Showing posts with label class. Show all posts
Showing posts with label class. Show all posts

28 October 2016

We are what we write?

By Art Taylor

C.L. Pirkis's Loveday Brooke
My "Women of Mystery" class at George Mason University has been examining the ways in which 19th- and early 20th-century women mystery writers have challenged contemporary attitudes about gender roles and gender relations. In a Victorian Era when men and women were assigned to "separate spheres" based on their "natural" characteristics (to quote a brief essay by Kathryn Hughes at the British Library), it was likely refreshing to see fictional female detectives taking the lead on investigations and besting men in the process. And even in our class's short sampling of work from the era, it's been fun to watch how the implied quickly gave way to the explicit. In C.L. Pirkis's "Drawn Daggers" (1894), for example, Loveday Brooke holds her own in conversations with her employer, Mr. Dyer—not backing down in disagreements about how to approach a case or where the truth might be found, and eventually proved right about her plans. Two decades later, Baroness Orczy could be much more direct in the first of her Lady Molly tales, "The Ninescore Mystery" (1912), where the narrator—a member of Scotland Yard's "Female Department"—states from the start: "We of the Female Department are dreadfully snubbed by the men, though don't tell me that women have not ten times as much intuition as the blundering and sterner sex; my firm belief is that we should haven't half so many undetected crimes if some of the so-called mysteries were put to the test of feminine investigation."

Even in 1912: You've come a long way, baby—right? Toss us a pack of Virginia Slims—from 1968.

Pauline Hopkins
With most texts, we've been zeroing in on the progressive elements—the ways in which these writers have conceived of their protagonists both within and then in opposition to prevailing feminine ideals, the ways in which the texts have commented on and subtly (or not) criticized the values of their eras. In the case of Pauline Hopkins' "Talma Gordon" (1900), generally considered the first mystery story by an African American writer, we've looked at how a writer can address racial issues as well as gender issues—two perhaps not unrelated parts of a more progressive agenda—both through the story that's told (the plot that unfolds, the racial themes within the story) and through a strategic awareness of the publication venue, its specific audience, and that audience's values and concerns.

What's interesting about Hopkins, however, is that even as she explores racial attitudes and gender issues with a progressive's eye, her story is more conservative on other issues, somewhere at the intersection of class, intellect, and morality—and Hopkins herself seemed to be so as well, advocating elsewhere the "amalgamation" of the races as a way to bring down racial barriers, but also stressing that it was the "worthy" blacks and white intermingling which would improve civilization, while those unworthy ones... well, as critic Sigrid Anderson Cordell explained it in a fascinating 2006 essay on Hopkins' work, those unworthy ones would be "'civilized' or removed from the gene pool."

Even in texts without the racial elements, my student saw that attention to gender equality often parted ways quickly with concerns about class inequality. Lady Molly and her companion in the Female Department were quick to dismiss men's attitudes and achievements, but the story was equally quick to villainize women of the lower-classes for greed and for sexual promiscuity—"slut shaming" them, as one of my students put it.

Much of this discussion came to a head this week as we discussed Nancy Drew—everyone's favorite girl sleuth (or nearly everyone's; see SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens' terrific dissent here).

As an icon perhaps even more than as a character, Nancy can—and certainly has—been celebrated from a number of feminist perspectives, from her first appearance still in the shadow of the 19th Amendment's ratification (just a decade before) and right up til today. As Priya Jain writes in her 2005 Salon essay "The Mystery of a Feminist Icon," Nancy was "a model citizen with a perfect balance of toughness and femininity, an icon of independence and poise. As such, she has provided a connective thread between the six generations of girls she has ushered into adulthood." And Jain links Nancy's "smarts, pluck and independence" to the passions of the first Carolyn Keene, ghost-writer Mildred Wirt, "a young college graduate filled with the ideals of suffrage and the women’s movement."

As a class discussing The Mystery at Lilac Inn, we worked through the ways in which Nancy could be considered a valuable role model (and, Bonnie, you'll be pleased to know that one student did ask, "But isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girls reading this?"), and we circled again around that word "progressive" in terms of the images and messages in the text. But at the same time, we couldn't help but be aware of the hints of conservatism lurking at the book's core—those parallel messages about upper-middle-class values, nostalgia for the past (look what's being done to the Lilac Inn!), about respectability and social grace and unerring etiquette.

We read the 1961 edition of the book, but I also brought in the original 1930 text—almost completely different. (In case readers here don't know, the original books were rewritten beginning in 1959, so for most of us, the Nancy Drew books we grew up on were not the original Nancy Drews.) In that 1930 version, not only are class issues more evident but—perhaps hand in hand—so are some unpalatable references to race and ethnicity. When Nancy is tasked with hiring a new housekeeper to temporarily replace Hannah Gruen (called away by a sister's illness), Nancy first interviews a "colored woman" ("dirty and slovenly in appearance and [with] an unpleasant way of shuffling her feet"), then the next morning an Irish woman ("even worse than the one that came yesterday") and a "Scotch lassie" ("she hadn't a particle of experience and knew little about cooking"). Later in that edition, the villains are revealed to be working class, uneducated, and mostly dark-complexioned; one is distinguished by a "hooked nose."

What's most interesting here isn't necessarily the racial/ethnic prejudices—signs of those times, one might argue—or the fact that these were revised away in the 1961 edition, there already in the midst of the Civil Rights Era (and the Cold War too, my students pointed out, noting that Nancy in 1961 also keeps criminals from selling secrets to enemy agents). Instead, what's possibly most interesting is that Wirt in 1994, in an introduction to a reprint of the original Mystery at Lilac Inn, stressed that "judging from reader letters, [Nancy] never was offensive" in the same paragraph where she talks—without explanation—about the books being rewritten beginning in the late 1950s.

...all of which brought us back to our earlier discussions of C.L. Pirkis and Baroness Orczy and Pauline Hopkins and to the assumptions underlying those discussions that the authors were intentionally or strategically challenging gender stereotypes. But were they always? And even where statements about gender issues seemed explicit—as with Lady Molly and the assertions about the Female Department's superiority—was the author aware of the negative attitudes toward lower classes crying out from elsewhere in the text? Were those latter messages explicitly intended as commentary on class, or was the author simply blind to how her views (and prejudices) had snuck into the writing?

In short, I guess, how can you tell when a writer is commenting on the values of her era—and when she's simply reflecting them?

And to flip this around, how many of us writing today are explicitly championing certain values in our work—and how many of us are unaware of the values we're revealing in those same works?

A good discussion in class on these topics—and I hope maybe a good discussion ahead here.

04 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part I

Susan SlaterUndetered (or perhaps (shudder) drawn) by Leigh's communiqu├ęs covering the weirdness of Florida, Susan Slater recently moved from the Southwestern US (New Mexico, Arizona) to Palm Coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona. First she was beset with internet problems, then Sunday she telephoned SleuthSayers International Headquarters. horrified that her computer had died. Fortunately, she'd sent in her intended article, which appears today. Unfortunately, she will have to introduce herself personally when she gets her new machine. (She's considering using this opportunity to switch from PCs to a Mac, possibly an iMac, a Macbook air– or both! Me, I stick with my Underwood.)

Susan is the author of several Southwest mystery novels including single title and series, including the Ben Pecos series. She's also the author of the breakout 'henlit' novel, 0 to 60.


The Class of Writing, Part I

by Susan Slater

Most readers today– certainly those thirty-five and younger grew up with computers! They expect their information demands to be met quickly–they IM, email, download, text, twitter, speed-dial– anything that saves them time. And information is always at their fingertips– iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, laptops– the pace of life seems frantic and the amount of information staggering!

It's certainly no longer necessary to describe the elephant! The gorgeous prose of yesteryear is almost non-existent! We are exposed to so much more today. Poor Miss Marple is no longer gory enough– not when the reader has just seen a murder/suicide on the six o'clock news.

Taking It Home

How different from when I grew up. I wrote in a journal, posted notes to friends, sent honest-to-goodness thank-you notes on real paper in real envelopes (no Jacquie Larson here). As a child I read books written a hundred years before my time–and loved them. The richness of back-story, the lushness of description– I wanted to be another Bronte or Austen or at the very least an Agatha. I wanted to "live" with those characters–grow with them. A chat with Hercule Piorot? Too perfect.

I always chose the 'fattest' book on the library shelf to take on vacation–it had to last a week! No beach read, commuter scan, or summer light-weight for me. I personally think it's a shame we have very few epics being written today. I know I was meant to write The Thornbirds!

But in our bottom-line driven society, terms like having punch and to-the-point take precedence. There's very little patience for carefully crafted, in-depth stories with memorable characters. We have formula romance and formula mysteries. Readers demand (and get) fast-paced stories that mirror their lives. There are not a lot of characters in fiction today that I'd want to take home!

Attracting That Audience

So what does this mean for writers? If we want to attract a reading audience, we MUST take heed or not be published! This modern-day pacing has changed the way we write.
We no longer have the luxury of wallowing in lengthy back-story or page after page of description– hey, our readers have been there, done that. And they can always Google a topic they're not familiar with.

All this ranting brings me to some advice. Having taught writing for many years, I tried to come up with what might be the most helpful to writers. Comments on plot, characterization, scenes, POV? All are great topics but I decided to start (and aptly so) with beginnings. Those opening paragraphs that will make or break you. And I'm not just talking about "hooks"– but maybe more the nuances. See what you think.

• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??
First paragraph, first 5 pages, first 10?
• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!
  1. It could a foreshadowing. Consider Connie Shelton's opening to Memories Can Be Murder:
    We come to certain crossroads in our lives. It is inevitable. Some are planned–marriage, career changes, cross-country moves. At other times we come to these crossroads quite suddenly, with no warning. I was orphaned in such a way over fifteen years ago and managed to get on with my life anyway. But within the past few days the discovery of some boxes of old papers dumped my preconceived ideas about my own life suddenly and completely upside down.
  2. If you don't want to "bait" your reader, snag him with a description (setting the stage or establishing tone) of something so unusual that he's propelled to continue. For example, Tony Hillerman in A Thief of Time:
  3. "The Moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker's profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The back pack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people. But the shadow was only the shape of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal blocking out the light of an October moon."
  4. 0 to 60Or pull the reader directly into the action–often done through dialogue. Let the reader experience (or discover) what is happening along with the main character. Consider Susan Slater's opening to 0 to 60:
    "I have a love child."

    "Ed, I don't have time for games. Ok, Ok, give me a hint. Movie? Novel?"

    She continued to slip his tux from its protective covering, twist the hanger handle perpendicular, and stretch to secure it over the closet door. She smiled. They hadn't played a version of What's That Line? for years. But back when things were simple– before children, a demanding job with a six-figure salary– they'd open a bottle of wine and just be together. Would it be like that again now that he was retiring?
    Here the reader is 'with' Shelly when she learns that her marriage is a sham. By experiencing the event, the reader buys into the story (perhaps, identifies with it) and wants to find out how Shelly will handle the crisis.

    Consider also, Erica Holtzer's Eye for an Eye, where a mother is on the phone with her daughter on Halloween and hears what happens when the daughter opens the door to what she thinks is more trick-or-treaters. The reader is right there experiencing it with her.

  5. If I'm writing a short story–where I do not have the luxury of space–I have to make every sentence count especially in the first paragraph. I call it the "10 in 10" rule– 10 facts in the opening paragraph of 10 lines! Look at the following opening paragraph from An Eye for an Eye, my contribution to the anthology of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Can you find all the facts? ONLY count those that further the story–those that are necessary to the plot:
    Sliding behind the steering wheel, Edie started the rental and quickly turned the heater to three before pulling a New Mexico map from the glove box. At least she couldn't get lost. Ha! Her friends would laugh at that. She had been known to screw up going from point A to B in a straight line. But not this time. She shook out the map and traced the route with her index finger: highway 64 from Taos, west across the Gorge, cross 285 at Tres Piedras, continue on 64 and follow the signs to Durango. Piece of cake. Yeah, right. What the map didn't say was beware of wildlife. Was she taking a chance starting out well after dark? Probably. But as usual she was running late. Just another stressor. One she'd promised her shrink to work on.
Did you find these?
  • Her name is Edie
  • She's driving a rental
  • She's in New Mexico
  • She's going from Taos to Durango
  • It's cold out
  • She's sometimes inept–gets lost easily
  • Wildlife on the road could pose a danger
  • It's well after dark
  • She's running late
  • Being late is a stressor that she's promised her shrink to work on

Obviously, if your opening paragraph only has 5 lines or 8, the facts would match.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?
My response might surprise you.
• Answer: Next week!