Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Writers Who Don't Try to Get It Right

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.” -- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
What do you get from The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Deadwood (2004-2006), or Breaking Bad (2008-2013)? What makes critics say that these shows are equal or superior to the best dramas in the movies? Why does Salman Rushdie say that the best storytelling of our time can be found on television, not in novels? There is much to love in these shows, but mostly I just like being around characters who keep changing, keep rounding themselves out from one episode to the next. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are unstable. There is more hell than heaven in them, but there is always plenty of heaven. These characters aren't sentences. They aren't paragraphs. They are books that could go on forever if not for the fact of death that inevitable. I've spent more time with Tony Soprano than with many people whom I would call good friends.

Have you heard of Klara Bowman? She's not a character in a show. She was a real life person, but she got famous for a short while. She was the kindergarten teacher from Tacoma, Washington who showed up drunk for work. A horrible person, really. A hateful bitch! A disgusting piece of trash.  Child abuser. Pathetic. Loser! Scum! That was more or less the gist of the comments sections in the articles about her. Everyone knew that Klara Bowman was a kindergarten teacher who showed up drunk to work. They didn't know much else.

Of course, she was more than that. After Bowman committed suicide, Matt Driscoll, a writer at the News Tribune in Tacoma learned more about her. He learned that her alcoholism began in her teenage years after she watched her little sister die of cancer. He learned that many of her colleagues admired her as someone who truly loved and cared for her students. No one thought she should keep her job, but they didn't think the reaction to her story on the internet was proportionate to her misdeeds. They wished her the best. Driscoll talked to experts on alcoholism who discussed America's hypocrisy, its condemnation of alcoholism and its casual acceptance of binge-drinking culture. As someone who despises -- DESPISES -- our drinking culture, I have a lot of sympathy. This is all a way of saying that Klara Bowman was a full, interesting, complex, sad, noble, loving, not always upright woman. She deserved the consideration we give Tony Soprano.

I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I am amazed by their willingness to assume a clear 1:1, cause-and-effect, linear narrative once they hear about a crime. Bowman's crime is apolitical. Liberals and conservatives can come together and hate on any kindergarten teacher who shows up drunk at work. But then there's the misogynist who goes on a rampage in Santa Barbara and releases an appalling video. Everyone follows up by ripping into Judd Apatow movies because clearly this is the story of nerd-bro-ness gone to extremes. No one bothered to do any research. They didn't study his history. They didn't talk to psychologists. They didn't do the hard work of learning about the particular schools he attended, the movies he liked, why he may have thought he was unattractive. Nope! We got a video. We got a murder! And everyone KNEW the story, because, as some sanctimoniously put it, they took the killer at his word. And all these years later, we don't know anything more about the shooter other than his crime.

Or how about Michael Derrick Hudson? You may remember him as the white poet who pretended to be Asian so he could get published by editors who were looking for a more diverse group. I don't know much about Hudson other than his one big-time jerk move. I don't know what made him want to pursue a career in literature, what he thinks about poets of color, what he thinks about authorship, what he thinks about literary fame, what led him to commit this most foul of deeds. I do know everyone's hot take about cultural appropriation because people love to write about what they already know.

Have you ever done something wrong or stupid and then watched as a large group of people create a narrative about you and your crime that you knew did not comport with the facts? Shorter question: Did you attend middle school?

Many years ago, during my early years in graduate school, a colleague got drunk one night, fell down on the street. A policeman found him. In order to avoid a public drunkenness charge, my colleague told him that he was the victim of a gay bashing. He described a black suspect. That's at least the barebones narrative as I understand it. In the meanwhile, I heard rumors of all kinds, none of which were fully corroborated. That a security camera caught him falling down drunk. That he was a child predator who tried to sleep with his students. Some of these claims showed up in comments sections on news articles about him.

I did not like my colleague. I thought he was a superior, pompous, arrogant jerk who liked power. I knew he was a heavy drinker and drug addict. I knew that he hung out and developed relationships with undergraduate students that were inappropriate, though I don't know if he was sleeping with students while they were his students. The fact that his scholarship was uncompelling was a misdemeanor.

I also know that he was an excellent teacher. I knew that he cared about his students. Within the space of the classroom, I didn't see him play any favorites based on whom he would have found more or less sexually attractive. I knew that he was capable of being kind and helpful to people who would have had nothing to give him in return. He may have been a horrible person, but he was a complicated horrible person.

I don't know if I can expect much from the general population. But I would say that the many journalists, academics, writers, and anyone in any profession which requires you to bang your head against the wall, trying, hope against hope, to get it right and not get it wrong, have a responsibility to set an example. Think before you shout. Do your research or support others who do great research. You're more than two paragraphs. You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. You don't have to love people who do terrible things. But try to know them, if not for them, then for yourself.






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