Saturday, December 17, 2011

WRITING FOR MYSELF AND HOPING

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. Cyril Connolly


A response to “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?”

by SCOTT TUROW, PAUL AIKEN and JAMES SHAPIRO

(Feb. 14, 2011, NY Times)

I am a member and admirer of the Authors Guild, and I understand why the Guild is challenging the new technology changing the book publishing industry as we have known it. In my opinion, however, this change is for the better.

I write for two reasons: to discover who I am and then to share what I’ve discovered with as many people as are interested. In the words of my favorite writer, James Baldwin, my writing may hurt or offend my readers, “but in order for me to do it, it had to hurt me first. I can only tell you about yourself as much as I can face about myself.” I’d also like to think that my writing does what Baldwin says it should: “excavate the experience of the people who produced [me].”

I have had twelve books published; most of which are now out of print. I intend to republish some of my titles because a market still exists for them, just not enough of a market to matter to my New York publishers. By using the new technology to print copies as they are requested (Print-on-Demand), I can sell books via my website so long as I want. Or sell them as downloads to e-readers. My first book was self-published in 1986 when established publishers were not interested in my material for other reasons. Even then, without the Internet and POD, I sold more copies of the book I published myself than any major publisher sold of the titles they brought out. From that experience, I concluded that no other producer of my work will put as much effort into promoting my books as I will. Now that technological advances have made it easier for me to access potential customers, I am delighted.

Amazon and Google don’t frighten me because I am not a profit-making corporation. I see those two greedy behemoths as hatchets chopping away at the icebergs that have controlled the passage between creative artists and their audiences. I am happier for the greater exposure Amazon and Google provide for my work than I am concerned about abuses of copyright law. I know I live in a capitalist culture where “property” is nearly as sacred as life itself, but I want my “property” to reach as many eyes as possible. Major publishers’ need to satisfy stockholders and burnish bottom lines and that has always left “midlist” writers like me starving for attention and royalties. We “midlisters” don’t have much to lose from changes in the industry. Who knows, this may be the best thing that’s happened for us in a long time.

I do understand why the best selling authors are disturbed; they actually get rich from their books—by sales to readers and/or from movie options. They stand to lose significant income. However, some of us are writing more for satisfaction than remuneration—writing primarily for the love of it because the money has not been forthcoming. Consequently, we are not panicked that someone may copy a passage from one of our books and share it with other readers. In fact, I welcome it. The more people who find what I write compelling enough to share, the better I like it.

I predict that the new technology will open more opportunities for the majority of writers, just as the digital era has increased opportunities for musicians, news broadcasters, and political dissenters. In an experiment, Louis CK, a comedian, put out a brand new standup special, made it easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions. He wondered if, “Everyone [would] just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?” According to his web site, within a few days, Louis had sold enough downloads to recover his production costs plus.

The first people to feel the pinch as technology creates these new openings are not the creative artists, but the people in the middle who have controlled the artists’ access to their audiences. Eventually (and that could mean within the coming decade), most writers will create their work and sell it directly to their audiences either via the Internet or as they speak and/or perform before live groups. Sounds promising to me.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

SISTER CITIZEN: SHAME, STEREOTYPES AND BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

First of all, you’ve got to love a scholarly book that opens with a poem to set the tone, Kate Rushin’s “Bridge Poem.” I haven’t been in academia for a long while, so maybe this is how they roll now, but still I’m impressed!

This sister can write! Melissa Harris-Perry has written a textbook-worthy tome that is an engaging and compelling read. Sister Citizen has all the footnotes, tables and graphs you’d expect from an academician, but they don’t get in the way of the story.

I thought I knew all about the stereotypes of black women Harris-Perry covers, but then I’d never read a thoroughly researched documentation of them. I also thought at my age I was beyond being shocked, but Sister Citizen describes some atrocities that actually stunned me. Along with other works on black life by young scholars, this kind of research on a neglected topic exonerates my long-ago decision. I dropped out of graduate studies decades ago because my dissertation topic on African American literature was deemed “academically invalid.” This was near the beginning of the bitter struggle to get universities to accept Black/African American Studies as credible. Apparently, however, according to an incident at Duke University that Harris-Perry writes about, that legitimacy is still being questioned in some places.

If anything makes reading this work difficult, it is the subject matter, especially for a black woman. As I read the chapter on “Myths” discussing the prevailing images that have been cultivated about black women, I relived painful memories of my own experiences. I escaped being expected to be a Mammy, but many times I’ve been perceived as the Angry Black Woman, usually because I refused to submit to someone else’s idea of who I should be. Admittedly, there have also been occasions I’ve relished the role and played it for all it was worth to clear space for myself in antagonistic environments. My mother was so frightened by the myth of promiscuity that she verbally shoved me into marriage long before I was ready. She was terrified that her twenty-something daughter would be seen as a “loose” woman.

As Harris-Perry says, “These myths make black women feel ashamed—and shame has sweeping consequences for black women’s lives and politics.” (“Shame” deserves and gets a whole chapter.) It is disappointing to learn just how debilitating these stereotypes remain for black women fifty years after the civil rights movement. At the time we were involved in that struggle, I thought we were unraveling the misinformation. Of course, it was na├»ve of me to think a few years of passionate activism would repeal hundreds of years of profitable (for some) American traditions. Harris-Perry doesn’t just reiterate and document the impact of these myths on black women, but also shows how the myths work to shape public policy.

What I possibly love most about this book is how the author uses classic literature like Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Bluest Eye (two of my favorite novels) to explicate her narrative. And the motif of the crooked room is a brilliant and efficient description of black women’s effort to be themselves in American society.

Harris-Perry presents splendid examples of times when black women did not find a soft place to fall within the African American community. She also examines the depictions and roles of women in Katrina and other disasters. And she explains how Tyler Perry’s film interpretation of For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf subverted Ntozake Shange’s original message. Sister Citizen closes with stories of well-known black women who battled powerful forces to stand firmly straight in the crooked room, including the country’s highest profile black woman, Michelle Obama.

This is a nutritive book including so much more than I’ve indicated here. Sister Citizen would be instructive for every American, but in particular, I wish every black woman would read it. This book examines and reveals reflexive behaviors we’ve engaged in and accepted for a long time, but that do not always serve us well. In particular, I saw myself in the chapter on “Strength.” It took many years for me to understand that being the proverbial “strong black woman” was draining me physically and emotionally. I had crafted such an impervious self-image that I felt deep shame when I needed to ask for help. Harris-Perry delineates the ways in which the laudable characteristic of strength can be counter-productive; something I had to learn the hard way.