Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Banned Books

It’s coming up on Banned Books Week, and I’m sure this post will get lost in a virtual sea of posts about the idea of banned books, especially in a country like ours. I mean, considering we have the First Amendment that backs up the right of a free press, the idea that books are banned—any books—is something of a contradiction.

Why does this happen?

There’s not one blanket answer that’ll cover that question. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned in spots because it uses the dreaded n word. We all know who horrible that is. It doesn’t matter the cause, if you’re any race but black and use that word, you’ve just uttered a blasphemy. Never mind that Mark Twain was anti-slavery and used some of Huck Finn’s musings to illustrate how much ignorance plays into racism, we have to ban it because it uses that word. No, no, don’t bring up that it teaches a lesson, that we can learn something about history from it, see a snapshot of our country back then. None of that matters. We have to ban it because it uses…that word.

Then there’s the more recent debacle around the Harry Potter books. Some school libraries were (and maybe still are) banning them because some hysterical parents became convinced that they were enticing kids into the dark reaches of the occult.

For shame! We can’t have our kids think for themselves and decide what religion or spirituality—which is a very personal matter—they want to practice and find comfort in. Why, if they read too many Harry Potter books, next thing you know they’ll be sacrificing babies. There’ll be anarchy and society will collapse.

Never mind that these books are responsible for more kids getting a start on reading then any books in recent memory. Never mind that these so-called “lessons” in the occult amount to Harry or some other wizard pointing a wand and uttering a phrase that sounds vaguely Latin.

If I remember right, a large percentage of the school districts that allowed this affront to human intelligence take place were in the Bible Belt. I know one of them wasn’t far from where I live, and I was sorely tempted to drive down there and see just how inbred these people were. Or maybe they were just plain stupid.

It strikes me that most of this Banned Books thing stems from insecurity. I mean, don’t you think that kids can read Huckleberry Finn—especially these days—and not realize the lesson on racism that lies just below its surface? Despite what  self-serving gasbags like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would have you believe, a perusal of history will show that racism is far rarer now than it was in Mark Twain’s day, and I think our kids are smart enough to pick up on it.

Having one of your books banned has an upside, though: increased sales. It’s the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I just read Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography, and when he talked about the lawsuit that was brought against him when some kid allegedly killed himself because of Ozzy’s song “Suicide Solution” (which actually talks about how being an alcoholic is a form of slow suicide), his record sales went up. It’s the same with a book. I’m sure JK Rowling cried all the way to the bank over the foofraw raised over her books. She just looks like an evil woman, doesn’t she? There’s got to be something evil going on behind that wide smile and under that blond hair. Got to be.

My daughter has said that one of her goals as a writer is to make it onto the Banned Books list. Well, it’s an admirable goal, at least to me, but how much effort does it really take? I mean, c’mon, man. I’ve looked at some of these lists (they vary, depending on where you’re at in the country and/or world), and it doesn’t take much to get on the list. I’ve seen books on there that I’ve read and I can’t for the life of me think why they’re on the list. At least one of these lists also gave the reasoning behind the ban, but I only remember seeing one (though I’m sure there are more). I wish I had a list in front of me so that I could name one or two of those books, but I don’t, and I can’t remember any off the top of my head.

Want a sure-fire guarantee that your kid will read a book? Put it off-limits. If you think they’ll obey you, you suffer from some kind of delusion. They’ll just check the thing out and leave it in their locker at school. Sure, you can send word to the librarian and tell him/her not to let Junior check out this or that book, but Junior will just get his friend Billy to check the thing out for him. Or maybe someone else altogether.

I will go so far as to agree that certain subject material is probably age-dictated. I don’t think you want to have your three-year-old reading The Silence of the Lambs. Or one of Anne Rice’s erotica novels. They should be at least five years old before they crack one of those books open.

Seriously, though, despite what I’ve heard some people say, I think that there are certain subjects best left until your child is more mature. What age that is is best determined by the parent, rather than using some kind of blanket application. One size definitely doesn’t fit all here.

So, in commemoration, go out and read a banned book. You never know what you might learn.

Later,

Gil

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PC Creep

One of my daughter’s goals—after getting published, of course—is to have at least one of her books banned. I understand what she’s talking about, but it seems to me that, these days, that’s not much of a distinction.

Want my recommendation for how to get put on the banned list? Use a term for blacks other than black or African-American (and don’t even get me started on this whole hyphenated American crap. We’ll be here for hours).

Two things about what I just said: 1), I am white, so full disclosure on that; and, 2) I am not advocating racism in any way. And I’m using blacks as an example for a specific reason.

Sometime last year, I Googled banned books and got several lists. I guess different people have different ideas about what’s to be banned and why. In an interesting aside, the book Fahrenheit 451,  the sf classic about a future where all books are banned, made more than one of those lists. The Harry Potter series has been famously banned by some towns in the Bible Belt because it supposedly lured young people into the grips of the occult and taught them how to do magic. I won’t even address that, it’s so ridiculous.

 But the one that still irks me—and a lot of other people, I’m sure—is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. If you’ve ever read the book, you’ll know why, at least on the surface: Huck quite regularly uses a racial slur that was very common during his day. And, what’s more, he takes the idea of slavery for granted. He states that, in helping Jim find freedom, “I knowed I done wrong.”

Let that sink in for a minute: it was wrong to help a slave escape to freedom.

These days, that’s such a foreign, abhorrent concept that it doesn’t even bear thinking about. And, to combat this, some so-called Mark Twain scholar has come out with a “sanitized” version of Huckleberry Finn. I wish I could remember his name, because it deserves infamy. And brings into question, in my mind at least, the value of an academic education.

Scholar? If he’s such an expert, can’t he see what Twain was trying to say with this book? Can’t he handle the truth? What I mean by that is that the simple truth (and maybe this blog will get banned because of what I’m about to say. Big fat hairy deal) of the matter is people called blacks niggers back then. Even blacks did. Not that that’s changed, but we’re not supposed to bring that up. I grew up with that term, and I thought, for a long time, it was the proper way to refer to blacks. It wasn’t used in a prejudiced way, either, even though I’m from the South.

Anyway, the point being, Twain was trying to point out how wrong slavery was, and he used the idiom of the times to do it. So what? Maybe, like me, he cringed every time he used that word. But that didn’t keep him from being honest, from telling the truth. Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s fiction with a point. He had something to say, and he knew that most people who won’t sit still for a sermon will devour a good story and absorb the point along the way, whether they want to or not. The fact that Huckleberry Finn is such an enduring classic says that it’s a good story, and that it has some points to make.

So, how did this alleged scholar sanitize Huck? He changed the word nigger and replaced it with slave.

Didn’t his mom ever tell him not to pick at a scab?

Slavery is a wound on our nation’s history. I won’t argue that. Nor will I go into the economic reasons why it existed and why it couldn’t continue to exist (there were protests against slavery in New York City not because it was wrong but because whites couldn’t get jobs and support their families since slaves weren’t paid. Sound familiar?). What I will say on this subject is, while we need to keep it in mind so it doesn’t happen again, we shouldn’t be picking at it, either. Bringing up something that ended over 160 years ago and trying to place blame (and therefore financial responsibility) for it on me is ridiculous. Considering my Scots-Irish heritage, I’m sure I could demand the same thing for ancestors who made it to America via indentured servitude.

The argument over slavery ignores two things, and I think it does it on purpose: 1), there have been just as many whites held as slaves as there have been blacks; and 2), everyone seems to forget that many of the black slaves from Africa were sold into slavery by other blacks. Again, why this happened is outside the scope of this post. And even this blog.

No one argues that slavery existed, and that it was a contradiction in a country founded on the concept of equal rights for all, that all men were created equal, and all that. Many have made the point that some of the men who helped ratify those words were slave owners. So be it.

The thing is, Twain was making a subtle—or maybe not so subtle—point about slavery, that it was wrong, and it was such an ingrained institution that some couldn’t get away from thinking helping to free a slave was wrong. Let’s all be thankful Huck wasn’t the only person in America who decided he didn’t care if it was wrong.

But how is changing the racial slur (I’m trying to keep from using the actual word too much because I don’t like it) to the word slave an improvement? How is picking at the wound—reminding everyone by beating them over the head with it—going to help? If you’re gonna replace it, put in Negro, or black. Because, in this context, slave and nigger are synonymous. What I mean by that is, in my mind, he’s grinding it in that blacks were once slaves, and they’d better not forget that or try to get too far from it. But maybe I’m just too much of a cynic for my own good.

You let a wound heal by leaving it alone, and that’s what we need to do with slavery and racism. We don’t need so-called leaders—black, white or otherwise—to help us work this out. I have gone from an upbringing where the word nigger was commonplace to accepting everyone regardless of skin color, and if I can do it, so can anyone else. By constantly keeping it in the news, and on our minds, we don’t give any of this a chance to heal.

It’ll crop up, of course. When you’ve got idiots who still idolize Hitler and join the Klan, it’ll happen. And, when you write fiction, sooner or later you’re gonna have a character who isn’t exactly couth about things, and he’ll use words that you wouldn’t. Does that mean you should censor yourself? Because, let’s be honest folks, that’s what it would be.

I won’t blame you if you never use a racial slur in your writing. That’s great. Maybe unrealistic, especially if you’re gonna write about the kinds of characters I write about in crime fiction—not exactly the cream of the crop, or they wouldn’t be in crime. But if it offends you too much to even so much as write the word, that’s okay. I don’t blame Christian authors for not putting profanity in their dialogue—it’s par for the course, they’re writing about people striving for a higher standard, and Christian publishers wouldn’t print it anyway. It’s unrealistic, to my experience, because lots of people use profanity as a matter of course. But I understand why Christian authors don’t use it.

As for me, I’m not gonna shy from the truth. Any writer knows that good characters take on a life of their own. Doesn’t mean you have to have a prejudiced character who slings slurs right and left. But it doesn’t mean you should shy away from using that character, either.

After all, like Mark Twain, you may be making a larger point, a better point. And what’s wrong with that?

Later,

Gil

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Shooting For The Moon

A few posts back, I wrote about handling criticism. I tried to talk about handling it properly, about learning that it’s not some kind of personal attack (or, at least, it shouldn’t be, but we’re all human), that it’s there, in fact, to help us improve our work. Learning this isn’t easy. You have to develop a thick skin. If you can, you should learn to enjoy it. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with every opinion. I tend to look at opinions from my group and resort to a form of democracy: if several people have a problem with something, fix it. If it’s pretty much evenly divided, it’s a wash. Leave it alone.

We can be very hard on ourselves, though. That idea that seemed so incredible when we first got it can seem utterly ridiculous when we finish the first draft. I know someone who wrote a sequel (and this person will know who they are when they read these words) and decreed that it was utter trash (or was it “This is a piece of shit”?) and said it would never see the light of day. I was lucky enough to read these “leftovers” and happen to disagree with the writer. I think it’s a very good story. But, in all fairness, that’s not my decision to make.

I happen to have a similar story, which I’ve mentioned here before: an urban fantasy I wrote before the current craze in such novels started. I liked the idea of urban fantasy, and when I wrote this one, they were hard to find. Some Laurell K. Hamilton, along with a few ventures into the field by established writers who were dabbling in something different. My interest came from role-playing games, named the GURPS version of White Wolf‘s Mage: The Ascension, which does a very good job of translating legendary magick (they spell it with the k at the end, so I will to for that application) and making their mages very powerful while still giving them a system of checks and balances that accounts for why so few people actually believe in magick. In fact, they did such a good job that, for me, it was hard to get away from their setting. My urban fantasy, centered around a magus and a vampire allying themselves against a common foe, bears a lot of resemblance to the White Wolf magickal system.

I won’t  go so far as to say that I think the story is a piece of junk that should never be published. I think that basic story is pretty good, but the writing itself is weak, in my opinion. My characters, who live in a darker reality than you or I know, are far too nice to one another, for one thing. And they aren’t jaded enough. They should make alliances that include each party watching the other carefully. I wanted my two characters to fall in love by the end, because I had a larger picture in mind for their offspring, and I had them making nicey-nice too quickly. The dark grittiness just sort of fell by the wayside somewhere along the line.

Maybe someday I’ll rewrite it with more dark grittiness. More like a crime novel. We’ll see.

The point is, we can’t be too hard on ourselves. The author I mentioned above does this with a little too much regularity for me. I like their work, and I eagerly await each one, even those with subject matter that I don’t much care for in anyone else’s work. Yes, I’m biased toward this person, to an extent, and I freely admit it. Doesn’t mean I’d necessarily enjoy what this person first wrote about (this author looks to be making a switch to YA novels, and I can’t wait to read their first one, which is being written as I, um, write this).

 I’m not saying don’t put your best effort forward. Of course you want to do your best every time. Go on. Shoot for the moon. But be realistic and understand that you won’t always hit it. Season your expectations with reality.

Do your best. Don’t turn into a hack, as certain authors I used to admire seem to have done. I’ve given up entirely on one of them because he justifies it by saying he has to churn out a novel every three months to make a living at it. I haven’t peeked into his bank account, but I view this claim with a jaundiced eye. This guy is a bestseller in his genre and I have a hard time believing that that means he’s struggling with his finances. My last straw came when he wrote a very mediocre book as part of a series, then proceeded to use up a quarter of the novel’s length with a long, complaining author’s note. I don’t care how sick your horses got and how much time that took away from your writing. That’s part of life. Deal with it.

Sorry. Guess I digressed there. You’ll notice I do that from time to time.

I’m sure we’d all like to write something that would endure like Homer’s or Shakespeare’s works have done. It would be nice to think that people will still be reading and enjoying my work five hundred years or more from now (although I have yet to meet anybody outside of an NPR interview who truly claims to have liked The Odyssey and The Iliad). Heck, if I could have Mark Twain’s enduring appeal, I think I’d be happy. Well, if I was still around a hundred years after my death, that is. Small caveat there.

We can’t all be Mark Twain, though. Or Shakespeare. All we can do is our best. And if it doesn’t always measure up to our personal standards, that’s life.

The hard part is in deciding what to do with the subpar stuff. I mean, sure, the basic idea, when all else fails, is to view them as learning experiences. Never throw the ms away so that you’ve got it to look at from time to time. You might call the file “Object Lesson Number 1” or something like that, just to remind yourself.

On the other hand, what if everyone who reads it likes it? I’ve not had any negative feedback on my urban fantasy. I’ve been told it’s a good story and I should market it. I think it’s basically a good story, though I don’t care for some of the ways I wrote it. And as for marketing it, how the heck could I make it stand out now? The market’s saturated with the things, and while I think mine’s okay, it’s not a standout, by any means. Realistically, the chances of it getting picked up aren’t that good. Maybe if I’d had the courage to try and sell it when I wrote it six or seven years ago, I would have stood a better chance. That was just as urban fantasies were starting to take off.

Of course, if I’d done that, I might not have ventured into crime.

So what do I do with my story? The latest solution I’ve come up with is, rewrite it the way I’d like to see it, then maybe try to sell it under a pseudonym. In a year or so. Maybe. And that’s a big maybe. I think people would like it, and I’d still like to pursue the larger story it’s something of a prequel to.

But not right now. Right now, I gotta get Steve and Eddie across the country, and they have to stay alive long enough for one of them to (possibly) kill the other one. And then go to Rio.

What would you do with something like that? What will you do with that ms that’s been gathering dust (even if it is just e-dust), that you don’t think really measures up? Will you let it see the light of day, let someone else read it and give their opinion? Or will you let them give their opinion and then ignore it?

It’s a tough decision. And the hardest part is not being too hard on yourself.

Later,

Gil

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