Representin’

by jkatejohnston

4 January 2014

Dear Max,

The investigator in my potboiler is based on my quilt-making, Harley-riding, used-to-be-chain-smoking lawyer friend Karol. Now she mostly smokes those electronic cigarettes, and she doesn’t ride her Harley that much. She just drives and texts. She’s handled hundreds of homicide trials, several death penalty cases, and she’s still terrified to go to trial. I love that. So yesterday we had our sewing happy hour after work, and I told her. She likes the idea. I didn’t mention that the character has been disbarred for sluttiness and bad ethics. (Baby steps.)

I haven’t written fiction in a long time, and it’s dawning on me—oh shit, I make the world. I’m responsible for probabilities. When I write in my diary, it doesn’t matter how strange things are as long as I report them accurately. If someone leaves three ripe figs lined up on a bench, okay. But in fiction things have to be plausible, and saying, “But this is from real life—it really happened like that,” won’t do. In fiction, figs on benches are in danger of becoming symbols. Or just too fanciful.

Which brings me to my totally implausible plot, taken straight from a real case. It basically goes: innocent guy looks incredibly guilty because of a series of freakish coincidences. In real life, the cops figured out the innocent guy was innocent. In the book, it’s going to be the defense team.

So, in fiction, can you put five freakish coincidences on one page? Probably not. Here’s what Mudrick said the whole problem of fiction being representative. (I think you have the same problem in non-fiction because you’re always selecting, so you make the world there too.) Anyway, this is from a transcript of a class in Writing Narrative Prose:

STUDENT: I don’t like the little thing they put in about Joe as Mexican. That kind of bothered me, and—

MUDRICK: You’re right. By the way, I want to make that clear. You can’t really present a member of an ethnic minority and give him one unpleasant trait and not describe—well, as a matter of fact, two unpleasant traits: one, he’s a lazy bum, and two, he’s some sort of shyster salesman. You just can’t do it. No doubt this is autobiographical and there is such a guy, but you can’t do it. If you have any questions about that I wish you would ask them, because I think that’s an interesting issue in fiction. Why can’t you do things like that? Is anybody at least puzzled by that?

STUDENT: Because we’ve been told so many times that you can’t be prejudiced, you can’t really feel this way. And then when somebody does something like that we see that they are being prejudiced, even if there are people like that in the world.

MUDRICK: Well, I don’t know that I would necessarily draw the conclusion that this writer is prejudiced—it’s not that, I don’t think that’s the problem.

STUDENT: Not that he’s prejudiced, it’s just that people nowadays are so afraid to make any generalization or stereotype. It’s like people are—

MUDRICK: Well, but you’re making it sound as if, if they were really brave they wouldn’t mind making these generalizations and stereotypes, and that Mexicans really are lazy and greedy.

STUDENT: No.

MUDRICK: No, you don’t mean that. Good.

STUDENT: Now I forgot what I was going to say.

MUDRICK: It’s all right. Yes?

STUDENT: I’d say it’s from personal experience completely and it’s a very close-minded attitude, because not every Mexican we know is going to be that way, you know what I’m saying?

MUDRICK: Yeah. And the problem is that if it’s in a story you not only have characters, but these characters are representative. Because you see, though there are—I don’t know how many million Mexicans there are, fifteen, twenty million—there is only one Mexican in this story, and this story is the world while you’re reading it. It’s like talking about it: I went into the pawn shop. This ugly big-nosed Jew eyed me. Really, something like that. No doubt all of us have encountered such people at certain times, but you can’t write that! You just can’t do it. And you can’t do it because in the story this man then comes to represent the whole ethnic group. And this is, as a matter of fact, one of the moral advances in our time. It’s all very well to say how wonderful it was to have those old ethnic jokes about blacks and Scotchmen and Jews and so on, but there is also a considerable improvement in the moral [inaudible] of society that such things can’t generally be talked about anymore. Moreover, they resemble the kind of talk that used to be made—and people still at their peril make it—about women, I mean the sort of prejudice about women: women are silly, they’re hysterical, they’re this, they’re that, and you present them that way in a story. And now, of course, the women get after you, and it’s right that they should. (Mudrick Transcribed 203.)

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