Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can't Make Art With a Checklist. Part 1

Like many many sermons I've heard, I'd like to segway into this with a good joke. 

With everyone busy attacking Steve Bannon for his remarks on the media, I'd like to direct your attention to this Chicago Tribune article that was published on 2-15. The piece mentions several high-profile authors, such as Joanne Rowling and Veronica Roth. But I'd like to quote someone else who had their own thoughts on this very issue.

"About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solumn Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology...But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book to include more women characters and roles? A few years later I got a certain amount of mail concerning the complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I 'do them over'?Then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks...I sent a play off to a university theatre a month ago. My play is based on the "Moby Dick" mythology, dedicated to Melville and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Space Comet and destroy the destroyer. The university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play, it had no women in it! 

The point is obvious. There is more that one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist/Zionist/Seventh-day-Adventist/Women's Lib/Republican/Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, and the duty to douse the kerosene and light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme."

My my, was this some poor mid-list author being kicked around? Was this a new guy just getting on his feet?


It was Ray Bradbury.

That's right. One of the most iconic writers in modern American history had the PC police after him years after he wrote Fahrenheit 451.

Above quote was taken from his essay, Coda, published in 1979. 

That's four years after Watergate, a scandal that was fought by daring reporters who knew there was something very wrong with the executive branch and risked a lot by speaking out. 

But people were already dissecting the text of Bradbury's work, the very novel that preached so vehemently against it.

He writes:

"Only six weeks ago I discovered that some cubby-hole editor at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students...wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony."

Think on that.

But the list goes on.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly chastised for its portrayal of people of color...even though the story features a white man fighting the system, trying to ensure a fair trial for an accused rapist...who happens to be black.

The Grapes of Wrath caused so much controversy that John Steinbeck had to leave the Salinas Valley and never lived there again. He was labeled a Communist, among other things, and copies were publicly burned.

The Color Purple (book and movie) was ripped to shreds because of how it portrayed black families.

And of course, Harry Potter has been banned in some schools because it "promotes witchcraft."

Here's the critical difference between the Tribune article and the above examples.

The other books were condemned after they came out by players independent of the publishing world.

But now, it seems, we're looking at the next logical step: prevention.

Here's a snippet from the Tribune piece. 

"This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her 'Truthwitch' series. 'I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage," Dennard said. But, she added, she felt the voice of the character was an important one that wasn't often portrayed, so she hired a fan, who is a transgender man, just to be sure she did it right."

Scared? No! It can't be! It's only their passion and their livelihood we're talking about. It's not like they had to work really hard to stand out among the millions of wannabe writers to get this far.

I digress.

Is this practice in and of itself wrong or unethical? 

No...but it presents a very thin line between constructive criticism and outright censorship.

Before the term "sensitivity readers" came about these people were known as something else: content editors

The last line of that quote, "just to be sure she did it right," seems counterintuitive to every bit of writing advice that I've ever heard.

Write what you know.

Write what you want.

Be true to yourself.

There's only one way I can see this working out. Stephen King is one of my top five favorite authors. He does a good job of showing why his characters behave the way they do, even the bad ones. In Cujo, Gary Pervier is a hard-drinking pig who lives in a dump of a house, and his response to just about every situation is "I don't give a s***!" Why? He was traumatized by his experiences fighting the Germans in WWII. A similar character appears in It: Henry Bowers' crazy dad who hates black people. He spent a lot of time in the Pacific theatre.

IF this is the intent of sensitivity readers, then they have the potential to do a lot of good. 

BUT I think it would behoove any and all publishers who are taking this initiative seriously to use strict guidelines when hiring these folks, and how they're to do their job. 

That's the optimist inside me. The pessimist has grave reservations about the whole thing.

Take a look:

"One reader for hire in Ireland's database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.

Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. "Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they're supposed to be escapist and fun," she says. They're not supposed to be a place where readers "encounter harmful versions" and stereotypes of people like them."

Has it occurred to anyone that people cling to stereotypes for a reason, and by understanding why we might be able to better address the underlying problem of hatred? William T. Sherman famously said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." He said that because as a young boy in the West he witnessed just how cruel and ruthless the Natives could be when they went to war, and he was completely oblivious to the larger context that drove them to war. 

And while we're at it, why should I be considered an authority on white Christian men just because I'm a member of that group? I can only speak for myself. I've met a lot of people who are like me...and yet very different. I've met Christians who think it's completely ok to drink alcohol, smoke, curse, and pretty much anything else they cannot find an explicit "thou shalt not" verse to contradict them.

Freedom of speech/freedom of the press has been in a news a lot these days. Literature is a wonderful extension of that right.

There are books that are meant to entertain and comfort people.

But then there are other books that slap you in the face, spit in your eye, then laugh at your tears. And many of these books are now venerated as classics. 

They didn't shirk from reality, even though certain authors twist facts and people to show us how they see it.

And through that lens, many of us changed the way we think.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is credited (by a select few, albeit...) with starting a war that led to the abolition of slavery.

Native Son and Invisible Man showed an ignorant America the hard realities of Jim Crow.

Huckleberry Finn showed us that it is possible to coexist peacefully, no matter where you come from.

So why are we building a bureaucracy that could be used to scare people into not expressing their views of reality? Not sharing their ideas by which we could learn even more about ourselves?

Please, don't be this guy.

Is there a magical place where writers never have to fear telling it as they see it? Is there a paradise where good stories can thrive? Maybe outside the mainstream?

I wish there was such a place.

But, as we'll see next time, Christian fiction has its own share of problems.

Power to the pen, and pens for everyone.


  1. Enjoyed the essay, thanks. Did not know Fry had braces before now. As to your content, my mind kept coming back to your allusion to micro versus macro; context. When we take in visual art, we are encouraged to look at it from a variety of angles and distances before we make a final judgement. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it". Yep. Context. ~TH~