off.”
David Goodis, a brilliant noir writer, helped pen The Unfaithful, which could just have easily been titled “The Unforgiven”. But the messages are less in character with what we think of as ‘noir’ (especially the ‘femme fatale’ trope) than they are in The Letter, which is much more rooted in 19th century melodrama.
One sought to titillate an audience desperate for escapism; the other, to reassure and pacify the jangled nerves and chaotic social structure that was post-War America. In so doing, The Unfaithful became a rara avis itself, a modest crime thriller/film noir that did not demonize women, but, instead, offered a sympathetic and far more realistic portrait of infidelity and the female homefront experience.