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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual. Continue reading


My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  Continue reading

MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

If the Product of Your Process Isn’t Cash, Kindly Eff Off.

Does Jonathan Franzen’s anointment as the latest Great American Novelist illustrate unconscious gender bias toward men? There’s a lot to consider in answering that question, but my short answer is that I agree with those you say yes.

Focusing on quantity, periodicals that review books tend to review more books by men. In regard to quality, books by women are commonly sorted into sub-genres rather than categorized as literary fiction. The numbers and discussion about this issue resonate with my experience in writing and lit programs, where the products that served as models of great writing were mostly written by men.

Our cultural failure to identify many women’s books as great literature (I won’t call it blindness–seeing but not acknowledging is not the same thing) is surely related to how great books are written. Simply put, products are the result of a process, and you get out of it what you put into it, based on the resources you have. Meghan O’Rourke observes, “[Writing a book] takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude.” Most of the women I know who are writers struggle to find time to write, even if they have strong support systems.

Because traditional gender roles pervade, women tend to do most of the consistently thankless stuff: cooking of meals, the fetching of children, the fixing of problems, etc. In a workplace with mostly male workers, women still provide the kinds of support they’re expected to provide at home. Writing is rarely one of those duties, unless there’s something uncredited to be written, like a newsletter or press release.

To be fair, in some homes and workplaces, biological sex diverges from gender role, and the people with less power do the supporting. Those situations haven’t become very common yet, but they’re worth noting, because unconscious gender bias probably has more to do with gender roles and social class, i.e., one’s place in the hierarchy.

With this in mind, I’ve got to say that O’Rourke loses me with her next comment. She writes, “I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.” How I wish I could wag my penis and get a few weeks to do nothing but write. That doesn’t happen for any of the male writers I know (except maybe one, but that dude’s going to get that thing cut off if he keeps going like he is). Continue reading

Roger Ebert Will Be So Proud of Me

Writers who set up their laptops at Starbucks have been getting a bad rap lately.  On Family Guy, Chris disses Meg by saying she’s like “one of those people who sit in Starbucks and publicly write on their laptops.”

And Roger Ebert tweeted very plainly, “You can’t really write in Starbucks[…]”.

That almost hurts. I write in Starbucks and other coffee-selling facilities. If it were just a few years ago, my need for acceptance by people I’ll never meet would force me to stay at home, drink Folger’s, and write no less than 100 pages per day. Lucky for me I turned 40 last August and magically no longer give a shit what anyone thinks of my writing habits. (Yeah, that’s why.)

It helps to know that they’re simply wrong. Continue reading

Compulsory Heterosexuality (But You Knew That Already)

In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe writes about how depictions of sex by the “Great Male Novelists of the last century” have changed since the 1960s. Although she mentions that all of the authors she writes about are American, she says nothing of them in regard to other aspects of identity, e.g., (duh…) sexual orientation.

Given that all of the examples Roiphe offers are of male characters having sex with female characters, it would seem that the changes she describes say something about heterosexual male characters and the writers who create them (who, in these examples, are also het). Her essay is published in the straight-white-male-canon-worshipping NYT, so apparently the straightness of all involved is supposed to go without saying.

What should go without saying is that such a default position is bullshit. If my gay ole opinion isn’t important enough (but, oh, it most certainly is), consider that not all straight dudes are alike, not even sexually. (Duh…)

F**k the Establishment (Pending Approval)

Dan Chaon wishes young writers would read. And not the obvious stuff. He wants them to find really obscure writers, as kids who rock out in their garages find obscure bands to model themselves after.

Great idea. However, young people are so thoroughly trained in literary snobbery–to admire authors only if they appear on some canonical, pre-approved list–that they tend not to want to rebel. Rather, avoiding written texts of any kind becomes preferable.

The fun of finding obscure bands is that you get to add to The List or make your own. The selection process is up to you. There’s no need for pre-approval unless you’re majoring in music and must manage music snobbery by learning to enjoy and/or play like [professor’s favorite from her/his List].

The same is true of writing students, who learn to present their profs’ interests as their own and keep secret what really inspires them, lest they be accused of having pedestrian (or just plain ole fucking weird) tastes. Some fledgling writers do pursue obscure texts and do so openly, but are later chided by their writing professors for enjoying “genre fiction.”

Shouting “Fuck the Establishment!” is exciting, but writers know that we still depend on The Establishment to grant us credentials and publish us and put us on its lists. Because despite the romantic notion that writers should be more like budding rock stars (or, more likely, independent musicians), self-publishing by an unestablished writer is still not celebrated with the same gusto as a garage band self-producing and -promoting a CD/MP3. Only after getting The Establishment’s stamp of approval does a writer have the cred to claim such acceptance never mattered.

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