Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Change, Casting, Culture, and Comfort Zones Revisited

Someone linked to this article on Jonathan Franzen the other day.  I'd better begin by admitting that I haven't read any of Franzen's books -- I got about 100 pages into Freedom before I gave up -- and that his insulting remarks about Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001 gave me a bad impression of him that I haven't bothered to try to shake.  Despite his current cachet as an American literary giant, for Salon to take a few pokes at him indicates that he's a safe target.  What I read of Freedom seemed like ordinary MFA prose; he doesn't seem very important as far as I'm concerned, but I took a look at the article anyway.

I was surprised, because I didn't see any good grounds for hating him there.  For example, here's Reason Number One:
Why he will not be writing about race: “I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare…I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”
This actually seems fair enough to me, especially because there is widespread hostility to white people writing about non-whites, or people from other cultures, and not without reason.  In Reason Number Two, Franzen explains further: "I’m lazy. I don’t like to do research for books ... I upbraid myself for not being a real novelist because I won’t go out with a notebook and gather impressions. I won’t wade into difficult situations trying to get material."  If you're not going to bother to inform yourself, stick with what you know, or make up imaginary worlds or something. That Franzen is honest enough with himself to recognize this speaks well for him, not badly, though one could fairly look down on him for having so little interest in people outside his immediate experience.  The main characters in Freedom were white suburbanites, whom I presume are the kind of people Franzen knows, but he didn't seem to have much interest in them either, except as punching bags.

I can look down on Franzen for his inability to engage with people who are different from him, but at the same time I don't approve of telling artists what subject matter to take on.  Artists do what they can, not necessarily what they would like to do.  Some can do research and enjoy it; good for them.  Some do "dare" to try to write from inside the heads of people who are superficially different from them (race, sex, culture, religion, are all superficial differences), and some do it well.  Artists may do whatever they feel called to do, though there's no guarantee they'll succeed, and there's no obligation on the part of readers or critics to ignore their failures.

Remember, though, the writer K. T. Bradford, who retreated to her comfort zone by taking a break from reading work by straight cis white male authors.  This move was widely misunderstood as a move away from her comfort zone, partly because Bradford herself confused the issue, framing it as a "challenge" to other readers to read writers different from them rather than like themselves, as she had.  It led to a lot of confused responses and discussion.  But again, I'm fine with people reading only in their comfort zones, or outside their comfort zones, or mixing it up.  I don't think you ought to prescribe these things, and anyone who tries tends to fall on their face, as Bradford did.  I might hate Jonathan Franzen for other reasons, though I'm not interested enough to find them; his self-exculpating remarks don't seem like a good reason to hate him -- rather the opposite.  They made me respect him a little, or disrespect him a little less.

Goodness, how time flies.  This post began as a response to a post on writing about the Other by John Scalzi, with contributions by other writers (including K. T. Bradford!) on Labor Day.  That was several weeks ago, but this issue isn't going away anytime soon.  I'm intrigued by the topic, partly because I'm a gay man and these issues have often come up in writing by and about us.  I was glad to see other people expressing my own first reaction, that individual characters are individuals, not their cultures.  But there's a problem with this, because characters are not people, nor individuals: they are abstractions who stand for all kind of things beyond themselves.  So this problem can't be brushed aside too lightly.

The whole issue of "representation" is very messy.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak did a fascinating discussion in her much cited (but, I suspect, seldom-read) "Can the Subaltern Speak?"  There's no agreement about what is an acceptable or positive depiction of gay men, to stick to my own People.  What one gay man considers positive will be a very bad, negative representation for another.  This came up, for example, in the movie "Cruising."  The gay leathermen who appeared as extras said it was great, and about time, that Real, Masculine gay role models were being shown in a Hollywood film.  Other gay men were outraged that these filthy degenerates were being depicted at all, instead of the respectable suburban Homo-Americans that none of them actually were, but wanted to see in Hollywood movies anyway.  (The controversy also involved other issues, but this was an important part of it.)  And some of the best, most-popular-among-gay-men, gay male characters have been created by straight and gay women.  And most gay people are so ignorant about the variety of real gay lives that I don't think "accuracy" really comes into it all that much; I think "wish fulfilment" plays a major role -- we should be depicted as we think we would like to be.  We certainly are no authorities on what is accurate or realistic -- but then, who wants fiction to be realistic anyway?

Then someone commented, "Rowling isn’t a very good writer – period. She’s a good story-teller, but all her characters are pretty one- or at best two-dimensional. It’s comical to even think of her attempting something like Native American characters."

I semi-agree with this, though I'm not sure that a good storyteller isn't a good writer.  She may be a poor stylist (though Rowling isn't that bad), with poor characterization, but if she's a good storyteller, she's got that strength and it's a major part of what she is as a writer.  But that's less important than the larger issue, which is: given this commenter's assumptions, why isn't it comical to even think of Rowling attempting something like English characters?  (For that matter, if wizards actually existed, I have no doubt that they'd have valid complaints about the way a Muggle chose to depict them.)  Why hold Rowling to a higher standard of characterization for "Native American" characters than for those of her own nation?  I'm not being snarky here. I see no reason to suppose that most readers really care about complexity of characterization.  And I'm sure that much of the appeal of the Harry Potter series, especially outside of England, has to do with its exoticising and unrealistic stereotypes about English life and in particular, about English boarding schools.  If accuracy really were a criterion, the whole series should be pulped and the films withdrawn - but accuracy isn't a criterion and it isn't going to happen.  Maybe Native American readers who loved the series are shocked now because they're seeing themselves through the same distorting lens, because they believed that Rowling's depiction of England was accurate.  And frankly, I see a lot of Othering of non-Indians by Native American writers, along with Othering of whites by Writers of Color generally.  It doesn't bother me -- sauce for the goose, you know -- and it comes in handy as a reminder for myself and others that artistic and moral laziness isn't limited to white people.

Incidentally, I liked Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch, which was effectively a Harry Potter novel in Nigerian-American drag.  But it had the same qualities that had disturbed me about the Potter books, mainly that its wizards were just as creepy and unpleasant as Rowling's wizards.  Not that Okorafor or Rowling unfairly or inaccurately stereotyped wizards, of course, since wizards don't exist.  The stereotypes are part of the appeal for most readers.

At around the same time Scalzi's post appeared I saw an article about representations of transgender people on TV and in the movies, focusing on the question of whether trans characters should be played by cis actors.  The writer of the article made a significant slip, however: they said that having cis actors play trans characters assumes that being trans is a performance, instead of a deep innate essence.  The latter may be true; what the writer overlooked is that acting is a performance. The actor is not the character.  This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, I know, but it's true.  Many want to boo the actor as well as the villain she plays; others want to believe that the straight actor playing the gay character is gay, and secretly wants them.  Some gay people have expressed doubt whether a straight actor can play a gay character; one reason I doubt this is that they don't seem to have any reservations about gay actors playing straights, and indeed consider the suggestion that they can't to be discriminatory.  Which is one of the things which suggest that this issue is one you can't resolve by thinking logically; no principle is really involved either.  Something else is going on.

Similarly, for example, there has been concern about white or Latino or Asian actors playing American Indians.  Or white or Latino actors playing Asians.  Or American actors of Asian descent playing characters of different national origin than the actors -- a Korean-Canadian playing a Chinese-Canadian, say; again, that indicates to me that something funny is going on.  Some of my Asian friends claim that they can distinguish a Japanese from a Chinese from a Korean on sight, though I doubt this; but English-speaking American actors are going to be harder to read.  Hollywood's notorious laziness and racism are factors here of course, but I don't believe they're the the whole story: some of the complaints and concerns are themselves rooted in racism, the belief that culture is In The Blood.

Consider too the controversy over the possibility that a black actor, Idris Elba, was being considered as the next incarnation of Doctor Who.  Since the Doctor has been played by several different actors over the span of the series, why not?  It was entertaining to watch fans and critics spluttering that the Doctor just is white (like Jesus or Santa Claus, I suppose).  Similar objections were raised to the idea of a black actor playing James Bond.  (Having Bond's boss M played by a woman seems to have gone over all right, however.)  Personally I liked the 2011 film version of Wuthering Heights, in which a black Briton played Heathcliff, but many objected, with often shaky arguments; at any rate, whatever he was, Bronte's ambiguous Heathcliff was not "white."  Yet he has often been played by white actors.  But how about the reboot of Dr. Doolittle, with the doctor moved from England to the US and a black American playing him?  I don't recall much fuss about that, but it's surely as much (or as little) of a dislocation.  And then there have been people who threw tantrums because black characters in the source material were played by black actors in the film.

And to bring things full circle, there was a kerfluffle recently because the latest Star Trek film was going to present Ensign Sulu as gay, supposedly as a "tribute" to the gay actor who'd originally played him.  The foolishness involved on all sides of that one was troubling, perhaps especially John Cho's concession to Asian/American sexism and antigay bigotry, "that Asians and Asian Americans might see it as a sort of continuing feminization of Asian men. Asian American men, Asian men have been basically eunuchs in American cinema and television, and I thought maybe it would be seen as a continuation of that."  A gay man is not a eunuch, for fuck's sake.  One would think we were still in the 1950s, and maybe we are.  Myself, I wanted a Kirk/Spock romance in the reboot, as a tribute to Kirk/Spock fan fiction -- not that I ever expected to see it.  (Speaking of which, should non-Vulcans play Vulcans?  Being a Vulcan is not a performance!)

But once again, it's clear that neither principle nor logic are involved here.  Marketing is the criterion, not artistic choice, though in popular entertainment it's generally impossible to separate the two.  But even when a decision is made for commercial reasons, it can work artistically if it's handled creatively.  If not, then it doesn't matter why the decision was made.  Marketing, however, attempts to find out what the public wants, or at least will buy; I'm not sure what is going on in the minds of the public on this score.  Some changes are acceptable, others are not.  It seems to me that almost any change is okay if it works artistically, and since almost any change will offend someone (as I argued recently), artists or entertainers might as well do what seems right to them, try to justify it by how they execute it, and defend it when necessary.

More on this soon, I hope.