Outrage

Author Nicola Griffith has blogged a call to action, which you can find here, in regards to a woman dying in the hospital whose same sex partner and children were not allowed by law to see her or receive any updates on her condition.  The hospital was later sued and the state awarded the hospital the win.  Complete insanity, complete and utter discrimination, all made somehow legal.  A woman died alone without the ability to see her loved ones, her children, because she was a lesbian.  That’s it, that’s all.

As another writer, Jeffrey Ford, states in his blog, “I’m sure many of those enforcing this law think themselves “good Christians,” but that’s the problem with too many Christians these days — they know all the dogma but forget about Christ’s most important message — Compassion.  There were also those involved, no doubt, who let the stupid Law grind itself out because they couldn’t think through to the point of how heinous it is.  I didn’t see anything about this case on the news — just endless stories about the publicity stunt with the kid in the UFO.  Sometimes I just get disgusted with America.  The open and government sanctioned persecution of gays in our culture shows us at our absolute worst.  Here we are in the 21st century and this situation, instead of getting better, is a Civil Rights crisis.”

Go read Nicola’s blog first, then blog about this crime yourself.  Yes, that’s what it is:  a criminal act justified as legal by an unfair, discriminatory legal system.

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Out of this furnace

I’ve been reading a novel called “Out of this Furnace” for one of my summer courses.  It’s by Thomas Bell, an author from Braddock, Pennsylvania who grew up in a steel mill family.  The novel is semi-autobiographical, following three generations of a Slovak immigrant family from the turn of the century through the thirties.  The novel was published in 1941, not long after the last decade Bell writes about in the book, the 30s.  The book works more like a very well-done historical narrative more than it does as a novel, at least in terms of what expectations for novelistic writing looks like these days.  It provides many more insights than a typical historical narrative, too, because of the personal relationship the reader builds with its characters, rather than the distanced tone of an actual historical narrative.  In any case, I learned a lot reading it, about a time and a place and a particular kind of people, and also a lot about how things looked during the first thirty years of the Twentieth century around places like the one I grew up in, which isn’t very far from the novel’s setting.  Just outside of Pittsburgh.

In any case, a couple of quotes leaped out at me while I was reading today.  The leaped out because even though they were written seventy years ago or thereabouts, they felt like they could have been written today:

“The depression deepened to the sound of voices chanting that prosperity was just around the corner, the country was fundamentally sound.  In the face of unparalleled catastrophe the rich and powerful lacked even the decency to keep silent.  Blind, ignorant, obsessed with the myth of their own infallibility–they had been obeyed longer than was good for an human being–they drooled their obscene mumbo-jumbo, witch doctors without faith in their own magic imploring the betrayed to have confidence, the penniless to put their money into circulation, the despoiled to take pride in an America plundered, gutted and laid waste.  Silence would have become them more and proved wiser, for there must have been many like Dobie whom their stupidities shook out of bewilderment, goaded to anger.”

And another:

“What did they ever do for the working people?  All through the depression they haven’t done anything to help anybody except the big banks and corporations.  What good did voting Republican do John when he was getting dollar-fifty pays and taking money down to the mill on paydays to keep his insurance in force because they weren’t even giving him enough work to pay for his insurance?  He had to take from our few dollars in the bank and pay it to the mill on paydays instead of them paying him.   I owe four months’ rent and I’ve got a store bill that scares me when I think of it.  Do they think we’re all greenhorns and they can rub our faces in the dirt forever?”

And there’s more where that came from.

Commentary or Fan Fic?

Apparently there’s this book that’s been self-published in England and due to be published in the U.S. that is a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye, making use of many of Salinger’s original characters, aged appropriately.  The author of the book says it’s not a sequel, and that, “The book explores the famously reclusive Salinger’s efforts to control both his own persona and the persona of the character he created,” according to the brief. “It also scrutinizes and criticizes the iconic stature of Salinger and his creation by comparing the precocious and self-satisfied 16-year-old Holden with a 76-year-old version of himself fraught with indecision and insecurity.”

According to the NYT’s, “Mr. Colting acknowledges that three original characters from “Catcher in the Rye” appear in his novel: Mr. C, his sister Phoebe and Stradlater, Holden Caulfield’s prep school roommate. He also provides a list of more than two dozen original characters he has created for his novel, including Mary, Mr. C’s deceased wife, and Daniel, his son.”

Hmm, sounds like a sequel, Mr. Colting, despite the new characters.  Also sounds not so much like metafiction, as a Case Western professor has declared, so much as it does fan fiction, where a writer takes characters  and situations from a copyrighted book and spins their own versions on a favored author’s original tale.  If it were a story that was in the public domain, it wouldn’t be a problem.  Salinger, however, is very much alive at 90 and fighting this.  

The author says the novel is a commentary on Catcher in the Rye.  That sounds nice, but it also seems, at least from the reportage (and it may turn out to be incorrect reportage, we’ll have to wait and see), that the author really has infringed on Salinger’s copyright by including actual identifiable characters from the original novel.  Saying it’s commentary on Catcher in the Rye seems like a good defense, but I have a feeling it won’t hold up in court.

My first novel, One for Sorrow, was a partial commentary on Catcher in the Rye, but made no use of any of Salinger’s characters or plot in order to do so.  I simply wrote a coming of age story from the point of view of a working class boy growing up in the Rust Belt, who sees ghosts–something that would never happen in a Salinger book, ha!–and runs away from home the way Caulfield goes off the grid once he’s kicked out of Prep School.  My narrator doesn’t have the means to go anywhere fancy like New York City, where Caulfield runs to, rents a hotel room, hangs out with a girlfriend in ritzy restaurants, buying drinks, and where he tries to purchase a prostitute, among other things.  My narrator isn’t really able to afford that sort of running away; he hides instead in his girlfriend’s closet, then in an old lean-to in the woods near his house, and finally gets as far as Youngstown, Ohio, where he squats in an abandoned church.  No alcohol, no restaurant binges, no prostitutes, just crappy desperate turning from one place to another until the reality that he’s unable to run away from his problems sets in.  At one point he reads a book at his girlfriend’s house which is untitled but is obviously a summarized version of the plot of Catcher in the Rye, and he comments on that book, trying to show the differences in how that book looks to a kid from a closed-down ex-manufacturing/ex-steel region who isn’t anywhere near the middle or upper classes, and a much more Midwestern perspective versus Catcher’s East Coast.  I consider that sort of thing commentary on another book.  Taking another author’s characters whole-cloth, though?  That sounds like fan fiction to me, not commentary, though I’m sure commentary does arise out of the fan fiction.  The author probably should have tried to find a different way to do this than to appropriate actual characters.

I’ll be interested to know what comes of it.   Mainly because, even though I wrinkle my nose a little at Holden Caulfield and his drama, I like the kid nonetheless, and the book remains one of my favorites.

Susan and Me

My friend Kelly Bancroft has a video essay up at Time.com today.  “Susan and Me” is about my beloved Susan Boyle (who, in her last performance, was not as beguiling as her first) and Kelly’s connections to her as a singer from a post-industrial town where your talents may or may not go undiscovered.  It’s awesome, and not just cause I love Kelly and Susan.  Go watch it by clicking here.

Q&A

I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions.  One came in today, to which I just responded.  And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.

Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did? 

A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place. 

The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians. 

Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did. 

It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.

Welcome to America

With a cold rain falling, the truck bangs along a gray road past weather-beaten houses raised on stilts. A few years ago, two-thirds of the village was finally connected to water and sewer lines; this is the one-third still waiting. Many residents, including Mr. Snyder, bathe with water retrieved from the Kuskokwim River and use honey buckets as latrines. Some of these malodorous buckets sit like garbage cans along the roadside.

Read the whole article by clicking here.

Perspectives on class

A great new website from YSU’s own Sherry Linkon, including this new blog in its contents: Working Class Perspectives. If you’re at all interested in understanding class in America, Sherry Linkon has been one of the leaders in academia on this subject for years now. As the blog editor, she has gathered together an impressive list of contributors.

From a university update I received just today:

The new website, Working–Class Perspectives , will include a blog, links to recent news stories and information on how Center affiliates can help journalists contact real people to get the story right, said Sherry Linkon, co–director of the CWCS.

“With all of the attention focused on the working class in this year’s election, and the complex nature of working–class culture, we knew it was time to join the discussion,” Linkon said.

John Russo, the other co–director of the CWCS, said the Center’s affiliates have been monitoring how the media has been covering the working class. “So much of the coverage of working class reduces these people to little more than a simple phrase. We believe we can help journalists by sharing our insights and by helping reporters find real people to talk to,” Russo said.

The blog, “Working–Class Perspectives,” will feature weekly commentaries about politics, the economy, the media, education and other issues.

The inaugural entry of Working–Class Perspectives finally offers a clear definition of who are the working class today, Linkon said. “It”s not just blue–collar workers,” she said.

Russo said the Center has been engaged in research about working–class voters, labor issues, economic change and a variety of other topics for more than 10 years. “We want to share this expertise,” he said.

The Center for Working–Class Studies at YSU was the first interdisciplinary academic center in the country devoted to understanding and making visible working–class culture. Its 13 faculty affiliates teach, conduct research, and work with community organizations on a wide variety of topics.

Sounds like a necessary contribution to the internet. I myself am looking forward to reading the information and perspectives that the site promises. If any Wiscon readers concerned with class are reading this, you might be too.

Who wants to read about that?

Colleen Mondor is one of my favorite bloggers on YA literature, as well as a variety of other sorts of topics.  Here she is talking about the need for more YA literature (and I add to this the need for any sort of literature) to consider this incredibly ignored and swept-under-the-rug (at least here in America) aspect of our lives:

If you don’t read about kids in your economic strata who make it, who study great subjects, or build great things, or create great art, then you don’t think you can either. If you don’t see success for those from “your world” reflected on tv or in movies or in books then you will come to believe that certain – or maybe all – levels of success are not possible for you.

You will never be rich enough to be anything.

There are certainly some excellent books out there today that reflect the current economic situation for the majority of Americans (and I will be posting on some of them next month), but there are not nearly enough. That is what we should be talking about. Why do writers continue to write above the means of the average American kid and why do kids continue to want to read them?

Why must it so often be about the life you do not have, instead of the one you should aspire to?

Click here to read the entire entry and the lively conversation in the comments section at Colleen’s place.