Where’s Your Line?

I recently read a story the other day that made me step back and think very hard about my own writing, and what it has to say about the person I am and the writer/artist I want to be. These reflections brought a lot of what I’ve been working on to a screeching halt too. The story is called “Folded Blue” and it’s by a fine writer named John Rector, published on a new crime/noir flash fiction site called Shotgun Honey.

There’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s well-written, and packs a lot into a tight 700 words. Rector’s an excellent author, and by all reports is a great guy too. So my discomfort with the story is no reflection on him or what he’s about. It mostly just underscored a problem I’ve been having more and more with crime fiction in general: the content.

In this case, it’s a theme very common in crime fiction, and that is violence against women. It could be girlfriends being killed, or prostitutes, it doesn’t matter — it’s common as hell. Maybe it’s leaned on so often because it’s real; it’s shit that happens in the real world that we can all recognize and relate to as horrible. But I wonder if the barrage doesn’t somehow numb us to the realities of misogyny in our world, and violence against women. It’s a horrible, real-world plague. And in participating in a storytelling sense, I question my motivations and whether or not I’m part of the problem as well. There’s got to be more to write about than killing women, right? Oh, and torture scenes. Jesus, enough with the fucking torture scenes.

It reminded me of a time many years ago I was doing a little writing on a fiction site that was kind of horror-based; a guy wrote a story of a serial killer murdering a woman, and I went apeshit. Ripped it to shreds. It wasn’t just that it was disturbing, it just stomped all over my budding-feminist values and just screamed misogyny to me. My reaction prompted a wave of online forum name calling and anger, and I bailed and never went back; I was troubled and embarrassed. Since then, I’ve had to kind of build a wall around my buttons just to read or watch anything, because just about any story, particularly a crime story, has elements that are going to be offensive to someone, and often me — if I let them. But this Rect0r story, it was like the proverbial straw on a camel that collapsed a lot of issues that were building within me about crime fiction in general.

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them if that’s what you’re asking. Our so called stealing of this country was just a question of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” — John Wayne

 

Today, a writer I admire and like, Benjamin Whitmer, delivered a review on behalf of Spinetingler Magazine of a story written by another writer I admire and like, James Reasoner. The story is part of a new anthology called On Dangerous Ground: Stories of Western Noir,which has just come out. I haven’t read the story (but I will as soon as I can track down a copy of the book), so I can’t comment on it specifically, but I think Ben’s buttons were pushed in similar way to mine have been in the past; here’s a paragraph from the review:

Then I read the story assigned me, “The Conversion of Carne Muerto,” by James Reasoner. And that excitement died real quick, as I realized it was a minor variation of one of the ugliest stories in American literary history: that of the Indian hater. And that I was gonna have to explain exactly why I disliked this story so thoroughly, and that it was gonna take me a lot of words.

Ben goes on to dismantle the trope he feels the story is built on, and he does so in epic fashion. It is long, but it is well worth reading. I felt my blood beginning to rise, as it is an issue near to my heart. Hell, I can’t even go to powwows anymore because I can’t stand to see American flags flying over them, or listen to Christian prayers being delivered. To me, and this is no exaggeration, that image is akin to Jewish people standing with hands-to-heart beneath a Nazi flag.

Now it’s hard for me to imagine a guy like James Reasoner knowingly perpetuating the “Indian hater” archetype as described so thoroughly by Whitmer. Nor do I imagine John Rector to be a misogynist bent on perpetuating, or belittling, the horror of violence against women. I also know that I’m a total hypocrite, because there is much that I read and enjoy, or movies I like, that could be dismantled by an expert in similar fashion for any number of reasons. Hell, I’m participating in a little book group with David Cranmer and several other folks reading Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and every day I’m ignoring jibes against my sensibilities about every other page. So who am I to get in a tizzy about this stuff?

I don’t particularly view myself as one of those sticklers for political correctness either, even though there are many words and ideas thrown around all the time that make me grind my teeth and, depending on the source, just let it pass. Talk of whores and sluts. References to dead prostitutes. Calling people “rednecks” or “white trash.” Racism, particularly as it relates to our current POTUS. And now and then I hear a word exit my mouth and I’m shocked to hear it delivered with my voice. And that is when I worry that maybe I’m letting too much of this stuff slide.

So I guess what I’m asking is this: what pushes your buttons? Does it happen often? And how the hell do you deal with it without going into a coccoon? Or are guys like me just would too tight?

12 thoughts on “Where’s Your Line?”

  1. >Contempt is an ugly emotion, and there's a lot of it around. It starts early with bullying in schools. I weary, too, of the way it shows up in fiction/TV/movies as entertainment. I worry that it blunts our sensitivity to suffering, which is the real issue. As someone once said, fascism begins with an indifference to the welfare of others…How that translates to the responsibility of the writer is not an easy question to answer. I suppose you begin by asking yourself whether you are part of the problem or not. Then make some choices based on that…Good post. Glad you brought up the subject. It's important.

  2. >Strangely enough, I was just thinking of this topic tonight and was talking to Lana about it. I dreamed a story during a nap yesterday and wrote it down, but there is a lot of sex and violence in it and a woman bears the brunt of it. I told Lana I didn't think I could sell it the way it came out of the dream, both because of the content and because of my own squeamishness on the subject. I've read a lot of James Reasoner, though, and like many good authors he's looked at stories from every kind of angle. Some of those angles might not be pleasant to some people, but I believe it's legitimate for a writer to try to explore all kinds of world views, even if they don't agree with them themselves.

  3. >Regarding Rector's story, what I, as an editor, found to appreciate about it was that it made me uncomfortable. It's an unsettling piece. And the key, for me, is that he never goes cheap and makes it titillating.For myself, in what I chose to read, and what I write, I tend to stray from the real world. I don't want to wallow in real misery. I appreciate the talent it takes to put that on the page, but it's just not something I want a regular part of my diet. The whole, "Torture! Yay!" thing in horror, and some crime, too, is a major turn-off. I'm a huge fan of the slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s, but most of what claims to be in that spirit now, most certainly is not. When it comes to racism and intolerance, my grandpa said something to me when I was a kid that has always stuck with me: "Never a hate a man you don't know."

  4. >I'm with you on what you said Chris. I'm not a lover of crimes against women. In fact, I've written a few pieces where the woman has come out on top. (I actually got a comment telling me that "I write like a woman" but it was meant as a compliment…so she said.) I think sometimes though, we have to accept that the above is needed in a story so we just have to go with the flow. On the "pushing my buttons" I have to say anything involving kids is a BIG NO NO with me. I had a story sent to me at TFFO that involved a school teacher and a 13 year old girl. It was so graphic I actually felt sick. Since then I have this as a submission guideline…"You have a story that involves kids, then make sure it’s the kids coming out on top! Child abuse in any form is not what I’m after: keep that shit in your own heads!"At the end of the day though, Chris, I can't remember who said this to me but "each to their own". I know it's a common term but I think we just have to accept that anything is possible in writing but we don't have to read it.Great post!

  5. >I really don't think you're too tight Chris, you're very human to my point. That John Wayne's quote is just sick, and I understand your feeling about pow wows and the presence of the US flag and the religion, this would make my blood boil if I were Native. This actually, religious abusive presence, makes me sick and angry, either it's Christian, Muslim, Jewish. Faith is a personal choice and has nothing to do with society, it shouldn't be forced on anyone.

  6. >There are a few things that still make me uncomfortable to read about, and normally I try to steer as far away from them as I can. One has to do with child abuse and the other has to do with extreme violence against women.Having said that, I also have problems writing about those as well. In regards to the first, I've shelved a potential story because of how I would've had to set the entire tone of the story, and as for the second, that's more of a situational issue.I managed to jumpstart my current project by closing a chapter and opening another with two scenes of violence against woman, but I was not comfortable in writing them.Even though I found that they were a necessary component for the overall story, I made damn sure to keep it as brief and sucinct as possible. So the actual event itself for each scene totaled at most two paragraphs.It's a double edged sword when one writes using stuff that makes them queasy to begin with. On one hand, it makes for an interesting story, but on the other, you have to make sure that you write it within the proper context of the story without making yourself look like a sick puppy dog.

  7. >Where is the line to be drawn between perpetuating archetypes and a writer's reflection the common values of an era? I think, given the way whites rode roughshod over the Indians (and still do), there must have been (are) a lot of people who hated Indians or were indifferent to the plight of Indians. And there is an incredible amount of violence against women in today's culture. So at what point does a story stop being true-to-life and start being gratuitous? Isn't the gritty reflection of social issues/mores one of the things crime writers like to pat themselves on the back for?BTW, not saying I want to read torture scenes and bigots in every story. Just, this topic reminds me of the whole debate about the recent publication of Twain's HUCK FINN and the elimination of the N word.

  8. >You're not alone. There's a lot that pushes my buttons. A lot I can't/won't stomach anymore.I should probably just leave the comment there.

  9. >Thanks for all the great comments, gang.Naomi, you make a great point re: the Huck Finn debate. My feeling is if you are going to go there, you have to GO there with realism and fearlessness (which is the point I think Charles Gramlich is making by authors taking things from different angles). I think that comes through in the writing; it has some weight, as opposed to just another writer grabbing at low hanging fruit. It is what's good about Rector's story, because it has a sense of dread that a lesser, or more careless, writer couldn't pull off.Another great example is the first Shotgun Honey piece that Pete Farris did. Pete is a friend of mine so I probably sound like a total homer, but his is a torture piece. What makes it phenomenal is the choice he made for characters. Totally twists the idea and makes it new and interesting.http://www.shotgunhoney.net/2011/04/disney-noir-by-peter-farris.html

  10. Chris a very well thought out post with some exceptional follow up responses. I doubt I could successfully say more without regurgitating similar sentiment.

    The fact the story pushed your buttons means it was successful. It made you think which in turn developed this discussion.

    Rector’s story did not glorify the act, but it did make me and the two other editors uncomfortable. Mutually we agreed that “Folded Blue” was a well executed story written to the standards we wanted to publish. This doesn’t mean we condone abuse or murder of women. Or anyone.

    Violence is a visceral part of crime/noir fiction. The sad thing is that you can read any newspaper and find something at least once a week that is so beyond what we manage to conceive on our own as writers. Reality trumps fiction any day.

    I’m glad it pushed your buttons. I’m glad this discussion occurred. As a crime writer though there is only two ways you can go with situations you abhor. Avoid them or write about them.

  11. Thanks, Ron. Keep in mind I’d never tell anyone not to write something. I’m all for it. And I would say Rector’s story is one of the better ones that has appeared on Shotgun Honey . . . and that’s saying something!

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