May 20th, 2010

On Obscenity

I got an email the other day with a number of obscenities in it. It was a short note and they really stuck out, plus I was a bit bleary eyed and was having trouble grasping the rest of the content (one of the many awesome things about my life is that people very rarely curse me out early in the morning anymore). It took me a few moments to realize the note was from someone who had read a story of mine and was struck by certain language in it that might cause problems publishing it. The note wasn’t even critical, just factual, and all the obscene stuff was in quotation marks–I wrote it.

People say stuff, do stuff and, especially, think stuff, that I never would–and would never want to–but I do want to write about people who aren’t me. So, I have to learn to think (if not say and do) like someone else. Someone with different beliefs, values, standards than me. Someone who likes gefilite fish and ignores lucky pennies, to name two inane examples. Someone racist or disrespectful to women, to name to less inane ones.

So?

No so–I need to do it, because people like that exist. They are even charming and kind on occasion and witty at parties–and I want to write about them. Part of the thrill of writing and reading fiction is breaking out of our own tragically limited points of view and seeing why and how someone might do something completely else.

So if I write seriously, respectfully, and thoughtfully about someone who is is glibly thoughtlessly hateful–what is that? In my mind, that’s not only fine but necessary, but then again, it makes me nervous.

I finally finished reading *Tribal Justice* by Clark Blaise, probably one of the most nuanced, multi-dimensional and utterly agonizing fictional examinations of race and culture as I have ever read. As much as that book challenged and absorbed my every intellectual synapse, I still somehow had the mental space to wonder how my fellow bus riders were interepting the brightly titled cover, or if anyone had glanced over my shoulder to see the range of racial ephithets on many pages.

Those words needed to be there–they reperesented the language people used in the times and places Blaise was writing about. So did the graphic accounts of violence, the weird sexuality, the inflamatory rhetoric–that’s what these characters said, did, believed. These were the stories Blaise wanted to tell, and they needed telling, in the actual lived language. But oh my goodness, I hope no one got the wrong impression based on the cover, etc. (I would recommend this book, but not to everyone: it’s really hard to deal with parts of it).

So, with such openmindedness, RR, why did you note “too close to hateful language” in the margins of a couple of the student stories you were marking just now? Surely those teens have different viewpoints on race/sex/culture/etc, and have a right to represent the world the way they see it–don’t they?

Oh, man, I’m still not sure I did the right thing (don’t worry, I still have the papers, and some white-out). After reading more than 60 stories, I am pretty convinced that a lot of these kids could not distinguish well between their characters and themselves (witness the number of main characters who have perfect wardrobes, expensive cars, and perfect love, all 17). And I want to run up the flag of sensitivity without necessarily making them salute–I can’t make anyone like other races or religions or sexual orientations, I can only make them aware that they are *not* perfectly unbiased in these regards and see what they do with that new self awareness. (I am making this sound really pervasive so I can generalize, lest my students stumble on this blog–actually, it was only a couple kids).

What if I am wrong, and the students are simply writing about characters who believe these things and they don’t themselves? Well, then they’re really talented because it reads so heartfelt. And I owe them an apology.

I wonder, if I ever manage to publish the story mentioned above, if it’ll be something people read and squirm about, ducking the book into their chests on the bus? Or if I could ever be conflated with my characters, assumed to have their blindspots and uglinesses (my own are plenty).

Hmm, this post has a theme but no thesis–I certainly don’t know the answers.

One Response to “On Obscenity”

  • Kerry Clare says:

    Thesis or none, this is insightful. And what power to get to be the censor.


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