Friday, March 2, 2018

Let's Talk About What Makes Me So Original

"Dammit! Where's the Devil when you need 'im?"

Is it better to be original or give 'em what they want?

For what I want to achieve, I'm fairly original by default and in ways that wouldn't be my choice if allowed one. I've mentioned this early in the week when I offered readers and peers a statement on writing awards in crime fiction.

The TL:DR of this is, put plainly, the traditions of mystery and crime fiction, and their standard conventions don't include someone who looks and lives like me. In over one-hundred years, black American writers of mystery and crime who depict black people living black American lives within the pages of their books are still in the single digits.  Here's where a quote from R.J. Harlick's brilliant post from Tuesday comes in handy:

Rarely do they take a chance on a purely original work of crime fiction that doesn’t fit within their definition of marketability.

And even more fitting quote:

The cozy mystery publishers have set guidelines for what should and should not be included in a cozy. Things like no overt sex or violence, no swearing, must have a pet, preferably a cat, have a fictitious, preferably American, small-town setting, a straightforward plot with no contentious social issues and so on and so forth. If a writer doesn’t stay within these guidelines, they don’t get published. It’s as simple as that.

And there lies the rub. Do you see it? Here:

no contentious social issues

Now here's the thing. I write what some would consider noir, others hardboiled, but it's really just gumshoe mystery. When folks don't shoehorn me into Walter Mosely comparisons, and when they don't know Chester Himes ever existed, I usually receive allusions to Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe, which is fine. My friend and peer Nolan Knight, who wrote the absolutely brilliant LA noir novel The Neon Lights Are Veins, compared my work to Nelson Algren. Afterward, I felt intoxicated for weeks. I'm a Nelson Algren/Studs Terkel-style humanist who has both feet in the fight for the urban everyman and everywoman. So my work with The Tales of Elliot Caprice has precedent, perhaps not in mystery/crime/thriller, but it exists.

When I pen a mystery depicting black people living lives that are evidently black in consciousness next to folks who aren't black but have to occupy the same world, while that may seem like perfect sense, in mystery/crime, that's a variant, and in many ways, an aberration. It'd be perfectly alright if my characters were black, so long as they live and behave recognizably American, meaning socialized according to white middle-class norms and behaviors. Or I can make secondary or tertiary characters black, but that blackness will be ascribed to metaphor. Basically, what was I doing by making X character black? To depict black folk doing black things in the context of a traditional mystery plot is edgy. Subversive. Risky. Too risky for publication in most cases.

Unless I myself, as the writer, isn't black.

There's a weird phenomenon that I don't believe is explained away so easily as white privilege (which is a rather absurd generalization I myself do not employ) where black Americans have been American since before America was founded and yet we're foreign to the American experience. When we do bad things, same as anyone else, we're admonished and upheld as examples of inherent flaws related to race. When we do good things, we're exoticized and, in many ways, fetishized, which is why Corey Booker has a career in the Senate, if only because we're all looking for another Obama. Both are the opposite ends of the experiential spectrum of understanding of black American cultures (yes, plural,) values, and behaviors. How, in the 21st century, Americans seem not to understand their fellow Americans who happen to be black is a completely different conversation. In this context, authors who aren't themselves black but seem to possess an understanding of black people and black culture are able to use that understanding as currency in certain fields: politics, entertainment, and yes, publishing. Can fit in with the blacks, but can also fit in around the conference table. It's a win-win.

The experience I've had, with both myself, my peers, and other professionals who may or may not be black, is a black author writing in a black voice is too much blackness for publishers to take on because it isn't the norm. The other side of it is, I strive to uphold the traditions of mystery that came from those classics that inform all our work. I don't find the word trope to be pejorative. Tropes are lovely. They help the reader settle in quickly and begin enjoying the read as soon as possible. Tropes, conventions, and devices help us writers deliver our own unique ideas, leanings and judgments into our text. They orient readers. This helps them get through new territory where radical ideas seem less scary because of a common structure. I love tradition.

Thing is, those traditions, at their root, don't represent me or the life I've enjoyed. Those traditions render black characters as the metaphor, ala a certain legend with a new novel casting a madam in a historical Chicago brothel as black, except anyone who has done a lick of research knows Al Capone brought brothels to Chicago, and no one black would be the boss of his businesses. This reads like a clear case of metaphor. The black and sassy sex worker who has all the answers. The perpetual outcast as the insider. That's basic metaphoric writing, and it's so played out.

Then have the rule that says don't kill kids and dogs in your novel, except when those kids are black teenagers who commit crimes against other blacks. When that crime needs solving, there's the reason for the book. Black folk are cast in mystery novels and given no more personality than a red-shirted away team on an episode of Star Trek TOS. That's when black characters are used as fodder.

Now what all this has to do with R.J.'s astute observation is, as the traditions of mystery and crime fiction do not involve actual portrayals of black Americans living lives true to their nature and cultures, and generally not written by black American authors using black American literary voices, even if I follow all the traditions and employ all the conventions, it's still out of step with the traditions because I'm black and my protagonist is black.

I had a question on a panel last year about whether I was worried about alienating potential readers by exploring social issues in my crime fiction. My questioner hadn't read my work, so she wasn't directly familiar with the contents of my novel. So I'm thinking, " issue..." And then it hit me. She perceives blackness as a social issue!! Whoa, wait. I'm black. I was born this way. I was raised this way. I'm happily black American. My blackness isn't a social issue. It's my given existence here on Earth. Except for her, a white woman who wanted to read my book but felt it may not be for her, MY blackness was HER social issue. I tried to follow all the rules of the genre and execute according to my own love for all the mystery conventions I grew up with, and yet it has been perceived as out of the mainstream since the first query letter went out, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Traditions and conventions become worn-out tropes when everything looks the same. People can tolerate only so many variations on a theme before they normalize the constant. This is why diversity is so important, as it reforms the old into something more adaptive, and expansive. That's the issue I run into quite a bit, thus my long answer to the short question is the way the whole thing is set up, seems like anything I write is original/different just because of the prevailing notion in America that black folk aren't actual Americans. If I care about a person enough to endure their notion that everything I think about is race, that's what I remind them. It isn't me. It's your reaction to me. As there are plenty of other authors to access and books to read that don't have all those "social issues" in them, there's no need for self-examination. You can just put it all on me and stick that book on the bottom of your TBR pile. It happens. A lot. To my face.

Each time I write something, the reader and I are both taking a chance on each other. I sometimes wish I could somehow crystallize the interactions I experience when it comes to this originality question. It really is life-affirming when someone crosses divides both real and imagined to tell me they loved by book despite all the reasons not to buy it. In so many ways, it makes it worth it.

Would you do it for free?

This is a far shorter answer. Now that I'm not doing it for free, I can see that all the books I've sold and wonderful invitations I've gained to come and enjoin with readers at conferences, colleges and universities, libraries and bookstores, I realize that with every sale, every review, and every mention, I am bringing the possibility of normalization of black faces and voices in to mystery and crime. I'm proving to put real human beings on the page with the full measure of their souls as black folk is good for everyone. When I get a big-ass glass of milk and sit down to eat the cookies an 80-year-old lady from Niles, Illinois sent me out of gratitude for teaching her new things about Chicago, the city she lived in all her life, as it relates to its African American population, I'll be getting fat off the merits of this work. With every sale, I get further past the point of no return. It'll help me remain, which may be the greatest value for everyone, including the writer who one day wants to pen mystery/crime with someone who looks and lives as they do and have it stand in good stead.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.

Works By Danny Gardner



Catriona McPherson said...

Such great stuff here! I loved (as in love-hated) the "being a social issue" comment. And I was reminded again of Sara Sue Hoklotubbe getting rejected by a mainstream press with the comment "Why is everybody Indian?" She's published by a University Press now - because murder + native American = literature.

Thomas Pluck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Pluck said...

Great post Danny. I've found that "likeable character" means as you say, "they live and behave recognizably American, meaning socialized according to white middle-class norms and behaviors".
Hitman? He better be nice to white ladies. Career criminal? He best not be a nasty home invader like... "Those people"... He'll only rob drug dealers!
the white avenger saving "them" from themselves is an ugly trope.