Friday, May 29, 2009

Full Disclosure

Books & Books' owner Mitchell Kaplan and Marketing and Events Coordinator Cristina Nosti recently invited me to dinner with Chris Bohjalian. When I read The Double Bind, I knew I would read everything Bohjalian had ever written or will ever write, so I was excited.

This post isn't about how charming, intelligent, and self-deprecating Bohjalian was, or how he generously and graciously treated me like a colleague when Cristina and Mitchell mentioned my writing, it's about what made me start this blog (particularly so late to the phenomenon). Bohjalian asked if I had a blog he could check out.

So Chris B, this one's for you.

Seriously, when I schmooze BEA and run into people who could actually see me in print, their second question is about my blog (first question - "What do you write?"). I have mixed feelings about an online presence. When it comes to garnering fans, do these website diaries help careers? Wouldn't mystery serve me better? There's a host of online celebrities, but internet surfers generosity with their time doesn't equate to generosity with their money.* If no one looks at your blog, doesn't it prove to publishers no one cares what you have to say?

This blog is really just a way of fooling myself. I can say I'm putting myself out there without knowing where there is, tell myself I'm furthering my quest to be published, wasting time I could be crafting the perfect query letter with finding the perfect blog picture.

That my time may be better spent doesn't matter. If you don't exist virtually, you don't exist.

* The urge to rhyme "time" with "dime" here was almost insurmountable.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Consideration, Bad Haircuts, and Wimps

Yes this looks stupid, but I'll gel it differently next week when it's out of style.

 Recently some coworkers and I were enjoying lunch outside the office, catching this deli at the crest of their lunch rush.  Office folks crowded every table outside.  The thought of sitting outside on a cool day in Miami, especially in April when we know there might not be another one for some time, proved just too strong.  One of us waited outside to shark for empty tables while the rest of us ordered.  Eventually, the lot of us squeezed around a pair of two tops we pushed together to make one big table.  While we ate, a two-top opened behind us and a four-top opened to our left (in restaurant-speak, a two-top seats 2, a four-top seats 4, etc.).

 With his fauxhawk and sideburns, designer jeans hanging just so, with her tank top and flower skirt, eyes invisible behind Jackie-O sunglasses, I took them as college students.  Maybe they had flirted in class or had coffee with groups of friends, but they were alone together for the first time.  They ordered, they took their drinks and the little buzzer that goes off when the order’s up, and they came outside.

 Jackie O’Shades sat at the four-top, crossed her legs, eased back into her chair, and started sidewalk watching.  Faux Hawk, drinks in hand, balked.

 “Shouldn’t we sit over there?” he said.

 O’Shades squinted (at least I think she did; tough to say for sure, behind the sunglasses) at the two-top Faux Hawk indicated with a chin point.


 “Well, they’re pretty busy,” Faux Hawk said. “We don’t need all that room.”

 “Oh,” Shades said, “you’re one of those.”

 This stopped Faux Hawk in nervous mid-fidget.   She might have called it "a lunch thing" or whatever, but he clearly wanted it to be a date.

 “One of what?”

 “Oh, you know,” she sniffed.

 At this point the conversation at our table bumped up in volume, so I missed whatever she had to say for herself.  I wonder what her response could have been.   Considerate?  Thoughtful?  Kind?  Exactly what was Faux Hawk, and why was she making it sound like a disease?

 Whatever the answer, it must not have satisfied him.  She moved to the two top and he set the drinks down, telling her to stay while he went inside to wait for the food.  She still thought she had a shot.  It was in the arch of her back as she lounged, adjusting her skirt, looking at him over her glasses.  Equally obvious was how quickly he moved her into the “no” column.

 I think, Good for you, Fauxhawk.

 It’s a sentiment I never thought I’d express.

 My hatred for the fauxhawk cannot be overstated.  First of all, I am from the People of the Flint.   A half-breed Mohawk, but still a Mohawk.  From time to time, members of my family have shaved their hair into a Mohawk to express pride in our heritage (or maybe just to see how it felt, using Native Pride as an excuse).  If you’re light-skinned, male, young, a Mohawk is a choice to take yourself out of normal society, whatever that is.  Of course it’s hair.  It’ll grow back.  So it’s a temporary sojourn into a minority that many wear daily.  Being a woman, a senior, wheelchair bound, dark-skinned, these you don’t outgrow.

 That was the point of Punk.  Shave your head and leave a strip of hair or a row of spikes, and that was your hair wherever you went.  Your job, the subway, your home - you were always punk.  It was jarring, shocking, immediately removing you from straight society.

The fauxhawk is the hipster equivalent of the "business up front and party in the back" mudflap, you’re a wannabe punk on Saturday but you can comb your hair flat for church on Saturday.   It’s a hairstyle for wimps.

 I’d like to make a case for wimps as the worst word for weakling we can conjure in the English language.  This is, of course, the dark horse candidate given the preference most people have for pussy (ie, “What are you, some kind of pussy?  Just drink the shot / punch the cop / jump.”

 Pussy became synonymous with weakling because in some men’s minds, a pussy is synonymous with a woman.  Not only is this not true (I have proof), but how either a pussy or a woman became synonymous with weakness is anyone’s guess.   Can we get past this, please?  A pussy is a strong organ. It can take a pounding all night long and still ask for more.  Hell, it can take multiple poundings from dozens of cocks and walk away with a little chafing (I've seen videos).  Meanwhile, where is the mighty cock that can fuck dozens of pussies in one night?  Kick a cock in the balls and watch it wilt.

 In fact, forget wimp and weakling.  Let's go with cock.

 “You won't steal that candy bar?  What’s the matter, you some kind of cock?”

 I guess that just trades one wrong for another.  Turning women’s gender into a pejorative is wrong; that doesn’t make the reverse right.  So why not just leave language alone?  Wimp, weakling, they work just fine.  I think at some point language will evolve past the nonsense we live with now.  

 I’m starting with pussy.  That doesn’t make me a wimp.

Back to the fauxhawk.  If this hairstyle appeals to you, please, by any means at your disposal, step outside yourself for a moment.  You want something on your head that looks like a cock’s comb.   Fine.   You like being different, and I can respect that.  Shave your head into a Mohawk.  Much as I hate people appropriating a piece of my history for fashion or sociological statement, at least it shows strength of conviction.

 A fauxhawk might be fashionable. But it will never, never be cool.  Unlike, say, this guy.

Yes this looks stupid, but at least I have the strength of my conviction.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Disney Is Racist

Or maybe just The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. There's a minority in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a fun name, too. Where are his signs?

Since we're only 1% of the population, it's not really racism.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I'm Not a Class Whore, But...

I entered a lot of frontlist at work this week. Publishing happens in seasons and there are sets of catalogs for each one. I'm not sure how other bookselling software programs work, but at Books & Books we go through the catalogs by hand and manually put the titles into our inventory. I found the author bios grating.

The authors are attractive. Their photos look like actor's headshots, some of them as large as the book jacket. Call that a byproduct of the media age. The new reality of marketing is if all other pieces of the work - talent, potential audience, story - are equal, then pick the one who looks sexy on a dustjacket. That's irksome, but expected. Like marketing hyperbole, urgent promises that this debut author's brilliant voice is a unique contribution to the pantheon of literature. But the pedigrees, those were like splinters in my brain.

Apparently, I should have worried less about exercising my craft while others are asleep, stealing a few precious hours before it's time to go to work, and worried more about my college career. To fit in with other authors in the fall catalog, I should have majored in English or History at an Ivy-league college and moved to New York City upon graduation. Preferably to Brooklyn. Well, I didn't do those things. I've lied many times about getting a full scholarship to Yale, most notably when I'm not directing my own life enough, but that never happened. My high school guidance counselor told me my ACT and SAT scores were good enough for Yale. Over the years of grease-smelling clothes and heat-lamp burns and kissing shoppers asses, that counselor's encouragement became a full scholarship. I use that lie to prove I had potential at one point, even if I'm not doing much of much with my life. Except it's a lie, and all it proves is that I sometimes suffer from low self-image.

I didn't want to go to college. I was interested in art and writing - what could a classroom possibly teach me about those things? I've since learned this is a family trend. Promotions have been declined. Opportunities ignored. Chances wasted. Our family values intelligence and learning, but actually turning that knowledge into a lucrative career is beneath us in a way I don't understand. So we scrape by and keep the best of ourselves hidden from the world.

Really, I'm afraid. I'm so afraid of failure I can't even try.

But I look at these children of privilege and their debut novels and tell myself, "See? Writing is for the elite. It's a little club you'll never get into." I laugh in recognition at Geoff Dyer's writing struggles in Out of Sheer Rage, but I also hate him for all that free time he has to lounge around Europe. He expresses jealousy of the enjoyment working people get out of holidays and weekends, and I want to slap his handsome British face (it would also be easier to take if he wasn't so fucking talented). Reading the dinner parties of James Salter and John Cheever hasn't helped, nor has working in a ritzy subsection of Miami like Coral Gables, or slurping oysters with trust-fund-private-school-yachting-teens at Monty's in Coconut Grove. I am seething, ignoring the choices I've made in favor of decrying the life I've been dealt.

Pathetic. Profoundly useless. Spoiled, in its way.

I've written past the point where being published matters; it's my only way of processing the world. For instance, writing this post has shown me why this is bothering me so much lately. I need to get over it and buckle down. Compared to the obstacles I put in front of myself, class is nothing.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gender in Character

People prefer laughing to thinking, my male narrator says.

Expressing the same thought, my female narrator says, On the whole, I’ve found people to prefer laughing over thinking.

I am intimidated and confused when teachers - or to be precise, books which profess to help writers, or characters in books who teach writing, since I've never taken a class - speak about male syntax vs. female syntax.  Still, I made this change automatically; People prefer laughing to thinking, versus On the whole, I’ve found people prefer laughing over thinking.

The first thought was simply me as me, trying to get inside the narrator’s head.  I am a man, so it’s safe to assume near-male syntax.  FYI, the first draft was something like People prefer things that make them laugh over things that make them think.  About ¾ of a page in, the narrator reveals herself as female.  I’ve found that jarring every time I’ve edited this piece.  Truthfully, I found it a little forced when I first wrote it, a deliberate attempt to write outside of myself.  So I thought of syntax.  Male vs. female syntax.  I thought of Emma Thompson’s narration in the movie Stranger Than Fiction, not her words but a part written for her by a male.

The first statement is assertive.  It doesn’t matter how the reader views the world, the truth is that people prefer laughing to thinking whether the reader likes it or not.  The second statement is more personal.  It’s about her experience, and therefore less blunt.

I've thought it over and I don’t know if one choice is better.  If you like minimalist prose, which I tend to, then the first wins.  It gets the point across with fewer words, which is what editing is all about.  Does it say enough about the character, though?

People prefer laughing over thinking gives the narrator strong opinions, a lack of fear in expressing them.  On the whole, I’ve found people prefer laughing over thinking says the narrator wants to express her world view without making it everyone’s.  I suppose you could argue for masculine or feminine, but neither trait is male or female, but

Maybe this exercise is less about whether syntax can be male or female and more about my own sexism.  Is it sexist to give a female character more empathy and self-awareness than a male character?  On the whole, I’ve found women to more in touch with their emotions (and that’s me, not me trying to write as a woman).  But we’re not talking about life, we’re talking about fiction.  We’re talking about the reader buying into the femininity of the narrator.  So while a weak thought doesn’t destroy a character’s masculinity and a strong thought a character’s femininity, perhaps the assertion of a narrator’s sexuality can’t survive a string of thoughts like these.  Unless, of course, the writer is saying something specific about who this particular narrator is.

A few years back, I was about two thirds of the way through a British writer’s book who I knew wasn’t Nick Hornby.  I flipped to the cover to learn the writer’s name so I could read more (for all the good it did; can’t remember the author or the book).  The fact that the author was female shocked me.  She didn’t just “get it,” she stepped into the skin of the men in her life, looked through their eyes, and put it to paper (I have no idea what this unknown female British author’s thoughts are like; I’m talking about how well she writes as a man).

A couple of friends in college were talking while I pretended to read nearby.  They were both from New York City and were thrown by the campus’ lack of diversity.  Both were happily surprised when they found the club beneath the dining hall.  “I walked in and it was like, ‘what’s up,’” one friend said, “black folks were coming out of everywhere, like damn roaches.”  Then they both laughed.  Later, this same friend said, “Don’t you just love being black?”  I’m half Mohawk Indian and half (mostly)Scottish.  If I wrote that as dialog, no one would buy it.

We’re talking fiction, not life.  As lifelike as you want to make it, there are limits to the real life you can use.

In Amanda Boyden’s second book, Babylon Rolling, one of her POV narrators is a black gang member in New Orleans.  As a teacher in New Orleans, Boyden has heard this syntax.  I have not.  I only need to listen to my wife tell stories about her own inner-city students to know how much a teacher learns, but I still found it difficult to read past Boyden's whiteness.  If she was black, I wouldn’t have given those chapters a second thought.

As much as I love women, I am socialized to sexism as much as the next person. I’m also a man. I’m afraid it will scream from the page.
My Allegedly Female Narrator: There’s a romantic notion of what happens when one places the muzzle of a gun to one’s head and pulls the trigger, much more so in the written word than on screen.
My Very Female Reader: I’m sorry, that was supposed to be a woman?  I couldn’t tell over the sound of your testicles burping.

If I am to write convincingly as a woman, I need to put aside my fears of sounding sexist.  I need to inhabit her, the way that British writer inhabited her men.

This is the part where I long to be in a writing group again.