Lionel Shriver is Wrong

Will Lionel Shriver please stop.

I'm tired of hearing about how oppressed she is and how it's offensive to criticize her work.

Let's step back for a moment.

Joyce Carol Oates published a novel in 2015 titled "The Sacrifice". Now Oates is one of the most acclaimed writers of her generation, she's an immense figure with dozens of books in all different genres. This is a novel that has a lot of black characters, it's about racism as it plays out in the investigation and aftermath of a crime. She has every right to write such a book. No one has ever argued against that. No one did argue against it.

Here's the thing, though. When the book was reviewed, more than one person called her out for being so clueless and lacking in empathy and understanding, that the book is racist. Or that it's just racist, depending on how much sympathy they grant her.

In Roxane Gay's review in the New York Times Book Review, Gay argued that "To write difference well demands empathy, an ability to respect the humanity of those you mean to represent." Gay cites instances in the novel where Oates was very perceptive, for example the thought process of a black person being pulled over by the cops. Now some of Gay's criticisms could be described as simply a dislike of the style and approach that Oates used, and I think that Gay would agree, but her issues with the novel go far beyond that.

For example Gay points out that "Some of the black characters speak in a dialect vaguely resembling African-­American Vernacular English, but inconsistently and seemingly without syntactic rules." There are plenty of other issues Gay points to including the n-word being used "flagrantly, as if this were a Quentin Tarantino screenplay, often without plausible context." She argues that the word "nigra" was not something either white or blacks would have used in 1980's New Jersey and "Then there are the physical descriptions; this novel contains a lot of dark skin and nappy hair."

(As an aside, I've never quite understood the strange ways that mostly white writers will describe their black characters skin color. Sometimes it's weird and sometimes it's just creepy. Also they so rarely - if ever - talk about white people's skin color.)

But I digress...

None of those critics said, you cannot write this, but they all said, this is racist crap. Joyce Carol Oates can write and publish what she wishes, but she is not immune from criticism. Writing something and having a good heart doesn't mean that it's not ignorant or even racist.

Hell, Joyce Carol Oates wrote into the Book Review to protest the review. The book, as far as I know, is still in print and available. Plenty of people have reviewed it form various racial and cultural backgrounds and some liked it and some loved it and some hated it and some went meh.

Interestingly enough, Shriver in her recent series of talks and interviews has complained about the review of her recent book in the Washington Post, which she claimed “groundlessly accused her book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line.”  Ken Kalfus, who wrote that review, has some issues with that argument.

He argued that the book does contain some troubling racial characterizations but also that one of the two African-American characters speaks is the only character who speaks in what he called "sub-standard English." Shriver doesn't try to capture the ways that we all speak in detail, not pronouncing letters and skipping words and colloquial expressions, but does for a character explicitly described as black.

One could of course argue that Shriver is not going after people of color, she's just making this single character dumb and ignorant and she happens to be black while every other character speaks in grammatically perfect, enunciated English. But that's odd and it does require why this one character in the novel speaks differently than everyone else in the novel. Okay, let's say that it is obvious and somewhat unfair to say that it must be racism. It's not an unreasonable assumption, though.

And if this does make white writers or writers from other backgrounds to stop and look at how their characters speak and think about it, well, I'm not going to say that's bad. It's one thing for everyone to speak with an accent, with the dialogue rendered in the vernacular, but if only some characters are, then it is something that the writer should look at and think about why they did that and consider if they are assigning less intelligence, less humanity to those characters and what that might mean. A novel contains thousands of little choices and this is one people should probe.

Of course there are cases where people went overboard with trying to be "politically correct" which are obnoxious and over the top and laughable and offensive. People go too far. I think that's human nature. But if your response is, well, to avoid going too far we just shouldn't try at all. We should just allow racism and sexism to flourish because it's a slippery slope.

This is like the argument where white people say, being called a racist is horrible and offensive and the worst thing. And people of color say, um, actually there are plenty worse things being called racist...we can give you a list.

Hell, if you really believe that everyone is wrong and the characters are not racist and your work isn't racist, well, okay. Guess what, maybe next year or next century people will read it and reconsider it. People today read Conrad's Heart of Darkness differently than they did when it was first published. Sometimes writers end up distancing themselves from their older work because they see that it contains stereotypes and racist attitudes.

Lionel Shriver is making an obnoxious argument.James Patterson and Dan Brown don't give whiny interviews where they claim to be great important figures who are oppressed because critics fault their prose style. Some people have said that Lionel Shriver isn't a great writer and she's angry about it. I don't really see how this is about anything more than that.

Articles Published the Week of September 18th

Stephen Murphy Opens Up About Fear and Slivers of Hope in The Puma Blues

When I had the chance to read The Puma Blues, I have to admit that I was completely and utterly blown away by the book and I decided to talk with both artist Michael Zulli (in an interview that ran in The Comics Journal earlier in the summer) and writer Stephen Murphy, about the book. My conversation with Murphy was amazing as we spoke about the book on a lot of different levels, I through reading for pleasure happened upon a quotation that so affected me and echoed the ending of the book. The Puma Blues is not the easiest graphic novel, it's certainly not the most hopeful, but it is an amazing and moving book that really hit me on so many levels, and I'm so glad that Stephen and I had the opportunity to talk.


The MacArthur Genius Grants

First of all, the number of cartoonists/graphic novelists who have ever won a MacArthur doubled the other day. Lauren Redniss and Gene Luen Yang joined previous recipients Ben Katchor and Alison Bechdel.

Redniss got this award for work that really stands outside of the comics world. I remember when her book Thunder and Lightning came out last year and I loved this book but I remember coming up again and again against editors who didn't know who she was and weren't interested. Of course her publicist also never replied to my multiple emails... Still reading her work and others, I do see a future path for illustrated books for graphic narratives which try to throw out the language of comics and assemble their own artistic vocabulary. And that's something that I really hope this award and the attention she and her work gets will help push forward.

Yang on the other hand came out of comics, but what might be considered a more traditional route for a lot of artists but his career has really been one that was made possible in the shift in recent years and the emergence of book publishers. He's been published by :01 Books and has been one of the most talented and most important voices they've published from the beginning of the imprint. In the past decade he went from a minor figure in comics to the immense success that he really deserves.

I do wonder what this means going forward. I do hope that the MacArthur Foundation tries to encourage more visual arts and more narrative comics work. It's also notable that by naming Redniss and Yang it shows that do seem to be paying more attention to comics work in its many forms, which can only be a good thing.

Because there are still a number of geniuses in comics that have yet to be recognized. Like Lynda Barry. The MacArthur Foundation may be the only people in this country who don't describe her as a genius. (Yet!) There's also Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Carol Tyler...well, I have a list. They know where I am and should just e-mail me. I'll suggest a few possible names.

The other people who won this year are amazing. Just to read over the people is to blown away by the work that they've done over the years.

My love for poet Claudia Rankine knows few bounds. Her book Citizen is one of the great books of poetry of recent years.

Maggie Nelson is an amazing writer and her book the Argonuats who this incredible work about love and language, relationships, motherhood and the complexity of life in a way that pushes past memoir to that arer space where it becomes as much about herself as it about issues beyond herself.

Sarah Stillman is a nonfiction writer whose New Yorker article Taken from a few years ago about civil asset forfeiture should be required reading for all Americans. She's written a series of great longform pieces.

There's composer Julia Wolfe who's written some incredible music. Josh Kun who's done some great work as a cultural historian. Anne Basting who's an artist and educator whose work with people suffering from dementia has been really amazing. There's Ahilan Arulanantham, whose work as a human rights lawyer has been so important.

Happy Bi Visibility Day!

And to those who claim that September 23rd doesn't exist...go to hell.


I Guest Produced an episode of the Colin McEnroe Show about Mr. Robot and Our Cyberpunk Reality

The Future is Now: Mr. Robot and Our Cyberpunk Reality

I guest-produced an episode of WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show this week with Jonathan McNicol. We had writers John Shirley and Paul Di Filippo join editor and teacher Leigh Grossman and Slate's Willa Paskin to talk about cyberpunk and the TV show Mr. Robot. We could have kept going for another hour, but we managed to cover a lot of ground, the good, the bad, the influences, the unintended consequences of the genre.

I really appreciate Colin, Jonathan and the rest of the WNPR team letting me have some fun on the air.


Articles Published the Week of September 4th

Melissa Mendes on the family history at the heart Lou and The Weight

Melissa Mendes serialized Lou through Oily Comics and now Alternative Comics has published a collected edition of the book. We spoke about that and her ongoing webcomic The Weight, the influence of family stories on her work, how she uses silence to great effect

Alexis Fajardo on adapting myths for modernity in Kid Beowulf

By day Alexis Fajardo works at Charles M Schulz Associates overseeing Peanuts projects around ther world, and by night he writes and draws Kid Beowulf, a prequel to and rethinking of the great epic poem. We spoke about the influence of Asterix, what makes epic poetry different form superhero stories, and what he has planned for future volumes of the series.

The Rumpus Interview with Connie Wanek

Connie Wanek grew up attending school in a one room schoolhouse, studied visual art, didn't start publishing poetry until her late thirties, but her new book Rival Gardens, a new and selected volume of her work is a really striking book of poetry. There are those moments when you discover a new poet who isn't beginning, but has established a voice and a body of work. There were poems that reminded me of Jane Kenyon, and I hope that this book brings Wanek the wider readership that she deserves.


Articles Published the Week of August 28th

Ted McKeever walks away from comics, looks back at his career

When I first started reading comics seriously in the 1990's, there were a handful of creators whose work fascinated me. McKeever was one of those people and I've been a fan of his for over two decades. This year he announced that he was quitting comics and I took the chance to talk with him. He outlined the whys of his decision elsewhere so we went on a tour through his career and talked a few different projects and people, which was a joy to be honest.

Leslie Stein explains why she's punching her Time Clock

I loved Leslie Stein's first book Eye of the Majestic Creature when it came out a few years back and since we've talked pretty regularly as she comes out with a new book at least every other year. Her new book - her fourth - is Time Clock. In each book, Stein tries a new approach and this one is no different. It's dark and emotionally complex and beautiful to read.


Review: Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art and Craft of Writing edited by Katrina Roberts

Like a lot of people, when I was young, I was always on the look out for a book that would explain what it meant to be a writer or how to be a writer. Of course as an adult, I know that's absurd,that there is no such book or answer, but the book Because You Asked I think answers this need as well if not better than any other book I've come across.

It consists of the comments, thoughts and observations of dozens of writers - Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis, Mark Doty, Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, Mat Johnson, Barry Lopez, Naomi Shihab Nye, Richard Wilbur, and Terry Tempest Williams to name just a few. Roberts has been curating a reading series at Whitman College in Washington. If this is a selection, it's been an impressive run of visiting writers over the years.

The book features comments and observations, some long some short, some philosophical some funny, some contradictory - as you'd expect when the thoughts of more than one writer are assembled. The result though manages to be thoughtful and engaging. If I was a teenager and looking for a resource, some combination of instruction and inspiration, this is an ideal book.