Showing posts with label To Kill a Mockingbird. Show all posts
Showing posts with label To Kill a Mockingbird. Show all posts

10 September 2016

A Question of Empathy: The Social Scientists, The Poet, and the Mystery Reader

by B.K. Stevens

Two scholars at the New School for Social Research published an article about literature and empathy last month, full of bad news for mystery readers. If you belong to Sisters in Crime and saw the most recent SinC Links, you may have noticed the references to "Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing." The authors, David Kidd and Emanuelle Castano, say people who read novels by authors such as Alice Walker and Vladimir Nabakov excel on a test of "theory of mind," indicating they have superior abilities "to infer and understand others' thoughts and feelings." Such readers are likely to be characterized by "empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups." Readers of mysteries and other genre fiction don't do as well on the test. So apparently we're an obtuse, hardhearted, selfish bunch, and we don't play well with others.

This is grim stuff. And maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. I made myself read the whole study--and let me tell you, the experience didn't do wonders for my levels of empathy. Kidd and Castano don't actually say genre readers suffer from all those problems. In fact, they speculate that reading any kind of fiction may do some good. But they definitely think reading literary fiction does more good than reading genre fiction does. Literary fiction, they say, has complex, round characters, and that "prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters' mental states." Genre fiction relies on flat, stock characters and therefore doesn't encourage readers to develop comparable levels of mental agility and emotional insight. The authors discuss other differences, too--for example, they say literary fiction features "multiple plot lines" and challenges "routine or rigid ways of thinking," while genre fiction is characterized by "formulaic plots" and encourages "conventional thinking." I won't try to summarize all their arguments. It would take too long, and it would get too depressing.

I will say a little--only a little--about their research methods. To distinguish between literary readers and genre readers, Kidd and Castano put together a long list of names--some literary authors, some genre authors, some non-authors--and asked participants to check off the names with which they were familiar. People who checked off more names of literary authors were classified as readers of literary fiction, and--well, you get the idea. To determine levels of empathy and other good things, Kidd and Castano had participants take the "reading the mind in the eyes" test: Participants looked at pictures that showed only people's eyes, looked at four adjectives (for example, "scared," "anxious," "encouraging," and "skeptical"), and chose the adjective that best described the expression in the pictured eyes. Participants identified as readers of literary fiction did a better job of matching eyes with adjectives. Therefore, they're more empathetic and perceptive than readers of genre fiction.

It's not hard to spot problems with these research methods. Scottish crime writer Val McDermid does a shrewd, funny job of that in a piece also mentioned in SinC Links. (Among other things, Val says she took the "reading the eyes in the mind" test and got thirty-three out of thirty-six right, beating the average score of twenty-four. Just for fun, I took the test, too, and scored thirty-four. That may prove I'm one point more empathetic than Val. Or it may prove the test is silly.) And of course decisions about which authors are "literary" and which are "genre" can be subjective. Kidd and Castano talk about how they wavered about the right category for Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny won a Pulitzer Prize, so maybe Wouk's a literary author. On the other hand, some critics accuse Mutiny of "upholding conventional ideas and values," so maybe he's merely genre. (Kidd and Castano never consider the question of whether a knee-jerk rejection of all ideas and values currently judged "conventional" might sometimes reflect a lack of insight and empathy. Is sympathy for people who devote their lives to military service automatically shallow and nasty? Is portraying an intellectual as a fraud never justified?)


As for their method of classifying participants as either "literary readers" or "genre readers," I recognized the names of almost all the authors on both lists. I've heard of James Patterson--most people have--but I've never read a book of his; I don't think I've sampled a single page. With many other authors (both "literary" and "genre"), I've read a few pages, a few chapters, or a single story, and then I've put the book  aside and never picked it up again. Recognizing an author's name isn't evidence of a preference for a certain kind of fiction. For heaven's sake, how many people make it through middle school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird? So how does checking off Harper Lee's name on a list indicate a preference for literary fiction? (For that matter, some might argue To Kill a Mockingbird is crime fiction, and Lee therefore belongs on the genre list. It could be that Kidd and Castano consider crime fiction that's well written literary. If so, that's sort of stacking the deck against genre--if a work of genre fiction is really good, it no longer counts as genre.)

It may be--and I'm certainly not the first person to suggest this--that social science's methods aren't ideally suited to analyzing literature, or to determining its effects on our minds and souls. Social science, by its nature, seeks to quantify things in exact terms. Maybe literature and its effects can't be quantified. Maybe attempts to measure some things exactly are more likely to lead us astray than to enlighten us. As Aristotle says in Book I of the Ethics, "it is the mark of an educated [person] to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

If social scientists can't help us understand the connection between literature and empathy, who can? Perhaps a poet. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "A Defense of Poetry" in response to a friend's largely playful charge that poetry is useless and fails to promote morality. I think we can apply what Shelley says about poetry to fiction, including genre fiction. After all, Shelley declares that "the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error," and he considers Plato, Francis Bacon, and "all the authors of revolutions in opinion" poets. So why not Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammet?

I'm going to quote several sentences from "A Defense of Poetry," and I'm not going to make Shelley's choice of nouns and pronouns politically correct. I tinkered with Aristotle's words a bit--it's a translation, so tinkering felt more permissible. But I'll give you Shelley's words (and his punctuation) without amendment:
The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. . . . The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
As far as I know, Shelley compiled no lists, administered no tests, and analyzed no statistics. Even so, there may be more wisdom in these few sentences than in any number of studies churned out by the New School for Social Research, at least when it comes to wisdom about literature.

For Shelley, literature's crucial moral task is to take us out of ourselves. Most of us spend much of our time focusing on our own problems and feelings. When we read, we get caught up in a character's problems and feelings for a while, seeing things through that character's eyes and sharing his or her emotions. This vicarious experience is temporary, but Shelley says it does us lasting good. I like his comparison of reading and physical exercise. Working out at a gym makes our muscles stronger, and that means we're better able to handle any physical tasks and challenges we may encounter. Reading gives our imaginations a workout and makes them stronger. If we feel the humanity in the characters we read about, we're more likely to recognize the humanity in the people we meet. Will we therefore be kinder to them and try harder to make sure they're treated justly? Shelley thinks so.

But won't literary fiction, with all its round, complex characters, give our imaginations a more vigorous workout than genre fiction will? To agree to that, we'd have to agree to Kidd and Castano's generalizations about literary and genre fiction, and I think many of us would hesitate to do so. Yes, the characters in many mysteries are pretty flat, but couldn't the same be said of the characters in many works of literary fiction? Val McDermid challenges some of Kidd and Castano's central assumptions about literary and genre fiction, and I think she makes some persuasive arguments. I won't repeat those here, or get into the question of to what extent current distinctions between "literary" and "genre" have lasting validity, and to what extent they reflect merely contemporary and perhaps somewhat elitist preferences. (Would Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and other still-admired authors be considered "literary" if they hadn't been lucky enough to die before the current classifications slammed into place? Would they be consigned to the junk heap of genre if they were writing today? But I said I wouldn't get into that. I'll stop.)

I'll raise just one question. Shelley says that to be "greatly good," we must imagine not only "intensely" but also "comprehensively," identifying with "many others." If he's right, fiction that introduces us to a wide variety of characters and encourages us to identify with them may exercise our imaginations more effectively than fiction that limits its sympathies to a narrower range of characters.

Generalizations are dangerous, and I'm neither bold enough nor well read enough to propose even tentative generalizations about literary and genre fiction. (And when I say "genre," I really mean "mystery," because I know almost nothing about other types of fiction currently classified as "genre"--though I've read and admired some impressive urban fantasy lately.) All I'll say is that I'm not sure all contemporary literary fiction encourages readers to empathize with many different sorts of characters. Most of the recent literary fiction I've read seems to limit sympathy to intellectual characters with the right tastes and the right opinions. Even if the central character is a concierge from a lower-class background (probably, many of you will recognize the novel I'm talking about), she has to be an autodidact who's managed to develop tastes for classical music, Russian literature, and Eastern art, who turns her television on only to trick her bourgeois employers into thinking she fits their stereotypes. Two other characters who are portrayed in a positive way, a troubled adolescent girl and a wealthy Japanese gentleman, are in many respects variations on the concierge, with similar tastes and opinions; most of the other characters in the novel invite our disdain rather than our sympathy. How often does contemporary literary fiction encourage us to empathize with characters such as a concierge who actually enjoys television, reads romances, and adores Garth Brooks and Thomas Kinkade? George Eliot could have portrayed that sort of character in a genuinely empathetic way. I don't know if many authors of recent literary fiction would have much interest in doingso.

I think some--not all, certainly, but some--genre fiction encourages us to extend our sympathies further. I think many mysteries, for example, introduce us to a variety of characters, including characters who aren't necessarily intellectuals, flawed characters we might be tempted to shun in our day-to-day lives. Mysteries can help us identify with people who have made bad choices and taken wrong turns, with victims, with people caught in the middle, with people determined to set things right, with people who feel overwhelmed by circumstances. I can't cite any studies to support my suggestions, but I think the best mysteries, by portraying a wide range of characters and nudging us to participate in their lives, might give our imaginations a robust workout and help us become more empathetic.

Mysteries can even help us empathize with criminals. That's ironic, in a way, because some social science studies argue criminals are marked by an inability to empathize. Then again, other social science studies challenge those studies, and still other studies--but maybe we shouldn't get into all that. Maybe we should just pick up a favorite mystery and start reading. I bet it'll do us good.


Next week at this time, many of us will be at Bouchercon. Just briefly, I'll mention some SleuthSayers nominated for Anthony awards. Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise, a remarkable example of a mystery that encourages us to empathize with a wide variety of characters, is a finalist for Best First Novel. Art also edited Murder under the Oaks, a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; both Rob Lopresti and I are lucky enough to have stories in that one. And my Fighting Chance is a finalist for Best Young Adult Novel. If you're so inclined, you can read the first chapter here. Hope to see you in New Orleans!


28 February 2016

Harper Lee and Alabama

by Dale C. Andrews
Sign in front of the Harper Lee Museum, Monroeville, Alabama 
(From FiveThirtyEight; attributed to Andrea Mabry, AP)
Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides.
                         Me                                                                      SleuthSayers
                         January 31, 2016
You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 
Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
                                                                 Harper Lee 
                                                                 To Kill a Mockingbird 

       One month ago I drove south through the State of Alabama, and as always I thought of Harper Lee when we passed just east of Monroeville, her Alabama refuge for most of her life and the model for the Alabama town of Maycomb, in which To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman take place. It was while I was in Alabama last year that it was announced that Go Set a Watchman, a book that took most of us completely by surprise, would be published. And now this year, during our annual month in Alabama, Harper Lee has passed.  Tomorrow we leave.  But again this year I have spent a lot of time here thinking about Harper Lee, her two books, and what they teach us about Alabama.

       Harper Lee rarely gave interviews. But in one of the few that she did give she had this to say back in 1964:
I would like . . . to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world.
All told Harper Lee left us only two novels -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Publication of the latter volume was the catalyst for a lot of criticism. That criticism, both literary and ad hominem, is familiar to most readers and need not be regurgitated here. But I would argue (in fact, I have argued) that the two volumes, comprising virtually all of Harper Lee’s literary output, tell us a lot about Harper Lee’s Alabama, and much of what she tells us remains true today. 

       For most of my life I never set foot in Alabama. But in each of the last five years my wife and I have spent the month of February in the State, hunkered down in a rented condominium in Gulf Shores overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We first made this trip at the urging of my wife’s sisters, who had already discovered Gulf Shores, which is convenient to their Midwest homes. They were hardly alone in this discovery -- the stretch of South Alabama has become a flocking ground for so-called “snowbirds,” since it offers a very reasonable retreat from the weather extremes that roll across the nation several hundred miles to the north. This small strip of Alabama shoreline is not as warm as Florida, but is more reasonably priced, enticing us northerners to trade a few degrees of warmth for several dollars of savings. 

       So, what’s not to like?  Well, there is that little problem of history and its imprints.

       The United States has a large footprint, and its many regions have spawned many sub cultures, some of which tend to divide us. So I will admit that when my wife and I first considered re-locating here for the month of February I approached the possibility with a significant degree of historical trepidation. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which certainly is not the liberal bastion of my present home in Washington, D.C. But even in St. Louis, in the 1950s and 1960s of my childhood, Alabama was a place we looked at uncomprehendingly and, well, a bit aghast. From afar we watched the civil rights marches and riots on our television news.  We watched George Wallace’s defiant confrontation with Federal marshals as he attempted to block the doorway to the registrar’s office on the steps of the University of Alabama. 

       All of this had an effect. It was easy -- very easy -- to conclude that while we were far from perfect, these angry folks digging in their heels against racial equality were still uncomfortably different from us. We couldn't figure them out and, indeed, we really did not want to.  My father, I remember, vowed never to set foot in the state. Mississippi either. But today we are talking Alabama. 

      All of this was pretty deeply ingrained in me that first time, five years ago, that I drove south to Alabama. But just as life presents many faces, so, too, does Alabama. Driving south down Interstate 65 the occasional Confederate flag flying by the side of the highway was, in each case, both a confirmation of what I already expected and also off-putting. In contrast, the people we encountered were uniformly charming, gracious and inviting. Alabama’s stories, like all of ours, are complex.

       Here are two. 

       On our first trip to Gulf Shores I wandered into a liquor store on West Beach Boulevard to purchase some scotch. There were no large bottles of Dewars, my favorite brand, on display and I asked the manager if he had any in the back. Shaking his head he apologized, telling me that their stock was a bit low since February was still off season. Then, smiling, he told me to just pick up two smaller bottles and he would knock a few bucks off. Wow, I thought. Never had that happen before. When I brought the two bottles up to checkout the manager pulled a bottle of single malt scotch from under the counter. “This is my favorite,” he said. He then produced two glasses, poured a finger in each, and handed one to me. I picked up the proffered glass and, at 10:30 in the morning we sipped scotch together and talked about the weather and good places to purchase seafood. When I finally got back to the car my wife, waiting patiently inside, asked where I had been for such a long time. “Drinking scotch with my new best friend,” I replied. 

       But then there is this:  On that same trip one evening we went to dinner at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, a Gulf Shores restaurant popular for its southern charm and local fare. As we ate our dinner we became aware of a woman seated at a nearby table.  Indeed, she couldn't be ignored.  In a voice loud enough to make clear that her words were intended to reach beyond her immediate dinner party we (and many others) heard the following harangue:  “Things have gotten so bad,” she hectored, for all to hear, “that in Washington they went and passed a secret Constitutional amendment making it legal for a black man from Kenya to be president.” 

       Each of these stories is Alabama. 

       For years now I have enjoyed the warmth of the sun and of the people here in Gulf Shores. Everyone is uniformly friendly. Smiles abound. But just as Sherlock Holmes famously observed in the context of the dog that did not bark in the night, we need to pay attention to what is present and also to what may be absent.  I never noticed this at first, but it eventually struck me that in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, fish markets, liquor stores and souvenir shops that I have visited in and around Gulf Shores over the years all of the employees that I recall encountering have been Caucasian. Just like in that Sherlock Holmes story, when you recognize the absence, well, it can tell you a lot.  And that is yet another Alabama story.

       As noted at the outset of this piece, Harper Lee was subjected to a good deal of criticism last year when Go Tell a Watchman was published. Many critics could not abide the contrasting portrayals of Atticus Finch that Lee’s two books offered up. How can we square the paragon of Mockingbird with the segregationist of Watchman? Like Alabama, the answer to that question is complex. 

     The two Harper Lee passages at the top of this piece illustrate the dual, and at times conflicting perspectives that the author brought to her life view and to her writing. She balanced the competing tasks of understanding those around her while at the same time judging those characters, and herself, by her own conscience. While some have been critical of Watchman, and its portrayal of Atticus, it seems to me that we need both books to understand Harper Lee and her complicated verdict on Alabama.

       It is Mockingbird that allows us to understand the conscience of Atticus, what Harper Lee identified as “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule.” But it is Watchman that reminds us that for all of this Atticus was still a son of Alabama. As Harper Lee explained, you cannot understand anyone, even Atticus, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Climbing into that skin is Watchman. Abiding by your own conscience is To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are Atticus and both are Alabama. Harper Lee could understand, and love without condoning.

       In the wake of Harper Lee's death the statistical website FiveThirtyEight posted an article this week summarizing the historical demographics of Harper Lee’s town, Monroeville.  The article concluded that little there has really changed over the years.  The 1930s, when Mockingbird was set, appears to be not all that different from the the 1960s, when the novel was published, and not all that different from today. I have never visited Monroeville.  But this sure sounds like Alabama. History leaves footprints, and they sometimes wash away very slowly. 

       Just after the prophet Isaiah uttered the words “go set a watchman” he continued with these: “Let him declare what he seeth.” That is what Harper Lee did when she wrote about Alabama.  And that is what she said she would do in that 1964 interview.

06 September 2015

Atticus?

by Dale C. Andrews
 "But that's another story." 
                       Rudyard Kipling 
                       Soldiers Three, The Story of the Gadsbys, 
                             In Black and White (1888)
"[T]his very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South's not ready for it . . . ."
                        Harper Lee
                        Go Set a Watchman (2015)
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed."
                        Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
                        per Justice Kennedy

       Last January as I drove south to Gulf Shores, Alabama, intent on leap-frogging February in Washington, D.C., I passed within scant miles of Monroeville, Alabama. And as I did so my mind wandered to Harper Lee, living there still in the town that was the model for Maycomb, Alabama, the setting in which her classic To Kill a Mockingbird is framed. And as we always do at that point in our drive, my wife and I reflected (as have many others) on the fact that for more than fifty years this Pulitzer Prize winning classic stood as the sole literary contribution of Harper Lee.

     How strange it was, then, several days later, to hear that there would be another; that a second volume, Go Set a Watchman, existed and would be published in July.
   
       News of Harper Lee’s second book set off a firestorm that would have been hard for anyone to ignore. Article after article questioned whether Lee, 88 years old, suffering the after effects of a stroke and confined to an assisted living facility, could have credibly made the decision to publish Go Set a Watchman after steadfastly asserting for over 50 years that there would never be another book. Predictably, since publication this summer, Go Set a Watchman has held the pole position on all of the bestseller lists. But, if anything, the debate surrounding the book has only increased. 

       Amidst all of this controversy it is interesting, however, to take a step back; to set aside the speculations concerning the book’s origin, Harper Lee’s present circumstances, and her earlier views as to whether it should be published, and instead examine the book itself and its place as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird

       Many of those who dismiss Go Set a Watchman argue that the book is nothing more than a first and very rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suspect that at least some of those critics have not in fact read Watchman. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, it is hardly a rough draft.  The book revolves around the characters we know from Mockingbird -- met, again, 20 years later -- but is a completely different story. In fact, one of the strangest aspects of Watchman is that it is not a first draft of Mockingbird -- the book presents as a sequel although it was in fact written before To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters in each either appear or are referenced in the other, and with one exception that I could find, the events in each book are entirely consistent with the events in the other. (I will leave it to readers to find that sole inconsistency, which could have been remedied by editing one paragraph in Watchman. A separate mystery is why that edit was not made.) 

The Monroeville, Alabama court house
       Stand back, then, and think how unlikely this is. From all reports Watchman was a rejected manuscript. Lee was, in effect, told that parts of the book were good, that the setting had promise, but that she needed to go back to the drawing board. All writers -- certainly all of us here at SleuthSayers, I suspect -- have received such advice. A “netherland” sort of letter, half way between acceptance and rejection. Invariably what the writer does in response to such a letter is to rip apart the story or novel, re-think the premise, keep what is usable and substitute new approaches for what is not. And equally invariably the final story or novel, if and when ultimately published, bears a resemblance to the first work that is no more, nor less, than that between a true first and second draft of the same story. 

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
       But that is not what Harper Lee did with Go Set a Watchman. Instead she set the first book aside, in its entirety, and fashioned a new narrative focusing on the same characters twenty years earlier. So positioned, Watchman becomes not the introduction of Scout and Atticus, but rather a reunion; a look at what happened to each.  And this fact forms the backbone for much of the published criticism of Go Set a Watchman: in the view of some the paragon that was Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is irreconcilable with the Atticus of Watchman, who in some respects displays feet of clay. 

       So: is this a legitimate complaint? Is the character of Atticus in Mockingbird so different from his portrayal in Watchman as to be unrecognizable as well as disappointing? I don't believe that this question can be answered solely by comparing the texts of each volume. Rather, it requires a recognition of the historical context of 1936 Alabama, where Mockingbird is set, and the Alabama of 1956, where we find 72 year old Atticus struggling with the then-recent decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which once and for all overturned the previous standard of “separate but equal” in favor of constitutionally mandated desegregation. 

       One of the easiest ways to gauge a fictional character’s believability is to ask ourselves, as readers, whether we know someone who, in like circumstances, would behave the same way. And specifically (in the context of Atticus) is the 1936 paragon of racial sensitivity portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird a believable early version of the 1956 Atticus, who displays some trepidations concerning the effects of the then accelerating march of desegregation brought on by the Supreme Court’s decision? My answer to this is a somewhat sad “yes.” 

       Most of the time social change and awakening moves at glacial speed, requiring slowly evolving adjustments in standards. Other times, for whatever reason, the speed of change can accelerate like a bonfire, however, plowing through existing societal mores and leaving new ones in the furrows. And at times the catalyst for such accelerating change can be a Supreme Court decision, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that overnight alters the rules for all.  For some, including Atticus, those times may present their own difficulties.

       The challenge that faced Atticus is one that history often serves up.  The most recent example of such an accelerating societal change is the wave of growing public acceptance for gay marriage in our country. According to the Gallup organization, in 1996 27 percent believed there should be a constitutional recognition of the rights of gay couples to marry.  By last spring the number favoring such unions was 60 percent -- an astoundingly fast social turnabout. And, like the cry for civil rights reform in the 1950s, this issue gained a catalyst this summer when the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges found a constitutional right for all to marry.

       To many (and count me in) the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing a constitutional foundation for the right of gays to marry was overdue and welcome. And, like its decision fifty years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court's gay rights decision required immediate changes in a context where matters were previously evolving at a more languid pace.  Most of us rode that accelerating wave of social change with pleasure. Certainly I did -- I’ll be helping to officiate at my son Colin’s wedding to his fiance Kyle next week. But for others the rapid evolution in public opinion, and the catalyst of the Supreme Court's recognition of a constitutional right, proved to be a challenge.

     Other historical examples of the reticence of some to accept social change abound. And, for me (as was also the case for Scout), some of these examples hit pretty close to home.  My maternal grandmother, a gentle and intelligent woman, in the 1950s would not eat in a restaurant if food had been prepared by a black person. My mother -- a liberal bordering on socialist -- by contrast would have none of this, and her social views (just like those of Scout) evolved rapidly as she distanced herself from the views of her mother.  But not so her younger sister, my aunt, who for the rest of her life embraced the bigoted views of her mother when it came to restaurants. 


        The fact that some come up short when confronted with social evolution is not limited to racial matters and the civil rights movement.  It is (sadly) true as a general matter that other forms of bigotry can be equally difficult for some to shed, particularly in a hurry.  History is replete with examples of religious intolerance, and again, these examples were not unfamiliar in my own family. My maternal grandfather, my mother’s father, spent much of 1960 asserting to anyone who would listen that if John F. Kennedy won the presidency the Pope would become the true president of the United States. I remember these harangues, and can attest that he did not mean this figuratively. He meant it literally. He viewed the entire campaign by John F. Kennedy as an orchestrated conspiracy by the Catholic church. 

       These folks, my grandparents, who otherwise displayed admirable traits, were caught with their own feet of clay when the world around them started to move at a speed to which they could no longer readily adjust. They had never contemplated that they would have to face a changed world. Not unlike the virtuous Atticus of 1936 -- the Atticus we know and love from Mockingbird -- who found himself hard pressed to adjust to the changes facing the south in 1956 after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education decreed that separate really was not equal.   Even the Atticus who captivated us with his 1936 defense of a black man unjustly accused in Mockingbird could not bring himself in 1956 to support voting rights and open schools in Watchman.  

       So before dismissing as inconsistent these disappointing aspects of the Atticus in Watchman, readers should perhaps be guided by the admonition of British novelist L. P. Hartley: "the past is a foreign country." It is difficult to imagine or remember 1956 from the vantage point of 2015. Things move at a different pace in different times.   Is the 1956 Atticus disappointing?  Clearly, yes.  But is he inconsistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird?  A harder question.

       Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Robert K. Merton each analyzed the effect of rapid social change -- situations where cultural goals become out of sync with social structure.  Those circumstances, they concluded, can result in a condition they labeled “anomie,” a state of normlessness. The term encompasses social instability that results when the established order of things begins to topple.   Anomie is, almost certainly, a good description of what my grandfather experienced when confronted with the reality of a Catholic president.  It is also what a shrinking minority experience when confronting the Supreme Court's recent gay rights decision.  That must have been how it felt to some in Monroeville, Alabama in 1956, views carried forward in Harper Lee’s depiction of Maycomb.  And this is certainly consistent with the reactions of some in Alabama to the gay rights decision.

       The Washington Post reported the following in "The Fix" on September 3 concerning how far Alabama may go to side-step the Court's decision:
Right now, Alabama is busy charting new territory in the effort to resist legal same-sex marriage. This month, a state legislative committee voted for a measure that, should it reach and pass the full state Senate, could eliminate [all] state-issued marriage licenses.
George Wallace blocking the door at the
University of Alabama (AP Photo)
       Alabama's reactions to the civil rights movement, and now the gay rights decision, is also consistent with Merton's refinement to anomie, specifically, his notion of “strain theory” -- for purposes relevant here, the observable phenomenon that there are times when the requirements of society -- particularly new and unfamiliar requirements -- cannot easily be reconciled with existing social structure.

       More specifically, the issue facing Atticus was what to do with a Supreme Court decision overturning what had been an established "separate but equal" guidepost embedded in the social structure of his south.   Atticus's resistance to change in these circumstances, his choice of comfortable and long-standing local social structure over newly-imposed national cultural norms, is disappointing, but it is consistent with the reactions of others in like circumstances. As noted in Perspective on Deviance and Social Control, with “[t]he country . . . undergoing enormous changes as the civil rights movement took hold” the societal effect was predictable. “With norms and expectations unclear for a large segment of society, anomie theory leads us to expect high rates of deviance.”  And that is what our old friend Atticus did.  Unable to reconcile an end to "separate but equal" with the structural requirements of his community he deviated -- he chose the latter.  He rejected the change that society had to undergo, the enlightened path we all needed to follow, and instead chose resistance.

       All of this, then, is is far from saying that Atticus's response, as depicted by Harper Lee, was correct or even admirable.  In fact, his reaction to the Supreme Court's decision, as a moral as well as a legal matter, is deplorable.  So, too, the reaction of that Kentucky clerk -- who this week argued that her religious beliefs insulated her from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples notwithstanding the Supreme Court's prior decision that there is a constitutional right for all to marry. Her response, the response of those legislators in Alabama who cry not me; not in my community, and the response of Atticus, are all infuriating and wrong.  That is the point that Scout makes when she confronts her father in Watchman.  And that is the point that Harper Lee makes as she tells her story.

       Viewing all of this from today’s vantage point, where the justice and inevitability of the Supreme Court's decision overruling "separate but equal" is apparent, we can be taken aback by Atticus’s reticence to ride the wave, to embrace the immediate need for change.  I am still taken aback by my grandmother's inability to shed her racial intolerance, and by my grandfather's inability to overcome his religious intolerance of Catholics.  And as I approach my younger son Colin’s impending wedding to Kyle, his soul mate of the last five years, I am similarly taken aback by those, such as the legislators in Alabama and that Kentucky clerk, who attempt to repudiate the Supreme Court's decision finding a constitutional right of all to marry.  

       A lot of this is about family.  And that is what To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are also about.  Atticus was drawn from Harper Lee's own father, and doubtless she made the character real by importing the good as well as the flawed.  At the simplest level Mockingbird focuses on the good, and Messenger tries to comprehend the flawed.  I hope, and I would bet, that Harper Lee believes that the good in Atticus, evident in both books, is likely more than sufficient to ensure that (unlike my mother's sister and that Kentucky clerk) eventually he would have found himself standing with the rest of us.  That is actually a fairly low bar to clear -- recall that before his death even George Wallace eventually decried his earlier impassioned support for segregation.

       So, is the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman a believable fictional character? Does his conflict with his daughter concerning the changes wrought in the 1950s ring true? And is his portrayal in the context of 1956 Alabama understandable and consistent with the 1938 Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird? It seems to me the answer to each of those questions is “yes.”

       A disappointed “yes,” but still a “yes.”

09 February 2015

Harper Lee and Me

By Fran Rizer
Okay, the picture on the left is not current.  It's my very first author photo used by Berkley Prime Crime in 2007.  It's even my natural hair color which is rare because I began experimenting with solutions to get away from being red-haired when I took the city bus downtown and bought my first package of hair dye from Silver's Dime Store at age ten.

Between then and my current "platinum blonde," a product of age and getting tired of touch-ups every few weeks, I've had brunette, auburn,
strawberry blonde, honey blonde, platinum blonde and even a pinkish mauve.  No, I wasn't ahead of the times.  That pink was a big mistake--the result of attempting an at-home color job.

What's the point of telling you all this?  Or to be blunt about it, what the heck does anyone care how many countless times I've changed my hair color?  I'm trying to show you that I've always embraced change.  That is until I signed the contract to release Kudzu River.

My readers were accustomed to the cozyesque Callie Parrish mysteries, and I feared I would offend some of them with Kudzu River, but it was a story I'd felt compelled to tell for years.  It was also a story that Bella Rosa Books, my most recent publisher, would not print because they only publish "family-friendly" writing.  When Odyssey South Publishing, a new southern company, accepted it, I grabbed the chance regardless of the reactions I might receive, but I feared those reactions..



The above quote from Harper Lee sums up what I felt I'd need when Kudzu River was released. I was positive that my usual readers would not like its grittiness and those who liked Kudzu would all be a different population from Callie's fans.  

Speaking of Harper Lee (and who isn't this week?) it ticks me off that this woman, who wrote a classic of our times and has had her one and only book required reading for students for years, has taken more than her share of flak through those years.  Regularly, some critic claimed that Lee's friend Truman Capote must have written To Kill a Mockingbird because anyone who writes that well would have written another one.  Now, "another one" is being released in July.  Reports are that though this book takes place from Scout's pov twenty years later than Mockingbird, it was written first.  The commentator stated that readers will probably be disappointed because Lee had not yet developed her skills when this was written.  I wanted to reach into NPR through my car radio and snatch that man right into the seat beside me so I could demand to know if he's read the coming release.  I'm sure this book will be a smashing success financially, but I don't know how Lee could need the money with the royalties she must receive every year from all those students having to buy Mockingbird. However,  if the coming book is "bad," why, at age eighty-eight, would she want it published? 

This is purely speculation, but perhaps Harper Lee is like so many of us writers less successful than she.  Maybe she just wants to see her first born in print.  Or, thinking like the mystery writer I am at heart, could it be that the manuscript has not been lost all these years as news reports claim?  Did Harper Lee not want this published but was manipulated into it at her advanced age?  I'm hoping to see an interview with her.  If any of you have seen a recent interview with Ms. Lee, please send me a link.

Back to my first born, Kudzu River was begun before the first Callie Parrish mystery, and it has gone through three name changes.  Teacher, Teacher became Red Flag which is now Kudzu River. An established writer who has been on the N Y Times Best Seller list told me years ago (when Teacher Teacher received its first rejection) that nobody's first book sells.  Just count it as "practice."  Instead of shoving it into a drawer and forgetting about it, I've spent years "practicing" on this book.

So far, Kudzu River has four reviews on Amazon, and I love and appreciate every one of them, but here are two from FaceBook that were posted with their full names.  I repeat these because they are from regular Callie readers:

From  Brenda:  Fran Rizer . . . My book review of Kudzu River . . . loved it.  It was my kind of book.  Mystery, murder, and love all entwined together.  I couldn't put it down.  You need to write a Book II.

From Watson:  Just finished reading Fran Rizer's Kudzu River  Can books keep you on the edge of your seat?  This one did==all the way through.  I've read a lot of books--probably thousands.  This is one of the best.

The reviews on Amazon are longer.  I invite you to check them out at Fran Rizer, Kudzu River, Amazon.com.  Also, if you're not familiar with kudzu, check out Youtube, Phil Ruff, "Kudzu video."  He tells all about kudzu in a song that he has authorized us to use in the trailer for Kudzu River.

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you.

Continuing to embrace change, my next book is horror, and I'm currently writing a children's book.