Tuesday, August 21, 2018

IT TAKES ALL KINDS


I’ve been thinking about authors and the diversity question.

Just how should they “integrate” minority characters into their novels?

I am primarily talking about modern novels. Period novels and non-fiction books are less problematical. The author of a history or novel about the Civil War that features only white people would have a lot of splainin’ to do, Lucy. And the Boxer Rebellion without Asians is a rocky proposition. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it!

I write mysteries and thrillers set in current times. My main protagonists are white, heterosexual (aggressively so!), handsome and tough men of the world. I naturally modeled them after myself.  (OK, everyone who knows me can now stop laughing.) Of course, if anyone wants to make a movie out of one of my books, with Denzel Washington or Idris Elba in the lead, I’ll rewrite every line. I like all colors, but green is my favorite. 

There is at least one strong woman in all my novels, who often plays a role almost as crucial as my main character. She is always beautiful and accomplished, and usually just as tough, or tougher, than my heroes. Most of the women are white, but I am introducing other races into the mix. And some of the women are more sexually “diverse” than my guys, usually because I need some spice to further a plot. Or maybe I’m just fantasizing. Hey, it’s fiction. It’s my book. So, sue me!

But what about secondary characters and villains?

First, the secondary characters. My heroes are basically private eyes or government agents, who naturally deal with other detectives, agents and a wide assortment of private citizens. I make it a point to include as many races into the mix as I can. But not as sidekicks! Tonto need not apply.

Readers of this column know that I am a big fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels. And I give Parker credit for creating the unique character of Hawk, the black leg breaker who morphs into Spenser’s best friend, ally and, in many cases, conscience. But Parker often spends a lot of time talking (through Hawk) about the black experience. He tries to make Hawk more than a sidekick, but I am not sure he entirely succeeds. The same holds true for Parker’s gay characters. 

In my books, the blacks and other minorities are just THERE, and are competent or incompetent, smart or stupid, good-looking or ugly, etc. I don’t make a big deal about it. To treat them otherwise is condescending.  That’s not to say that I don’t ascribe prejudices to other characters.  The real world is full of jerks. And we, as authors, write about the real world.

Now, villainy. I have featured Asian, black, Hispanic and many other non-white villains – a veritable United Nations of killers, both male and female. If you put them in a room, they would look like the cast from Star Trek. I don’t try to whitewash their evil (perhaps I could have found a better word than whitewash, but I’m trying for some irony, here), or explain it away as a result of a disadvantaged youth or any such claptrap. That, too, would be condescending. They are just THERE.

In novels, writers should not discriminate.

Bad people are as good as anyone else. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

WE MAY ALL BE OUT!


In these contentious times, a free and vibrant press is more crucial than ever.

Many mid-sized newspapers still depend on print advertising for the bulk of their revenues and have not succeeded in monetizing their online presence (if they have one). This does not bode well for them. As more and more people gravitate to the Internet for their news, the necessity for ink-based reportage will diminish, to the point that fewer big-city papers will survive. In New York City, for example, the tabloid Daily News has just slashed its staff by 50%!

I suspect that The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, our two “national” papers, may make the cut, and, perhaps, the Washington Post (beltway politicos like to see their pictures). And, of course, the weeklies that serve small-town America (many of which are free) will hopefully endure. But everything in between may go the way of the Triceratops.

On a personal level, I find this all very sad. In the early 1960’s, my family moved to Staten Island. I spent my freshman year at the local Wagner College, where I was on the baseball team. One day I was returning home when a neighbor sitting on a porch yelled over to me. Staten Island back then was more like Iowa than a New York City borough.

“Nice game against Manhattan,” he said.

I was stunned and wondered how the man knew I went two-for-four at Manhattan College the previous day. I hadn’t even told my mother. So, I asked him.

“It’s in the Advance today,” he explained.

“What’s the Advance?”

He showed me. In the sports section of the Staten Island Advance was a small story about my heroics on the ballfield. The story was slightly off. It credited “Larry De Maria” with two singles (or “bingles”, in local sportese) when one of my hits was actually a double (someone more fleet of foot probably would have legged out a triple). But I didn’t care. I was in the paper!

I was astounded to learn that just about everyone not in Pampers on Staten Island read the Advance, which had a circulation of 70,000 in a borough of 200,000 people!     

I kept that baseball clipping in my wallet until it fell apart. I eventually replaced it with clips about my two sons’ athletic prowess. (By the way, those two hits were the only ones I ever got. I don’t even remember why the coach put me in that game. I think the team was ravaged by the bubonic plague, and he was shorthanded. Ahem, be that as it may, I did bat .500 in my college career.)  

A few years later I wound up working at the Advance, which kick-started my journalistic career. I had much bigger stories when I eventually wrote for The New York Times, but I never felt more like a journalist than when I covered various “beats” on Staten Island (mostly politics and crime, which meant I was often writing about the same people).

Today, the circulation of the Advance is reportedly below 40,000, in a borough of 500,000 people! A paper that was once a must-read is being crushed by the Internet. (Sad to say, my Pampers analogy may not hold water (!) any more, since Staten Island now has many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where many of the paper’s loyal readers now reside.)

Was the Advance perfect? No. (Remember that double I never got credit for? I do.) Did I agree with its political bent? Rarely. Did I clash with my editors when I worked there? All the time, especially when they were right. I was a young know-it-all pain in the asterisk.

But the Advance in its heyday was the quintessential home-town newspaper. It covered ball games (down to Little League and bar teams); marriages, deaths, promotions, accidents, crime, elections, Rotary and other civic meetings, church groups, you name it. Staten Island communities were towns with names (Tottenville, New Dorp, West Brighton, Rosebank, Midland Beach, Port Richmond, St. George, and a dozen more). The Advance covered them all. It made Staten Island, Staten Island.

There once were hundreds, maybe thousands, of such papers in this country. And they have died or are dying.

In the near future I seriously doubt some kid will walk home and have a neighbor yell out, “nice game”, unless his Mom put it on Facebook.










STOUT READING!

I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for a...