Friday, March 3, 2017
To A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail
If I could magically do one thing to make the business end of writing easier for myself, what would it be?
I read the question, and my colleague's responses, and I had to take a pause and consider where magic would actually help. I'm particularly adept with technology to the point of being a proud geek. I find marketing and outreach fun. I've been a secretary/administrative assistant in a past life, so I'm good about organizing my time and tasks. I've had a great accountant for years. Stuff that bugs other writers doesn't really bother me. I had to think of a problem that, in the moment it presented itself, was intense enough for me to reach for a grimoire and cast spells.
One of the wisest statements I've ever heard came from a friend who, not unlike myself, lives a life navigating the uncharted paths of the black American outlier. Before the epoch of Facebook, he and I, along with a multitude of brilliant, artistic and passionate folks, logged into a message board and held conversations about race, class, politics, arts & culture and the general state of the world. Fierce debate was encouraged. Many long-term friendships were forged by first meeting out in the street to settle a beef that happened on the page. My friend Mark Blagrove is particularly brilliant, and we battled as much as we agreed. We checked for each other's opinions, often calling for them—and calling each other out—in this virtual roundtable.
Once, in a particular discussion on racial inequality, some folks who happened to not be black chimed in on something we black folk of the group needed to be outraged about. They saw a clear case of injustice and there was no room for nuance. This was a light-your-own-hair-on-fire moment, and we blacks needed to go out and tear up the world over it. Mark, with his characteristic cool, made the plainest, most concise statement about minding one's worldview I had ever read:
"To a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
That pithy maxim set my mind on fire. Its simplicity of focus challenged my sense of importance in the grander conversation. Was I a hammer when it came to race and class and politics in America? Did I see everything as something to be pounded down, regardless of its actual implication? I do believe this was the first time I took a step back to consider whether I had been confusing my own intelligence for maturity. All my life, through so many words and so much passion, I just may have been conflating issues of race that, while they coincided with my daily life, didn't necessarily correlate with bigger realities. Was I apt to confuse the fibers of race in the social fabric of America as whole cloth?
In that moment, my conscience demanded I come to terms with the possibility I was just a doggone hothead who made his conversational niche race and class in America. A pundit always ready to nestle in as soon as the subject veered anywhere near my practiced shtick. I learned to be harder on myself than whatever sociological phenomena I observed. I learned to measure twice and cut once when it came to my statements.
This brings me to the subject for this week.
In publishing, submissions and rejections are relay conversations. You can't go back and forth with decision makers. It's more call and response. You call, and once you get a response, if you're a professional, you don't reply. You just accept. Queries are unidirectional, so there's no dialogue. I really could have used some, especially since I decided to claim a space in mystery/crime that most folks haven't experienced in hardboiled noir since Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins tore through the streets of post-war Los Angeles. Sure, we may be familiar with black Americans that can be found on the coasts, or the southern United States, but I write about midwestern black folk in and around the capital of black America: Chicago, Illinois, USA. This territory isn't just uncharted in detective fiction. Consider how people know Snoop Dogg and P-Diddy just fine, but can't figure out Kanye West for the life of them.
The moments where either myself, my aims, or my people were most misunderstood were when I could have used some straight-up Jedi/Horcrux/Matrix kung-fu program brain upload magic, for sure. Here are just a few:
1. My novel is set in Chicago in 1952, one of the most transparently racist periods in American history. My plot addresses this. The black person who points out racism usually gets three fingers pointed back at them, basically in the form of "Well, what about what you people do?" This manifested in the form of an editor at a major house who took issue with the portrayal of the Jewish attorney who drives a key pivot point in the narrative of A Negro and an Ofay. He maintained it came off as stereotypical, especially when contrasted against my book's black American center. Basically, "Why the Jewish guy gotta be a lawyer? Thas racis!"
As it'd be unprofessional to respond, I wasn't able to remark how the series takes place at the fringes of what would become the Civil Rights Movement, whose co-founders were post-Holocaust Jewish attorney activists. Without these brave folks, the movement would have never succeeded. The Jewish fella in the book has to be an attorney. The attorney has to be Jewish. My world building—and my freedom—depends upon it. If I could have magically given him a sense of his own history, perhaps my usage of it wouldn't have come off as reverse racism. Everyone knows Martin Luther King. Folks don't know his tight homie Abraham Heschel, who was more of an influence on his work than that folk tale about his idolization of Gandhi. I wish there was a Patronus charm that grants the conscious effect of straight-As in American history.
2. A few rejections were so coded with niceties of double-meaning I wanted to take out a full page ad in Publishers Weekly that said, "Y'all, it's okay if you don't think a hardboiled noir thriller about a black private investigator in 1950s Chicago will sell to your distributors and readers." I'd magically imbue editors and publishers with the courage to tell me harsh truths about their business concerns. The one publisher who came right out and stated they don't sell enough copies of their hardboiled titles for it to be a good idea to establish what appeared to be a black one almost got flowers and a box of chocolates. If my tribe can have BET, your publishing house can have a customer base that prefers their shamuses a little whiter. I ain't mad atcha.
3. I'd magically make copy editors and beta readers comfortable with critiquing a black American author's work. It won't engender the perception that you're a racist. If you caught a misused word, a typo, a historical inaccuracy, or just read something that was related to race but unnecessary to the story, you can just come right out and tell me. I'm not gonna call the NAACP on you. Pity the poor woman who took fifteen minutes finding the right way to tell me I confused en-dashes with em-dashes. You'd have thought I was standing next to Al Sharpton when she brought it up. If I have a race card, I'm not going to use it to push back on those I asked to help me. I'm saving that bad boy for an immigration checkpoint.
4. I'd magically give everyone the understanding that black Americans have always lived rich lives—both inner and outer—filled with the same contradictions and gradations of social and cultural experience as anyone else. Perhaps in that way, I wouldn't be confronted with rejection due to the abject disbelief that black folk such as the characters I created could have actually existed.
One publisher saw value in it but turned it down after his junior editor told him, "Elliot Caprice may only be half-black, but that's still too black for him to get away with what he does in the plot." Another publisher spent a week back-and-forthing with me about my lack of research, since my protagonist would have to be equal parts MLK, Malcolm X and Clarence Darrow, and that just wasn't possible. No black man has ever lived who was so filled with contradictions. Didn't matter that I patterned Elliot Caprice after the men who raised me. Didn't matter that I know fifty Elliot's, just in my own personal life. Didn't matter university historians vetted my research. My creation was unbelievable.
Midway through the first round of queries, there reached a point where I feared the next email would be another occurrence of white disbelief at the nuance and complexity of black life. If white folks don't believe it, it doesn't exist. If white folks can't believe it, I shouldn't have written it. If I've written it, proven it, and white folks still can't believe it, I should write something else that they can believe. I don't mind stating this part was rough on the spirit.
So, back to my man Mark, and his cautioning of hammers and nails. Since that wise phrase was permanently tattooed upon my consciousness, I've always strived to approach matters of race in America with temperance. The query submission process was beset with cultural and racial challenges. If I possessed the magic to make the business end of writing easier, I may have been tempted to transmogrify everything into a nail that I could hammer down with impunity. I'm glad that wasn't possible. I'm glad I got this far by keeping my cool, and instead of fixing individual issues, reached for broader results brought about by the one bit of problem-solving magic we writers already possess.