November 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Over the last couple of years, too many similar short stories have been turning up in literary journals: thin, desperate to seem winning, and based on subject matter (usually the deserving poor or the mentally marginalised) guaranteed to guilt editors into thinking the writing must be good, or at least published. One-dimensional narrators without agency (it wrecks the plot, you know), these characters are often over-sharing idiot savants capable of popping out sparkling philosophical gems.
Need to indicate that someone might be autistic? (Of course you want an autistic character; how else to convey that you’re so now?) Give them a mild OCD tic, some bafflement at figurative speech, and you’re done. Story wants to inspire a spot of liberal angst? Wind up the big-hearted, hard-done-by Wal-mart employee (so much the better if they also have undiagnosed autism and an abusive partner) and point them in the direction of the page.
On the surface, these stories chasten us for normalising a certain mental way of being. They tell us off for not being more open-minded, kinder, more accepting. But what they are actually peddling is exploitative, manipulative projections that reduce the narrators to caricature. They aren’t actually interested in—or capable of telling—the character’s experience beyond the obvious surfaces; they are simply vehicles for cheap sentiment.
I’m not going to name and shame here. But come on, journal editors: stop choosing content over quality of writing. You need to read more closely. Far from broadening our definitions of what it means to be human, these stories are bigoted and reductive. The bungled attempt to demonstrate the luminous humanity that we snobbish, superior, heartless people perpetually miss and dismiss actually has the opposite effect, pinning the chess-piece narrators to the board and allowing them only the restricted moves of pawns. A notable exception is Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise—which not only never actually labels the narrator, but also allows her plenty of freedom to choose her own path. For a lesson in how to write about people who aren’t teachers or civil servants without being condescending, read Steven Heighton’s “A Right Like Yours” in The Dead Are More Visible. His characters are not defined by their economic situation, nor emotionally handicapped by a supposed lack of cultural or social capital.
The lazy stories I’m complaining about can be knocked off in about twenty minutes. Just to prove to myself that I wasn’t getting all Jackson Pollock about it (huh, anyone can splatter and drizzle paint over a canvas), I knocked one off myself in nineteen minutes, thirty seconds. In this one, the poor old narrator gets to meet the well-intentioned colonial missionary (aka the writer).
* * *
… So one night on the graveyard shift me and Corinna are stacking shelves and she asks if I want to go to the diner after work. Of course I want to go to the diner, because anything’s better than getting home at that time of the morning when Randy’s just starting to feel his whisky burn cool off and get sore, and spoiling to start something if I disturb him before he passes out. So I say, yeah Corinna, let’s hang out, but maybe we can split the special or something because I only have twenty bucks from now to payday.
And Corinna, she’s a student and only working at the store for the cash and the life experience, as she puts it, so she says, sure Jeanie, I’ll treat you, just like I hope she will. One day she’s going to be rich and famous with her book-writing, but I won’t ever be able to get no other job after Pa dropped me on my head when I was a babe and broke something in my brain. Every time I complain about it Ma says, being number ten I should be grateful that nothing worse happened, and John-Paul, who’s number eight, says at least mine is invisible, not like the pinky on his right hand that isn’t there from the time Pa was chopping wood drunk and didn’t remember JP was out there helping him.
Anyway, so after work we’re sitting in the booth, me and Corinna, and it’s four in the morning and I love how this place just goes all night long, and it’s not like the grocery store where only the freaks come in after ten, it’s like here everyone’s allowed to be interestingly awake, like they’re all poets or famous or something.
So Corinna lets me take a few bites of the cheese off the top of my apple pie and then she slides some pages across the table to me and asks if I can look at them and tell her what I think. I’m a slow reader, but I try to concentrate even though I never made it past grade 8 reading level. The story’s about someone called Janie who works in a grocery store and has a no-good husband, and pretty quickly I guess it’s about me, so I say, Well, it seems pretty good, except I never said Randy’s tried to burn me with a cigarette, but why have you written it like how I talk? Your teachers won’t like that.
They’ll love it, says Corinna. It’s authentic. You’re authentic. It’s supposed to represent you how you really are, not force you to be something you’re not.
So I say, well, but those stories about brainy people, they don’t write them like how they speak, they put it all in book language. Anyway, I don’t think like that. I know I can’t speak fancy like you, but I think smart, just like everyone else.
And Corinna says, Jeanie, I know you’re smart. That’s why I’m writing about you. You’ve got such a great voice, so many opinions about things. We can learn a lot from you. And she pulls the pages back across towards her, minding the wet coffee rings from the people here before us, and starts scribbling very fast down the side of one of the sheets.
Anyway, I say, why don’t you write a story about Terry? I’m getting a headache, but I don’t know if it’s from Corinna or from the buzz of those fluorescent lights they’ve got over at the counter.
Corinna rolls her eyes. Terry? Are you kidding? Write about the franchise owner and his sad little life, money grubbing all day, watching TV from dinner until bedtime? Who wants to read about some right-wing white male capitalist?
She’s never really spoken to Terry, so I say, Well, I don’t know about politics and that, but he’s way more interesting than me. He’s just had to give his beehives to someone else to look after, and stop volunteering at the emergency shelter, because his wife’s got terminal cancer and he’s spending all his time at the hospice when he’s not at work. One time when Randy went off with all the cash he lent me the rent money and never asked for it back. And what about Ashelle, I ask. Ashelle’s brainy and sassy and for some reason Corinna is afraid of her, although she pretends she isn’t. I say, Ashelle’s smart enough to be a teacher or anything she wants, but who gets anywhere in life if their parents are only sixteen when they’re born?
Corinna looks down. You make me feel ashamed, Jeanie. You notice so much more than me. But I want to write about you because you’re nice. If you were on a reality show everyone would vote for you because you’re adorable and you don’t make people feel bad.
It feels good to hear that, but the story is still bothering me, because something’s not right, even though I think Corinna’s a great writer and I always feel kind of stupid around her. When I get to the end of my second piece of apple pie and Corinna’s still writing away, I realise what it is and say, it’s like you’re doing blackface or something.
And she says, what?
And I say, you know, when white people act as black people in plays, so they put blackface on, but that’s not what black people look like at all. That’s what you’re doing here, except it’s just you pretending to have no money and a broken brain and a drunk for a husband, it’s not me or any real person. It’s just a puppet.
And she looks at me like I just picked up a dog turd, pulled a diamond out of it and handed to her all nice and polished, and she says, Jeanie, you’re right. I always underestimate you, when really you’re way smarter than the rest of us.
But I’m not falling for that stuff now I’ve seen her game, so I put ten bucks, which is all the cash I’ve got, down on the table and walk out. But I can’t go home. Seeing that story all written out made me realise only an idiot would stay with Randy, so I know I can’t ever go back there again. Instead, I slip out into the five am dark, feel the tired chill in the air, and start walking.
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