Showing posts with label John F. Kennedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John F. Kennedy. Show all posts

29 May 2018

Are the Sensitivity Police Coming to Get You?


by Paul D. Marks, Jonathan Brown, Elaine Ash


Contents:

—Context and White Heat – Paul
—Dude? Why so Sensitive? – Jonathan Brown
—The Right to Write – Elaine Ash
—Paul’s original post
—In conclusion – Paul


“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

                                                       —President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Four Freedoms Speech

     Context:

It’s time to revisit a topic that’s very important to me, and I would think it should be to all writers. And though some of it may be repetitive, and it is long, I think it’s worth your time if you’re a writer, a reader, a sentient being.

In March, 2017, I did a piece here about the Sensitivity Police (find it at this link, but also “reprinted” near the end of this new post, http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/03/the-sensitivity-police.html ). I don’t get very political on social media. There’s only two things that I talk about in that regard and then not that much. The two things are animal issues and free speech issues. The latter is what this post is about. In a nutshell, I’m a free speech absolutist. There’s almost nothing I don’t think people should be allowed to say or put in print. It can be awful and hateful and offend you or me. But that’s what’s great about this country – you have the right to say what you want. I don’t have to agree, I don’t have to break bread with you, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.

I see things all the time that I agree or disagree with but I don’t see much point getting into verbal firefights about them. I’m not going to change any minds and no one is going to change mine. Mostly, I just scroll past political posts.

This revisit is prompted by an article I saw recently in the Guardian, the British paper. The article was “Lionel Shriver says 'politically correct censorship' is damaging fiction.”  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/22/lionel-shriver-says-politically-correct-censorship-is-damaging-fiction

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Lionel Shriver. And I still haven’t read her works. But I agree with that statement. Again, I am a total free speech advocate. I know the arguments about shouting fire in a crowded theatre or hurting people’s feelings, but I also remember when the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. (And for the simpletons out there, No, I’m not pro-Nazi!) And I remember when people would say “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment.

I understand that people get offended. I get offended, but I just grin and bear it and move on. Maybe you’d rather fight back, verbally. Fine. Just don’t stop the other from saying whatever it is. I’m against any form of censorship. And it scares the fucking hell out of me!!! Free speech is the foundation of our society. Without it totalitarianism reigns. Yet a recent Gallup poll shows college students aren’t totally behind the concept of free speech — See:

https://medium.com/informed-and-engaged/8-ways-college-student-views-on-free-speech-are-evolving-963334babe40 .

——Or——

  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/college-students-support-free-speech--unless-it-offends-them/2018/03/09/79f21c9e-23e4-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fcceb8833c43

As writers sensitivity police should scare the hell out of us. As citizens of a free society likewise. Maybe what we write is uncomfortable, maybe you’re offended. Maybe you should toughen up.

This time around I’m inviting two guests to join me and add their opinions, Jonathan Brown and Elaine Ash. I was originally going to intercut the things that Jonathan, Elaine and I have to say on the subject, but I’ve decided to run all the pieces as a whole. I asked a few people if they’d want to comment from the point of view of wanting censorship of one degree or another. Nobody wanted to go on record. I truly hope you’ll take a few minutes to read everything.

***


     White Heat:

My Shamus Award-winning novel White Heat is a noir-mystery-thriller. It’s about P.I.s trying to find a killer during the 1992 Rodney King riots – that makes it much more than a simple noir-mystery-thriller. While protagonist Duke Rogers tracks down the killer, he must also deal with the racism of his partner, Jack, and from Warren, the murder victim’s brother, who is a mirror image of Jack in that department. He must also confront his own possible latent racism – even as he’s in an interracial relationship with the dead woman’s sister.

The novel looks at race and racism from everyone involved, black and white, and no one gets off unscathed. These things can be a little uncomfortable. Believe me, I know. I was uncomfortable writing some of it. Ditto for Broken Windows, the sequel coming out in the fall, that deals with immigration via a mystery story. These are touchy issues, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk or write about them. And if we do so honestly we might unintentionally hurt some feelings.

To quote from my article a year ago, “It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, ‘Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.’”

I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. And I don’t mind doing that, as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say.

If you don’t defend free speech now because your ox isn’t currently being gored, to coin a phrase, then no one will be there to defend you when it is. And revolutions always come back to bite the head off. Look at what happened to Robespierre during the French Revolution. It’s like that quote from Martin Neimoller during World War II: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

My mind hasn’t changed in the last the year. And now here are Jonathan and Elaine to talk about the issue:

***

     Jonathan Brown: 

Jonathan was born and raised in Vancouver British Colombia. He works as a writer, fitness trainer and drum instructor. His Lou Crasher mysteries recently landed him a two book deal with Down and Out Books. The first novel: The Big Crescendo is slated to be released in early 2019 and the follow up: Don't Shoot the Drummer will be released in 2020. Brown has also written a fictional biography about the life of boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee. The book: Angelo Dundee, a Boxing Trainer's Journey is published by The Mentoris Group and will be released in December 2018. Jonathan and his lovely wife Sonia enjoy life in sunny south Los Angeles. jonathanbrownwriter.com

Dude? Why So Sensitive?

When Paul was gracious enough to offer me a chance to weigh in on the ‘sensitivity reader’ issue I said, “Sign me up, please.” For those new to this phenomenon a sensitivity reader is someone hired by a publisher to read manuscripts with an eye sensitive to one particular race, religion or gender and so on. While the publisher’s heart may be in the right place or if the publisher simply wants to avoid a lawsuit, I think the practice is not only superfluous but also dangerous. Dangerous might be a little extreme, let’s say asinine instead.

Here’s where this jazz is headed. The sensitivity reader(s) will essentially be the politically correct police. The potential to take what might be the next great American novel and water it down to Disney meets Hallmark on Mr. Roger’s front porch is huge. For example, Writer X has a vigilante ex-gangbanger as the anti-hero. He enters the warehouse and finds the banger that killed his family. He raises the Sig Sauer. He closes one eye and lines up the enemy down the gun sight. Finally, he shall have his revenge. As a parting phrase the avenger says, “You’re a dead person of color with ancestry dating back to ancient sub-Saharan Africa!” As opposed to: “You’re a dead nigga!” Pop, Pop, Pop.

Under the sensitivity cop regime urban gang bangers won’t use authentic dialog; terrorists will be of a fictitious ethnicity (thus being limited to Science Fiction) and although books will still have steamy sex scenes the party engaging in coitus shall be genderless—out of fairness to the gendered. Can you imagine? Try this scene:

“Hey baby, want to get it on?”

“Sure, if you’ll just put your—”

“Don’t say it. I can’t wait to feel your—”

“No, don’t say it!”

And so the participants put their matching or perhaps mismatching parts together and…did it. 

The End

Can you feel the heat? No? Yeah, me either. I’m rarely the slippery-slope-guy and I’m truly weary of the expression but I must say the incline will become pretty slick here if we engage in this sensitivity reader censorship parade. And what, may I ask makes a sensitivity reader? How does one become one? Is there a questionnaire? The bigger question for me is why have we stopped trusting our own judgment? Don’t we all have some measure of built-in common sense about sensitivity? I say we do, if I may be so bold as to answer my own question.

If a manuscript becomes ‘green lit’ by a publisher that means an agent and possibly her assistant has read the manuscript. Then, let’s toss in two to four low-level readers at the publishing house and cap this off with one or two of the top brass readers.  Do you mean to tell me that from agent’s assistant to top Banana none of those cats know what is basically offensive and what’s not? I call bullshit. As members of society we all know what is basically offensive but now we’re too afraid to say it, so let’s put it on the sensitivity reader…yeah that guy. Phew, thank god we now have a scapegoat if this thing goes south, right? Grow up people.

If this castration of the arts by ‘sensitivity cop’ flies then Noir literature will become beige, Romance will have gender sensitive sex scenes (which I suppose means all genders will have an orgy all at once, what with inclusion and all…hmm) and Horror films will no longer have the ominous black cat, they will have to be Tabbys, Siamese or Ginger cats…which will be referred to as: orange hued. Imagine:

As I walked down the dark alley I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a six- month old tabby cross my path. It was then that I knew…I…was…doomed! (Insert wolf howl sound effect!)

Let art be art. It’s a good thing the sensitivity cops didn’t tell Picasso how to paint, and didn’t instruct Beethoven to avoid all minor keys and thank god they didn’t force Harper Lee to make the accused, Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mocking Bird a white-male primary school teacher with a sunny disposition.

***

     Elaine Ash:

Elaine Ash edits fiction writers—from established authors to emerging talent. She works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals.  www.bestsellermetrics.com

The Right to Write

When Paul asked me to throw my hat in the ring for a post on free speech and sensitivity readers, I gulped. Navigating these topics can be as delicate as tucking a hand grenade inside a wasp’s nest. But, admittedly, I’ve brought this on myself, since I take pride in freedom of speech and feel strongly about the right to write.

One way to look at sensitivity readers is simply as a new layer of vetting that writers must hurdle when they submit to Big 5 publishers. First, let’s refresh  on what some famed writers have had to say about protecting artistic integrity.

“Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.”
― Neil Gaiman

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
― Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
― Oscar Wilde

Taken in context with these quotes, the picture of a sensitivity reader redlining a literary opus looks as clunky as jackboots on a ballerina. Add on that the average pay of a sensitivity reader is $250 per manuscript, and it seems impossible that anyone paid this low could influence a billion dollar-plus industry and force millionaire writers to change their work—but they are.

Do Sensitivity Readers Affect You?

First you have to look at your target publishers. There are sensitive and not-so-sensitive publishers. In general, sensitive would be Big 5 and their imprints; non-sensitive would be medium and small indie publishers. Big 5 science fiction and fantasy publishers trend “sensitive.” YA and children’s markets likewise.

Mystery and crime-related genres have strongly resisted sensitivity. In fact, noir and transgressive genres are expected to be offensive—that’s how they make a larger point. But agents have recently confided to me that it’s getting harder and harder to sell mystery fiction. Does this have to do with sensitivity bias? I suspect so, but have no figures to back up that claim other than the frontline reports of literary agents. In other words, publisher demand has constricted, and I suspect that it’s not for lack of the buying public—it’s because publishers fear backlash and boycotts. (More about this later.)

S-readers are not called in on 100% of manuscripts, but if a publisher sees that a writer of one ethnicity might be writing a character of another ethnicity, they will call on an S-reader to vet the manuscript. The problem with this is pretty obvious. Since the original writer isn’t reporting fact but creating art to make a larger point, the original intent of the art may become skewed. Want to check the rules to make sure you get them right? Err, that could be a problem. There is no sensitivity readers guild to consult, and no published compilation of guidelines.

A Case in Point

Science fiction/fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal has killed projects over negative feedback from sensitivity readers.  http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/sensitivity-readers/   The problem with this tactic is that the rules she’s trying so hard to abide by are not set in stone, they’re not law. They’re merely someone’s opinion, and opinions change. The court of public opinion can change with the day of the week. Is it even possible to write something that offends no one? I suppose so. The greater question is, Is it possible to write something that offends no one that is worth reading? Stories are supposed to disturb, instigate, provoke thought. That comes with the risk of offense.

What sensitivity readers are really all about comes down, in the end, to cold hard cash, as everything in business does. Looking at a hot topic through the cool lense of business is a way to bring practicality to the subject. If a publisher is afraid that they may become the target of an angry boycott, they’ll do everything possible to avoid it. Until recently, these boycotts had real power. But the recent trend is “boycott backlash” where the boycott-ee suffers a drop-off from advertisers, and then receives a sympathy bump from purchasers who disagree with the boycott. It reminds me of when banning books was all the rage. It only made them more popular. What people are told they can’t have, they make special efforts to get.

Sidestep the Time Wasters

My purview is not to make a case for S-readers or against them. I’m here to point out navigation tactics. As I write this, tens of thousands of manuscripts are waiting for Big 5 vetting when some of them could be sailing into medium-sized publishers and landing deals without added delay.

If you are a first-time author, my advice is to go for a smaller publisher to land your edgy material. If you are an established author looking to make the leap to Big 5, you’d have the best bet with a fairly controversy-free manuscript from the race or gender aspect. “White savior writing” is a thing, and sensitivity readers are rejecting it. Google the term and read about it for yourself.

Meanwhile, many mystery and crime readers are looking for gritty authenticity, using nomenclature that coincides with a hardboiled PI or criminal.  Already, you can see how S-readers may chill the edgy, provocative material that underscores much of the best mystery writing.

Express Yourself

As an editor, I’m about preserving the integrity of the writer’s vision, intent, art and freedom to write. I am not a censor for political correctness. For example, I’m horrified by third-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin’s contention that every act of sex is an act of rape. Would I edit a story with a character in it who held that belief? Most definitely. I’m not a censor, I’m an editor. My job is to preserve the writer’s vision, even if I disagree with it.

My best advice is to avoid writing to trends and never write to satisfy sensitivity readers. Take my client Chrome Oxide, winner of two coveted Writers of the Future awards. He’s a humorist making fun of big government and bureaucracy—using the sci-fi and fantasy genres as a backdrop. He came to me thinking there was zero chance of getting a publisher—self-publishing would be his only option. But there are so many alternative publishers now for everything from comic books to novels, that a good agent, or an editor wearing many hats like me, can find a market.

If your agent says there’s no market for what you’ve written, it’s time to get another agent. For Chrome Oxide I had to go to Superversive Press out of Australia, but the terms were the best I’d seen anywhere. The terms almost made me cry, they were so beautiful. This publisher really, really wanted Chrome’s material.

Only you can assess where your manuscript and platform as a writer stand in terms of attractiveness to publishers who assess writers through sensitivity vetting. It’s a big world with many markets. Ultimately, what does not sell will take a diminished place in the market and readers will find what they’re looking for.

Bottom line, you must write who you are and what makes you tick, not what you guess sensitivity readers will approve. Express yourself freely and then find the market that matches your angle. It’s out there waiting if you look.

***

      Thank you Jonathan and Elaine. And here's my/Paul's previous post:

Here’s the pertinent part from my earlier article (see link above):

And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-publishers-hiring-book-readers-to-flag-sensitivity-20170215-story.html

After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”

And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”


The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

***
     In conclusion:

So there you have it, three arguments for freedom of speech.


~.~.~

I’m thrilled – I’m Doubly Thrilled – to announce that my short story “Windward,” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes fromSea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and me) is nominated for a Best Short Story Shamus Award – and that the anthology as a whole is nominated for a Best Anthology Anthony Award. Thank you to everyone involved!



~.~.~

My Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat was re-released on May 21st by Down & Out Books. It’s available now on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a "...taut crime yarn."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



22 November 2016

JFK, the Beatles and the Beginning of the Sixties


by Paul D. Marks

What were we doing fifty-three years ago and a day from today? As a country, many of us were listening to and/or watching Alan Sherman, Victor Borge, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, Bobby Darin, the Dick Van Dyke show, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Ben Casey, Leslie Gore, Peter Paul and Mary, Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Jan and Dean, Vaughn Meader, and Jose Jimenez (yes, I know, but that was then and this is now). And more.

On November 21, 1963, four guys did a gig at the ABC Cinema, Carlisle, England. In the summer and fall of 1963, a young folk singer was recording his third album, but still not too many people were aware of him outside of a small circle of friends (to paraphrase another Sixties folk singer). Some people might have known some of his songs as done by other people, but they didn’t really know him…yet.

The President and his wife spent the day in Fort Worth. A loser and lost soul spent the night at Ruth Paine’s home, a friend of his.

As the sun came up the next day, November 22, 1963, everything seemed fine.  A group called the Beatles released With the Beatles in England, but they’d yet to make their mark on this side of the pond. And that folk singer, Bob Dylan, was a long way off from his Nobel Prize.

And then it all went to hell.

JFK said, “If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's.” Unfortunately this was a prophetic statement. Someone was crazy enough.

There’s been a lot written about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I doubt I can add much to it. Some say it was the end of innocence for the country. The country went into a deep depression after his death. We started slipping waist deep into the big muddy. The 60s happened: protests, riots, hippies, counter culture, the Summer of Love, Woodstock , Altamont.

So where was I that winter day in 1963? I was a school safety, standing in a hallway monitoring student “traffic”.

***

“Stop, don’t run,” I shouted to some kid charging down the hall, wearing my AAA safety badge on
my arm. He slowed down, but I could hear him hard-charge again as soon as he rounded the corner, out of my sight. I could have given him a written demerit, but chose not to. I guess I was in a good mood. Either that or I hadn’t yet learned the power trip that the badge could give me.

A few minutes later, he ran back down the hall. I was already getting my little ticket book out when he shouted, “The President’s dead.” I dropped the book in dazed silence.

In class later, the principal’s voice came over the tinny sounding loudspeaker. “I have the bad fortune to announce that President Kennedy has been shot.” A collective gasp escaped through the room. Even Jamie Badger (name changed to protect the guilty), the class bad boy, was stunned long enough to stop making spitballs. The principal continued, “It’s unknown what his condition is, though it’s thought that he’s still alive.”

But we found out that wasn’t the case after all.

We were young, but that didn’t stop us from being stunned. Even the boys cried. Teachers tried to control themselves, they had to keep it together for their students. Mary Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) nearly collapsed in my arms – she was the first girl who’d ever sent me a love note.

That long weekend and week that followed the assassination, my parents and I (and my younger brothers to a lesser extent) were glued to the television, as was the rest of the country. LBJ taking the oath of office. The capture of Oswald. Speculation on the whys and wherefores and whos. John-John saluting as the caisson carrying his father rolled by. Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. Conspiracy theories forming.

So we watched in silence as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there were no psychologists, no shrinks to salve our wounds. It was like landing in Oz, only to find the Wicked Witch of the East in control in the dark, forbidding forest of snarled trees and flying monkeys. And we hung our heads. And we cried. I cried. And we didn’t know where we were heading on that cold day in November, 1963.

***

The very popular Vaughn Meader, who’d made a living and career impersonating JFK and the First Family, was out of a job. And we were out of laughter and joy. No more touch football on the White House lawn. No more pill box hats and white gloves. And somehow none of our backyard barbecues would taste as good or as sweet for a long, long time to come, if ever.

Here's a YouTube video of Vaughn Meader.

We needed something to buoy our spirits through the dark winter months of 1963/64. And for many of us that something came on February 9, 1964 in the form of those four mop tops from Liverpool and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which was most people’s first exposure to them. My dad called me into the den to watch and I’ve been hooked ever since. But they helped a good part of the country bounce back, at least a little, from the events of a couple of months before, with their effervescent sound, happy music and wit. So at least for a while we could forget about the darkness in our hearts.



It’s hard to say when one decade begins and another one ends or vice versa, because the zeitgeist of the times doesn’t necessarily coincide with the years that end in zero. But I think the Sixties really began with those two events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and it ended with Watergate in 1973.

Several year later, when I was in DC, I made a side trip to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia in part to see JFK’s grave (see photo). I know Kennedy wasn’t perfect and Camelot wasn’t all that, but seeing the memorial made me remember a time when there was hope and optimism and maybe even a sense of innocence.



So, what were you doing 53 years ago, if you were around?

***

And now for something not quite completely different: My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is in the brand new, hot off the presses December 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Get ’em while you can. And if you like the story, maybe you’ll remember it for the Ellery Queen Readers Award (the ballot for which is at the end of this issue), and others. Thanks.



Oh, and that is, of course, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast. And more on this in a future blog.

www.PaulDMarks.com

22 November 2011

November Twenty Second


 By Dale C. Andrews




    Sometimes I have to think long and hard to come up with a theme for Tuesdays.  Not so today.  Today is November 22nd.  That alone should be enough, but this year Stephen King has weighed in to make the task even easier.

    I would hazard a guess that anyone much over 50 – and some quite a bit younger – brood their way through this day each year.   We remember where we were when we heard.  We ruminate over “what if” scenarios.  Today is a day haunted by the memories of grainy black and white photos, horrors on the front pages of newspapers.  It’s a day to puzzle over how things could have gone that terribly wrong.

     Certainly, if you are of an age, it’s a day when you remember where you were back in 1963, what you were doing when Walter Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced to a stunned nation what had happened in Dallas.  There are other days like this – 9/11 is one – when a watershed was crossed, when the world tilted a little on its axis and then never again spun quite the same.  Those days, thankfully, are few.  But that is one of the reasons that we brood each year when they roll around.

     On the rock of our obsession with this date Stephen King has built his new novel, 11/22/63.  A very different writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, once wrote that there is never a great loss without a little gain, and that is true here.  Out of this day, which shall always be dark, we have gained a fine novel from Stephen King, a novel that explores the “what ifs” that have haunted us for the past 48 years.

    Let’s take a deep breath and, at least for a while, step back from today’s date and focus for a while more generally on the amazing Mr. King.  By my count, since breaking into the publishing world in 1974 with Carrie, Stephen King has published 61 books – mostly novels, but also short story collections and nonfiction volumes. 

     The first Stephen King book for me was The Shining.  I bought it back in 1978 after hearing the paperback edition advertised on the radio.  I read about 100 pages the first night, and then found myself completely unable to concentrate at  work the next day because all I could think about was the story.  That night I stayed up until the small hours of the morning and finished the book.  I had to do this in order to get my life back – that is how intense the story was for me. 

    Since that day in 1978 I have read everything that Stephen King has written.  Yep, every one of those 61 books.  But while I am a stalwart Stephen King fan I am also an inveterate critic.  Like many readers, and probably like most teachers, I tend to grade books as I read them.  To my mind King has offered up some solid “A’s”, including The Shining, The Stand (particularly the longer uncut version published in 1990), It and the Gunslinger series.  My entirely subjective grading system also awards some “A-‘s,” including, among others, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Carrie, and Salems Lot.  But recent works by King, aside from the later Gunslinger volumes, I generally relegate to no better than the “B” range, and there are some that for me fall below that line.  Tommyknockers, gets a C-, as does Insomnia and Cell

The Colorado Kid (sorry about that, Stephen) is lucky to get a D.   I mean, really – a “fair play” mystery plot where the crime is never solved?  In an afterword to The Colorado Kid, King wrote that people will either love the ending or hate it. "I think for many people, there'll be no middle ground on this one . . . .”  Well, that’s right – there wasn’t one for me!

    Others may compile the grade list differently, but from my perspective (since, after all, it is my list) one of the obvious conclusions is that, with the exception of the later Gunslinger volumes, King’s best books, at least my personal favorites, are generally found among his earlier works.  I am not the only one who has speculated that in recent years King may have been just a bit burned out. Ttake a look, for example, at the parody of King that was on Family Guy a few years back.   Perhaps this is because King used his best ideas, the ones that really grabbed him, early on, and then just ran out of really great ones.  When this happens to many of us who are, or who aspire to be, writers we experience writers’ block.  We produce nothing.  Not so, with King, however.  By all observation the man is the energizer bunny of authors.  He keeps going, and going, and going.  When his publisher ordered him to slow down, telling him that he could not continue to write at the pace of more than one book per year, King famously invented Richard Bachman and used that alter ego to drop another seven books into the book stores.  But while the work ethic is admirable, the process has, as discussed above, produced some lesser gems.

    The purpose of the foregoing digression?  Well, I guess it's two-fold.  First, not every Stephen King book is great.  And second, I hand out "A's" pretty sparingly.  12/22/63, however, gets a solid "A."

     So now lets return to today, November 22, and to King’s latest novel.  I have not finished 11/22/63 as of this writing.  This is because I am savoring it, parceling it out in measured doses, like Christmas candies.  All criticism is subjective, but to my mind 11/22/63 is the kind of King novel that we have not seen in years.  There is nothing "phoned in" here, nor is the story a forced effort by King to write "a Stephen King book."   In fact, there is very little that is supernatural about this story.  11/22/63 reads almost like it wrote itself, its premise is a stampede, and King, like the rest of us, is bouncing along trying to do whatever he can to control those horses.   Such mad rides are the best rides.

    And why is this?  Why does this book work so well?  I suspect that it is because once King came up with the premise of 11/22/63 it was a story that he had to tell.  What a difference it makes when the force driving the narrative is one that has completely grabbed the author's imagination.  When that happens writing will not be forced, it will flow on its own.  King's premise of a protagonist presented with an opportunity to go back in time, to live from 1958 through 1963 and to then attempt to right the horrific wrong of November 22 obviously resonated for the author in a way that other story ideas just did not.  King works hard in  his novels to make the characters live and breathe, but the result can  sometimes come  across as a bit forced.  Not so with those who populate 11/22/63.  They invariably ring true, and I suspect that this is so simply because, the story itself must have become so  real to King as he wrote it that character development flowed naturally.  I suspect Stephen King was as carried away writing this book as his readers will be reading it. 

The back cover of 11/22/63
    In his column last Friday my colleague Dixon Hill wrote an incisive and poignant article on happy endings.  And as Dixon concluded, happy endings generally are not Stephen King’s forte.  I have already noted that I have yet to finish  11/22/63, so I do not know how happy or unhappy the ending ultimately will prove to be.  And, of course, even if I did know the nature of that ending I would not share it here – no spoilers from me! 

     But it is not a spoiler to reproduce the back cover of the novel.  And from that back cover one must conclude that, at least as to November 22, 1963, Stephen King, like the rest of us, has spent a good deal of time thinking about the possibility of a happier ending.

     The possibility of putting a better end to November 22,  a day that left us all older though not necessarily wiser, was in any event the apparent spark that inspired a great read from Mr. King. Hearkening back to Laura Ingalls Wilder's advice, we might as well be thankful for that small gain, even though it has sprung from our greater loss.