Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?

Agatha Christie is my third mentor for this year, and she’s also the third British writer who published actively in the ’20s and ’30s. Woolf, Wodehouse, and Christie could, very conceivably, have hung out and had some beers together. They were all about the same age and wrote throughout both World Wars. What’s so interesting about reading these three authors back-to-back is their approaches to literature are so startlingly different. Stream-of-conscious Woolf. Humorous Wodehouse. Mysterious Christie.

However, I noticed a disturbing trend as I read through these three writers. I hesitate to bring it up, only because it involves the potential to insult these writers whom I’ve worked so hard to talk about. But I think if we are to learn anything from a mentor, we have to examine the subjects that come up, flaws and all. So I’m going to risk it and hope that you’ll share your thoughts and comments below.

Underlying the different techniques and the approaches to language in these writers, there was one thing that they all hit on at one point or another: disparaging commentary toward minority groups. Specifically Blacks and Jews.

The book that brought my attention to this directly was the original title of Christie’s And Then There Were None. At first that book was called Ten Little Niggers. Then Ten Little Indians. The final version I read had no reference to either of the previous titles – the song used in the book refers to ten soldiers.

My brain spun at the idea that a book could be published at all with the two original titles. Then I thought about Wodehouse and Woolf, remembering that there had been one or two times where a derogatory term would pop up. I flipped back through and here are some examples of what I found:

• from The Voyage Out: “ ‘I want people to like me and they don’t. It’s partly my appearance, I expect,’ he continued, ‘though it’s an absolute lie to say I’ve Jewish blood in me….’”
• from Jacob’s Room: “she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews.”

• from “The Little Nugget”: “It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp meeting, and in my case ‘getting religion’ had taken the form of suppression of self.”
• from Mike and Psmith: “Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.”

And there are more examples from each one of these writers. I’m not saying that to bash their stories or their accomplishments. In fact, as I turned it over in my head, considering the drastic differences in style, method, selling-ness, and experiences of the authors, I found it strange that all three could consistently mention Blacks and Jews in such a fashion: just throwing down the words without expectation of reprisal.

Then it occurred to me: in the time period these three writers were producing work, it was – while not necessarily encouraged – accepted that “nigger” or “dirty Jew” could be thrown into a story as a legitimate metaphor. Readers wouldn’t have thought twice (unless such terms were thrown into the title…and even Ten Little Niggers got past enough editors to get published). The rhetoric of the culture allowed such things to be said.

While, today, we bitch and moan about having to be Politically Correct, there are some darn good reasons to watch what we write or say. First off, piled-up rhetoric is very convincing.

Imagine, if you will, that thousands of people are reading just these three authors (as they were and are). Therefore, thousands of people are exposed to the language “nigger” and “dirty Jew” thrown around in casual conversation/popular literature. That casual language sets a layer. Now, imagine a talented rhetorician comes around, notices what is or is not acceptable to talk about, and starts emphasizing certain things, i.e. “You have no money, but that dirty Jew shop owner does.” Another layer. And imagine a rhetorician with a film camera commenting on The Eternal Jew. Another layer.

No! Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I do not in any way blame Woolf, Wodehouse, or Christie for Hitler – or for slavery/segregation/American politics until the 1960s for that matter. I’m merely illustrating that what we say (whether in writing, in speech, in blogs) has a layering effect. It’s like millions of pieces of paper or bytes leaning and piling on top of one another.

And, unfortunately, we may not realize that what we said added to the layers of negativity.

Not to get any more political, but only to illustrate today’s potentially rhetorical danger zone: Today, as we know, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Middle East is in upheaval. And there are going to be literary reactions to all of it, on all sides. Books have already been written in reaction to 9/11 (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Safran Foer, and The Terrorist by Updike to name three wide variations on this theme).

While great writers try so, so, so hard to remain balanced, to just tell the story, to examine what could be the truth from all sides…the truth is, writers are only human. They have biases and prejudices – often fed by their Time. They’re (we’re) bound to fuck up. And only future generations can tell how much so.

But I think, by being aware of what we’re saying, we’ll be able to say it better, without offending too many, and without compromising our own integrity or the integrity of our work.

Okay, I’ve gone on waaaay too long. You’re turn. What’re your thoughts on political correctness? Derogatory terms? The three mentors’ language? Or, you know, if you know a good joke that’ll lighten the heavy discussion…. =)

Plato and Aristotle Weigh in on Agatha Christie

Back in the olden days, Plato made the argument that still resonates today: Violence on T.V. causes violence in real life.

Okay, maybe that’s not a direct quote. But the essence of the argument is there. According to Plato in his Republic, poets specifically should not be allowed into a well-ordered society because, well, they make society un-ordered. Poets (read: writers/storytellers/artisans) were imitators of real life. As imitations of life were skewed, the poet’s perceptions could rile the populace. Ergo: If you watch violent cartoons, you will become a violent, bullying child and continue on through your adulthood to be a violent, bullying adult, thus fucking up the Republic.

So let’s look at Agatha Christie. She promotes violence (just look at the body count she’s racked up!). Every one of her bestselling novels requires that someone die. Every other character has to lie about their part in the murder. There’s greed, murder, corruption, and lawyers – damaging to even the best-laid Republic anywhere! The very puzzles in her books – her signature style – makes everyday folks think that they might be able to get away with murder: just think about Hercule Poirot’s thought process and thwart it! I tell you, if you follow Plato’s line of thought, Agatha Christie is right there in the middle of the trouble.

There’s one little problem, though. I can’t think of any real-life murderer going “Agatha Christie made me do it!” (If you find one, let me know, because I would be fascinated – perhaps too much so – by that.)

Aristotle, the opinionated student of Plato, had another thought on how art (tragedy specifically) worked: via catharsis. His idea was that if you watch violence on T.V., you will experience all the thrills you need and, therefore, will not go out and commit mayhem on the streets.

So, let’s look at Agatha Christie again. She has ‘perpetrated’ and ‘solved’ hundreds of murders/burglaries/bad stuff. She has delivered justice/retribution to villains the world-over. Families can sleep at night because they know that the bad guy who hurt their loved one is behind bars, or identified, or dead. Looking at it from that perspective, Christie’s work might’ve saved countless lives because potential murderers got their jollies from her depictions of death and/or worried that some Inspector Poirot or nosy neighbor Marple would hunt them down.

Yeah, but the truth is, either point is moot. There is no way to test Plato’s hypothesis, specifically. After all, every single Republic has always had some form of art/imitation of life. And there’s no way to limit the range of Aristotle’s point. Aristotle’s catharsis could’ve kept any number of nation-states from becoming outright chaos. People were busy at the theatre rather than at war. Unfortunately, the theatre-rather-than-war-argument doesn’t work because every generation since Plato and Aristotle has had wars, disorder, and random acts of violence – and they’ve all had art. But there’s no way to directly measure art’s influence. Perhaps the theatre-goers really did stop a war from becoming larger than it would have otherwise. Or maybe it caused it.

See? It can go either way. I’m pretty sure that’s why we still read and discuss Plato and Aristotle.

I read and discuss Agatha Christie because it’s fun.

Sorry, guys, this week has gotten too far away from me. Will return to regularly scheduled blogging on Monday. Don’t worry–plenty of Agatha Christie coming your way soon.

You can stop banging down the doors now. =)


I was just over at Natalie Whipple’s blog and she’s doing a Q&A thing. In the comments section, she responds to blog readers’ questions and I found this wonderful, perfect, nailed-it piece of advice:

And when you do get crits, also give yourself time to let them sink in. Going right into edits can be a bad move, because you haven’t quite digested and translated what’s really being said. It’s important to figure out how YOU want to fix the issue. Sometimes crit partners bring up a very valid point, but their solution is off. Don’t let that solution suggestion be the focus—you could inadvertently throw out good advice.”

I have often run into this in critique groups across the board. What seems like conflicting ‘advice’ (“It’s this character’s actions here. Change X and then Y will be fine.” “It’s the response to this motivation here. Change W and then X will work” etc.) is really just one problem in disguise. It’s not about listening to what people prescribe, it’s about listening to what their issue is with the piece–and the two are not the same thing. Somewhere in there, something about scene X isn’t coming across. The solution may actually be in scene B. Like Natalie says, “It’s important to figure out how YOU want to fix the issue.”

Just be aware that picking and choosing what will work is an art in and of itself. Now go read Natalie’s blog: Between Fact and Fiction

Random Post of Accountability!

Been awhile since I’ve done some accounting for myself.

Here’s what I’ve been doing writing-wise:

1. Figuring out what the heck I wanted to write. A couple months ago I hit that point where it was time to work on a new project. I don’t know if you’re anything like this, but I have project after project after project in my head. So it came down to What did I want to write? Initially I decided to work on a story I call The Line. Then I was having a really hard time figuring out where I wanted to go with it. So I went to another project, The Manager, but discovered I didn’t have the writing skill to pull off what I wanted to do. So I switched to another project, which I call Members of the Club. But I didn’t actually start on that one, just brainstormed around and went back to the first one. This back-and-forth took up about three weeks of my time.

2. Figuring out how I wanted to write. At first, I thought that I would write my masterpiece on the computer, because I was having such success with short stories that way. Turns out, writing a short story and writing a novel are two different things and I have two different processes. Switched to handwriting on the novel and it’s been trucking right along. (I wonder why this is? A mental thing, I’m sure.) Plus, my computer crashed, so I was without that for a little bit. (It’s back on track now, for those who were concerned.)

3. Playing around with Word. I figure, speaking of writing on computers, that I should really know about the software I’m using. Every now and then, I’ll open up a new document just for playing. I play with setting indents and tracking changes and formatting and all of the goofy stuff that this program can do. Learning a lot.

4. I submitted some poetry around. I’ll let you know how that goes. This is really the first time I’ve ever submitted poetry. I’ve written quite a bit, but never released it. So fingers crossed, and we’ll see about racking up some rejections in the corner.

Come on, my writerly people? What have you been up to?

The Solution to the Pop-Up Character Syndrome in Mysteries

During a critique session, years ago, one of our group members submitted a first-chapter of a novel she was working on. Members of the group had taken her pages home, read it over for the month, marked it up, and then we all came back to discuss–which is our M.O. Rarely is it the case that a group of our size concurs on an issue (there’s always one or two dissenters somewhere) but this one was unanimous:

Too many characters, too soon. It read like a pop-up shooting gallery.

I think that this is a verrrry common writing sin/mistake/problem, found particularly in the mystery genre. Let’s face it, the structure of a mystery requires a lot of characters. You’ve gotta have the investigator, the criminal, the red herrings, the random other people who interfere in the investigation…and let’s not forget the victim in this hubbub. How can a writer possibly avoid this chaotic assortment of characters? How on earth do you sort out the madness?

Well, if we’re following Agatha Christie’s example (and we are) then you do this: slow the heck down!

There’s this feeling when you’re writing a mystery that you must have everyone onstage now–so you can get to the murder–so you can get to the puzzle–so you can get to the next part that is sooo awesome!

Hold up, bub.

A mystery also requires that the reader understand who these characters are, what their relationships are, and what the possible motives are. If you don’t get that down, then the reader will actually be bored with your amazing plot twists because the reader won’t follow what’s going on.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery (and I believe her first book in general–but don’t quote me, I’ll have to double check), Christie shows an amazing ability to introduce characters. And it’s because she takes her time. Two chapters go by before the murder occurs.

Each character gets his/her own introductory section. And guess what? It could go on for more than a paragraph. Don’t think that you have to go: “This is Sally. She beautiful and is in debt up to her eyeballs [to steal a line from one of my favorite commercials]. She was once in love with Tony [who you have given a previous paragraph of introduction to] but married Lou on a drunken weekend in Tibet” and then proceed with the action. That brief description tells us a little about Sally, and gives credence to a motive somewhere (maybe). But there’s no emotional involvement, there’s nothing to give us more about her personality, there’s nothing to make us invest in her.

Now, let’s look at the Dame her-own-self:

“I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.”
~Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

And that’s just the intro paragraph for this woman. Off the bat we know several things about her: energetic, generous, rich, handsome, raised kids who weren’t hers, etc. Christie then proceeds to explain Mrs. Cavendish and her family in more detail. We meet her stepson, John, and the narrator, Hastings, as they discuss the people they’re about to arrive at Styles. John gives the rundown on the family situation, and that dialogue description is backed up by Hastings’ own recollections about the family. The family takes a chapter by itself.

Then the next chapter is all about the family’s interactions.

Guess what? None of it is boring. When a reader picks up a mystery, she is expecting a puzzle, and she will want to know the puzzle pieces. So, as a writer, you have more time than you think you do.

Have you ever fallen prey to the ‘pop-up’ character trap? How do you avoid it? Is this a problem for other genres?

Thursday Reviews: I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I Am the Messenger I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think there’s only so many way to say Awesome and this book deserves each of them. Zusak (of whom I’m a big ol’ fan after reading The Book Thief) writes in a fast-paced style that works really well for this story of Ed, who is sent out on a mission to deliver messages to those in need. He doesn’t know what the people need or what the message is…he has to figure it out. Along the way, he grows. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and has a metafictional ending that’s not only satisfying, but goosebumpy (though perhaps not something every fifteen year old will understand).

Sure, Zusak’s in love with fragment-length paragraphs, but it is believeable to the voice of the youngish narrator. He’s nineteen, has a job, and is struggling to figure out his life–so I do question the age range normally assigned to this book: the teen audience. It should definitely be aimed at older teens, in my opinion. There’s cursing and violence and sexual content, which isn’t a big deal to today’s teens, but the conflict that Ed undergoes is geared to sixteen-and-ups who are about to hit the real world. Thirteen year olds might not enjoy it as much.

It’s also a good thing that I read Zusak was Australian, because there’re turns of phrase that would have tripped me up otherwise. Not a big deal, but again, it speaks to the age of the target audience. After all, American kids go to “college,” not “university.” (Not that American kids wouldn’t get it, just that there’s a difference in semantics that requires some adjustment.)

I really enjoyed the layout of the book. It goes from each ace of a normal suit of cards and goes through each card until the king, then switches suits. That might be just a stylistic thing, but it resonated with me. Ending on the suit of hearts was very telling. The symbols were simple, but impactful, adding to the story rather than taking over the story–which is really easy to do when a story follows a conceit like that.

Overall, Ed comes across like a normal guy doing extraordinary things…which is exactly how he should come across. The book left me believing that, at any minute, Ed could come knocking on my door to deliver a message. And, in a way, he did. Well done.

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