Semi-Happy Endings And Mediocre Reviews

Deep into my sixth novel, tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, I keep falling back into the same patterns that often got criticized in the past. It seems I can’t help doing it the way I always do it … mixing genres, hitting on multiple themes, creating frenetic plots and a plethora of characters who try to find their way but don’t totally succeed. My stories strive toward resolution, but that end point isn’t necessarily clear-cut. I prefer some uplift at the end, but “happily ever after” eludes my heroines.

That must be why I’ve never been able to write a traditional romance, although I tried a few times. The truth is, I have trouble even reading them. I might not bother to finish when I can predict the ending from 50 pages away. Contrived happy endings make me want to scream, “But that’s not real life!” So is this a valid excuse for not writing in a more popular vein? Or am I simply lacking the polishing skill that might result in a more neatly resolved story?  “But life is too complicated for that!” I exclaim. Is that just an excuse for failing to simplify the story for the sake of clarity?

Some of the most critical reviews I receive are the most expensive ones. The reviewers are paid to be thorough, so their criticisms are often more exacting than those of the verified purchasers who just pick up the book hoping to be entertained. In my fifth novel, Sycophants (2018), my heroine, Imogene, is a country girl who moves to New York City, the place of her dreams. After suffering through a series of unsatisfying jobs, and an equally unsatisfying marriage, she hooks up with her former college roommate Sara to work as a publicist at a new film production company. Sara’s idea for a debut movie, one with strong political overtones, takes her to Washington, DC, which happens to be my hometown. The movie becomes a sprawling monster (much like the novel, if you want to be mean about it).

One reviewer complained that the plot slows to a crawl for several chapters when Sara becomes inaccessible in DC, leaving Imogene to her own devices in New York. I had hoped that turn of plot would give Imogene an opportunity to grow professionally, but the reviewer counters that the ballooning cast of characters around her on the job tends to compromise such development. All those background characters, including Imogene’s estranged husband, certain hangers-on at the production company, and a third former college roommate, tend to be, in her view, underdeveloped and formulaic. A fair point, but I wonder how much character development you can do without writing a 1,000-page novel.

The reviewer gives some credit and then takes it away. For example, she finds the confluence of developments in the second half of the novel frenetic and unbelievable, but concedes that the sped-up plot adds energy. Thankfully, she does find the exchanges between the characters convincing, although the chaotic plot tends to counteract that. I suppose it’s the age-old problem of deciding which is more important, character development or plot. Concentrating on one tends to dilute the other. Maybe the most skilled writers can do both equally well, but the rest of us can’t seem to win, either way.

Another reviewer complains that my characters don’t spring off the page like flesh-and-blood human beings … something I’m sure we’d all like to achieve, although it isn’t easy. For example, Imogene doesn’t feel like a country girl to this reader. If she did, she’d always be carrying the sights, sounds, and visceral memories of the country with her. But, I protest, that is the world she’s trying to escape. She does return home for a while when the city has exhausted her too much. But re-immersing herself in that life, with her parents always insisting that she help with the farm work and routine household chores, only makes her anxious to leave again. Further, the reviewer questions the small-town campus origin of many of the characters, and wonders what was so unique about that environment to affect them for years afterward and cause them to remain intricately linked. I might refer her to my earlier novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007), which puts many of those characters back in that college setting, but I concede that’s not a reasonable response. Still, I can argue from my own experience that such lifelong connections certainly can originate at a relatively small college.

It could be that simplicity of plot and satisfying romance are incompatible with heroines like mine, who want more out of life than true love. Sometimes they aren’t particularly good people, or at least not the kind that readers root hard for all the way through. Gilded Prisons is a sequel to an earlier story, Let’s Play Ball (2010), which featured a seemingly irredeemable villainess. That same woman emerges as something of a heroine in Gilded Prisons, although still deeply flawed. Is it possible to create a villainess who does evil things, but has an underlying motive that is somewhat understandable, and perhaps also a few redeeming features? I guess we’ll find out when Gilded Prisons sees the light of day.

Recovering From The Revolution

I obviously spoke too soon when I wrote hopefully on New Year’s Day that the revolution might have passed us by. I thought there was a chance we’d get rid of the psycho president and swear in our newly elected leaders with a minimum of fuss. Instead, there has been a harrowing space of time when our country wavered on the precipice of losing its democratic character and becoming a Fascist dictatorship. Thankfully, enough courageous people stood in the way, or found their backbones before it was too late. Donald Trump evidently thought he had stocked the courts, including the Supreme Court, with enough of his stooges to change the election results if he so ordered. But it turned out that most judges, even his own appointees, placed the rule of law above loyalty to the president. So he turned to his violent followers, only to be stymied again.

Still, the threat continues. There are far too many “what-ifs” in the wake of this situation. We’ve become aware that the Trumpian disease of white supremacy has infiltrated law enforcement, the military, and worst of all, Congress. There is evidence that people who work inside the legislative chambers aided and abetted the violent invasion of those spaces. Hopefully, they’ll be identified and expelled in no certain terms. But the question remains: what if only a few more people in each of these sectors had been willing to betray their country?

Some Republican leaders … those who are capable of reason … have finally caught on to the grim truth that Donald Trump is a lying psychopath. The invasion of their own workspace shook up the likes of party leaders Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney, and others. But that doesn’t alleviate the fact that there is a sizable fraction of the United States population living in an alternate reality, and that these people can’t be reasoned with or swayed by facts. They became damaged long ago, and are probably irredeemable. I assume they were betrayed originally by an educational system that should have helped them to develop critical thinking skills, and perhaps teach them a few historical truths about their country. Instead, they believe every utterance of a man who has lied about absolutely everything throughout his presidency, and well before that. He will no doubt continue to lie as long as he lives about an election he lost. The most laughable lie of all is the belief he has engendered in these people that he cares a fig about them, or for that matter, about anyone but himself.

The most violent types believed that taking up arms to change an election result they didn’t like would make them great patriots. They compare themselves to the founding fathers who brought about the original American revolution. For many reasons, this comparison is dubious. The American revolution of the late eighteenth century was an independence movement propelled by a group of colonists, a fairly common occurrence in history. They were a small but determined minority of the colonial population at that time. They rebelled against a king whom they had no part in choosing, and no means of voting out of office. These real patriots had a long list of political and economic grievances against that king. “Taxation without representation” pretty much summed it up. None of the present-day self-appointed “patriots” seem to have definable issues that they can articulate, other than their disappointment that their hero lost the election.

The founding fathers foresaw that we might someday have a crazy and evil president, and they gave us tools to deal with such a situation. Disliking the president or calling him a fool isn’t enough. I was utterly unimpressed by the intellects of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. As for Richard Nixon, who would have been impeached and removed had he not resigned, he was intelligent but unstable. Still, I believe that all of these men meant to govern well, and tried to serve the entire country, not just their political bases.

Trump, by contrast, is a unique blend of stupid, crazy, and malevolent. He absolutely meant to incite the violence of January 6. We know this because he had threatened to do so many times before. Further, he did absolutely nothing to stop the insurrection once it started. He was reportedly gleeful as he watched it unfold on television. Fortunately, both Trump and his followers were too stupid and incompetent to pull off a real coup. Trump belittled and insulted the very military that he would have needed solidly behind him in order to overthrow the government. Further, many of the geniuses who stormed the Capitol building in their unique garb left pictures of themselves in the act all over social media. Some will cool their revolutionary asses in prison, hopefully for a long time. But that leaves us to ponder: what if the next wannabe dictator is much smarter than Trump?

Now that the new president and vice president have been sworn in, and are safely in office, many of us are breathing at least temporary sighs of relief. On Inauguration Night, while watching the festivities at my house just north of DC,  I could hear a long, continuous roar in the distance. Once I realized it was fireworks and not another attempted coup, I rejoiced. But the threat from the fake patriots isn’t over. They infiltrated Congress once, so they probably feel emboldened to try it again, as soon as everyone’s guard is down. I’d be close to that turbulence if I were still working near Capitol Hill, as I did for over thirty years, but there wouldn’t be any particular virtue in that. Next time, we could all be caught up in it.

Was That The Revolution?

We’re approaching a significant finish line for our nation, by which I mean Joe Biden’s anticipated inauguration on January 20, without having gone through an obvious revolution. There’s still time, however. Who can say for certain if such an upheaval is more likely to come from the left or the right? The country is so polarized that either seemed possible. Some of Donald Trump’s most deluded followers, believing to the last that their dear leader was somehow cheated out of electoral victory,  have vowed that Biden and Kamala Harris will never take office. How this will be prevented isn’t spelled out. On the other hand, if Trump somehow succeeds in one of his outlandish schemes to subvert the will of the voters, the clear majority that voted for his opponent can’t be expected to take that lying down.

The American election of 2020 should have been declared over and done with several times already. In any case, it was officially over once the electoral college voted emphatically on December 14 to uphold the will of the majority. It would be nice to be able to take a breath, but Trump keeps coming up with all kinds of fantasy ploys, up to and including a military takeover. The creativity of his imagination isn’t exactly a surprise, since he’s never been all that tethered to reality. He might make a good novelist, if only he were more literate. The real problem is that far too many lawmakers who surely know better have avoided shutting down his absurd ideas. Worse, an appalling percentage of citizens would be perfectly okay with Trump effectively declaring himself dictator. With stupidity in this country more rampant than Covid, such an outcome isn’t as implausible as it should be.

So we can’t rule out the possibility that some stranger-than-fiction Civil War 2.0 still looms on our horizon. Our current president, utterly ignorant of history and still clueless about how government works after four years at the head of that government, craves a banana republic. He hopes his followers will fight for such a republic, where he could remain in office for life. Of course, he would decline to involve himself directly in such a fight, citing those same pesky bone spurs that kept him out of military service during the Vietnam era. For that matter, why can’t such a glorious commander simply order the virus, which has so bedeviled his administration, to magically disappear, as he once promised it would? Unfortunately for him, both the rule of law and of nature have been stubborn so far.

I had a mild concern, before the election, that my novel in progress, tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, might be overtaken by events. Admittedly, that’s a small concern compared to the possible demise of the republic. The story features a president with dictatorial ambitions, although much smarter than Donald Trump and much more knowledgeable about how the system actually works. I seem to be exploring what might happen if the next dictator wannabe has similar ambitions to overthrow democracy, but is actually intelligent enough to make a case that isn’t totally absurd. Such a chief executive, by looking and acting somewhat normal, might be able to win over people who aren’t sniveling cowards or downright stupid. That would have to be someone who hasn’t spent his or her entire tenure in office spouting incredible whoppers that shouldn’t fool a reasonably bright child.

If there is no revolution this time, it might be owing to Trump’s general incompetence and limitations. He actually doesn’t care about the politics of it, but only about himself and his brand. The job itself never interested him, except for its money-making potential. The next coup that aims not only to enrich one man and his family, but to change democratic institutions permanently, might succeed. Then it will be time for a people’s revolution.

I’m beginning to realize, as my novel winds toward its conclusion, that it foresees a time when the rule of law actually implodes, and the U.S. Constitution is effectively shredded. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be happening right at this moment. No doubt there will be more desperate gambits, all the way up to inauguration day, but so far there have been enough people of integrity to hold the line. Part of me wants to see the wannabe dictator removed forcibly, thereby suffering a taste of the violence that he has absolutely no problem trying to visit on others. But the better part of me wants to see the rule of law continue to prevail. A peaceful counter-revolution like that beats a violent revolution every time.

Writing Desperately

I became a devotee of Sylvia Plath during my college years. I originally identified with the troubled young Esther, also a college student and the heroine of The Bell Jar, Plath’s autobiographical novel. A couple of years after devouring that story, I wrote my senior thesis on Plath’s poetry. Now, after all these years, having read both volumes of her letters, her journals, and several biographies, I’ve learned many additional details of her life. My admiration has only grown, since I can see more clearly the numerous obstacles she overcame in order to pursue her art … financial, physical, psychological, marital.

My mother used to object to my interest in Plath, which persisted well after college. I suppose idolizing a suicidal writer is something that would naturally raise some parental concern. But that worry was misplaced, because I also felt a need not to identify with Plath too much. That was true even when I was trying to write poems modeled on hers. I could never summon the degree of rage she instilled in her work, not to mention the skill.

The main difference between us (other than Plath’s superior talents and fame) is that writing is fun for me. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. Fortunately, I made a good living for many years from my day job, and am now retired with a nice pension. I don’t need to earn money from writing, although it would be nice if I raked in more than I do. As much as Plath loved to write, she was never in a position to exercise her chops for the pure joy of it.  Her mother was a widow with two children who was left in dire financial straits when her husband died. Although she taught on the college level, she never earned enough to make the family comfortable. But she was determined that her children would have the best of everything, and fortunately, both were bright enough to help her out by winning scholarships and other prizes.

Sylvia, while enduring hundreds of rejections, began to sell her pieces even before she entered college, first to the teen magazines and gradually to more professional publications. Every penny she earned from these early successes counted, as she had no other way to splurge. A sale might mean a new pair of shoes for a friend’s wedding, or a new dress for a prom.

Sadly, Sylvia Plath never knew real financial security in her life. She was making some progress toward that goal while she was married to fellow writer Ted Hughes, thanks mostly to his successes, which she supported passionately. Early in their marriage, he published a prize-winning poetry collection which enjoyed quite impressive sales for that genre. Plath had to keep striving toward that goal for several more years. Her first collection, The Colossus, was published to fairly good reviews, but didn’t sell much. Her novel, The Bell Jar, came out less than a month before her death, while she was struggling as a single mother. She was receiving some financial support from Hughes, although not enough, in her opinion. She planned to take him to court to get a better settlement.

Sylvia had a chance to read several reviews of the novel, which for some reason proved distressing. While certainly not bad, they probably weren’t what she hoped for. The book was published in England under a pseudonym, and didn’t make a splash upon publication. There is no way of knowing if its sales would have picked up at some point, enough to make her more comfortable during her lifetime. Also, it’s undeniable that the story of a young girl’s suicide attempt, written by a woman who eventually did kill herself, spoke to many young people, and contributed to making it the raging best-seller it became several years later.

When Hughes left Sylvia with two young children, she feared that she was about to repeat her mother’s struggles. She reportedly burned the only copy of a novel she had been working on as a sequel to The Bell Jar. That story was intended to celebrate the life she and Ted made together, after the adolescent angst of the first novel. She planned to present it to him on his birthday. I’m betting that story was fun to write, and felt like a joyful exercise as long as she was still happy.

After trashing that novel, she began another one. Tentatively entitled Double Exposure, this was the work that she thought would make her name, if only she could manage to finish it. It centered on a love triangle, inspired by the real one between her, Ted, and Assia Wevill, the woman who lured him away. Writing that narrative would have enabled her to unleash the same sort of fury that was motivating her poetry at that time. Her demolition of Hughes and Assia in print might have provided satisfying payback. But finishing it would require more time and peace of mind than she possessed. “I could finish the novel in six weeks of day-long work,” she lamented in a letter to her mother. The freedom to work uninterrupted for that long would require a nanny for the children and household help, and those would cost money.

Double Exposure was never finished. The writing of it (about 130 pages worth) seemed to be a desperate game. The pages “disappeared” several years after her death, so we don’t know how good it would have been. Maybe it was shaping up to be great, as she seemed to think herself, although it’s hard for me to even imagine writing under such pressure. Plath described this feeling in her final letter to her long-time psychiatrist: “Living on my wits, my writing … even partially, is very hard at this time, it is so subjective and dependent on objectivity.”

Certainly people manage to do this without having nervous breakdowns. Success in writing is wonderful, except for the pressure to go on being successful. The writer whose series attracts many fans can be sure that they are waiting impatiently for the next installment. If it’s too long in coming, momentum can be lost. Maybe that kind of incentive can help the writing process, but it seems to me it could also hurt. In Plath’s case, she seemed to be striving for wealth and fame as if her survival depended on it. Can that possibly be a productive mindset, or is it inevitably a destructive one?

We Say We Want A Revolution

I fell in love for the first time when I was eleven years old … not that it was love at first sight. I well remember that Monday morning in February 1964 when I arrived at school to find my sixth grade class all abuzz about what had occurred on the Ed Sullivan show the previous night. Everyone had seen it, and no one could talk about anything else, even the teacher. We’d never experienced anything like the Beatles. Young as we were, most of us knew that a musical and cultural revolution was in progress.

Still, there was plenty of disagreement about whether it was a good thing or not, and how long it would last. We seemed to divide into camps. At first I was on the side of the teacher, who sniffed that “They have absolutely no talent.” Their music seemed loud and unsophisticated, and they looked plain weird. I scoffed at the girlish haircuts and the indecipherable North of England accents. I figured they’d be a passing fad at best.

But I was on the cusp of that time of life when pre-adolescent hormones begin to awaken. Gradually, one of the quartet began to affect me more than the others. He was the most acerbic, rebellious, and outspoken of the group. I became obsessed with John Lennon, a feeling that has never entirely departed, all these years later. He was the main inspiration for the rock stars in my music-centered novels.

As time passed, Lennon became more controversial. When he mused to a reporter in 1966 that “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus,” his opinion didn’t exactly go over well in the American Bible belt, where the group was scheduled to tour later that year. Under the circumstances, with threats of violence and ritual record burnings breaking out, it was brave of them to go through with those shows.

A few years later, Lennon turned to politics. His song “Revolution” came out in 1968.  It was not exactly a call to action, but more of a thought process, and a somewhat confused one at that. It seemed the rock star had been pondering the explosion of student demonstrations in both the U.S. and Europe. There was no end in sight to the Vietnam war, and it was causing a near-war on the home fronts. He wasn’t altogether comfortable with the violent nature of some protests. Beatles fans were asking the group to take up the antiwar cause in a more direct way. He seemed to be responding, “I get it, we all want to change the world. But if you want money for people with minds that hate … count me out … you better free your mind instead.” In subsequent interviews, he admitted that he wouldn’t have been so circumspect when he was a kid. He’d suffered through a turbulent childhood, and had come out of it an angry young man. At one time, he admitted, he would gladly have blown up everything in sight. But in the meantime, he had become a rich man. Capitalism was still evil, he conceded, but there was no use in blowing up Wall Street if you had no idea what would take its place.

How relevant is the Revolution message today? At this writing, Donald Trump has clearly lost the American election, and still insists that he won. He and his toady in the Justice Department will do everything possible to get the ballots they don’t like thrown out, even if it means tearing up the Constitution and the rule of law. They’ll file as many lawsuits as they can. Their refusal to cooperate with President-elect Biden’s transition team is endangering all of us.

Maybe it’s all hot air to salve Trump’s ego, but somehow, it feels scarier than that. What if a legal movement to overturn the election gets real legs? That seems dubious at this point, but Trump has plenty of followers who are perfectly willing to start a war in his name. Even if he leaves the White House without being forcibly removed, I suspect that Trump will continue fighting this lost war for years, like some latter-day Jefferson Davis.

Is it possible that a legitimate election in the United States could be overturned by a determined enough despot? Then we would have ourselves a bona-fide dictator, ripe to be overthrown. The preamble to the Constitution declares the right to sever ties with a tyrant, which is exactly what our founding fathers were doing in the late eighteenth century. What kind of revolution would be required? Could it be the peaceful movement envisioned in that 1968 song?

The facts of Lennon’s violent death are horribly ironic. He was shot down in the city that he had embraced as his new home, New York City. For this and many other reasons, the revolution he sang about has failed so far. We still live in a country where powerful, moneyed interests stand in the way of rational public policy, including sensible gun control. Trump has taken us to the very brink of authoritarianism, and maybe beyond, and far too many people in this country are okay with that. Trumpism won’t disappear overnight, but neither will the Resistance. I suspect John Lennon would go on telling us, “Don’t throw bombs. Free your mind instead.”  And he would punctuate his advice with the exuberant refrain of his most political song: “Don’t you know it’s gonna be … all right!”

Bad Presidents Make Us Bad Citizens

I’ve known since early childhood that I’m not cut out to be a saint. Whenever people have wronged me … in school, in the workplace, or just in passing … I have hated them back. Not that I’ve actively tried to do them harm, but neither do I wish them long life and happiness. Christianity preaches that we should love our enemies, but I think most Christians would admit that they have a hard time living up to that. Presumably, the reason why devout Catholics hit the confessional weekly is because they fail so often. All in all, schadenfreude is a more natural human feeling than forgiveness.

How do you deal with these feelings without letting them destroy you? Once in a while I cast a bad person I’ve encountered as a villain in my fiction. Apart from that, I can only let Karma take its course, or else avoid engaging with the creeps any more than necessary. Long ago, a girl I knew in college snubbed me in a painful and humiliating way. Many years later, she let it be known through the Alumni Notes that she needed help for the nonprofit where she was a manager. I located the “donate” button on her webpage, and then took great pleasure in passing it by. True, I could have helped some deserving people by donating to her cause, but there are many other such causes that I do support. Although she’ll never know it, I snubbed her back.

Much more recently, I had a private laugh at my office when a certain supervisor, who had purposely excluded me from many of the substantive projects I had once worked on, confessed to suffering a near-nervous breakdown. It seemed she had run herself ragged trying to do everything herself. She got a nod of sympathy, but no offers of help from me. Rarely do such people have the self-awareness to apologize when they’re wrong. Believe me, I’m far from perfect in that regard myself.

I  must confess that there are times when I’ve sincerely believed that the best thing that could happen to the United States at this juncture would be Donald Trump’s untimely demise. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of a scourge? You could argue that the disasters he has brought about wouldn’t disappear just because he dropped dead, but it would certainly be a setback for his followers, who need to believe in his magnificence and perfection. There would be other evil and stupid leaders to take his place, but nobody in this country appears to have a cult following like his. When he got Covid, I thought maybe this was it. Or if he survived it, maybe he’d develop a different outlook toward those who have suffered from it. But no such luck. If anything, he’s doubled down on all his worst traits by declaring that the disease is easily defeated, and that he is “cured” enough to return to his normal scary pursuits. Those are lies that will certainly get more people killed.

Sometimes I just get so sick of seeing his stupid face and waiting to hear what outrageous crap he’ll spout next. Is he testing his followers to see if there is anything at all he can say that they won’t believe? Not only are his opponents Satanist pedophiles, he implies, but now they’re plotting to cancel Christmas. If I long for this crazy voice to be silenced, does that make me a bad person? Do I deserve to come down with the virus myself?

In a democratic system like the one we supposedly have, a president isn’t supposed to die in office. His removal should be the result of being defeated at the polls. That would still be true if these were normal times, but they are not. Trump and his followers have made it clear that they will never accept a result they don’t like. They are engaged in blatant cheating already, setting up roadblocks to voting wherever they think the trends don’t favor them. The president has literally threatened my life and many others by suggesting “herd mentality” is the way to combat Covid. (Of course, the idiot meant to say “herd immunity.”) That might mean the most vulnerable of us are expected to sacrifice ourselves to reduce the spread of the virus. That’s not a sacrifice Trump himself is willing to make, having received a level of medical care that is available to very few others.

Am I obligated to care about somebody who would discard me like the weekly trash if it would help his reelection chances? I admire people who forgive their enemies, as John Lewis did when he forgave the state troopers who nearly killed him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. And I assume Michelle Obama was sincere in saying, “When they go low, we go high.” But does she mean it, deep down, knowing that Trump’s lies may have endangered her family?

Mrs. Obama and Congressman Lewis are better people than I am. They speak the truth when they say we need to be better than our enemies; otherwise, what have we accomplished by standing up to them? Current Republican leaders, fearing the demographic changes that are taking place and will only accelerate in the future, know that the only way they can stay in power is to cheat. If Trump manages to steal this election, some kind of resistance movement would be called for. In order to be righteous, it must remain peaceful. Somehow, we have to rise above their evil. But damn, sometimes it’s so difficult to be a saint.

Revisiting Tara

I first became acquainted with the Old South, as depicted in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, during my early teens. The novel, published in 1936, is fairly pedestrian in its writing style, but the story itself is full of drama and complex characters, making it well worth revisiting from time to time. The movie, released in 1939, was quite a star-studded filmmaking feat. The story takes a decidedly southern point of view in depicting the Civil War and Reconstruction. That did not coincide with my own sympathies, especially as I got older and learned more history. Still, I’ve always been able to appreciate it for what it is … a story written in a different era, about a long-ago past, taking a point of view quite different from my own. I don’t need to agree with its themes to enjoy it.

Nor do I need a warning label slapped on it to tell me that certain aspects of it could prove offensive, as Turner Classic Movies recently did. I suspect that the network had to do some soul-searching before deciding to show the movie at all, with sensitivities at an all-time high. There’s no denying it won a slew of Academy Awards in 1940, including, most significantly, Hattie McDaniel’s best supporting actress award for her portrayal of Mammy, the first African American to be so honored. Personally, I find the warning label more offensive than the movie itself. They are treating their audiences like children who don’t have the capacity to understand concepts such as historical context.

Some years back, at my workplace, I had a lively discussion with a few African American colleagues who had recently seen the movie and were quite fascinated with it. Since they knew I had also read the book, they asked me to compare the two. They also took a strong interest in the story’s depiction of slavery. None of us had any qualms about discussing this admittedly sensitive topic. I wonder if such an open discussion would be possible today, now that everyone is being instructed on what is offensive.   

There’s no denying that Margaret Mitchell was an unabashed racist. It’s a shame, because at the same time, she was something of a proto-feminist. Her heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, is “no lady,” as her dashing suitor Rhett Butler repeatedly tells her. Rhett intended it as a compliment, although she didn’t always take it so. It was, in fact, what he loved most about her. Scarlett is strong, determined, and unyielding in the face of all kinds of adversity. After Sherman’s army rolls through Georgia, and the war is lost, Scarlett’s neighbors and friends can’t stop longing for their past cushy lives that were propped up by slavery. Scarlett, who has no patience for such whining, rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. She begins by pulling the family plantation, Tara, back from ruin, even when it meant picking cotton all day in the hot sun. Later, in Atlanta, she finds she has a head for business. She manages a general store, transforming it from the near-charity that her husband had been running into a money-making enterprise, and then starts her own lumber business. Naturally, she is ostracized in that time and place, where conventional standards for “being a lady” still prevail even after the war has destroyed the fabric of society. Distressed as she is by this treatment, Scarlett still can’t change her essential nature. She’ll always be a doer, not a thinker.   

It’s too bad Mitchell couldn’t have brought some of that progressive sentiment to her treatment of black people. The only really smart one in the book is Mammy, who can see through Scarlett’s various poses and fronts, and everyone else’s, for that matter. Otherwise, the author takes a dim view of black intelligence. It never seems to occur to her that a class of people utterly disadvantaged and deprived of opportunity are not likely to be complex thinkers, or to speak the Queen’s English.    

The author establishes this attitude early in the story when she introduces a character who doesn’t appear in the movie. Dilcey is a part-Indian, part black woman who has been bought by Scarlett’s father, Gerald O’Hara, so that she can remain close to her husband Pork, the O’Hara family butler. Gerald has also gone so far as to purchase Prissy, Dilcey’s daughter, although he doesn’t really need her.

Mitchell explains Dilcey’s apparent superiority this way: “Dilcey was tall and bore herself erectly … Indian blood was plain in her features and overbore the negroid characteristics … she was self-possessed and walked with a dignity that surpassed even Mammy’s, for Mammy had acquired her dignity and Dilcey’s was in her blood.” Dilcey thanks Gerald O’Hara for buying Prissy as well as herself, so that she wouldn’t grieve at being separated from her child. Gerald “hurrumps” in embarrassment at being caught in an act of kindness.   

Thus we discover that the O’Haras were “good” slave owners. They don’t use the whip, and they don’t sell anyone down the river, although they might threaten to now and then. Still, at one juncture, Scarlett can’t help thinking in exasperation, “How stupid negroes were! They never thought of anything unless they were told. And the Yankees wanted to free them.”

Even when Mitchell praises black people, she insults them. When Pork gets shot raiding a neighbor’s farm in order to feed the family, “Scarlett did not ask whose hen coop but patted Pork’s shoulder gently, tears in her eyes. Negroes were provoking sometimes and stupid and lazy, but there was loyalty in them that money couldn’t buy, a feeling of oneness with their white folks which made them risk their lives … ”

The book is full of such cringe-worthy statements on matters of race. The movie, for what it’s worth, is less racist than the book. For the most part, it avoids blanket judgments and derogatory language. Perhaps that was in deference to the African American actors in the movie. They were genuine actors like the rest, even if they were not allowed to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta because Loew’s Grand Theatre was segregated. There has long been controversy over Butterfly McQueen’s portrayal of Prissy as the “simple-minded darky” who turns out not to know anything about birthing babies at a critical moment, even though she had bragged all along that she was a midwife like her ma. The character is certainly offensive on some levels, but it did require some comic acting skills on McQueen’s part. She reportedly said, “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”

I’m not saying that all bad things deserve a pass because they are in the past; just that context is important. The Bible, which so many people quote endlessly and try to live by, is generally tolerant of slavery. That doesn’t mean that everyone who takes inspiration from scripture shares that tolerance. Instead of flagellating ourselves for what our ancestors believed and did, why can’t we give ourselves some credit for evolving as a species?

 

Civil War 2.0

What are you supposed to do when you’re presumably writing a work of fiction, only to get the feeling that you’re about to be overtaken by real events? Do you try to write faster to get ahead of the approaching tsunami? Unfortunately, that’s not an option for me. I’m a slow-as-molasses writer in the best of times. All I can do is keep plugging away at the novel I’ve tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, knowing that there’s no way it can be anywhere near finished before the U.S. presidential election in November. It might not even be done a year from November. By the time I get through with what I consider sufficient editing, the country will probably go through two or three more convulsions.

My story features a monster of a president, obviously inspired by the current one, but much smarter and more subtle in her corruption. Being a woman also makes her more dangerous; she uses every feminine trick in the book, including short skirts, flirting, and fake naiveté, to get her way. She’s a dictator wannabe, but also a lawyer by training, who understands that there are limits to how far she can bend the law. That’s not the case with the current president, whose stupidity is so unbounded by reason or knowledge that it may be his strongest weapon. Trump thinks he can declare himself dictator, and tries to do so regularly. By contrast, in my universe, facts and reason are not totally out the window. In this alternate reality, it’s conceivable that everything could turn out all right. I do like happy endings, even if they’re not fully resolved. Maybe what I’m writing is a fantasy dream, and the real world is the dystopian nightmare.

As we close in on November, I see nothing but conflict ahead. Trump has made it clear that he won’t accept any result in the upcoming presidential election that doesn’t favor him. How far he will go to ensure the result he wants? Judging by recent events, he seems perfectly capable of fomenting a civil war. Already he is sending out dog whistles to the armed militias who love him so much. They are confronting  progressive demonstrators and trying to incite them to violence, so that their leader can proclaim himself the “law and order” president. What’s to keep him from sending these storm troopers to the polls to intimidate the “wrong” kind of voters, especially in the most critical swing states? On top of that, he’ll continue to do everything possible to cripple the post office, hoping to curtail other means of voting.

Clearly, Trump realizes that the larger the turnout, the worse his chances. If he manages to “win” this election, he’ll presumably call off the dogs, but that presents a problem for the rest of us. Should we accept the results of an election that appears to have been achieved through massive voter suppression and intimidation, and possibly foreign interference? If not, what should be done about it? Progressives are less inclined than right-wingers to take up arms, so the best we can do is demonstrate peaceably, even if that makes us vulnerable once again to pro-Trump militias. Either way, it’s looking more and more like Civil War 2.0.

I’m guessing this new conflict won’t hit the dramatic high points of Civil War 1.0. There won’t be battlefields known to posterity, such as Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. We’ll miss out on an opening act like Fort Sumter, or a closing act like Appomattox. We’ll be spared the sagas of traitorous generals whose statues were put up in defiance many years later, eventually to be pulled down. But we also won’t have a leader like Abraham Lincoln, who proved his greatness when most tested. He began by putting together a cabinet full of rivals who would tell him hard truths. He hit on a winning reelection strategy by supplying the soldiers in the field with absentee ballots, knowing they would vote for him because he had made them believe in the cause. And I’m sure we’ll never again hear a plea for healing as eloquent as his second inaugural address.

No, this time it’ll be a more sordid than heroic affair, despite the connection between the two eras. We all knew the embers of Civil War 1.0 had never been totally extinguished, but who knew a dimwitted demagogue 160 years later would be capable of fanning the flames to this degree? I’ve always loved going to the polls on election day, to take in the vibrant feeling of a democracy at the end of a hard-fought campaign. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m requesting a mail-order ballot. The president will question the validity of votes cast in this manner. He will try to force people to vote in person, risking their health in the middle of a pandemic, or not vote at all. Any so-called leader who would force such a choice on the citizens he’s supposed to protect and defend is a monster of indescribable proportions. At the moment, our only recourse is to make sure we vote in spite of the obstacles, and to insist that our votes be counted. That will be the new resistance.

My Characters Can’t Act

In several previous posts, I reported on my efforts to turn my novels into cinematic products, using whatever technology was within my reach. I posted a few comic strips, extracted from a website called Storyboard That. I hoped those would be the first tangible step toward envisioning my stories as do-it-yourself movies.

Here in the Washington, DC area, it is theoretically possible to enlist live help from the local film-making community. Unfortunately, for the moment, the pandemic has choked off all forms of face-to-face creativity. I had previously hired professional screenwriters to turn my first four self-published novels into scripts. I lifted a few scenes from each screenplay to create shorter scripts that might be easily make-able by small production companies. In 2017, one of these, after considerable revision, was turned into a thirteen-minute movie called “The Investigation,” through the efforts of a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. Maybe someday, when life returns to normal, I’ll be able to pitch the other short ones. Meanwhile, my feature-length scripts languish on various screenwriters sites, getting occasional views but no Hollywood-style offers to make me rich.

Still, my cinematic dreams keep evolving as the technology does. I was recently alerted by some highly creative WordPress bloggers to a method of going one step farther toward bringing my comic strips to life. Plotagon Studio is a system for making animated movies on a computer. Ever since I downloaded the software, I’ve been getting a kick out of creating little movies from bits and pieces of my own stories. Admittedly, they’re more cringe-worthy than Hollywood-worthy. The software has its limitations, and I’m not close to mastering even what is available. Still, I couldn’t resist jumping right in with more enthusiasm than skill. No matter how awkward and amateurish they turn out, it’s fun and satisfying to see the stories come alive.

I’ve made six “movies” so far. Each one starts with a bit of exposition, in the form of narratives that appear in white letters on black backdrop, with a voice-over added in some cases. I’ve found it’s best to hold these narratives to a minimum, as viewers tend to get impatient with the longer ones. Still, a little explanation seems unavoidable when trying to set up a story that has been compressed to three minutes or less.

After the initial setup, various indoor and outdoor scenarios can be chosen. A wide variety of musical accompaniment is available, suitable for comedy, suspense, drama, film noir, etc. Sound effects can include ringing phones, background laughter, city sounds, and nature sounds. I used an office setting, with jarring phones, for the beginning of Secretarial Wars, while Sycophants begins in a restaurant, the location of a five-year college reunion. Handmaidens of Rock opens in a television studio during the mid-1970s, where the heroine is being interviewed about a book she wrote revealing her intimate dealings with a rock band a few years before. That is followed by flashbacks, including a backstage scene where the lead guitarist she hoped to write about and make love to felt somewhat cornered. For The Rock Star’s Homecoming, a college dormitory setting was needed. Eventually, this story shifts to an empty field near the campus, where my heroine, yet another rock and roll fan, attempts to interview her musical hero about his “poetic” lyrics for a senior thesis in English.

Of all the stories I attempted, I found that Let’s Play Ball required the most action. The opening features a smashed-up vehicle, still on fire, which appears to be the scene of a city accident. In this case, it’s the aftermath of the kidnapping of a famous ballplayer from his own ballpark. The athlete’s fiancée, sportswriter Jessica, is interrogating a police officer about what might have happened, and being interrogated in turn.

The available characters in the Plotagon universe tend to be young adults, which mostly suits my stories. They can be altered by gender, hair style, skin tone, clothes, shoes and expression. When I required a rather naive heroine, a girl with pigtails fit the bill. For contrast in the same story, I concocted a long-haired hippie girl, put her in a colorful poncho, and made her slouch in a way that might draw a boss’s ire in an office setting. So far I’ve only managed to place two characters in each scene, although the tutorials explain how that limitation can be overcome by introducing an additional “camera angle” in a subsequent scene. That’s a skill I’ll hopefully master in the future.

When it’s time to add voices and dramatic gestures, that’s when the fun really begins. The program provides various gradations of happiness, sadness, irritation, suspicion, and so on. The accompanying gestures tend to be exaggerated. There is a way to make the dialogue more realistically human, by recording your own voice, but that requires a built-in microphone that my ten-year-old-plus computer doesn’t have. The Plotagon-provided voices often put emphasis on the wrong syllables and mispronounce words, like amateur actors badly in need of more training.

Still, once in a while the software gets it miraculously right. In Let’s Play Ball, the fraternal twin sisters, sportswriter Jessica and Homeland Security bureaucrat Miranda, confront one another in a police station and argue about which of them is best suited to investigate the kidnapping. Jessica knows that Miranda has a personal interest in protecting one particular suspect. “Maybe I’ll see you in court!”she snarls. Miranda’s reply is spot-on.“Yeah, see you in court, “she retorts, somehow achieving just the right mixture of brow-lifting sarcasm and wisdom.

Some experts proclaim that this is only the beginning of do-it-yourself film-making. Advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI), along with more sophisticated speech synthesis, will someday allow anyone with a modern enough computer to run their own personal Industrial Light & Magic outfit. In the meantime, you can try to coax your characters, within current limits, to appear more real. Maybe all they need is acting lessons.

Don’t Forget The Back-Story

Compelling fictional characters are not easy to create. If they are to be more than stick figures, they must have rich back-stories. That is what gives depth to their personalities, and explains the traits and flaws that make them behave foolishly or oddly enough to create intriguing plots. If these creatures sprang onto the page fully evolved, our stories would have no conflict.

This might be a good time to reflect that historical figures have back-stories too. I find the progressive movement sweeping our nation at the moment mostly positive. I get a second wind when reminded of the civil rights and antiwar movements of my youth. In spite of the tragedies that spurred those events in the late 1960s, it was a vibrant and inspiring time to be alive. The current protests are a much-needed antidote to the stupidity and malice of Donald Trump and his followers. But there is a real danger of going too far and playing right into Trump’s hands.

Something like that happened in 1968, when legitimate protests began to devolve too often into violence. One of the results was that Richard Nixon was elected on a law and order platform. Make no mistake: Nixon was a better president on his worst day than Trump could ever hope to be in his wildest dreams. He had some real accomplishments to his credit. On at least one famous occasion, he ventured outside the White House to “rap” with the antiwar protesters who had gathered there. By contrast, Trump’s sniveling-coward reaction to a similar situation was to build a bunker and hide behind it.

The “defund the police” slogan is a case in point. That is a phrase that Trump can use for his benefit by insisting it’s a literal statement, and encouraging his followers to take it literally. No one seriously believes that we can disband police departments and let ordinary criminals take over. Nor can we deny that cops do a dangerous job, and often put their own lives on the line. Certainly reform is needed, which may include reallocating funds. But “defund the police” is giving Trump an excuse to crow that he’s the law-and-order president who will save the country from left-wing anarchists.

We also have to be careful about scrubbing history. Rather than trying to erase our unenlightened past, why not learn from it? The back-story of our country is a fascinating tale, as long as we don’t insist that the United States should have appeared on the world stage fully evolved from day one. Destroying every statue in sight out of anger seems so counter-productive. I agree that it’s more than time for Confederate statues and symbols to come down … those should never have been put up in the first place. But I’d leave the presidential images alone. Those men were duly elected and can’t be un-elected, no matter how flawed they seem now. As such, they reflect the sensibilities of their times and the people who supported them. That will be true even of Trump one day, much as I hate to admit it.

Before you smash them all, learn some of the history behind them. It is simply unfair to take historical figures out of the context of their times. Columbus was a medieval man, locked into medieval values and religious beliefs, doing the biding of medieval rulers. He had an overriding vision, which changed the world forever for both good and bad, most of which he couldn’t have foreseen. Let’s not pretend that we don’t owe much of our subsequent prosperity to that vision.

Likewise, don’t judge Abraham Lincoln on some out-of-context quotes that seem unenlightened by today’s standards. At least, don’t do this without considering what he was up against. He couldn’t go any faster toward abolition than the times and circumstances would allow. If he had been the unabashed abolitionist that many activists think he should have been, including some in his own time, he might well have lost the moderate support he needed to win the war. If he had lost, I can only imagine how long slavery would have endured. Maybe forever. Some activists have targeted a statue that depicts a former slave bowing to Lincoln. To me that slave doesn’t appear subservient at all, but merely grateful, as he should have been.

True, the record on slave-owning early presidents isn’t pretty. Washington and Jefferson were slave masters who owned plantations in Virginia. Since that was the basis of the agricultural society, they were pretty much stuck with it. That is not to excuse a system that could never be anything but an abomination. Jefferson in particular admitted as much. Men like him and Washington believed abolition was inevitable, sooner or later, but they were too busy founding the country to do much about it. Further, bringing presidential back-stories up to the present, we’re learning more about what made Trump the way he is, thanks to his niece’s book about the family dynamic he grew up in. What could be more predictable than a monster parent raising a monster child? This revelation might even make me feel a tiny bit more sympathetic toward the president, although his enablers still deserve all of our scorn.

Like most people, I have my own evolutionary pace. It wasn’t so long ago that I watched blackface performances in old movies without a quiver. Now, suddenly, they make me cringe. Likewise, I’ve defended the former name of my hometown football team, the Washington Redskins, a few times in this blog. It’s hardly a cursed name, having three Super Bowl championships to its credit. I still don’t believe it was ever intended as a slur. But I concede that it’s time for a change.

I remain an old fogey about some things, such as torturing the language in the name of equality. There’s a movement to label words like “master” and “colonial” as racist without considering the context in which they’re being used. That is, in my opinion, simply trying too hard to be offended. Another place where I draw the line, and am reasonably sure that I will never budge, involves the increasing use of the singular “they.” I can barely push through any written piece that uses it, because I find it not only ungrammatical but childish. I’m all for trying to accommodate those who prefer not to identify with a particular gender, but surely we can do it without murdering the English language.

Hang-ups like those are part of my own back-story. I was an English major at a small-town college, and I was raised in a conservative family. My parents held many views that I objected to, argued about, or outright rejected, but that doesn’t mean I was immune from absorbing some of them. To be fair, my folks also managed to evolve through the years, although it was a slow process. We are all more complicated than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. We’re not stick figures.