Windows, No. 24; or, The Writer and Society

Frog Prince.

I was interested to see a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this tableau. The novel is cited as the first widely read political novel in the U.S.–it was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. It has fallen in and out of favor a few times since its release, and is as roundly criticized for the stereotypes it helped create or perpetuate as lauded for its anti-slavery stance. I’ve actually never read the novel, though discussions of it have made me aware of the plot, characters, scenes, and tropes it contains. When considering its role in literature, I could immediately call to mind some half-dozen gay-themed novels written in the 1980s that were similarly simultaneously hailed and castigated.

It’s unsurprising that we still discuss today the role of the novel and the writer in addressing social ills or trying to shine a light on injustice. One of the panels at Saints and Sinners was titled “Beyond the Work Itself: The Writer and Society.” Moderated by Martin Hyatt (A Scarecrow’s Bible; Beautiful Gravity), the panelists included Kenyon Farrow (We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America; Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage), Judith Katz (The Escape Artist; Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound), Sassafras Lowrey (Kicked Out; Roving Pack), and Mimi Schippers (Rockin’ Out of the Box).

Kenyon Farrow, Judith Katz, Sassafras Lowrey, Mimi Schippers, Marty Hyatt

The panelists discussed using and maintaining an authentic voice in everything from fiction and essays to scholarly works. Some things they’ve addressed in their work include homeless teens, AIDS, race, sexuality, and gender. It was interesting to hear their perspectives on writing about marginalized populations and how they continue to examine their roles not only as writers but as participants in their communities. It’s something I consider all the time in my writing. I know that most of the novels I read, even the lighthearted ones, can have a point of view that either engages me or enrages me. You?


11 thoughts on “Windows, No. 24; or, The Writer and Society”

  1. First. I need to have the Frog Prince, as I love him — and always have. So I am glad to have a fairy tale sorta included in this – after all for most of us they are the first stories we are introduced to – and they do have a moral to them. In PK and now in CK the sequel, I made it a point to let them be real people, Jim Alexander, the murder victim was the most despicable character in the book – and I hope that people got that his daughter loved him, I like to think that the murderer was a little likable…. Some of them would have been easy to make as stereotypes like Kaz, she could have been just plain old trailer trash – but I wanted to make her sympathetic too. Considering the latest dust up about likable characters in fiction – that may be a bad thing — but for me it is the right thing. I hope that I am able to write well about people who are marginalized. I don’t know that I do, but I try. ( are killers marginalized? ) I wanted Emily to be whole, Dennis to be whole etc … Right now there is a short story I am writing that is different from anything I have written, and I am having a hard time with one of the characters for just that reason, I don’t want her to be full and real, however her role in the book makes it easy to stereotype and write in a generalization. It’s vexing and fun to work on at the same time.

    What I find most interesting is when people of a marginalized population, marginalize others in their work and I wonder how that happens. Is it a case of just writing something that is easy to get across, is it considered, or is it that they just don’t see it.

    1. Other than Keelie’s boss in A Coventry Christmas, I mostly always ended up feeling a lot of affection for the “bad” characters in my own novels and the collaborations, too. The most obvious one is Natasha from Someone Like You.

        1. He was a composite of several bad managers I have known, and I should have allowed the Zamboni at the ice rink to remove him from Keelie’s life. 😉

  2. Hi Becky! Yes, I read a Tami Hoag novel and won’t read her again due to negative generalizations she made about working-class people. And I read Rita Mae Brown’s memoir Animal Magnetism, which turned out to be a soapbox for all of her political opinions. It’s kind of soured me on her, although I’d enjoyed her novels up till then. Turns out she’s in favor of a classed society. Bleh!
    You go, Marika! That would be a good pen name!

    1. Tami Hoag sounds familiar, but I’m not sure why. I don’t think I’ve read her.

      I enjoyed some early Rita Mae Brown books–the ones with Nickel and her family? And I read some of the cat mysteries. But it’s been a while since I read anything by her.

      My favorite mystery series these days are Louise Penny’s Gamache books (set in Québec), Donna Leon’s Brunetti books (set in Venice), Martin Walker’s Bruno books (set in the Périgord region of France), and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series set in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.

      These writers’ characters have so much humanity–flaws and all–but there is a decency and kindness about them. And the books are all well-written, which is always a joy to me!

      Maybe your library will have the first books in all the series–check ’em out!

      1. Also, for sheer silliness, I relish Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels–the numbered ones and the between the numbers books.

  3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is going on my to-read list. Of course, it will probably take me the next two-hundred years to get even halfway through that list, but hey.

    I think, when reading, it’s important to distinguish between the voice of the author and the voice of the narrator. Sometimes, of course, the narrator acts as the mouthpiece for the author, sometimes not. In my (unpublished) writing, as in life, I often use irony or phrase things in such a way as they can be read in more than one way – and there’s a lot to be said for ambiguity. Context, of course, is hugely important. I have just started to read Alan Hollinghurst’s 1989 novel The Swimming Pool Library – I guess that goes back to the past being a foreign country? 80s Britain is not 2013 Britain and, even now, things jar. Equally, the US experience is often different to the UK experience and, again, context often changes things considerably. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whether a point of view engages or enrages me I can appreciate it in context and perhaps perceive its likely origin. Also, if something enrages me I am equally engaged – and if an author doesn’t engage me, why would I read what they have to say?

    1. I think, when reading, it’s important to distinguish between the voice of the author and the voice of the narrator.

      Absolutely. Rarely, but still it happens, a reader has taken to me task for something a character has done or said in my work. But first, not all characters are an extension of me, and second, characters are as flawed as any of us. Sometimes they say and do things we don’t like. And as with real people, those are opportunities to explore what our reactions tell us about ourselves.

      This may sound silly, but I think one of the earliest ways I learned to distinguish between the voice in someone’s work and the actual creator was music. Take for example the song “Martha My Dear” by the Beatles. When I first heard it, I developed my own idea about the relationship between this girl Martha and the singer–it’s light, somewhat flirtatious.

      When I learned that Martha was the name of Paul McCartney’s sheepdog, it changed everything about how I perceived the song. I thought the singer was talking to his dog.

      Years later, McCartney said the song was “probably” about Jane Asher. I’d gone from creating my own imaginary Martha, to thinking Martha was a fun song about a dog, to putting the song in the context of his relationship with a real person.

      Finally, McCartney said the song was a conversation with his Muse–perhaps not a human embodiment of a muse (Asher), but in the way I think of a Muse as something deeper and more ethereal.

      That’s just a random selection from thousands of songs, but as I’ve aged, as McCartney has aged, it has been four different songs to me, and none of them may have anything much to do with McCartney the person. No matter what insight he offers, I don’t actually know Paul McCartney, so all my perspectives are being viewed through my lens.

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