As a general rule, my blog is something that I simply sit down and write while I drink my morning coffee and wake up in the morning. It’s part of my waking up process, so not only is it unfiltered, it’s unedited; I rarely go back and reread it with an eye towards fixing mistakes, sentences where I’ve left out a word, spelling mistakes that spell check didn’t catch as I write, etc.
But every once in a great while, I’ll start writing a blog post and am not entirely comfortable with discussing the subject matter publicly. I’ve said things before publicly that later were removed from their proper context and thus twisted by someone with an agenda determined to make me look bad; so when I am talking about a sensitive topic, I tend to either shelve the blog post entirely, or put it aside to read over again at a later date, or post it so that only I can see it. I worry about posting things because the last thing I ever want to do is deal with an angry on-line lynch mob, or say something that, taken out of context years later, will be used to bludgeon me; lynch mobs don’t care about either context or nuance, alas, and once the torches are lit and the pitchforks hoisted, no one listens.
This has happened to me more than once, as I said, so I tend to be careful.
So, in some ways I’ve become self-censoring; but this self-censoring has also saved me a lot of stress, aggravation, and worry. I also rarely, if ever, go off on one of what my friend Jeffrey used to call my Julia Sugarbaker rants. This has helped lower my blood pressure, for one thing; I still do it, of course, I just don’t make it public anymore. My opinion on anything and everything isn’t so amazing and profound that I feel it needs to be shared because it will change minds and make the world a better place. Simply because I can speak my mind freely on-line doesn’t mean that I should. I have a right to my opinion, as does everyone, but I also have a right to keep my own counsel and I also don’t have to argue with anyone I disagree with publicly; and the reality is, I am never going to be convinced that I as a gay man am not entitled to equality; that transfolk have no right to human dignity; that women are lesser than men; or that white people by virtue of being white are somehow superior to people who are not. I also will never be convinced that people do not have the right to be seen as individuals, rather than any subgroup they might be put into by other people. There is nothing worse than being judged by preconceptions you have no control over.
As you know, Constant Reader, I’ve been engaged in something I call The Short Story Project since the beginning of the year; in which I am focusing most of my fiction reading on short stories rather than novels. I’ve not read any novels since the first of the year; I am still reading nonfiction. The reasoning behind this was twofold; because I don’t think short stories get nearly enough attention from readers, myself included, and because I have always struggled with writing them; this was, for me, a self-improvement exercise as a writer. It has helped in that regard; I have written more short stories in the first few months of this year than I have in any year since I decided to pursue this.
One of my favorite writers from the past is Ross Macdonald; he’s a favorite, but he isn’t up there with James M. Cain and John D. Macdonald and Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson and Faulkner and some others than I consider not only to be iconic but also consider to be major influences on me and my work; Ross Macdonald is an influence, but not as much as the others I named and some others unnamed as well. But I do love Ross Macdonald (I love his wife Margaret Millar more, but that’s another blog entry, methinks), and several years ago I bought a compendium called The Archer Files, in which Macdonald’s short stories, some of which were unpublished, were pulled together in one volume and the editor did some academic discussion of them.
I am still kind of processing one of his short stories; “Strangers in Town.” I have to give Macdonald credit for writing a short story in that time period (early 1950s) with characters who were people of color who also drove the story, but…yeah, the casual racism of the period slapped me in the face. That story today most likely would not be published as written, but it has value historically since it stands as an example of how casual and easy systemic racism was in that period. He used parts of it in the next story in The Archer Files, and it also apparently structurally was important to his novel The Ivory Grin, which I think I’ve read; I miss my old ability to recall plots and characters and details of every book that I’d read. It would be a lot more helpful now than it ever was when I retained the skill, you know? Heavy sigh.
One of the issues of this new century involves separating the art from the artist; in other words, can you enjoy art by someone whom, as a private citizen, is problematic? The best examples of this, to name merely two, are Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I am not a fan of Allen’s art nor have I ever been; but Roman Polanski? He fled the United States to avoid jail on charges of statutory rape. Yet I love his films Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown; films I saw and enjoyed before he committed his crime. Distaste has certainly kept me from seeing anything he has done since. But I still love those two films, and rewatch them on occasion; perhaps someday I will rewatch them to look for problematic tropes to unpack.
Likewise, other works from the American past are rife with tropes of sexism, homophobia and racism; the society and culture were sexist, racist, and homophobic; how can the art from that time not be? Yet but it’s how things were back then seems like a feeble response and defense; but I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art as long as one recognizes the presence of things which would never pass muster in today’s society and culture; there is a wonderful essay/book to be done about homophobia in crime fiction of the past, and how gay characters were seen/depicted/represented. I used to want to write that book, but I will undoubtedly never have the freedom and luxury of time to do the necessary research and writing of a book that would prove, ultimately, to have an exceptionally limited audience.
You can’t truly equate racism with homophobia; while there are similarities in oppression and bigotry, both systemic and personal, faced by the two communities, they aren’t the same thing; the differences can be, and are, as significant as the similarities. As a white gay man, I have systemic privilege of skin; unless my car has bumper stickers denoting it as belonging to a gay man I can feel relatively safe in my car from ‘driving while gay’; and while there are certainly levels of homophobia within law enforcement, just walking down the street I don’t need to be worried about being either harassed by law enforcement or profiled. Reading works, or seeing films, that are blatantly homophobic or have stereotypical queer characters who are there to be laughed at, mocked, or held in contempt, while somewhat jarring doesn’t feel the same to me as reading or seeing something current with those same metrics. I am not willing to judge a writer from the pre-Stonewall culture as harshly as I am someone from the present day; it is how things were. You cannot write a realistic novel or short story today about queer characters in the 1950’s, for example, without including homophobic characters and a certain degree of self-loathing in the queer characters themselves: they were outlaws, held in contempt by the society as a whole.
Yet Macdonald’s story bothered me; despite being written in a time when he was undoubtedly considered brave for writing characters of color who weren’t criminals or the kind of “Stepin’ Fetchit” stereotypes so prevalent in films of the time. And yet…and yet…
“Strangers in Town,” by Ross Macdonald, The Archer Files
“My son is in grave trouble,” the woman said.
I asked her to sit down, and after a moment’s hesitation she lowered her weight into the chair I placed for her. She was a large Negro woman, clothed rather tightly in a blue linen dress she had begun to outgrow. Her bosom was rising and falling with excitement, or from the effort of climbing the flight of stairs to my office. She looked no older than forty, but the hair that showed under her blue straw hat was the color of steel wool. Perspiration furred her upper lip.
“About your son?” I sat down behind my desk, the possible kinds of trouble that a Negro boy could get into in Los Angeles running like a newsreel through my head.
That last sentence! Referring to an adult young man of color as a “Negro boy”! And the story goes on with this sentence: She leaned towards me with the diffident and confiding charm of her race.
Yikes. Yup, no stereotyping going on there.
The murder victim was a “light-skinned brown woman.” Another “had straight black hair, trimmed short, and black-rimmed harlequin spectacles that gave her face an Asiatic cast.” Throughout the story, the word “Negro” is used; this is also jarring, because with all due respect, it’s the word that was used politely, rather than the other “n” word. But…no one said “African-American” back then…the police are also willing to view the murder of the light-skinned woman as a possible suicide–which would mean she’d slit her own throat; I can’t imagine anyone ever committing suicide that way–but the white cops’ willingness to believe that a woman of color could or would is also telling.
Other than these issues, it’s a good story; the way it twists and turns and moves away from the original crime and suspects makes for a great detective yarn; the cops never would have solved this, and the son of the woman who hired Archer most likely would have taken the fall for the crime. So, there’s that.
But the next story in The Archer Files, “Gone Girl”, a different version of the same story, without the people of color, is also a much stronger story.
It was a Friday night. I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood. I had followed a man from Fresno to San Diego and lost him in the maze of streets in Old Town. When I picked up his trail again, it was cold. He had crossed the border, and my instructions were to go no further than the United States.
Halfway home, just above Emerald Bay, I overtook the worst driver in the world. He was driving a black fishtail Cadillac as if he were tacking a sailboat. The heavy car wove back and forth across the freeway, using two of its four lanes, and sometimes three. It was late, and I was in a hurry to get some sleep. I started to pass it on the right at a time when it was riding the double line. The Cadillac drifted towards me like an unguided missile, and forced me off the road in a screeching skid.
Rather than being hired by a mother whose son is being accused of murder, Archer now happens onto a strange situation while driving home from a case. He decides to stop for the night at a hotel, and becomes involved in another murder investigation. The basic story after this is the same, both structurally and thematically, but the casual racism is gone and it’s now about white people, and interestingly enough, not nearly so problematic as “Strangers in Town.” The second story works better as well; I’m not sure why that is; did it work better because he didn’t use the people of color, and thus without the stereotyping it worked better?
I am still processing this. As I said, I love Ross Macdonald, and his writing is extraordinary. He’s one of the greats. But what, and where, is that line?
I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone does, nor do I think there even is one answer. I don’t recall ever getting any racist vibe from Macdonald’s work before, but on the other hand, I may not have been looking for it, either; the subtleties of systemic prejudices aren’t always apparent at first glance, or even second. Sometimes it takes someone else to point them out.
While I can’t speak to whether racism in American art from the past should not be seen, viewed or read, I can speak, for myself, about art from our homophobic past (while recognizing they are not the same things). Seeing casual homophobia in American art from the past, while jarring, doesn’t bother me as much because that’s the way things were. I don’t think it should be glossed over, or censored out of existence; if we forget the past and how things were, we can’t make things better for the future nor can we understand not only how far we’ve come but how far we have to go; we cannot truly understand the present without understanding our past–and, for want of a better term, in stark black-and-white; we have to understand and appreciate the shades of gray.
And on THAT note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.
Here’s your Monday hunk.