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According to a news headline today, President Twitterman is breaking from “GOP orthodoxy,” adding a few progressive ideas to his agenda to bolster his chances for reelection. The Gridleyville Editorial Board would like to congratulate him for this evolution in his thought, and specifically for the following new policies he now advocates:

  • Ignoring, like other Republican presidents before him, the GOP mantra of a balanced budget, so that the nation’s deficit will soon set a record at over $1 trillion
  • Compromising with Congress on money to Build the Wall, instead of stealing it from military funds
  • Increasing air holes in children’s cages along the border, for greater comfort and less suffocation
  • Compensating property owners whose drinking water has been contaminated by fracking: at least 1 case of Pepsi per family of 4
  • Leniency for those who have witnessed war crimes by the U.S. military: they will not be executed for testifying

If the president continues at this rate, he will soon qualify as an ordinary, corrupt, lobbyist-bought politician, the sort with which we have grown quite comfortable. This is progress indeed.

The True Samaritans

December 22, 2019

During the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, Americans give a lot of lip service to the values of charity, compassion and care for the less fortunate. A few shining exemplars of these virtues are held up by the media, with cheery pictures and sentimental language. Typically, though, we fail to recognize the most charitable of all, the true Samaritans among us.

Whom do I mean? Which people are the greatest self-sacrificers?

Actually, they are the people you’d least suspect: the white working- and middle-class straight Americans who support conservative politicians and a right-wing agenda. For short, since their current Great Leader in the White House is President Twitterman, I’ll call them the Lesser Twitters, or LTs.

What’s compassionate about their agenda? you may ask. How can people who favor holding immigrant children in cages be considered Samaritans?

Let’s look at what LTs are giving up and on whose behalf.

Obviously, by supporting policies aimed at benefiting the rich, LTs sacrifice their own prosperity, since the idea that wealth trickles down from top to middle to bottom has been proven a hoax. Nor is it possible that obsolescent, polluting industries like coal mining can ever make a comeback. The “jobs” that right-wing politicians claim to preserve or resurrect will never again be a major force in America. If such activities persist at all in the future, they’ll be done by robots.

On the surface many LTs refuse to accept these truths, but in their hearts they understand, and they realize they are making a sacrifice. They don’t believe, of course, that they are giving up their well-being for the sake of obscenely wealthy corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and lobbyists. No, in their view they are acting to preserve important social values, such as the right to life and the sanctity of marriage, the issues that Republican politicians have played up for at least two generations, since Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (both later disgraced and chased from office) began appealing to the “silent majority” in 1969.

What’s interesting is that these so-called family values do not generally affect LTs themselves. If you’re against gay marriage, for example, you won’t marry another person of the same sex, and probably your family members won’t either. Similarly, if you’re against abortion, you don’t have to have one, nor does your partner. These are issues that pertain to other people. By opposing liberal laxity on these matters, LTs are trying to save the rest of us from sin.

Arguably, this is true for even the hottest of hot-button issues, immigration and refugees. Most LTs have scant personal experience with immigrants. Maybe, speeding past in their SUVs, they’ll glimpse a Latino mowing a lawn, or on occasion, through a swinging kitchen door, they’ll catch sight of a swarthy person washing dishes in a restaurant. Hardly a threat in either case. Again, this is a matter that applies to other people, and in screaming their support for cruelty at the border, LTs are acting to save the rest of us who might actually need those jobs mowing lawns or washing dishes, at least until the robots move in.

Let’s take a moment, then, to recognize the LTs as the true Samaritans among us. Yes, they may be rewarded at Armageddon—and at that point they’ll certainly get to shout “I told you so”—but we should offer some appreciation in this life as well.

Let’s each light a holiday candle for the LTs. If you don’t celebrate a holiday involving candles, you can make a cross of two sticks, set it on fire and plant it on a suspicious person’s lawn. It’s the least we can do.

My friend Nathaniel Popkin recently published The Year of the Return, an extraordinary novel in which he gives ten separate characters a first-person point of view. They range from young to very old, from a business owner to a truck driver to a journalist to a deeply troubled war vet. To me the undertaking seemed admirably ambitious, and his ability to pull it off impressive. The characters come vividly alive on the page, each with a distinctive voice.

The one technical problem that caused him the most worry? It was not merely technical but social: namely, that he’s white and about half of the characters are black. Here’s what he said in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing:

Rapkin: Did you have any trepidation at all about writing half the book in the voice of an African-American family, being a white Jewish man?

Popkin: I had terrific trepidation, I still have trepidation. I still worry. I still wonder if it’s the right thing to do or if it’s my privilege or my entitlement to do it. I wonder if it’s right.

As a fiction writer myself, I see two questions here: (1) Can white authors genuinely understand any African American’s perspective or experience? and (2) Even if the authors understand and create believable black characters, do they have any right to publish such work? Is it cultural appropriation?

The first question links to a larger problem for all writers, especially in fiction. Race is only one of many boundaries we have to cross to bring characters to life. Women often have to write about men, and vice versa. Older people write about younger folk, and Millennials take on the Boomers. Same for natives/immigrants. Upper/middle/lower class. Straight/gay/trans. Married/single. War veterans/non-vets.

At a reading once, I heard Elise Juska, who at that point had already published (I believe) three novels, express worry about her novel-in-progress, which required her to imagine the perspectives of older men. My reaction was—I don’t think I said this aloud, but I thought it—that old guys are just like everyone else, only crankier. And any good writer can do cranky. That novel-in-progress became The Blessings, which I consider one of the best American works of fiction of the past decade.

For me, the male-female boundary feels like the easiest one to cross. My male characters too often share my own neuroses, but a woman protagonist is more likely to become her own person. Age is a little harder, class even more so. Occupation often stumps me—when I imagine a character who has a job I don’t know much about, I wonder what that person does all day. The point is that we all have our limitations of experience, and unless we want to restrict ourselves like Jane Austen (who famously avoided male-only scenes because she’d never witnessed one), we need to let imagination carry us past our borders. Bravely or stupidly, we have to venture beyond the comfortable. If the result is a work like The Blessings, the risk will be justified. If we blunder, well, we move on, try something else.

After all, science fiction and historical fiction wouldn’t exist if writers stuck to what they knew. And as Kit de Waal has asked (The Irish Times, 6/30/2018), “Was Gustave Flaubert a woman who committed adultery before he wrote Madame Bovary?”

The second question—the one about cultural or racial appropriation—is trickier. As historically oppressed or undervalued groups raise their own voices, an outsider’s view seems less justified, especially if it comes from a patriarchal, colonial, or privileged background. Kit de Waal, in the article just cited, puts it like this:

So when people who have lost nothing, people from the dominant culture that has colonised half of the world, reigned over an empire, raped, butchered, enslaved, taken language, lands and people as cargo, when those people say there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and insist that we can do what we want, we need to think again of the impact of taking another’s story and using it as we want.

One writer put it this way. Do not dip your pen in somebody else’s blood.

The powers-that-be have told the stories for far too long; it’s time to invert the pyramid. My friend Popkin is a sensitive person who sees many sides of every question, so it’s no wonder he fretted over the matter of entitlement.

But how far should we take this? If we happen to be straight, should we omit LGBTQ characters from our fiction? Should a writer of European heritage shy away from portraying the thoughts and emotions of a Latinx character?

I confess to sinning in these respects, and I don’t think any fiction writer should need to defend the imaginative act of crossing borders, whatever they may be. The resulting work, of course, is ripe for critique. If we stray into new territory and fail to understand it, or leave muddy footprints where they don’t belong, we should get roundly scolded.

Another friend of mine, David Sanders, has published a novel, Busara Road, about a white Quaker kid in Kenya. He himself was once a white Quaker kid in Kenya, so in that respect he was writing what he knew. But for the sake of the novel he also had to create half a dozen major black characters, both old and young, male and female, and that could be considered a violation of boundaries. The result? On a return trip to Kenya, he was told he’d gotten the characters exactly right.

We shouldn’t forget, too, that the insight of an “outsider” can be useful. As Zadie Smith has remarked (The New York Review of Books, 10/24/2019), “For though the other may not know us perfectly or even well, the hard truth is we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

To sum up, consider this from Hari Kunzru (The Guardian, 10/1/16):

Good writers transgress without transgressing, in part because they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.

Becoming involved with people: after all, that’s what fiction is about.

Many triggers

November 4, 2019

A story of mine has just appeared in Storgy Magazine, with a very appropriate illustration.

Those who know me may be amazed that a rose could be relevant to any of my fictions. It is truly so, however. You’ll have to read the story to find out why. Click on the image to go to the Storgy site.

Trigger warnings: gruesomeness, religiousness, anti-religiousness, dysfunctional family, gunfire. And probably others I haven’t noticed.

Many thanks to the editors of Storgy who somehow weren’t triggered.

Democracy and Frogs

June 29, 2019

In my day job, I’ve recently had the pleasure of doing layout on a new translation of an ancient Greek mock-epic poem, “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice,” a spoof of heroic war sagas. The new translation by A. E. Stallings, with drawings by Grant Silverstein and an introduction by “A. Nony Mouse,” is due out later this year from Paul Dry Books. The text and illustrations are both gruesome and hilarious.

To summarize the poem’s narrative: After committing a selfish and deadly error, the Frog King concocts lies to evade responsibility, and as part of his cover-up he leads his subjects into a war on false pretenses. Things go badly for the amphibians, and the entire race will be wiped out—until the gods intervene to stave off genocide.

Could there be parallels to the current day?

After pondering this matter, I’ve decided conditions are very different in our democratic era. Because we no longer believe the gods will intervene.

Apologies to both of my readers for the infrequency of my posts lately. I haven’t even been able to think of more insults for President Twitterman. I blame the news media for distracting me with genuine tragedies.

But here’s one announcement: My Kindle-format novel The Big Happiness has been featured on the website Snowflakes in a Blizzard, which spotlights writers who supposedly deserve more attention from the public at large. I don’t know how I qualified for this, but here’s the link.

Many thanks to Darrell Laurant, who runs the Snowflakes site.

A Silent Breeze

January 2, 2019

Isn’t it especially creepy when a threat makes no sound?

That’s what the protagonist faces in “A Silent Breeze,” my latest story now up on the Pithead Chapel site. It was a finalist in the magazine’s story contest judged by Silas House.

Here’s the link.