Continuing with “Nasty Women Month”, I decided to choose a decidedly Romantic literary figure whom I greatly admired as a teenager … Thomas Hardy’s Eustacia Vye.
In case you’re unfamiliar with The Return of the Native, it is, in my opinion, Hardy’s most evocative book in terms of setting. Edgon Heath in his Wessex is described with the sensuality of a lover and depicted as a raging, passionate character itself … the epitome of nature, if you will. The novel fits more squarely into the Romantic tradition than Hardy’s other masterpieces (I’ve read everything he’s written—he’s been my favorite writer for most of my life), and much of the tension and conflict stems from Eustacia’s struggle against what she feels is the “prison” of Egdon Heath.
Hardy also experiments with his “Destiny” themes in The Return of the Native, as he does most profoundly in Jude the Obscure and most movingly in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Eustacia not only yearns to escape, but she yearns to be loved—and not only loved, but to be “loved to madness.”
As a young girl growing up in a remote, rural community—one in which physical hardship was part of survival—I resonated with Eustacia. She was urban and urbane and wild and passionate, and yearned to escape the confines of the admittedly beautiful, rugged and equally passionate environment in which she found herself trapped. She spoke to me. And what teenager doesn’t wish to be “loved to madness”?
Eustacia is also described—a theme in other Hardy works—as more quixotic deity than mortal female. But for me, she’ll always be a top-notch literary “nasty woman” … one who could have benefited from a “creative resistance” in her own time and place. And who better to play her than Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the actress did in 1994?
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.
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.
Most writers hoard what is survival gear for most of us … words.
Bits and bobs, flotsam and jetsam, beginnings and endings, random jots of thoughts and perceptions and well-intentioned stabs at craftsmanship.
You never know when a scrap might be useful, when that discarded sentence, slightly retooled, will fit perfectly into a problematic paragraph. And, because you never truly know whether or not your beleaguered brain will ever be able to replicate something reasonably engaging, you hold on to those scraps as life-preservers, wards against the terrors of the empty page.
Likewise, many authors file first completed attempts away, storing first drafts under the literal or metaphorical bed only to emerge with them later, held aloft triumphantly, after said authors have already been published and their early attempts are suddenly notable.
I wish I could report that I’ve saved up a few incomplete manuscripts, but my first book was published and every subsequent book has been, too. However—because I wrote all kinds of things, from translations to original poetry to sonnets to screenplays, long before I decided to cast caution to the winds and actually become a working writer—I can offer a few oddities from time to time, particularly when I’m hitting deadlines on a Monday and scrambling in the dark. 😉
Today, it’s Hemingway. Or, rather, a Hemingway parody/pastiche, a single page of prose based on both subject and style of Papa himself. I wrote this many years ago for a “Bad Hemingway” contest, but, as fate would have it, missed the deadline. To have and have not, eh?
At least in writing Hemingway satire, I am in good company … Raymond Chandler did, too. Those of you familiar with The Sun Also Rises and Papa’s short stories should recognize the title and a number of lines. So, without further ado …
Big, Two-Hearted Harry (Part I)
It was late and the room at Harry’s Bar and Grill was already smoky with the regular crowd when Jock walked in. He sat across from the rummy and pretended not to notice him as the rummy was always hard up and wanting Jock to spot him.
Jock nodded and watched Harry make the drinks. Harry ran a good place, a tight place, a place where a rummy could come and have a clean corner, a well-lit haven. A clean, well-lighted place where a rummy could forget his cojones had gotten blown off in the war.
“Your drink. Lady Breck’s been waiting for you.”
Jock liked Harry. He liked the way Harry poured the absinthe. He liked it the way Harry ran a tight place. He liked it how Harry understood about the rummy and could talk about the important things. He liked it about the scar on Harry’s arm. He liked it how Harry’s tattoo danced when his muscles twitched. He liked it when Harry bent over. Liking that made him feel funny.
“Hello old chap.”
It was Breck. Lady Breck was damned attractive. Her short hair fell boyishly off a chiseled face. Her tight sweater did nothing to hide the curves of a body built like a sleek-hulled yacht.
“I thought you were waiting for me.”
“Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable. I have been waiting, but I couldn’t help tromper-ing you with that white hunter. It’s the way I’m made.”
“That damned red-faced Williams? You didn’t have to do that.”
“Oh darling, don’t be difficult. I’m all yours now. My one true love. But oh darling, I’m so miserable.”
“Don’t talk like a fool.”
“You’re right. You know I feel rather good. I feel rather good not tromper-ing you with the bull fighter. I could have, you know. You chaps left me alone for an hour. I had everyone except Manuel and the rummy. Poor old rummy.”
“You should feel good. Let’s go upstairs.”
They kissed. Breck pulled away. “Oh darling, I’m so miserable. That rummy and I could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jock took her arm. “Yes”, he said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“A 12 year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he’s her cousin. Or if she’s shy or doesn’t like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention.”
[Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter about the editing of the upcoming By the Shores of Silver Lake, part of the “Little House” series]
Last week, I wrote about A Wrinkle in Time, the children’s book that, in retrospect, probably had the greatest impact on the adult I was to become. Today, I stumbled upon a brief Slate article that reminded me of another series that I read and adored as a youngster: the “Little House” books.
No, I don’t intend to blog about YA books every week, but the synergy was inescapable. Especially since the Slate article interested me less in the editorial collaboration between mother and daughter and more in Ms. Lane’s efforts to stifle and censor the truth of her mother’s stories.
As a writer of historical crime fiction, I face a formidable obstacle: the nostalgic reimaging and reimagining of our historical truth by later generations—generations that want to “remember” the past through a rose-colored looking glass of wishful thinking.
World War II? The greatest generation. Never mind the corporations that backed Germany, the black market dealers, draft evaders, Japanese-American internment camps and the rampant anti-Semitism and institutionalized racism that characterized much of American life.
As I’ve often mentioned in panels and in interviews, the past was life, warts and all. For every beautiful Art Deco building or green, undeveloped pasture, for every Glenn Miller tune and I. Magnin hat, for every “please” and “thank you”, there was ugliness and brutality and inequality and unfairness and injustice. And much of it was not only tolerated and accepted, but perfectly legal.
If we write only half the story, we add to the injustice by either romanticizing or demonizing the human experience. Even “escapist” entertainment—to me, at any rate—should be plausible and truthful about life and the endless capacity for good and evil of which human beings are capable.
After all, isn’t that our reference point?
So I read the editorial letter by Ms. Lane with disappointment, if not surprise. I’d known of her extremist political ideology. If she were around today, she’d probably be an Ann Coulter acolyte.
“Here you have a young girl, a girl 12 years old, who’s led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you cannot suddenly have her acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.”
In seeking to minimize (and she does this in two separate sections of the letter) her mother’s brave attempt to prevent child molestation—and note how she implies that such things would be expected for a “slum child”, such a casual and crass example of economic elitism—Rose Wilder Lane not only silences the historical truth of her mother’s experience, but both admits to and silences a truth women have always faced: once they hit adolescence, they are targets. And in cultures that encourage it or turn a blind eye toward pedophilia (particularly in “slums”, according to Ms. Lane), such targeting can occur very, very early.
Ms. Lane also seeks to censor some of the economic and labor woes that her mother witnessed. The idea of crooked businessmen—and getting revenge on such—is not something for a children’s book, she insists. It doesn’t matter if it happened. Instead, Ms. Lane often underscores nature as the enemy throughout the series: the drought, the grasshoppers, the winter so long that the family nearly starves. In her defense—and in the passage that stuck with me more than any other in any volume—she allows a moving description of the disappearing birds and wolves and wildlife of Silver Lake as the little town on the prairie is built, when even that minuscule development by today’s standards is shown to have a dramatic effect on nature.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the disappearing expanse of prairie with a profound sense of loss, and I’m grateful that her daughter let that come through.
No, I don’t fault Ms. Lane for staying on target with her audience, for manipulating facts, for conflating characters and events and all the other things one has to do to present a salable narrative. What worries me is what she chose to omit. She omits the story about Laura’s cousin. And she omits the warning that Laura’s Pa gave her concerning the men who worked on the railroad. And I’m afraid there Ms. Lane reveals her own prejudices as well as those of her time period, the rose-colored editorial glasses of a 1938 conservative.
“But Pa’s warning to stay far away from all those workmen because they’re dangerous seems to me far-fetched. There’s no motive for the men to do them any harm, except a degenerate one, and there was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical at all.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer, a strong woman and a determined one. And I wish we could have heard her full story.
It’s a foggy April day in San Francisco. Fog puts me in the mood to write (luckily) or, on a rare occasion when I’m not working, it’s the perfect weather for curling up with a book, with our without a cup of tea and a cat. (Those of us who like to indulge in both cats and tea know that the cat will often try to occupy the same space as a cup of tea, and the end result is scalding water in your lap or on your keyboard).
So thinking about reading made me think about books that influenced me as a child. I was an insatiably omnivorous reader, devouring novels and stories of all kinds—those written for my age group and those intended for much older audiences. Along the mystery path, I began, as so many do, with Nancy Drew when I was seven. By the time I was ten, I’d graduated to Sherlock Holmes (whilst still retaining a love for Nancy. Remind me to blog about The Nancy Drew Cookbook at some point. But I digress …)
A second grade school teacher put my first Nancy Drew in my hands (a vintage hardback of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). A fourth grade teacher recommended A Wrinkle in Time.
Wrinkle didn’t fuel a life-long passion for science-fiction in the way that Nancy did for mysteries … though I was always a nut for Star Trek (original series, natch) and read everything by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov I could find. What Madeleine L’Engle did with Wrinkle was nothing less than help shape my spiritual, ethical and moral world view.
I was initially drawn to the book because I was always a science geek—one of my favorite Christmas presents was a deluxe chemistry set my parents got for me when I was eight years old. I owned a microscope, a telescope and a gyroscope. I loved the idea of science (if not math), and even when I graduated from high school and had become a young adult, I seriously considered becoming a Cosmochemist (just the title alone is almost worth it). In fact, I was accepted to U.C. San Diego as a Chemistry major.
A Wrinkle in Time is essentially science fiction. But it uses questions about science to delve into metaphysics, spirituality, and the human condition. It tops the list of all the books written for children/young adults that I read as a child (including stalwarts like The Hobbit). It is the first book I’d place in the hands of a curious, sensitive and intelligent child today.
I don’t want to reveal any spoilers if you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, please do! Instead, here are my top five lessons learned from A Wrinkle in Time:
Love is the most powerful energy/entity in the universe.
Don’t hide or be ashamed of your uniqueness; be proud of who you are.
Conformity is the ultimate bogeyman.
Intelligence without empathy or compassion is the ultimate evil.
Your faults can be virtues under the right circumstances.
I wonder what lessons kids are taking home from today’s crop of more-popular-than-ever YA books … and what your life-lessons from your favorite childhood book might be? Please share below!