Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Yes, There Must Be More To Life

I have a friend who used to ask me to buy a watermelon for him whenever I went to the store.

I was reminded of him when writing commentary for a recent match in the Tournament of Books at The Morning News. Jessa Crispin (whose Chicago-based litblog Bookslut I much enjoy) praised Claire Messud's prose in The Emperor's Children but came down hard on her for "rely(ing) on stereotypes." Specifically she said, one gay individual "is about as believable a character as Jack from Will & Grace."

That can be a valid criticism and I might have cringed along with Jessa if I had read that book. But it got me thinking about the double-edged nature of stereotypes and how it fits into the context of the ongoing conversation we've been having here about Political Correctness.

More than ten years ago I was living on the North Side of Chicago in a house with four buddies and in the summer we always had a watermelon in the fridge. Another friend, who was a frequent guest although he didn't live with us, asked me if I would also buy a watermelon for his house when I went to the store. Not because he was pressed for time or because he didn't have a car but because, as a black man living in a mostly white neighborhood, the old stereotype had robbed him of the simple dignity of walking through the market with a watermelon in his cart.

Stereotypes, after all, aren't insidious because they are never true, but because they rob us of our individuality.

The character of Jack on Will & Grace was thought by many to be a stereotype and it's certainly true that most gay men are not as, um, demonstrative. It would be a bad thing for someone with no first-hand knowledge of homosexuals (a rare soul in this age I would think) to use him as his only model. But anyone who has been paying attention certainly knows actual gay individuals with far more exuberant personalities than that. One night in college my neighbor, having spent the entire night loitering outside the stage entrance to a theater showing a revival of Pippin, burst into my room at three in the morning and made me smell his hand where Ben Vereen had just shaken it. As I said over at the ToB, that dude made Jack on Will & Grace look like a bounty hunter, and he was far more interesting than most homosexual characters I've encountered in novels or on film. But if I ever based a fictional character on him, I'd probably be vilified for it.

Which puts a writer in a bit of a pickle.

We novelists like to think we're telling truth about people and making keen observations and that we are all Grand Masters of nuance. One of the biggest insults you can probably hurl at a writer is that he traffics in stereotypes. But we're also writing about individuals, not groups of people. How far do we go to avoid the perception that we're relying on stereotyped characters, even when we know that in real life there are plenty of flamboyant gay men and macho Hispanics and drunk Irishmen and Chinese launderers and Italian gangsters and racist Southerners and Arab terrorists and oversexed Spaniards and on and on and on.

So anyway, how conscious are you of the stereotypes that pop up in the fiction you read? And if you write, how often have you changed some element of a character--changed her race or his gender or nationality or religion--just to avoid the perception that you are falling back on a stereotype? Frequently you can discover some terrific and unusual characters that way and it can be a great thing. But do you ever resent the feeling that outside pressures are limiting the kinds of individuals that can populate your story?

16 comments:

JD Rhoades said...

Shelby, the police detective in Good Day In Hell, is a Southern fundamentalist Christian. He's also a pretty good guy and a good cop. I tired to work against the stereotype of the mean-spirited, pig-eyed hypocrite that many people seem to have when they think of Southern "church folk," becuase that doesn't fit the people I know.
Oh, sure, they're annoying at times. Being asked by near strangers who your pastor is can be a bit off putting. But mostly, they're only dangerous when they start getting into politics.

Barbara D'Amato said...

With a minor character especially, I'm frequently aware of the pull of easy stereotyping. You have limited space to spend on him. You can describe the character physically, but almost any appearance is some sort of stereotype, or at least fairly familiar. We are all stereotypes in some ways. You can strain for similes, but sometimes that seems to arty. You can describe the character's personality, but unless you're intentionally inside his head, you may not want to do this. You can simply describe his actions. When that works, it works well, I think, but the reader is still going to want to know basic facts about him.

Sara N Paretsky said...

Kevin, that's a thought-provoking post. I know I often pare back on characters' traits because I don't want to be stereotyping, but then I'm creating unrealistic characters. I also understand your friend's fear of watermelon shopping. I grew up being told by teachers that Jews were "sneaky, sly and avaricious," and the stereotype of Jews as money-obsessed makes me so tense that I don't keep track of money. I find it hard to pay attention to my bank statements, I'm happier when I'm paying everybody's meal bill, even during times in my life when I couldn't afford to feed myself at home, etc, so I guess that adds to my earnest anti-stereotyping--which leads back to Barb's previous self-censorship post. Hmm.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Ha! No doubt my liver wishes I was more afraid of Irish stereotypes.

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