Character, Race and Writing the Real

"Sing, O Goddess" were the first words of the first epic poem I'd ever read. I'd started out slow and young, beginning with a gateway picture book of Norse myths in first grade and thumbing through my mother's red bound book of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" in the second, reading ancient myths while running my finger over the golden Pegasus embossed on its cover. I scoured the shelves after that, uncovering stories of Vishnu and Siddhartha, picking up my Grandmother's copy of the Book of Mormon that she'd bought in Salt Lake City (being a good Lutheran woman of the prairie, she tried to offer me a copy of the Christian bible in its place. I told her that I'd already read it). No creation myth was too obscure, no story dissecting the roots of good and evil too violent or profound. It wasn't like I was an addict by the age of nine. I could quit any time I wanted. That's what I told myself.

Then, I discovered the Illiad.

I'd already read the story of the Illiad in multiple forms, both in picture books and in narrative texts. But this was different. This was a translation of the original. I remember opening the book up, and looking at its first page, and not being able to tear my eyes away from those first three words: "Sing, O Goddess." I'd read that all of these epic stories had started as stories, as recitations of events, real and imagined, that existed before the tellers and before the hearers, passed down from generation to generation like the inherited birthrights of cultural DNA. There was no formatting involved. There were no outlines, or page counts. There was the meter, tapped out in the mind of the teller and measured by the ears of the listeners, and there were the words that naturally fit into it.

The Illiad is a war story, and its characters - including its immortals - are deep and real, with understandable emotions that lead them to understandable actions. It is the essence of these understandable characters that creates the war. There is no quick-paced cinematic opening. We do not see a grand chase scene leading to a "but is it all real" moment of protagonist self-doubt. We begin with "the ruinous wrath of Achilles, Son of Peleus," and a quarrel. We do not start at the beginning of the war, but about ten years into the siege of Troy, a city with impenetrable walls. In other words, we begin with a stalemate.

A story evolving from a stalemate cannot rely on gimmicks. It can't get from stalemate to action without fully developed characters to move it there. The Illiad is full of righteous indignation, vengeance, lust, pride, sacrifice (metaphorical and real), kidnappings, deception and death. There are descriptions of brilliant military tactics and the morally compromised men who commit them. There are women who are treated as pawns, whose beauty and status are traded between the warring camps like so many poker chips. Even the gods take sides, and when they do it resembles more of a heavily armed family fight than anything out of the popular comic books that draw on these archetypes for their superhero inspiration.

In fact, if you want to see an example of how to completely misinterpret the Illiad or any of the ancient myths, pick up any number of comic books or graphic novels that show scantily clad goddesses, ab-ilicious gods and more thunderbolts than your careful eye can count. They do to poems like the Illiad what minstrel shows did to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They drain the story of all nuance and real human emotion, leaving empty costumed shells strolling around forced plot points, concluding with the goodies won, the baddies will come back to fight another day, and your pre-teen male adolescent fantasies have been fulfilled. I'd like to say that there's nothing wrong with that, but that wouldn't be accurate. There is something very, seriously wrong with that. It turns real people into contrived stereotypes.

In order to try to contain the obvious sexism and racism that this comic book-ization of storytelling engenders, the creators of same attempt to layer race, gender and sexual orientation over their characters like another layer of costuming. The question of a character's gender or race or sexual orientation becomes important not because of the reality of who the character is, but because of aesthetics. If the character is not straight, white and male, race, gender and sexual orientation then become the entirety of the character because of the superficiality of this type of story telling. It is this superficiality that leads to horrible mistakes - the use of "the magic Negro," the insistence that every female must inviolate and strong - and these mistakes affect how we view each other as human beings. Our ancestors, at least in their religious story telling, knew better.

All good story telling is based around character, and all good characters are honest. They are funny and flawed and full of hubris. They are vulnerable and scared and violent. They have many moments of doubt and, sometimes, a few moments of heroism. But above all, they are rich, and full, and just like the people standing in line at the grocery store or walking down the street.

Good characters have histories, including their experiences of their own race, gender and sexual orientation. These histories determine their actions. These actions shape the story. Character is eternal and eternally understandable, and it makes a story, even one thousands of years old involving apples and gods and hollow wooden horses, survive.  



The Self-Pub, e-book Race to the Literary Bottom

Earlier this year, when the skies were still gray and the streets were still icy, and we were all, still, wondering when spring would be sprung, I attended a pricey publishing 'do in NYC. Called "Tools of Change," it held hopes for a tenacious writer such as myself, hopes of being able to meet and greet with some of the best minds in publishing, to network with fellow book geeks, to fully and frankly imbibe the rarefied air of the tech savvy literati that predominate the talk of what's hot and what's not.   

What I got, instead (after an admittedly enjoyable first session panel imploring publishers to see their industry as groups of real readers driven by the real love of real books), was a day spent in mind-numbing session after session of the whys and wherefores of school text book online collaboration in Denmark, thorough (and detailed, very, very detailed) walk throughs of font design, and lunch, which was something yummy, and Asian-spiced, with a considerable and enjoyable view. There was talk of code, and design, and book design, and book design for people with special needs (important, yes, and as a parent of two special needs children I do not discount its value), and there were literally more tech geeks per square foot than I'd seen in years. Not since my days of selling nonlinear editing software had I been so tech-geeked out.

Ironically, there were only two ingredients missing from this storied assembly of publishing industry professionals dedicated to distributing the printed word: writers, and readers. I seemed to have been the only one representing either of these groups, at least in an official capacity (one panel participant actually congratulated me on same). If one wants to understand what's wrong in American letters these days, why all of the great, experimental literature is either printed, distributed and too quickly forgotten, or imported from the singular content delivery continent otherwise known as "Neil Gaiman," one only needs to look upon the flush faces of those enthused about inside baseball conversations involving DRM, rights content management, and the latest and greatest way to hover a finger over a letter and hyperlink your way into multimedia heaven to see why. Instead of having conversations about what makes art good, we are  asked merely to read the tea leaves of market metrics and determine "what people want to read." Instead of writing, simply and honestly, in an entertaining style about life, as we experience it, as we have observed others experiencing it, as great writers for centuries have written timeless books, we are told to focus on "what starts a conversation." Publishers, the traditional gatekeepers in publishing, those who have historically helped put great works that push the boundaries of art in literature into the hands of readers, have consolidated, and re-consolidated again, to the point where they have become the WalMarts of the world of letters, carrying sure-fire best sellers, far too often shying away from embracing too loudly anything in adult fiction that doesn't carry a sub-text of sex, lies, or a YouTube-able videotape. This big box store mentality is carried over to big box store booksellers, those who can turn a profit in spite of Amazon's digital presence, those which also feature on their shelves the sure fire commercial hits. As The Guardian recently noted in its article on "Five Reasons to Support Your Local Indie Shop ," even established writers are having difficulty getting their experimental works published, and, "if you write a wildly experimental novel, the chances are you will be publishing it yourself." 

They follow up this thought by saying that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I respectfully disagree.

Self-publishing, as a business model, thrives on volume, and that volume most benefits the providers of content readers, especially Amazon, especially in its DRM-driven, walled in world of Kindle books . Unlike independent book stores that promote books for the love of good literature and which, financially and feasibly, can only carry a limited number of titles, the company that carries ebooks on its readers can do so with unlimited titles. An independent bookstore has a financial incentive to be known as a local institution that promotes good books that its local community of readers will enjoy; a company like Amazon that provides ebooks has a financial incentive to sell ereaders, as many as possible, and it does not matter what is read on those readers, what its artistic or literary merit is, it will be just as happy if you download and read a book on a family trip to Florida where your dog dies at Disneyland, as it will be if you purchase the next Will Self. The money is in the device upon which the title is being read, primarily, and secondarily in the content being read on it (paid or not). To survive in this brave, new digital world the writer also has incentives, to create books that are "conversation starters," to write works that - from the point of view of commercial publishers - are safe and sure bestsellers, or to self-publish, and swim in a small teacup in a sea of pulpy science fiction and vanity books, and to therefore spend more time marketing and less time writing, and when writing to spend less time on each individual work in order to create more content. When this happens, the quality of works reaching each reader goes down, it becomes more safe, more bland, and the works that would challenge that safety and blandness are drowned out by competing volume, and that is not any viable way for an industry based on a thriving, literary art community that continually challenges and questions itself to survive.