People want to stand up and address things that they see that they don’t agree with. They stand up and they say “This is what’s going on, and we need to do something about this,” and people get together in groups and try to make this happen politically, socially, or however. The conflicts – I mean, the whole idea of punk rock music and rock ‘n roll are the same, which are, for the most part, an act of response to oppression. These are responses to oppression, and there’s many different responses to oppression. Oppression is a problem, so you can’t point at rock ‘n roll and say “Okay, this is bad,” just like everybody else talks about constantly – you have to go to the source of the problem. You can’t put a band-aid on it.
You gotta go find the root problem, and that is the world right now with everyone trying to get to the root problem of whatever it is, whether it’s intolerance or religious fanaticism or whatever. We wanna get to the root problem. What’s the root cause of these people acting like this? So we do all of this, and we meet in this center pavilion and talk about this stuff, but the place that we meet – this is fucking Disneyland. We’re having our little meeting in Disneyland, and maybe you live on the northside of Disneyland, and it’s great over there, and the southside’s great, but we’re living on Disneyland.
The land you’re on does not belong to you. The buildings that you’re walking around on and in, and the roads that you’re driving on were built by slaves that were murdered and not paid and raped, and then you stand there and wanna make these decisions about rock ‘n roll or gay people, or when the church is basically an institutionalized pedophilia ring. All over America. All over the world. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. That’s how this country works. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. You bankroll both sides of the deal, and then you just keep rollin’ on. I have no patience for some guy in a suit that’s gonna come up and tell me anything. I have no patience for it.
There’s this beautiful book of essays by Flannery O’Connor called Mystery and Manners that I read just about once a year. It’s really the only book that I read like that, and lately it’s been on my mind more than ever. I always joke with people that when I wrote my first novel, Pike, I had no idea what kind of writer I was. I thought it was a literary novel, because I didn’t know what else you’d call it. It just happened to have guns and desperate characters because, well, I like guns and desperate characters.
But then some people told me it was a noir novel, and I got all excited about that. Because finally I knew what kind of writer I was. Noir! So I got obsessed with noir. I read a ton of it, formulated theories on it, tracked the history. Fell in love with it, and tried to do everything I could with the tropes I thought I was seeing. In fact, I sat down and deliberately tried to write a noir novel with my second, Cry Father.
And, of course, Cry Father was published as literary fiction. And, as far as I can tell, was pretty much unrecognizable as crime fiction to the mainstream crime community.
Which brought me to a realization that I probably should have come to from the get-go: Noir doesn’t really mean a whole lot here in America. I can have all the theories about noir that I want, but for most people it just means kinda darkish crime fiction. Which is fine, of course, but I’m not really a crime writer. There’s really no space for what I do there. I mean, I write about crime and always will, but if you look at any list of mainstream crime fiction what you’re gonna see is a whole bunch of cop/forensic/detective novels. I’ve got nothing against those, but they ain’t what I’m interested in. I don’t really belong at Michael Connolly’s table any more than I do Jonathon Franzen’s. (Not that either of ‘em would want me at their table. But you get where I’m going.)
And that brings me back to Flannery O’Connor. See, I’ve been reading Mystery and Manners again because I’ve been thinking hard about the tendency lately to subject every work of art to the ravages of social media in the interest of good liberal thought and the adequate placement of trigger warnings. (And none of what I’m thinking on that subject will ever be said publicly, so don’t ask.)
The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. When Hawthorne said that he wrote romances, he was attempting, in effect, to keep for fiction some of its freedom from social determinisms, and to steer it in the direction of poetry. I think this tradition of the dark and divisive romance-novel has combined with the comic-grotesque tradition, and with the lessons all writers have learned from the naturalists, to preserve our Southern literature for at least a little while from becoming the kind of thing Mr. Van Wyck Brooks desired when he said he hoped that our next literary phase would restore that central literature which combines the great subject matter of the middlebrow writers with the technical expertness bequeathed by the new critics and which would thereby restore literature as a mirror and guide for society.
For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.
We are not living in times when the realist of distances is understood or well thought of, even though he may be in the dominant tradition of American letters. Whenever the public is heard from, it is heard demanding a literature which is balanced and which will somehow heal the ravages of our times. In the name of social order, liberal thought, and sometimes even Christianity, the novelist is asked to be the handmaid of his age.
. . .
Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do so with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes. I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.
You may say that the serious writer doesn’t have to bother about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club. I used to think it should be possible to write for some supposed elite, for the people who attend universities and sometimes know how to read, but I have since found that though you may publish your stories in Botteghe Oscure, they are any good at all, you are eventually going to get a letter from some old lady in California, or some inmate of the Federal Penitentiary or the state insane asylum or the local poorhouse, telling you where you have failed to meet his needs.
And his need, of course, is to be lifted up. There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.
I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.
There is no literary, orthodoxy that can be prescribed as settled for the fiction writer, not even that of Henry James, who balanced the elements of traditional realism and romance so admirably within each of his novels. But this much can be said. The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation. The direction of many of us will be more toward poetry than toward the traditional novel.
The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and I feel it is a vision which we in the South must at least try to understand if we want to participate in the continuance of a vital Southern literature. I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.
I guess where I’m going is that O’Connor kinda pointed out an interesting trap I’ve spent the last few years building for myself. I took up the idea of writing noir because I thought it would free me from the limitations of the literary novel, something like the way that Hawthorne took up the mantle of romance. But I’m not really capable of being a crime writer as it’s understood by nearly everybody. And if I keep trying, I’m always gonna be a frustrated crime writer who keeps getting shelved in the ghetto of literary fiction.
So what now?
Now I give up.
I’m taking a page from Hawthorne and O’Connor. I write romance novels. Specifically the “dark and divisive romance-novel.” Where they get shelved is of as much consequence to me as glacial drift.
And that feels like a great place to be.
I know, I still haven’t said anything about how wonderful France was, but I will. I promise. It’s just my brain works slow, and it takes me awhile to process things. In the meantime, it’s June. Which means, mainly, that I’ll be out and about a lot.
The first big happening is Lighthouse’s LitFest, starting tonight. I’ve never really been around a community of writers before. Hell, before Lighthouse, I wasn’t even sure such a thing existed. To be honest, I’ve always kind of shied from writing communities, thinking that writing was something you had to do alone.
And, yeah, you do. I firmly believe that. But, and it’s a big but, you can learn from other folks when you’re not writing. And that’s what I’ve been doing since discovering Lighthouse. Right now I’m working on the first book started since discovering Lighthouse, and I can feel the difference. In fact, it’s nearly overwhelming. I’ve learned more during the time I’ve been teaching there than at any other point in my life. If you’ve read my books, you’ll notice that I don’t consistently do most of the things I suggest. That’s not because I’m a hypocrite — though I am — but because I’ve gotten immensely smarter in the last two years.
So LitFest. It’s their big one. Two weeks of visiting authors, agents, salons, panels, intensives, etc. And I’ll be at the following. Some of ‘em are free, some cost a little money. You can register for ‘em here, and so far as I know, everything still has space.
6/5, 6:00 — Opening Party
6/6, 6:30 — Panel: Talent vs. Hard Work
6/8, 2:00 — Seminar: You Can Always Go Darker
6/8, 5:00 — Seminar: Dialogue to Make Mike Tyson Blush
6/12, 5:30 — Reading: Colorado Book Award Finalists Fiction and Nonfiction
6/15, 2:00 — Seminar: Blood on the Page
6/16, 5:30 — Reading: Ass-Kickers and Reality Hunger: Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction
6/19, 2:00 — Seminar: Bad Guys, Big Hearts
6:19, 6:00 — Closing Party
The weekend of the closing party is Father’s Day weekend. And this Father’s Day, I’m gonna drive the kids up to Aspen for the Colorado Book Awards ceremony, where the winner will be announced. Now, the other fiction finalists are amazing, and I have no expectation that Cry Father is gonna win. But I’ll be there, because this was entirely unexpected, and it means the world to me to even have a place at this table. And I think it’ll be a neat thing to do with my kids, and not a bad way to put my money where my mouth is, given all the talks we have about sportsmanship, and taking pride in your work without regard for winning and losing, and etc. So:
6:21, 3:00 — 24th Annual Colorado Book Awards Ceremony at the Aspen Meadows Resort
Lastly, on the 30th, I’ll start a four week online class with Litreactor. I’m really looking forward to this one, because it’s made me slow down and hone what it is I want to say, since I don’t have the ability to bullshit and figure it out as I go. I’ve gotta get it down in words and make sense from the jump, which is not necessarily my strong suit. I’ve been working on notes and such for a couple months, though, and I think I’m getting somewhere. If you’re interested, you can register here.
6/30 — Going Dark: What Noir Can Teach You About Fiction
That’s all I got.
Or not really. But Gawker is running an article titled “Obama to Ban Military-Style Assault Weapons For Local Police Forces”. I’ve seen it floating around a little this morning, and mostly from anti-gun folks who seem to think Second Amendment types will be upset about it.
I would think most Second Amendment folks would get behind this, myself very much included. Although there’s some confusion among anti-gun folks, most of the rest of us understand that the Second Amendment is not there to protect the right for cops to bear arms. In fact, it’s kind of exactly the other way around.
It being Gawker, though, they screw it up right from the title of their piece. They’re drawing from an NBC article titled “Obama to Crack Down on Military-Style Equipment for Police”. which is accurate. The Gawker title, however, implies that this will cover assault weapons, which it doesn’t.
Assault weapon is a political term for rifles that are cosmetically similar to real assault rifles, but without the actual capability. Meaning, they are semi-automatic only rifles, where you pull the trigger once and only one round is fired. The primary defining characteristic of a real assault rifle is that is selective fire, meaning it has the ability to be fired in fully automatic or burst fire mode. Usually what assault weapon means is a small caliber .223 rifle that fires in semi-automatic mode — like many other rifles and almost all handguns — but looks kind of scary.
Which the NBC article tells us aren’t even on the table:
In previewing the president’s trip, the White House said that effective immediately, the federal government will no longer fund or provide armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms. The federal government also is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment already distributed.
The way I read that, even real assault rifles are still allowed. Hell, armored police vehicles aren’t even disallowed, unless they’re full-on tanks. In fact, in the picture that Gawker ran with their article — and I posted above — the only thing those cops are using that would actually be affected are the cops’ pants.
Nor, contrary to the Gawker headline, is Obama actually banning anything. He’s just not allowing federal funds to be used to purchase them. So if a police department still wants to buy a .50 caliber rifle or a pair of camouflage BDUs, they’ll just have to perform an asset seizure or up the ticket quota.
In my opinion, it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. But, hey, it’s a very small step in the right direction.
From Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus. The first paragraph, in fact.
In other words I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t — he goes back inside himself. Which one is real? They’re all real.
Probably everybody has come across that quote at some point. But it’s stuck in my head this morning
I talked a lot about police violence during my recent book gig in France. Enough that I think they thought I was a little crazy. But it was on my mind, because of where my most recent book comes from. And it was one of the questions interviewers kept asking me about over and over again. I remember one interviewer, a war correspondent, saying that from their country it looks like our police just shoot black people whenever they want, like sport. To which I said, Yep, they do. The only caveat being that it ain’t only black people: It’s poor people. (Which is not to diminish that black people absolutely experience the worst of it, just to point out that it’s not entirely exclusive.)
Then I would go into some of the reasons for that. The socioeconomic conditions that keep people in grinding poverty, with the police acting like an occupying force. The complete lack of mental health care for poor people in our country such that our way of dealing with mentally ill is to shoot ‘em or put ‘em in prison. The militarization of the police that began with SWAT in the 1960s. The fact that we’ve got more people in prison than any country in the history of the world. The usage of asset seizures and fines to augment municipal funding. I could go on and on.
But I would end by noting that everything you saw in Ferguson, you will see again. And you won’t stop seeing it. Because it’s a natural reaction to a whole host of systemic problems.
So, needless to say, I wasn’t surprised to see a new killing and new riots within a couple weeks of returning to the US. And now that the dust has settled, I’d like to point you to this article from CNN, detailing the charges against the six officers who murdered Freddy Gray and make this one point:
People riot because riots work.
It’s that simple. If you live in a community where police brutality and harassment is endemic, and you riot, people will pay attention. There will be Justice Department investigations, resignations, reforms, and actual dialogue. It was that way in Ferguson, in Cincinnati, in Los Angeles, and it runs back through every single police riot I can think of.
So next month, when there’s another police killing and another riot, and one of your friends says something like “I don’t see what they’re trying to accomplish! They’re hurting the cause! Why are they destroying their own neighborhood?” I want you to calmly smack them upside the head and say . . . “Because riots work.”
And in 99 out of 100 cases, nothing else does.
See, that’s the ugly flipside of this: Riots are usually the only things that work. As the Justice Department report about Ferguson showed, the problems in Ferguson were endemic and stretched back decades. People had been talking about the police there for a very long time. But there was literally no movement at all until . . . riots.
So maybe, if you dislike riots, if you think they’re a bad idea, you should work on establishing an alternative to riots. Another way, say, that a community’s legitimate grievances with the police might be addressed.
But until that happens, people are gonna keep rioting. Because it works.
I should end by cautioning you not to get too excited about the charges against these six officers, though. Just like I should note that it might be an education in itself to see how much good that Justice Department report on Ferguson does in, say, five years.
Because I’ve seen this cycle a few times, and I’m skeptical. Riots work, but only up to point.
But, hey, baby steps, right? And anyway, rioting may not be perfect, but it’s the only tool in the toolbox right now.
Maybe someday there will be other options that work even better.
But until then, I’d expect to see a lot more riots.
It came out a little bit ago that DC comics is making an action figure line and all kinds of stuff aimed at girls and I’ve been following the reaction to it on social media a little bit. I just thought I’d point this out: My eleven-year-old daughter had a grin on her face you couldn’t wipe off with a chainsaw when she heard about it. She’s so excited she can’t sit still. And not just a little. This is a girl I’ve been taking to comic book stores since she was a baby, and it’s like a whole new world opened up for her. As she tells me over and over again, there’s nobody really even trying to talk to her in that world.
For me, that’s the end of the story. I get the problems with it. Yeah, it’s aimed at girls, and that kind of gender separation is a problem. But my girl is smart enough to know that almost all comics are aimed at boys, no matter what anybody says. She tells me all the time how sick she is of all the sexist costumes and weak female characters.
Likewise, I get that these characters are mostly derivations of male characters, and that’s a problem too. But this is a girl who understands exactly what’s going on. And so does my son, for that matter, and he’s almost as excited about this as she is. If I’ve done my job, they both know when they’re being pandered to and excluded. That is one of my jobs, after all: To make them smart media consumers. But my daughter loves comic books and the movies — in fact, we’re going to see the new Avengers movie this weekend — and she’s always felt left out.
And sidenote: For the record, I hope to fucking God she has hasn’t seen that footage of Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner calling Black Widow a slut and a whore. I’m not saying these guys should get raked over the coals for it — I developed an amount of sympathy for sticking your foot in the mouth during recent interviews, and my books say a hellofa lot worse — but I just hope she didn’t see it. Because she knows what those words mean. Hell, she’s allowed to swear in my house, as is my son — as I tell ‘em, I get paid good money to write those words — but those are two they’re not allowed to use. She loves Black Widow for not wearing a sexy outfit and for kicking ass, and that would break her heart. (My only problem with Black Widow is that she carries baby Glocks in drop holsters, and that makes NO sense to me — c’mon.)
I guess all I’m saying is that, yeah, I get that adults have a heavy investment in comics these days. I can understand that. But for me, comic books and movies are one way for me talk to my kids, and I’ll take every way I can get. It’s sorta like that Batman vs. Superman trailer that everybody hates. I can see the problems with it too. But my nine-year-old boy can’t wait for it, just as my eleven-year-old daughter is on tenterhooks to see Wonder Woman not wearing panties. And it looks like it’ll be a venue for me to talk about ethics and personal responsibility, which I’m always for. For me every superhero movie and every comic only has that question behind it: Can I use this to talk to my kids? I don’t particularly care what folks my age have to say on the subject.
Take Jared Leto’s Joker:
Do I think it’s silly? Hell yes. But my son loves it, and is it really sillier than the new Daredevil costume from the show everybody loves? (And yes, we love that too.)
My point being, man, who cares what I think? If my kids like it, and we get a chance to use it to open the doors to other conversations, that’s all I’m in it for. It’s like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter or Divergent or the Magic Treehouse books. Would I read or watch those without my kids to talk to about them? Hell no. But I’m glad we have them to talk about.
Anyways, that’s all I got. DC came up with a dedicated girls’ line of heroes, and I’m for it. Because I got a little girl who feels like nobody in mainstream comics has EVER tried to talk to her, and now they are. So good on them.
Now if only we can get a female Dr. Who . . .
Actually two. The two things Flannery O’Connor says that I’ve memorized for when I can no longer, no matter how hard I try, dodge those questions about why the books I like and write tend to be violent and dark — whatever that means. I offer them freely to you, to memorize for when you get those same questions. They’re the smartest things ever said on the subject, and truer now than they’ve ever been. Both are from my favorite book about writing, her Mystery and Manners. (And, yes, I know, sooner or later I should write a long post about how wonderful France was, and I will, but today I’m thinking about Flannery.)
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.
I’m out of here until sometime in early-mid April. Off to France for book stuff and Quais du Polar, and gonna spend as much time as I can with my children before and after. Meaning, you won’t see me much on any social media. There’s no part of this trip that I ain’t excited about, but I think my favorite thing on the program is that I get to present a screening of Lonely are the Brave, the 1962 Dalton Trumbo penned flick based on the Ed Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy.
If you’re missing me, I will be on Instagram (see the sidebar), where I’ll be taking lots of pictures for my kids. Also, don’t forget to enter the new Cry Father Goodreads giveaway here. And I’ll be kicking off a new Lighthouse noir session on April 6, and talking about Bad Guys with Big Hearts for the Northern Colorado Writers on April 11.
If you’re in France, I hope to see you around. If you ain’t, I’ll catch you in April. In the meantime, I’ll tell you a secret. When I have to talk to people I don’t know and fake being a real writer — which I will be doing a lot of — I have one simple trick: I pretend I’m Kris Kristofferson in a Sam Peckinpah flick. (A far homelier version, but still.) It’s my if-it-were-up-to-me-I’d-stand-in-the-corner-and-watch-y’all-do-all-the-talking hack. Sometimes it even works.
Wish me luck.
Was poking around and found a picture I took of Blanca Peak, which features largely in Cry Father. I took it during one of my camping trips down to the San Luis Valley when writing the first draft of the novel.
It’s straight up ahead down the highway, and off to the right is the mesa where Patterson Wells lives.