Recent News: 44th New Millennium Writing Awards –Honorable Mention!

happy jessieIn the category of “close but no cigar,” I received news two days ago that I have received an Honorable Mention in the 44th New Millennium Writing Awards for my flash fiction, “In Our Country.”  This, I was told, meant that the story “beat out 90% of the competition.”  New Millennium will not be publishing the story, but it is gratifying to have received the honorable mention and also to know where it stood amongst the many entries.

I don’t submit work to publications or contests nearly as much as I should.  I believe that this is a function of the fact that I spend so much time working on novels and so have less in the way of smaller pieces that can be submitted.  But I think I also tend to second guess whether the shorter fiction I do complete is ready, as well as where to send it.  This is something many writers tend to do.

All of these “close but no cigars” that I have received over the years, when compared with the degree to which I send work out, should encourage me to send out more, and more often.  But, I tend to write pieces that don’t fit into standard genres, and I think one of the things that stops me is trying to figure out where my work fits. Perhaps I need to follow the advice of a writer I met during my Prague Summer Seminar sojourn.  She had won a number of contests, including a fellowship to that program.  Her view was:  you write what you write, you send what you send and they take what they take.  In other words, also hers, if I remember correctly–even though they tell you to, don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out what kind of work a publication takes.  Just send, send, send.

GIVING EQUAL TIME TO ANOTHER VIEW

In my October post, The Kirkus “Star,” I expressed a problem with the narrowing of writers’ ability to write or publish work that presents anyone outside their own experience.  Though not addressing exactly the same matter that was at issue in that post, the Publisher’s Weekly article, “Let’s Talk About Sensitivity Readers” by Dhonielle Clayton presents another view of a related matter. As an exponent of “knowing what you write,” I have not decided whether or not I agree with the author’s view of the solution, but I think the article (linked above) is worth reading.

Where Ms. Clayton argues that, while working, a writer would do well to run his or her work past readers who are of the culture they’re writing about to be sure it feels like an accurate, authentic portrayal, I agree.  At the same time, people of the same cultural group may have very different ideas of what authentically portrays their world, not to mention that they may be so focused on the question of “authenticity” as to miss what a work is really doing.  And when editors, of which there are, I suspect, more than a few, simply pass a work off to a “reader” of the ethnic background being written about, they are abdicating the responsibility to form their own independent judgment of the work.

In any case, the Clayton article can be a catalyst for a more complex consideration of these matters.

“The Great American Novel” –Harumph.

I’ve just read an article written by Ursula K. Le Guin, entitled, “Who Cares About the Great American Novel,” in which she argues against it as “a uselessly competitive, hopelessly gendered concept,” a concept useful only to and promoted only by public relations people to sell books.

Though I think her connecting it to gender is a bit narrow, I do agree with her statement:  “‘Great’ and ‘Novel’ are fine enough.  But ‘the’ is needlessly exclusionary, and ‘American’ is unfortunately parochial.”  It is the parochial frame of thought in the label that most disturbs me (as well, of course, as the suggestion that there can only be one great American novel).

I have always thought that the “great American novel” was meant to apply not simply to the author being American–though that would be part of it–but as applying to a novel that captures what it is to be American.  However, there is no one quintessential American, only many different Americans.  Thus, Henry James and Edith Wharton capture one kind, Mark Twain and Don Marquis another, John Steinbeck yet another, Jonathan Cheever another, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor yet others, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry and Zora Neale Hurston and Walter Moseley yet others, and so on and so on.  It’s like the blind men and the elephant, each writer portraying a portion of what is America.  In which case, there can be as many great American novels as there are kinds of Americans.

For myself, although I like to read these many different novels, writing a “novel of America” does not appeal.  Rather, I would like to write a broader novel, a novel of humanity, placed in any nation or environment I choose, and reflective of the humanity we all have in common.  Maybe that is what Sci Fi/Fantasy writers are trying to do when they place their stories in other worlds–address the commonalities and conflicts of our humanity in a broader way by removing them from the particulars of the nations or tribes to which we on this earth belong .

[To read the Ursula k. Le Guin article, see Lit Hub Daily.]

 

THE KIRKUS “STAR”

Kirkus gave the novel, American Heart, by Laura Moriarty, a starred review.  Then, because of criticism, Kirkus revoked it.  I have not read the novel, and am not arguing whether it should have been given a star–or even a good review–based on its merits.  Perhaps it is a badly written effort and should not have been given a star at all.  I leave that to others.  (Moriarty may or may not have done a decent or bad job of presenting Muslim characters, and I’d be fine with someone who read the book attacking it on the basis of how Muslims were presented.)

What concerns me is the reasons Kirkus has stated for revoking the star.  Apparently, when asked if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Kirkus’s editor-in-chief Claiborne Smith stated, “Yes.”  (See Kirkus Editor-in-Chief Explains Why They Altered That American Heart Review)  This, after commenters’ attacks that the novel was promoting a “white savior” narrative.

Noting that she’s being attacked for having a “white savior” protagonist, Moriarty states that if she’d written it from the Muslim woman’s point of view, she would have been attacked as “appropriating another’s culture,” and that what’s really being said is don’t even dare to write about anyone’s culture but your own.

This narrowing of fiction and who is “allowed” to write what has been going on for a long time, and frankly, for a large part, I have felt that American writers in particular bow to this restriction, and so we end up with mediocre “write what you know” literature rather than, “know what you write” literature.

As a writer, that leaves me in despair.  If this is where we are in the writing of fiction–certainly in what is favored in the publishing of fiction–perhaps writing science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction with no connection to any ethnic group existing on earth may now be the only way to go for a writer’s freedom.  It’s that, or just stop writing.  

A Quote for the Day

Worth bearing in mind:

“Nothing shows so clearly that they [writers] have been tamed as their concentration on ‘interpersonal relationships’ and the absence from their works of any reference to politics or economics –i.e., to man in his social context… Of course, one has no right to hand the author a list of issues and say, ‘Base your next play or novel on one of these.’ But one does have the right to demand complexity, texture, depth, and a sense of the layeredness and many-sideness of life. This, the prestige writers are, for the most part, unable to convey.”
From Margaret Halsey’s The Pseudo Ethic.

 

MY WEEKEND AT THE WRITERS POLICE ACADEMY

The Writers Police Academy (WPA) is an annual 4-day conference held for mystery writers (though anyone may attend) at a policy training facility, with classes that enable writers to gain knowledge that will help them write more authentically when presenting crime and law enforcement in their fiction.  This year, it was held at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, International Public Safety Training Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

While there, I gained some knowledge of ballistics; the profiling of serial killers; defense and arrest tactics; and the mindset of cops from their point of view. I also got hands-on experience in how handcuffs work, found that I could drag a 150-pound body-dummy out of harm’s way, and got to fire a Glock on an indoor firing range (for this last, of course, one had to have a background check in advance).  [Although, thus far, my venture into the mystery genre has been in writing international thrillers, not police procedurals, the information and hands-on experience is valuable for writing in the mystery genre as a whole.]

The instructors who conducted classes for us generally train police officers, so their instruction gave us the flavor of what they attempt to impart to actual recruits.  What one comes away with is the sense that, whatever policemen may do once they are on the job, the instruction–at this facility in any case–emphasizes prudence and very specific procedures, for safety of both the police officer and the victim or suspect.

At the same time, the various instructors attempted to impress upon us how split-second the timing is for a policeman to assess a situation and react [eg., the heaviness of the gun belt; the difficulty of getting a hand gun out of its holster; demonstration of how quickly someone with a knife can get to an officer before a hand gun can be drawn; and class participation in a shoot-don’t shoot scenario (no real guns or bullets) in which one would have to distinguish threat from non-threat in a real-time scenario].

The two instructors who impressed me the most were not so much teaching us practical tactics but talking about police mindset.  The first, teaching a class called cop mindset, noted that the police feel like they are being attacked by the media and activist groups when they just want, like anyone else, to go home alive to their loved ones at the end of their day.  (He emphasized that he was not saying this sense of being attacked was necessarily his own viewpoint but that he was just telling us how many in the police feel.)  This instructor gave a hypothetical example of being put between a rock and a hard place:  a call comes in that a woman is committing suicide.  A policeman answers the call.  The woman is slitting her wrists, but when she sees him, she comes at him with the knife, and he shoots her to prevent being stabbed.  He is criticized for not having waited for back-up. But if he had waited for back-up, and she had died, he would have been criticized for waiting.

I very much took his point and sympathized.  Still, what went through my mind was, what about the woman who calls 911 and the police answering the call shoot her? (And of course, what about all the unarmed black people being killed b policemen?) I felt that he should be addressing that side of the situation too, and felt resentful about it.  But because this was at a police training facility and because we were there to learn their techniques and their thinking for our fiction, it did not seem the place to raise questions about the recent rash of police killings of unarmed people.  In addition, in the moment, I did not feel I could find a way to raise it without sounding hostile or combative, which would not be constructive.  Still, it would be good–perhaps not at a police training facility, but in some setting–to have police and community discuss these things openly and frankly.

Given that it was a police training facility, I think it was certainly fair game for them to set out their side of things.  The problem is that, by only addressing that side rather than acknowledging the other side of the problem, the defense comes off sounding a bit like public relations propaganda and so tends to detract from the credibility of what they’re saying.

The second instructor whose class impressed me taught Defense and Arrest tactics.  Noting that an officer must approach everyone he or she deals with as a potential threat, he talked about the need to observe not only what people say but their tone, their body language, etc. (It was also noted, though I’m not sure it occurred in his class, that if someone is on the ground with their hands beneath them, an officer’s knee on his or her back may appear unnecessary because the person is on the ground but, until the person’s hands are visible, the officer can’t know whether he or she may have a weapon, turn over, and use it.)

The story this instructor told, that I found impressive, was that when he was a young officer, he and two other officers had to arrest a man.  The man was responding very belligerently to the other two officers.  This officer came up from behind, tackled the man, and handcuffed him.  But when he got the man to his feet, without giving it any thought, he brushed snow off the man’s trousers and jacket.  The man, who was still angry with the other two officers, turned to him and said, “thank you for not treating me like a dog.”  The important part of this story is the effect it had on this young officer.  He said it made him think consciously about the need to treat suspects and criminals with respect, giving them their human dignity regardless of their behavior towards him, and that he felt that doing so makes the police safer.  It is the expression of that kind of thinking in an instructor that impressed me most about this training facility.

One thing did disturb me about the training.  On the first morning, the trainers performed a car-stop vignette for us in which the driver shoots at the police, and runs, and the police must first get their injured officer out of harms way and then approach the car.  The scenario was fine except that the recruit/officer playing the shooter was black–which reinforces the idea conscious and/or unconscious of what a shooter looks like–something that the police ought to be making an effort to change, especially now.  It is one thing, in caution, to approach everyone as a potential threat and another thing to feed into a perception that a particular color or ethnic group is a potential threat.  And after all, they could have had any recruit/officer play the shooter’s role.

One other thing struck me quite oddly about this weekend.  This is not about the conference, instruction, or instructors, but rather, about the other attendees.  They were all very pleasant and very enthusiastic.  But, this was the weekend that the Nazis marched in Charlottesville, injuring and murdering counter-protesters.  I would not necessarily have expected people to get into deep discussion about it, but not one attendee even mentioned it.  (I mentioned it to two people, only to note how odd it was that no-one referenced it.  Their reactions were that perhaps people wanted to stay away from politics. But I have never been at any other writers’ conference where some huge world or national event occurred and no-one mentioned it at all–not even to say, “Did you see that on the news?  Isn’t it terrible?”  And frankly, in class room situations discussing law and law enforcement, it seems more normal to me to raise it, even if an instructor were, quite naturally, to say that they don’t know enough details to comment on it.  A deliberate disconnection from the world. Very odd.  Very odd, indeed.)

Note:  for those who might like to check out information on the Writers Police Academy or attend in August 2018, its website is: http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE LOST ONES, BY SHEENA KAMAL

I think that The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal, is an excellent mystery novel. It is its own thing, but if you liked Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or the Easy Rollins novels of Walter Moseley, you should like this novel too!  For more on this, see my review recently published in Washington Independent Review of Books.