Cheeky and Informative

9781577151340The publisher Murdoch Books is describing my latest book as “cheeky and informative.” I’m happy with that. Just got my author’s copies today.

Whether cliches get under your skin or make you laugh, this dictionary of cliches goes the extra mile to provide an essential resource for students, teachers, writers, and anyone with a keen interest in language. Excellent reference for casual browsing or an in depth read. And that’s food for thought.

Cheeky and informative, each cliche is presented in such a way that is guaranteed to entertain. Know where your cliche comes from, so you won’t be afraid to use it.

Ask for it in a bookstore near you.

Black Lives and Green Miles

“We clung to the belief…that our white skin made us ‘better’ than all other people. And this belief comforted us, for we felt worthless and weak when confronted by Authorities who had cheapened nearly all that we hold dear, except our skin color… We fought hard against understanding, we tried to live in a fog, we could not bear to see what was becoming clearer each day; that race relations are part of the total human experience, not something history has set off in one corner of time.”-Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949.

Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa in the Apartheid era. He was, as he says in his stand up “born a crime” as it was illegal for his white father and black mother to fraternize.

He can look at America with an outsider’s eyes. And in the clip above, he talks about our assumptions about race, assumptions that are so deep and fundamental that we rarely notice them, much less examine them. (Invisible famines, if you will.)

The most striking part of his commentary was when he reacted to a statement by a lawyer for a police officer involved in the shooting of Terence Crutcher, “In an American city, there’s an all-black high school, and that’s normal instead of weird — living in a society where racial divisions are so deeply baked into every part of society that we don’t even notice it anymore? An all-black high school? That’s a phrase, by the way, that is never followed by, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the one in the nice part of town?’ Racial divisions are so normalized in society that people possess a bias that they don’t even realize they have.”

On one of our ballet tours a number of years ago, my partner and I were in a school in a state in the “deep South.” As my partner was changing after class, I talked to the owner of the school. Glancing out the window, I noticed that there was another dance school across the street. When I asked about it, the owner said, “Oh yeah, that is the black school.” It took me aback, because we tend not to say things like that where I am from, which is not to say that we do not have things like that. We just don’t say it. Metro Detroit, where I live, is, I’m told, one of the most segregated cities in the country.

Back when I worked in radio, I had the unpleasant experience of being called a racist. I wasn’t just called a racist, I received a formal complaint and was told I had “offended the black community.” What happened is that I was new to the small radio station and had just moved to the community in Virginia. I was doing the morning show, getting up at 3:30 in the morning, and was also the program director, so I was often at the station until the early afternoon. I never adapted to the early rising, and trying to get to bed at 8. I had no social life. As a result of all of this, I had never learned the geography of my new town.

Virginia has a unique holiday. Where the rest of America celebrates Martin Luther King Day, Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson-King Day. The combination celebration of a civil rights leader and confederate generals was born of a ridiculous political compromise that cannot have satisfied anyone. So perhaps this meant that the Martin Luther King celebration had a little more subtext than it might elsewhere, I don’t know. In any case, I was assigned to broadcast live from the Martin Luther King Day march dressed in the station-issued, radio logo sweatshirt that we wore for all remote broadcasts. I headed down a street whose name I did not know with the assembled crowd.I actually found the event inspiring, and I packaged some very nice interviews with people that were run on the news the next day.

The way I was dressed was one of the issues the “black community” had with me. The sweatshirt and the fact that I wore no makeup was taken as a sign of disrespect. That never would have been an issue, I’m sure,  if I had not made a complete hash of the broadcast. “We’re coming to the corner of… the road… and approaching… is that the courthouse?” So, yeah, it was not my finest moment. But that does not make me racist.

What makes me racist is that somewhere in the back of my mind, without ever having been taught it overtly, I learned to associate large black men like Terence Crutcher with danger. I don’t like to say this out loud. I am ashamed of it, because it doesn’t represent my conscious, willful thought. A white man has to be overtly scary to put me on alert. It takes much less if the man is black. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood when I was in my formative years. I came of age in a progressive community. No one ever taught me this, but I learned it even so. All I can do, knowing it is there, is to do my best to guard against it. I’m pretty sure these unconscious biases can’t be gotten rid of by pretending they are not there.

There is a film trope that is referred to as “the magical Negro.” This is when there is a mystic or borderline mystic black character who appears to act as a shaman or wise man for the white protagonist. If you google the expression you will see an image of John Coffey from The Green Mile. That character is taken to be the most famous example of the genre.

I’m not sure this is entirely fair because John Coffey (J.C.) is a not at all subtle Christ figure. He is a healer who is condemned to death because the powers that be fear him but those who believe that Coffey has the power to heal (Tom Hanks’ character and the mouse) are given eternal life.

One of the important aspects about the story of Christ is that he is the divine incarnate. God could have chosen to come to earth as a powerful emperor or general, but he chose to incarnate as a homeless child from a marginalized ethnic group that lived in the shadow of a powerful, dominant culture. It is important that Jesus was from a subculture who were seen as uncultured, unclean and possibly criminal. Thus, it matters in the Green Mile that John Coffey is a large black man. The divine is incarnate in the person we are most taught to fear.

I do have a few qualms with the character of John Coffey, he is a compassionate healer like Jesus, but he lacks Jesus’s wit, power and agency. I would like to have seen a Coffey who was not framed for a crime he didn’t commit, but who was perceived to be a threat and who the white guards would first despise and then be changed. Coffey’s execution is nothing more, really, than a case of mistaken identity.

Even with those flaws in the fiction, John Coffey brings with him a moral that I assume was the writer’s intent. It is that we can only be saved as a culture when we learn to have faith, faith in the people were are taught to fear.

Quote of the Day: Interconnected Lives

The book on Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Gill was my baptism of fire.-Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

Yucky Framing: Why Creators Create

I’ve been reading a number of articles on copyright today, trying to parse the complexities of the ownership of materials of various authors long gone.

I came across a quote in an article on the Nova Southeastern University blog.

Now do we want creative people to keep on creating, even when they reach an advanced age? You would think that we do. Stephen King is 66 years old. Would we like him to continue to write creepy stories? Of course we would. Neil Diamond is 71 years old. Would we like him to keep writing songs? You bet. Would they continue to do so if they knew their copyright would soon die with them? Probably not.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the larger point of this article or the debate over the appropriate length of copyright. (So you know, I am in favor of shorter copyright terms similar to the 1909 act giving creators a temporary monopoly in order that they could eat while creating new works.)

What I want to address is this rather strange notion of what inspires artists to make art. Can you imagine any reasons, besides money going to their estate, that a 71 year old song writer might write a song or a novel? I certainly can.

If you were not discussing copyright and you were asked to make a list of reasons would “so the estate will keep having money” be first or even near the top? I’m guessing you would say “to have a legacy” or “to be remembered” or “so their work might live on beyond them.” Maybe to express what they have learned over the course of a lifetime, or because they still love making art.

In essence, these discussions always break down for me when they start from what I believe is a faulty premise– that artists create the way bankers invest, motivated entirely by the profit motive. Very few of us are motivated entirely by the profit motive in anything we do.

 

Do What You Love, The Audience Will Follow

 

“Never play to the gallery,” says David Bowie in the clip above.

I discovered something interesting when I looked at the logs for my blog. (My blog logs.) Conventional wisdom is that writers need to blog in order to build “an author platform.” The way to build such a platform is to have a consistent, recognizable topic or area of expertise.

A funny thing happened. I started this blog when I branched out into fiction as a way to distinguish my fiction writing persona from my non-fiction writing persona. Initially I wrote largely on subjects that touched on the theme of my first novel.

Eventually, however, I lost interest in those constraints as I moved on to other projects. I started to post on whatever topic caught my interest on a given day, whenever I felt as though I had something worth sharing.

A number of years ago I started reading a great deal about Oscar Wilde and his circle. This had nothing to do with any book I was writing at the time (although it has come full circle as I have sold a book on this topic and am working on it now).  From an “author platform” perspective, it made no sense to post about Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and the like. It had nothing at all to do with my second novel, which is about personal identity, rock stars and online impersonation. If I was trying to create a Laura Lee brand the Wilde posts only muddled things.

Yet those posts are consistently popular. Now, I can’t say that this means that all of the people who googled “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth” and landed on my page can be claimed as “my audience.” They came for Wilde, not Lee. I get that. But they do come, which is more than they were doing before. Maybe some read what else I’ve written and find some through-line that persuades them to stay. Now that I am actually writing a Wilde-related book it has come full circle, the “platform” was built without conscious thought or effort because I wrote about what was interesting to me.

Do what you love, the audience will follow. Or maybe they won’t. In any case, it is a more pleasant way to spend your life than doing what you don’t love.

Savings vs. Profits

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of articles that gives them meaning. A couple of days ago I recall a meme that flashed through my Facebook feed. (I tried to find it again to link to it here, but after a bit of clicking I gave up.) The idea was that when a person has 50 cats, or has a house full of newspapers, we call him a hoarder. When a rich person has billions more than he can spend, we call him a genius.

I spent this morning with a quick read of the news, first glancing through an article on the World Press site focusing on tax avoidance.  The article opened:

When Donald Trump was recently asked what his tax rate is, he irately responded, “It’s none of your business.” And Trump has repeatedly stated that “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”

One of the big questions in the presidential campaign at the moment has to do with Donald Trump’s tax returns.  There has been rampant speculation as to why he is not willing to share them with the public. One of the main reasons, the pundits guess, may be that it will show that he is not nearly as rich as he pretends to be.

While still thinking about this admiration of wealth, which at its most basic level is just holding on to big piles of money, I read an article on the Independent Voter Network on how Americans are becoming savers and how this is bad for the economy.

“Under all circumstances, personal consumption is always the primary driver of the economy,” the article says.  “So how do you convince a nation to start spending again?”

It struck me that the “Americans” here who are being asked to start spending are folks like you and me, not folks like Donald Trump. When I put money into a savings account instead of buying a new TV, it is taking that money out of the economy. When a zillionaire parks millions off shore there seems to be little discussion about how to instill confidence in that person that it is OK to spend that cash on cool stuff like higher salaries or whatever rich people could be buying with all their savings. We don’t usually use a word like “savings” to describe the big piles of money rich people keep in their Swiss bank accounts. Savings are what people of modest means put aside. Rich people have profits.

The question “how do you convince a nation to start spending again?” does not bring to mind the uber-wealthy who are hoarding most of the cash. See for example this CNBC article: Rich hoard cash as their wealth reaches record high. It seems it is not “a nation” that needs convincing, it is the small percentage of the nation that is holding most the cash who need convincing.

An interesting element in the IVN article is that wile it worries about the effect of (presumably middle class) savings on the overall economy, it is also critical about the level of debt average Americans carry.

Americans are carrying fairly large credit card balances. As some commentators note, Americans are probably willing to put up with a government drowning in red ink because they see the same pattern in their own finances. We live in a ‘pay for it tomorrow’ society — from Washington D.C. to Main Street, nobody wants to pay the piper.

What does it mean that an article is on the one hand concerned that we might be saving too much and also concerned that we are spending more than we have?

This is a horrendous double-edged sword. Paying down the debt, from the personal perspective has the net effect of saving, yet paying the debt down also destroys wealth in the system (the debt is held as an interest bearing asset by a bank).

Even worse, the consumption from this debt took place long ago; the debt service is no longer driving the economy (and yes, the interest paid is still a part of the current GDP, but consumption drives the economy — not borrowing).

In other words, when you pay down your debt, that is less money that the banking system has, and if you then put the money you saved by not paying interest to a bank every month into a cookie jar, that is money that, say, a car dealer or Wal Mart is not making from you.

This is all true, but when we conceptualize the middle class and poor as having savings and the rich as having profits, doesn’t it change the meaning of a question like “how do we convince people to spend” into something else? If we ignore the people with the most to spend in this, are we not essentially asking “how do we persuade the people who have less to keep less of it for themselves?”