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.
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?