Saturday, September 26, 2009

Assembly-Line Fiction

The news that Dan Brown's latest book-shaped object (BSO) sold more than a million copies its first day in the stores made me want to write about what I've come to think of as assembly-line fiction.

And then, at the barbershop this morning, I came across this by Benjamin Alsup in the June 11 issue of Esquire. It says it far better than I could.

Here's how Alsup begins: "I've never read a novel by Nicholas Sparks for the same reason I've never seen a movie starring Ashton Kutcher: because I'm stupid, yeah, but I'm not that stupid."

Alsup didn't read Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, but he did read three BSOs--excuse me, books--by Dean Koontz, Harlan Coben, and David Baldacci. His devastating conclusion:

"It seems it's widely considered bad form to call stupid things stupid. But that's mostly what these books are. They'll cost you $25 a pop, waste a half day of your life, and leave you neither smarter nor happier, just kind of bored and a little depressed. That's no way to spend a summer. Screw these books. Take a walk."

Or read a real book.

This Writing Life

A while back, I wrote about waiting for agents to tell me whether they were interested in The House of Eli, my novel about black men, fatherhood, and violence. (That's the shorthand description I came up for author bios.)

The agent who's had the book since March has been impossible to reach. But the second agent called recently to say she liked the book, wanted to work with me to get it published, and thought it would have a better chance if I made some revisions.

We spent nearly an hour on the telephone.

Of course, no writer likes to hear his book's too long, but she made some great suggestions. And I knew she understood what I was trying to do when she started to give an example of a scene that could be cut and I finished the sentence for her and she said, "Yes, that one. It's great, well-written, and everything. But does it really belong in this book?"

So that was about two weeks ago, and after a cold that had me off my feet for several days (when you have an 8-year-old, you catch everything that's going around the classroom), I'm back at work.

With any luck, I'll have the book done by . . .

No, no predictions. like auto and home repair, writing always takes longer than you think.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Black, White, Other. . .

Last year, a few weeks before the election, I was complaining to a friend about the way various Republican hit-men (and -women) were attempting to tar then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"I know," he said. "It's not even like they're calling him black or African-American. They're calling him"--he paused, trying to find the right word--"Negro."

I've thought about that conversation for a while (I told you this blog doesn't run on Internet time), and I've decided he was wrong, even when he explained he'd meant it was impossible right-wing Republicans could think of Obama "in even as remotely a civilized term as 'Black,' let alone in a racially neutral way."

The right wasn't attempting to define Obama as African-American, black, Negro, colored, or even nigger because all--even (especially?) nigger--have been peculiarly American archetypes throughout our history. To have so defined Obama as any would have been to admit Obama was an American.

Instead, they called him a terrorist, accused him of palling around with terrorists, stressed his middle name (Hussein) in an attempt to define him as Other. They're still trying to. What else is the so-called birther movement, which seeks to prove Obama was born in Kenya?

My friend's mistake, I think, was to think of the word Negro as inherently derogatory. It isn't necessarily, instead referring to black men and women of a certain era and a certain class and to an inherently and inalienably American culture. Because he's white, he shied away from using the word nigger. I was grateful. Like colored or Negro, it's a useful word, but one I'm uncomfortable hearing from whites, even as part of a discussion of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm borrowing here, of course, from Ralph Ellison, who in turn borrowed from Constance Rourke, whose American Humor: A Study of the National Character, posits several American comic archetypes, including the Yankee peddler, the frontiersman, and the minstrel singer.

Thus for Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin to have called Obama a Negro (or even a nigger) would have been to admit familarity and even kinship. Think about The Jazz Singer, where the son of a Jewish immigrant becomes American by rejecting his father's wish that he become a cantor and then, in an archetypal immigrant rite of passage, anointing himself with blackface. Think of the way white Southerners used to call their white caretakers Mammy (mother), or the way they called black women Aunt and black men Uncle.

All connote familial relationships the right wanted nothing to do with.

We've had many chances throughout our history to solve the conundrum of race. Obama's election was our latest. We're blessed, as the friend who sparked these thoughts observed in an e-mail discussion a few weeks ago, to have him as president. In many ways, his election has brought us together. But it's also overturned the rocks and shown us some of the vile things dwell outide the light.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When We Were All Americans

We were talking about politics and the environment via e-mail recently when a friend's use of the phrase "anti-Americanism" brought me up short. Short of applying it to the 9/11 terrorists, I'm not sure what the words mean. All one has to do look at today's partisan bickering--viz the hysteria about President Obama's address to schoolchildren--to understand one man's anti-Americanism is another man's patriotism.

The other day, checking my e-mail and surfing the Internet while my wife and son were away touring the Gettysburg battlefield, I turned on the television and found a 1942 movie, Seven Miles from Alcatraz, on Turner Classic Movies. The picture's about two convicts who escape to a lighthouse where a Nazi sympathizer plans to take several German spies to a submarine waiting off-shore.

At one point early in the picture, one of the cons declares himself a man without a country with no stake in the war, making his point so emphatically I knew--though I wasn't able to watch the whole thing--he'd have changed his mind by the time the movie was over.

Of course, the movie represents a different, more innocent era. When one one of the cons leers at Anne, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, observing that five years is a long time to be without a woman, we know it's just talk.

I'm not the only one who's been thinking about World War II and what it is to be an American.

In a recent Sightings column, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal concludes that "the success of [Quenten Tarantino's movie] 'Inglourious Basterds' suggests that most Americans, no matter how they feel about waterboarding, gay marriage or health-care reform, pine in their secret hearts for a lost world in which everyone can agree on at least one thing: Nazis are no damn good."

I think Teachout's right, in the sense that World War II was the last time the vast majority of Americans agreed about the nation's mission. Still, I prefer homefront pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and Since You Went Away, believing that they more accurately depict that lost world and the awareness that the fact we were all in it together made it necessary to transcend our differences to ensure our survival.

Fall, Again

Mornings have been distinctly fall-like when I go out to walk the dog, even though the odds are mid-day will bring such oppressive heat and humidity it's possible to believe summer might never end.

I feel as if I ought to be returning to school, thoughts of fresh starts and new beginnings, like a sheet of blank paper or a pencil sharpened for the first time, called by the passing of the seasons

But I haven't been a schoolboy for a while, and, in fact, 60's in the rear-view mirror and gaining, no matter how hard I jam the accelerator. More and more, even if I stay up past midnight, I find myself awake before dawn, brooding about things done and undone, roads taken and roads abandoned.

At six in the morning, having slept through my dark night of the soul, the dreams it inspired forgotten, I lie wondering if there really are no second acts--or even second chances--in American lives.