Writing and Racism

By Mark Alpert

This week I did a stint as a driving instructor. My 20-year-old son already has a New York State driver’s license, but he doesn’t have a lot of driving experience, mostly because we don’t own a car. So I found an inexpensive rental car — a Kia Soul, to be precise — and gave my son a few pointers from the passenger seat as he drove across the George Washington Bridge and navigated the New Jersey Turnpike (which was famously referred to as “Murder Incorporated” in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint).

After three days of lessons, my son’s driving skills were much improved. He gained enough confidence to carry on long conversations with me while he changed lanes on the highway and contended with the turnpike’s 18-wheelers. And given the timing of our drives together, in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, it was perhaps inevitable that he would pose the question, “So, Dad, what are you doing to stop police brutality and racism?”

I didn’t join any of the protest marches that crisscrossed New York City this week. I was too afraid of catching Covid-19. And with two kids in college, I don’t have a lot of disposable income right now, so I haven’t made any large monetary contributions to organizations that advocate for police reform. (My son proudly pointed to a $30 contribution he’d made, but he later admitted that he’d used my credit card.) So I began to wonder: is it possible for a novelist to advance the cause of racial justice in his or her books?

My first thought was that writers have an obligation, like doctors, to do no harm. When describing any fictional character — white, black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, whatever — we must be careful to avoid racial stereotypes. Negative stereotypes in novels leave a lasting impression and can reinforce biases in many readers. Just look at the black characters in Gone With The Wind, for example, and consider how the demeaning stereotypes in that book may have influenced readers’ opinions and behaviors in the decades following the novel’s publication in 1936.

Some writers might try to sidestep the problem by simply declining to create characters who have backgrounds that are very different from the author’s. Rather than risk reiterating and reinforcing negative stereotypes, a white novelist might avoid featuring black or Latinx people as major characters. But this strategy seems wrongheaded to me. Do we really want to live a world where whites write only about whites, and blacks write only about blacks, and so on and so forth? Should women avoid writing about men, and men avoid writing about women? Fiction is supposed to be all about empathy and exploration. Shouldn’t we at least make an attempt to understand one another?

I ran into this dilemma when I started writing Young Adult novels. I’ve written four of them so far, The Six trilogy published by Sourcebooks and my latest novel, Saint Joan of New York, which was published by Springer last December. The latter book is a modern-day retelling of the Joan of Arc story. Its heroine is Joan Cooper, a 17-year-old lesbian high-school student who experiences supernatural visitations that are somewhat similar to those experienced by the 15th-century Joan, the famous French warrior and martyr. When I was still writing the novel, someone who’s very knowledgeable about the publishing market for Young Adult books warned me that I might get some irate reactions. After all, I’m a middle-aged, straight man, so how could I tell the story of a lesbian teenager? I would surely make a million embarrassing mistakes.

But I felt confident about telling Joan Cooper’s story because I have a lesbian daughter who was 17 when I was writing the book. I know my daughter well enough to guess what she might say and do and think under all kinds of circumstances, and it was fairly easy to put those thoughts into Joan Cooper’s head. What’s more, my daughter was the first person to read the manuscript, and she made lots of suggestions and corrections that I incorporated into the second draft. She was my “sensitivity reader,” assigned to tell me if anything in the novel was demeaning or careless or just plain dumb. And the extra effort paid off. The book has received some very nice reviews, and an audio version is forthcoming.

I wasn’t as careful with my earlier books. My first novel, Final Theory, featured a black character named Monique Reynolds, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. Blacks are underrepresented in physics, and so are women, so I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to have a black woman explain the scientific theories in this science thriller. But Monique was stereotypical in other ways, and if I wrote her character now, I would do it very differently.

I think I did a better job in The Coming Storm, which was published by St. Martin’s Press last year. The heroine of that novel is Jenna Khan, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, a geneticist who gets into a world of trouble when she refuses to participate in the unethical experiments at her government-run laboratory. Midway through the book, the White House orders a crackdown on New York City, and Jenna gets caught in the crossfire between federal troops and a furious crowd that’s rampaging across Manhattan:

In seconds she reached 88th Street and sprinted down the block, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and the riot. But as she approached the next intersection she saw an even larger crowd streaming down York Avenue. Hundreds of people ran through the street and vandalized the parked cars, smashing their windshields with bricks and tire irons. Hundreds more thronged the sidewalks and shattered the windows of the stores and apartment buildings… There was an old stone church on the street corner, and Jenna ducked under one of its archways and hid within the shadows. She leaned against the locked door, panting, confused, and watched the rioters hurl things into the bonfire—garbage they’d dumped from cans, side mirrors they’d ripped off the parked cars, armfuls of clothing they’d just looted from the stores. The mob was angry but also ecstatic, ferocious and mesmerized. The rioters hardly knew what to do with themselves now that they’d invaded the Upper East Side, so they did everything at once. They raged and laughed, brawled and clowned, snarled and celebrated. It was anarchic, incomprehensible.

These sentences have come back to haunt me over the past few days. I’m not alone in anticipating that brutality would lead to outrage. Many other writers have foreseen the harsh consequences of the sins committed against our brothers and sisters. So what can we do now? Can we still mend our fractured society? Or is it too late?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

11 thoughts on “Writing and Racism

  1. Hello there.
    Let’s go through your post.

    “is it possible for a novelist to advance the cause of racial justice in his or her books?”

    It is.
    Authors have complete sovereignty over their work. The better wiser questions is this: Should authors weaponize their novels and turn them into propaganda leaflets? Again, it’s their novel and therefore their decision. That said, fiction is probably the worst possible medium for rational intellectually serious debate. Rational intellectually serious debate involves the systematic assessment of empirical evidence, the commitment to not resorting to logical fallacies, such as the inability
    to distinguish between correlation and causation, and other attributes fiction is unburdened with. No matter how noble you may deem the cause, no matter how justified you may view your political activism, none of that is the province of fiction. It is therefore a category mistake to do so.

    Use your craft and talent to write an eloquent op-ed instead. Present your case and then we can have a rational discussion about it.

    The problem is that some do not seem interested at all in a rational discussion, maybe because they have an entirely justified inkling that it wouldn’t fit their conjunctural political needs.

    “My first thought was that writers have an obligation, like doctors, to do no harm. When describing any fictional character — white, black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, whatever — we must be careful to avoid racial stereotypes.”

    This is patently false. The very in vogue notion of Representation is a spurious concept. If characters were to be seen, not as fictional storytelling devices, but as standing-in representatives of millions and millions of people, then any flaw the author would endow them with would constitute an indictment of those millions and millions. Yet the exact same common sense that stops you from extrapolating and projecting the virtue, say, kindness, of a character out onto the real world and the heterogeneous arbitrary category of millions and millions of people he can be pigeonholed into, that same common sense should apply to any negative personality trait of his.

    In a past episode of “Writing Excuses”, a left-leaning podcast on writing craft, one of the participants was acknowledging the nefarious effects of Representation. He was reading an increasing number of novels featuring protagonists with minority backgrounds, all bland, cardboard and unblemished creatures, because the authors probably feared being accused of bigotry had they followed the conventional wisdom of writing a flawed character. This is the direct inescapable corollary of Representation. It necessarily leads to bad fiction.

    The notion of “sensitive readers” is also baffling. Again, it’s the author’s novel, and therefore it’s their prerogative to go about the revision process as hey see fit. But to have others scrutinize your work thought the lens of real-life Identity politics, when, surely, nothing in your first draft came from a place of mean-spirited resentful animosity towards this or that demographic, that seems just about the most anti-creative suffocating counterproductive step possible.
    To each his own.

    “I wasn’t as careful with my earlier books. My first novel, Final Theory, featured a black character named Monique Reynolds, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. Blacks are underrepresented in physics, and so are women, so I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to have a black woman explain the scientific theories in this science thriller. But Monique was stereotypical in other ways, and if I wrote her character now, I would do it very differently.”

    This proves my point. Apparently, it’s not good enough to have fiction rectify statistical discrepancies in reality, point the finger at distributions by gender and ethnicity – and goodness knows how the difference between correlation and causation escapes so many people – no, that’s not pure and virtuous enough. The writer must become the most zealous ardent activist and excise the protagonist of any human flaw conceivable, lest he be accused of bigotry, or even violence by The New York Times.

    “These sentences have come back to haunt me over the past few days. I’m not alone in anticipating that brutality would lead to outrage. Many other writers have foreseen the harsh consequences of the sins committed against our brothers and sisters. So what can we do now? Can we still mend our fractured society? Or is it too late?”

    One should be just and intellectually serious. One should unequivocally condemn police brutality. One should stand by rule of law, due process, civilization, not barbarism. One should not jump to conclusions and one ought to ask for evidence before presuming the motivation behind the hideous murder of George Floyd. One should mourn his death in the same breath one mourns the 13, thirteen, deaths the riots have already caused.

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  2. I was in a discussion on another writing site about historical novels and how truly accurate a writer must be about not just the facts but the mindsets. It’s a no-win situation. People with pitchforks are happily going after writers for anything they perceive as wrong thought, even if it is historically accurate, and publishers are destroying those writers’ careers like the spineless corporations they are.

    People insist you write “the other,” aka anyone not like you, but you’re blamed for cultural appropriation, wrong thought, failure to include some other “other,” and on and on and on. I do not envy working writers, right now.

    I wrote to market, my characters were people, not races, classes, or political/social agendas. My only message was “Be kind and love true.” I avoided the pitchfork people of that period even when I had a few *gasp* gay people in secondary roles in romances. It was a good choice for me.

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    • Thanks, Marilynn. I’ve been trying to figure out my take on the subject and I think your take comes closest to mine. But I was afraid to spout my take, because y’all have so much more experience.

      I wanted to say this: IMHO, I must write fiction that tells the truth. It must be as realistic as I can make it so that the plot/characters/themes are believable and important and resonate with my reader(s). If that means making so-and-so a numbskull and the other so-and-so a different sort, I will. And I don’t really want to be hung up on their skin color, gender, education, or whether or not they wear a mask unless it’s pertinent to the theme.

      I’ve never made distinctions like that in my personal life, and I don’t want to in my fiction. As long as I tell the truth, and I’m not sure I can do it any other way.

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  3. A novel takes a long time to write and falls under the curse of, “Today’s news is tomorrow’s birdcage liner,” so there’s a serious timing issue when we’re wearing our novelist’s hats. Shocking events should definitely strike a spark and light a fuse, but it’s a damned long fuse that might lead anywhere, so we should consider our short-term actions separately.

    Short-term, the steps that help in any community crisis are a good idea. Help people freak out less rather than more. Do what you can to address whatever causes, effects, and side effects are within your grasp. Some people will tell you that a nationwide systemic problem is more important than comforting a crying child. I’m not sure about that, and anyway I know HOW to comfort a crying child.

    But back to writing. When considering adding propaganda to one’s fiction, I think the first step is to acknowledge that this is, in fact, our intention, at least in part. (My test: am I limiting the roles characters can play by, say, race? That is, do there have to be prominent white characters who are more disgusting than any of my black characters? Why, yes, now that you mention it.) Next, read Steinbeck’s WWII “The Moon is Down” and some of the commentary on it to remind ourselves that nuance exists, since nuance (and all other standards) are often abandoned when Writing For A Worthy Cause.

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  4. Thank you, Mark, for being brave and exposing yourself and your writing as it pertains to Racism.

    Here’s my take on it…

    In the two novels I’ve published so far, my overriding theme (on top of each book’s particular theme) is this: We’re all the same. Same ambitions, same fears, same loves, same loathings. And I believe this.

    “Race” is illusory at best, dangerous at worst.

    In my novel about early-17th-century New York, it was the Native Americans vs. the Europeans. In my latest time-travel adventure to 40,000 years ago, it was the Neanderthals vs. the Sapiens. The overall conflicts are inherent with the eras, but the conflicts don’t end there. Conflicts abound in my books, but I don’t pigeonhole any by race because I actually don’t believe in the concept.

    I believe we’re all the same, and I write accordingly.

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    • Hello Harald,
      I’m with you. We write with what’s in our head, what we lived through, what we have learned and what we dream about. Can I put myself totally in somebody else’s shoes? No. But we have a lot of fundamentals in common. We’re on this earth for a ridiculously short time. That is a fact.

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  5. I realize the riots in the street are on everyone’s mind. From my distant post, New York, the networks, even the commercials are obsessed with this story. I live in rural Oregon, I know two black guys here, Will and Curtis. I don’t think of them as black. I think of them as the guy who lives down the street and the other as a fellow member of my club.
    I hope this blog can get back to more pleasant topics like murder and mayhem and how to write a great first sentence.

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  6. Your kid donated YOUR money and, at the same time, wanted credit for “fighting racism.” This is precisely what’s wrong with the current generation. A bunch of kids who have it quite good compared to former generations, yet believe virtue signaling is a source of pride.

    Art is essential for free speech. Write whatever you want, and never apologize for it.

    The cop in Minneapolis is a murderer. He’s a criminal. He stopped being a cop the moment he decided to take an innocent man’s life. He was then arrested and charged. If anything, this shows our system of laws works. A criminal was apprehended. At worst, it exposes a specific police department’s failure to terminate a risky officer much sooner (and the Floyd family will be financially (and rightfully) compensated for that under civil law).

    Absolutely no reason to call this “systemic” and look to abolish the police. Absurd and, thankfully, most Americans aren’t on board with that level of insanity.

    When you wonder why Trump won in 2016, look no further than these absurd, radical “movements”. And, by the way, published authors who rewrite a catholic saint as a hip lesbian.

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