Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Truth is Ugly (The Magical Negro and other Gross Generalizations)

People are complicated.

There is nothing that turns me off a book, be it fiction or not, like a one-dimensional subject. As I stated in the last post, I’m more a fan of the latter (non-fiction), and I think this is part of the reason. People are messy, complex, ugly and vicious; they are also beautiful, inspiring and sacrificial. They are boastful about their better qualities, rendering them inert at best or at worst negating the good they do with charmless hyperbole about how great they are for doing all that good.

I love reading about flawed assholes with hearts of gold or sacrificial fascists. People are not all bad or all good, and some people who do good are more bad than good, whatever bad and good truly mean. In my reading experience identifying with a good guy’s major flaws is an identification of ourselves in the characters. We know we sometimes suck, hard. We also know that most times we might struggle to try to do a balance of good things over evil deeds. Sometimes we do evil by trying to do the right thing. Some evil people do tremendous good or have good qualities that are overshadowed by their heinous deeds. Nothing is black and white.

Oh and by the way I AM NOT negating the existence of truly evil people. None of that Hitler was an animal lover bullshit justification. Knowing that fact, however, makes him less a caricature and in my opinion even that much more frightening and evil.

That’s not to say that there are people whose good outweighs the bad; I still maintain the naive belief that the preceding describes the majority of us. That is also not to say that there are some people that we love to hate for good reason. The truth, however, is often gray and ugly. It is speckled with blood and shit and smeared with a thin layer of disease, but that is really how life is.

One of the difficulties I’ve always had with reading and writing fiction is that it sometimes feels that writers (myself included) intentionally construct their characters from the outside in. What I mean by that is instead of developing a person and then creating space for them to inhabit, they do the reverse, focusing on the space first and then drawing the characters secondary to that. Not to say that there is only one way to write, but the usual tact for writing cardboard cutter characters starts with a stimulus and shows a reaction.

Stephen King’s Black characters always seemed to suffer from this. King, apparently not knowing, or believing “they” are like “us” is one thing, but it is easily remedied at least in part by talking to some of “them” if only in his own head.  Instead, there always seemed to be a noble savage or “magical negro” aspect to his non-white characters that disturbed me, and I’m not the only one. Much of this, I believe, could have been solved by writing these characters internally first, as people, not people of color. Working his way out instead of in and suffering on the side of flaws instead of noble caricature. Some of his female characters fail to ring true for the same reason.

“Character driven” is often one of those shortcut terms in film and literature that means low or no concept. No big idea, no political agenda, no overarching theme about who we are. It is a signal from the reviewer to the reader that you’ll encounter a series of sullen navel-gazers who’s whiny antics you’ll find tedious yet intriguing. It’s for the coffeehouse crowd, the liberal intellectual whiny white suburbanites who wish to be taken out of their humdrum lives of privileged if only for a second. The New York Review of Books types who’ve not only read Proust but “The Joy of Reading Proust” as well. Shortcut.

In my mind, if your story isn’t driven by its characters it isn’t worth my time reading.

I don’t read to escape; I read to engage. I watch superhero films to escape; I play video games to escape. Reading takes time and concentration, it isn’t as passive as movie watching and although gaming is more engaging, reading for me takes much more brainpower. While the pixels are drawn for you in gaming, every pixel, every scene, every sight and sound is created, rendered on the fly by your brain. Part of the reason I read so little is that it takes so much effort and concentration. If I’m committing that amount of time and effort to read words and draw from them mental pictures and emotions and trauma and fear and, and, and…it had better be fucking worth it.

My ex used to call books she read through quickly, potato chips. I’m not a fan of those either. If I’m going to get fat it better be on a meal I love and savor, not mindlessly shoveling the same tasting, same salted, sameness into my mouth unconsciously. I want to think about every bite, enjoy every flavor and texture.

Part of the reason it takes me so long to post is that this takes so much energy to create, and even more to filter out and edit the tangents. In fiction it takes a lot of forethought to create a character I want to live with in my head for a long, long, time. It takes a herculean effort to draw that character fully, to be able to write them as if they were real to me and not to disrespect them by ignoring their worse (or better) qualities.

I guess it’s also the same reason I have very few good friends. I don’t have the mental energy or commitment of concentration to invest in people I will have only a tertiary non-relationship with. If I invest emotion in you you’d better be interesting or I won’t sustain the acquaintance long enough to move to calling you a friend. You’d better not be all sunshine and seagulls or conversely covered in a dark cloud of doom 24/7. Either drives me up a fucking tree and I wouldn’t want to read about you either. The bandwidth for bullshit only gets narrower with age.

Every black character does not have to be noble, as a matter of fact giving them some asshole qualities would do them well. Every hero with a dark past doesn’t have to be fully repentant. It makes them more dangerous and real if you give them some un-heroic qualities, some major unresolved flaws that they aren’t particularly tortured by. Every racist doesn’t have to be an overbearing boss with an agenda against his Mexican employees; he can just be a guy, who happens to be a bigot. Every damn villain does not have to be so clear-cut evil. People, even types, are much more interesting when they are real, ugly, complicated.

At least to me.

7 Books

I’m by no means a voracious reader, on average I read about two books a year, and they tend to be nonfiction. As my previous posts betray, I’m more a current events kind of guy, a news hound or cultural history buff depending on the day.

As I’ve been contemplating writing more myself I’ve been trying to read more as well and the books I’m reading and have read are influencing me in some not so subtle ways, especially the fiction.

When I was in college the first time, I studied English lit and had the distinct pleasure of being instructed by two very different people. Although they possessed two distinctly different styles, their voices still resonate in my head and greatly inform both my writing and my choice in reading.

Leonard Kent, a tall, gangly sweetheart of a man, introduced me to Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. The density of Russian prose resonated with me as I was awash in verbiage in my own writing and simultaneously tumbling head over heels into its murky depths. The Russians we read always spoke to me not only about Russia but also the cold, stiff society that was New England’s colonial beginnings. In some ways New England is still this.  As different as a Black kid from a housing project could be from a young bleak Russian, I still found kinship in the tales and the characters.

Rodion Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, a conflicted ex-student trapped between kindness and killing was somewhere between the sullen resignation of Bartleby and my post adolescent angst. I identified frighteningly with both his kindness and his cruelty. In retrospect, I see how that bleak Russian ennui is more relevant to us in the US now than it was even to Russia in the mid 20th century. He was me, as I saw myself when I was still mired deeply in myself.

Mark Johnston, my would-be mentor, and one of the many relationships I walked away from that I regret. (He would die as I spent my exile years in Florida) His influence affects me similarly, yet differently. Think Donald Sutherland’s suave, pot-smoking Prof from Animal House. Not quite that flaky (or naked) but from what I knew of him, at least a shade similar. This filter-less chain-smoking intellectual charmer was the only white man who could say certain words without raising the hairs on my back.

Even the most well-intentioned teachers always came across like they were getting away with something when reading the many “niggers” sprinkled throughout American literature. Sometimes it was that they were so uncomfortable through the inevitable prefacing that it made the eventual unveiling of the word so much worse.

Mark was neither of these. I learned to appreciate contributions we made to this country through his prodding. When I nearly crashed and burned his class behind me because of a rather intense relationship, he was both comforting and steady in his assertion that I finish what I started in his class. I eventually did.

Mark showed me Wright and Truth as well as Baldwin, which made the hardest impact. I still don’t get poetry, but Angelou and Hughes still resonate.

In another class he helped me deepen and appreciate my relationship to the work of probably my favorite writer Kurt Vonnegut.

So books…

7 of the most influential works of fiction on me, my writing and my thought process.

In descending order because there is no drum roll when you can scroll down.

  1. Cats Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
  2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
  3. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  4. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
  5. For Us, The Living – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. Childhoods End – Arthur C. Clarke
  7. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Next…. What each means to me…


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