Sunday, June 11, 2006

When You’re not White Enough to write a Black Novel

I’ve always been a religious man, so I spent some good time praying that the “Post-National” world that Elliot Weinberger dreamed of in the summer 2005 issue of Tin House comes true. In those pages, Weinberger praised the growing prominence of the Post-National writer, the writer of exotic origin and tricky residence who was in the middle of revolutionizing western literature. But he also lamented that this revolution has so far been silent as the American audience had yet to embrace it.

As one of those writers he spoke of, I have found myself crippled by the choices that a supposedly less cosmopolitan reading world has left me with. After forty-five agents and fifteen publishers told me exactly the same thing, that my novel was too narrow, too dark, too foreign, not very accessible (but well written!) I was left with a dead manuscript that I destroyed and a writing career that was pretty much forgotten.

The fact is everybody blames the American reader for his narrow focus while envying his stacked wallet. And while there may be some truth to that, the far bigger problem is the industry that refuses to believe in the intelligence and open-mindedness of that very reader. The industry that will not take a chance on non-american, non-suburban white fiction unless it fits two very defined parameters, both of which I tried writing after my first novel was rejected.

The first is the immigrant novel. On paper it sounds foreign and exotic, but this is the most American of novels, for it details the quintessential American experience: Coming to America. The formula is pretty easy to trace. Ingredients: The stern patriarchal father who is beaten by a world that doesn’t want him; where he can’t be king, where his children no longer listen and where he is deplumed, de-wealthed and de-sexed. He grows withdrawn, bitter and sometimes malevolent. But let’s not forget the matriarch, the spiritual keeper of the cultural flame, the difficult one; the one in the family who never learns English and wants to get her daughter married as soon as possible. Coming through the front door at that very moment is the same aforementioned daughter, dressed like Britney and talking ghetto. Leaving through the back door is the son, having rebelled and felt the consequence, he drifts into that American no man’s land, making pit stops in gangs, drugs or troubled racial and/or sexual identity. In a very great sense the essential theme of these novels, the duel-duet of clashing cultures has been an American story ever since John Smith gave Pocohontas small pox.

It’s a cynical statement to be sure, but the cynicism is in response to the expectations of the publishing industry and not the novels themselves, some of which have been the most striking fiction of past 30 years. But in opening a tiny space, these novels shut out all other forms of post-national fiction save one: The white man trapped in the heart of darkness novel.

It’s a hell of a thing when you’re not white enough to write a black novel. On my 63rd rejection I hatched what seemed to be a clever idea. I would re-submit my novel to the same agents and publishers—only this time I would use my good Australian buddy’s photo and an invented bio about my life in the Caribbean bush, a sort of Serpent and Rainbow redux. Given that few editors had even read the manuscript I had little concern that the same reader would come across the novel twice.

A white man had just won the Booker prize for a novel about an Indian (Yann Martel for Life of Pi), and I would merely be joining one of English literature’s most enduring and at times offensive traditions, a malady that has afflicted nearly every cosmopolitan white writer not named Gordimer: The White man or woman who travels to the exotic land of darkness to find his inner light novel. The formula, hatched by Defoe, perfected by Conrad and being reinvented as I write this has long been the proven way to make foreign fiction work. Set the jaded white among the poor but proud natives and sooner or later he will learn something deep about him or herself, even if the natives never evolve from the noble or ignoble savages that they are.

Again, This is supposedly cosmopolitan fiction that is anything but, for it merely reinforces the essential differences (those pesky, backward natives) or cosmic similarities between people who try to co-exist and never moves beyond that point. As for the non-white characters, even the word character is a stretch as these men and women never evolve, never contradict, never waver, never grow, never change, in short, never become human.

And yet there is another kind of white penned, colored story, that goes even deeper than that; what Dale Peck calls the feat of Cultural Ventriloquism. In this novel the trick is to show just how deep in a foreign culture one can dig, the deeper the better. It’s the Jamaican novel that Russell Banks or Michael Tolkin can sell, but Patricia Powell cannot. It’s the Anansi story that becomes a gold mine for Neil Gaiman, but a black hole for Earl Lovelace. Unless one plays the rootless, quasi-mestizo, I’m both and neither angle that VS Naipaul plays. The fact is, the black story is far more sellable when it comes from a white voice.

Those were my choices as a writer, so I chose a third, to give up on writing altogether. No one wants to write a book that nobody will read, no matter how post-national you think you are. And yet not everybody wants to write something merely for its supposed commercial potential no matter how it easy it is to write it. There were so many people in this industry convinced that I had written a book that will never be read that I believed it myself, went back to writing commercials and burnt the manuscript.

But that was a black and white response to a black and white fallacy of a writing world that has always been gray. Or to put it in a less convulted way, I hadn’t figured on the fourth option: independent publishers. Through a series of accidents that one should never try at home, my manuscript found its way into an acclaimed writer’s hands who sent it to and agent who pretty much told me all I’ve heard before (I love it! Nobody else will!) and an independent publisher, Akashic Books who fell for the manuscript and has since published it. But even in that situation I sometimes came upon two opposing halves of the same prejudice. While one side rejected the post national author and one side embraced, both were convinced of the writer’s limited potential (with the notable exception of the guy who published my book). Maybe both are right.

The problem with this insistence on formula is that the American reader has already proven it untrue. Formula cannot explain the success of Khaled Rossini’s Kite Runner or the failure of George Hagen’s The laments. It obscures Orham Pamuk’s success with My Name is Red.

What does that leave for us, post nationals, for whom no amount of bitterness can obscure one true fact: that we want to break into America? Write for the people you know and hope everybody else catches on? I really don’t know. I know I’m selling books one at a time, in independent bookstores and caf├ęs all over the US, trying to prove that a story set in a Jamaican village is not that much different from one set in a small, American town, and even if it is, that we still love heroes, hate villains and want good to triumph over evil. It’s both rewarding and frustrating and I do question why am I doing this every day.

But as I write my second book the same demons have come back to haunt me. Acclaim is nice, such as it is, but how about some sales? How local can I be? Should I move my characters to Brooklyn? If I move to a larger publisher (assuming they would want me) will the New York Times review my book? How much Jamaican dialect is too much? Do I have the requisite 4.25 white characters? And what language should they speak? How will all of this sell? Will William Morris give me a call?

These are all terrible things to take to a writing desk, so in the end I think of nothing but the story. I have to hold to the belief that book and reader have an almost cosmic destiny to meet. And when they do, no barrier whether it be language, race, culture or nationality will stand in the way. In other words, Elliot, I’m placing all my bets on the hope that there are more people in the world just like you.

So Matt thinks the Beatles are Overrated...

Back in my younger days when I thought the Beatles were overpraised I developed a major thing for the Who. But since then my opinion has done a huge 360 and I believe without a shadow of a doubt that they were the greatest rock band of all time. Also if one agrees (and there's really no reason not to) that punk was really just Chuck Berry plus feedback, then they came pretty damn close to inventing punk too. Now while I believe there are dozens of reasons why the Beatles are the greatest band of all time, I'll choose just one. Take a look at the type of crap that went to number one the week before they came to save us:

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Now that Iraq has its My Lai in Haditha can we finally all agree that Iraq is the new Vietnam? Stay safe, Teddy.

On X-Men 3

The Last Stand indeed. Mega budget directors have so thoroughly ruined the finality of that word that nowadays “last” is indistinguishable from “next.” Nothing is final in the pop landscape, least of all death so it’s no surprise that nobody believes that this is the final X-men movie. But X-men 3 should be, if Brett Ratner intends to direct any more.

Couple months ago, Entertainment Weekly did a story on why fans were so worried about X-3. Chief among their worries was the hiring of Brett Ratner to replace Bryan Singer. If you’ve never heard of him, well Ratner, like Charlie’s Angel’s Mc G or that Pearl Harbor jackass, is a new breed of hack. For some reason Hollywood seems to expect something from Ratner and hands him projects such as Red Dragon to do. But the vastly more talented Michael Mann already made Red Dragon, except he called his movie Manhunter. And while that movie shows clear signs of 80’s datedness, Manhunter was also the early work of a virtuoso and for my money, the best of the Hannibal Lecter films (Check out Brian Cox as Lecter). But Rattner wasn’t handed Red Dragon to make art, he was hired to make money. Which he’s very good at by the way. Ratner is a celeb director who loves his celebrity but he is not a geek. This is what sinks X-men 3.

For if you’re not aware, X-men is the finest geek story ever told, one of the best depictions of what it means to not belong but wanting to. Laugh all you want, but I learned more about accepting my outsider status from X-men than both the Bible and Notes From the Underground. I can still tell you what happens in issue 175 and why Wolverine would have been bitter in issue 180. Hell, I can tell you the first line in the first episode of the mutant massacre. And while the comic lost me when it went mega, the characters did not. Wolverine did more to make me feel like I was a pretty cool person than any Tony Robbins seminar. Naturally, as you’re picking up from all this, I had a geekish love for this comic that bordered on obsession. I’m not sure if Bryan Singer did too, but there was no question of his geekiness.

While I was not that sold on the first, X2 was possibly the finest comic film I’ve seen. Not much competition there, I know, but still the movie dared to have an emotional resonance that a regular action film would never even attempt. But back to geeks and Brett Ratner. While the X-men comics and first two movies were clear depictions of geek issues, (wanting to belong, hated because of difference) and geek obsessions (super powers, girls in tight leather) the third film is what happens when the dumb jock crashes the party. And Ratner, always ready to jump in when a film is in a pinch, dumbs the film considerably. Its not that he wasn’t trying to make a good film. This movie still has moments of genuine feeling and he even gets to kill off a few key characters but the film rings hollow as soon as the credits roll. The movie tries too hard to pull at every button and there’s no button Rattner won’t push because that’s exactly what filmmaking seems to be to him; to push the right sequence of keys. Then when the action comes, the scenes are tired, pre-Matrix and too dependent on spectacle. If the movie’s concept wasn’t so strong to begin with and if Hugh Jackman wasn’t so good, this movie would have be blown away by a storm wind (I know, but it’s hard to come up with a clever metaphor on such short notice.)

In his response to all the online bitching about him taking over the ‘franchise’ Ratner seemed puzzled and thought he was being playa hated; that these geeks hated him because he was successful. This shows not only a colossal ignorance of his target market but also one of the dumb misconceptions jocks have of geeks, freaks and nerds, that we don’t like showy people because they are successful. Actually we don’t like showoffs and hacks because they are assholes. We just didn’t think that a jock could tell the ultimate geek myth and we were right.

Inexperienced as he was in these waters, Rattner does what other hacks do when faced with a geek movie. He queers it up. So the new X-men has so much gay subtext that Top Gun now seems like a John Wayne film. Joel Schumacher did the same thing with Batman and Robin, having George Clooney and that other guy in such a love fest that you screamed “Get a room!” before you even noticed that the costumes had nipples. Subtext isn’t subtext when the subtext screams look at me! Ain’t I deep?

Since we’ve established that Rattner is not the most emotionally nuanced director out there one would think he would compensate in the Bang! Pow! department. But he fails there as well, mistaking spectacle for momentum. Only someone who thinks in terms of thrills instead of story would waste a good five to six minutes on a character moving a bridge. What, mutants don’t fly anymore? After seeing this movie I’m not sure Ratner is good with action either. There are several directors and screen writers out there who are redefining action movies. J.J. Abrams (Alias), Joss Whedon (Buffy), James Cameron, Luc Besson, not to mention the Hong Kong posse; (Takeshi Miike, Takeshi Kitano, Wai Keung Lau) all inject action films with serious gravitas, melancholy and consequence. Ratner, a true graduate of the Jerry Bruckheimer school of film still make movies like he’s just happy to get the job.

This is sad because X-men 3 is not a bad movie at all. What is interesting is watching a good story at the core struggling to get out from all the excess laid on top of it. A large part of the credit goes to Hugh Jackman and Ian Mackellen who save the movie from itself (Plus I forgive anything with Vinnie Jones). The movie’s finest scene is one of the least staged, where feeling unbearable grief, Iceman freezes a fountain so that he and Kitty pride can go out for a simple ice skate. That’s the one scene that speaks to our ability to make new families when we’ve lost old ones, out of the most unlikely of people. A bittersweet story at the core of every freak or geek’s heart. If you’re a jock, cheerleader, popular person, yuppie or a proud jeans shorts wearer, you most likely puked at what I just wrote. This is why one of your number should never have been given a geek story like X-men to make. You never read comics anyway.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Still More on The NY Time Top 25. I promise this is the last

On one hand I'm excited that people are still so passionate about books that such love can spark an arguments like this one. For my money, Song of Solomon is greater than Beloved, but what I find interesting is the belief shared by some bloggers that if one does not like a book personally, then there's no way other readers could find any merit in it. So there must be some other reason for the choice than the quality of the work, "affirmative action" for example (Their term, not mine).

This strikes me as arrogant. It reminds me a friend of mine who because he disliked grunge music assumed nobody else could possibly like it, so everybody was just trying to be cool by pretending.

Sometimes when book and reader fail to connect, the fault is the reader's not the book.

More on NY Times Top 25

Ron Silliman does an interesting thing with the New York Times' list of top 25 books by reprinting it in alphabetical order. By doing so, the endless repeating of certain authors, (OK, Phillip Roth, Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy) makes the list even more depressing. Of course there is the argument that perhaps Roth gets so many votes because he is simply that good, and maybe he is. But I'm still more concerned with the voters than the votes, and this would have been far more interesting had they just made each judge put up their own list, like what Rolling Stone does sometimes with their readers and critics poll. I'd venture that even the judges themselves are a little disappointed that they are responsible for such a narrow list.

And finally, if this list is really a tally of numbers with the highest being number one, why wasn't it called Most Popular book of the past 25 years (well popular with writers and critics, anyway)?