The bad guys

I’ve just spent most of the weekend in bed, recovering from a nasty and sudden bacterial infection, which required antibiotics and painkillers. It did give me the chance to plan out part of our upcoming trip to London, and watch many, many old movies on TCM. And I was struck by some of the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the casual violence in them, and in particular, the many attacks on women. Is this where it really begins, decades and decades ago?  The screen is filled with angry young men, slapping their lovers around, and supposedly the women love it, and respond amorously. Seems particularly pronounced in Kirk Douglas movies.  In fact the “badder” the girl is—i.e., if she seems to be sexual in any way—the more she seems to “deserve” it. For a long time, Hollywood has been telling us it’s okay to physically abuse women, and I can’t help but wonder—growing up in that era—why hadn’t I ever really  noticed this before. And it dawned on me that it’s because, probably, growing up in that era, we accepted it as normal, a kind of truth about life, as we did with a lot of things from the movies.

There were, thanks goodness, some good decent men portrayed: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck in a lot of good movies. But certain directors of the 1950s onward seemed drawn to portraying harsh, disturbed men with no respect for women whatsoever. And women are portrayed as either angels or whores, with little middle ground, when the truth is, we’re all in that middle ground.

Where did all that domestic violence, that anger, come from? Was it some remnant of World War II, or the scary early days of nuclear weapons? Did men feel they had to lash out at something and women were fair game?

In those days, we had no Facebook or Twitter to help us figure out our cultural ethics, so there was cinema, and the afternoon movie on TV, and we just gamely accepted the false life they sold to us. Especially when you’re an impressionable kid; you’re watching a film made by an adult and think, this is like the Gospel. This is how life really is: Men are the masters, and women their slaves. This is how modern love really is supposed to be: Not glorious, but miserable, and hurtful and false, better accept it now. And I think some of this emerges in my first, long-ago novel, in which my main male character treats his lover shamefully—not abusing her physically but mentally and emotionally, and then trying to kill her…all under the guise of mental illness.  People would ask if the book was biographical—of course it wasn’t, but somehow that idea of the warped male-female dynamic got under my skin, and became something I had to write about.

I’m fortunate that the most important man in my life would put those movie bums to shame, but I have witnessed over the years a lot of bad behavior from some others. And those would be the ones to immediately go on the defensive and say, “You women aren’t perfect, either,” but sorry guys, it is mostly you. You’re the ones with the testosterone. And maybe not so much your fault, but all those hidden cultural cues you grew up with, and maybe some of the snarky mid- to late-20th century films you watched and absorbed. Yet the good news is, despite Trump and Weinstein and other highly visible creeps, things do seem to be changing, and that behavior is finally being called out. And maybe that’s what making the bad behavior of men in old movies especially glaring–and unacceptable–to me today.

On literature (again)

I’ve written before about the continuing confusion in this country over literary fiction and “good” writing, and the huge divide between the academics and the publishing ‘gatekeepers’. But let’s throw in the general reading public while we’re at it. Each reader has their own very definite idea of what constitutes “good reading”, so the whole idea of literary fiction is a subjective one, and perhaps not necessarily an ideal to aspire to, but just one of many notions about why people read (and write) and what they should read (and write). I did attempt once to come up with a rubric about what makes for good reading, irrespective of its so-called ‘literary’ merits, but I keep coming to the same conclusion: Good writing is not about style or following the rules,  but should be alive, and most of all believable: Good fiction is truth, about people and the human condition, but a truth so compelling, the reader can’t put it down…or forget it, ever.

Finally, I’ve found someone who agrees with me. Garrison Keillor writes mostly humorous pieces these days for the Washington Post. Perhaps like me, you mourn his absence on radio’s “Prairie Home Companion”, which provided the soundtrack for any number of Sunday afternoon drives and adventures I’ve taken throughout the US. This morning he wrote an exceptionally brave column taking the Swedish Nobel Literature Prize committee to task for its choice of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels include ‘Remains of the Day,” and other high-literary tomes. His point seemed to be that the books of Ishiguro—a British writer of Japanese descent who lives and writes in the UK—seem cold, humorless and detached, and why couldn’t the committee pick a writer whose work brims with life and humor and daring, perhaps someone like Philip Roth? (Keillor’s opinion, not mine; I’ve liked certain novels by my fellow New Jersey writer, but he’s not a favorite; I don’t really have an absolute favorite writer at this point in my life). Sorry I don’t have the link for the article, but you could probably find it on the Washington Post website; the title is “Welcome to the Abyss.”

The Abyss: the perfect term for any young, ambitious writer trying to begin a career these days. Unless you’re extraordinary lucky (not talented; talent doesn’t seem to count for anything, anymore) and know someone in the publishing business (like an uncle, or girlfriend), your precious hard-wrought writing will almost surely sink to the bottomless bottom of reader-dom, where it will never see the light of day or garner more than a minute or so of fame. But never mind that right now (you know I can never resist a good metaphor). I would go further than Keillor and suggest that the Nobel Prize for Literature be completely abolished. It’s pointless: Good writing can’t be quantified, like activity in medicine or physics. To pick out one writer among the millions and proclaim them the king (or queen) is ridiculous. Why not give a Nobel Prize for Art, or for Cooking, for heaven’s sake?  I don’t even support the notion that it gives an obscure writer needed attention, because there are thousands of obscure writers out there needing attention, why focus on just one? I think it hearkens back to some weird, outdated monarchical urge from the early 20th century: Somebody has to be the best, even if we’re not sure how to define the best. Perhaps the Nobel Literature committee could take their million-dollar prize (or whatever it is) and start a publishing company to promote what they see as “good writing.” It’ll still prove unfair or inaccessible to many writers, but some good stuff could come out of it and it could be a  bonus for many readers. And maybe it could become the worthy competitor Amazon so richly deserves…


The long way home

This has been a troubling week of news in a troubled year–Struggling with the horrific, incomprehensible reality of yet another mass shooting  and the devastation in Puerto Rico and other places, one has to take comfort where one can.  I’ve been increasingly “taking the long way” on my various road trips around the state. I still use highways and freeways, and let Siri tell me the fastest route to where I need to go; but mostly I’ve been taking the long way home, shunning the stress and danger of the big busy highways for the relative peace of back roads. Not an easy thing to do here in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, but I’ve got my favored routes. This is the  driving version of knitting or baking a pie: calming, heartening, and usually with at least one meaningful, or delightfully meaningless, diversion along the way.

I think it harkens back to when I was a kid, and we’d take “the long way” home from the Connecticut shore (don’t remember the exact route but it involved Salem Four Corners and Colchester) or from the Cape (almost always Route 6, getting lost in Providence every time). This way home was always full of tantalizing possibilities: Ice cream parlors or clam stands, interesting scenery and best of all, Dad behind the wheel in a good mood, joking and making up little ditties and songs to entertain the horde of kids in the back seat. There’s no rural lanes in mid-town Manhattan, but when in the city, I often opt for one of the city buses over the subway as ‘the long way.” The M104, which starts out from Port Authority Bus Terminal and goes way up into Harlem via the West Side, is my favorite.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book by William Least-Heat Moon, Blue Highways, all about taking the roads less traveled and what there was to discover on some of them. To me, a long stretch of one-lane road through, say, the  Southern Tier of New York State or the Northern Kingdom of Vermont is better than watching television, even if nothing much happens along the way. There’s always the possibility of opportunity, maybe lurking just beyond the next curve.

I was thinking of all this on my way to teaching  this morning, taking the long way because I was leaving during the morning rush hour. My favorite road on this route is the one that pierces through the Great Swamp of North-Central Jersey, because you never know what interesting critter will make an appearance. Unhappily, it is becoming a popular cut-through with workers traveling from North to central NJ; and I’m thinking I and all the other drivers should leave it (and all the creatures of the swamp) alone for awhile, before it becomes bumper-to-bumper. But it is a lovely place at sunrise, even with the landscape trucks and Joe-the-Bikers to swerve around, even with the idiot on your tail who has to beep if he thinks you’re driving too slow (and sometimes it’s a she).  And I was thinking about ‘the long way home’ as the perfect metaphor for a persistent writer—as in, I’m certainly taking the long road toward fame and recognition.  Even if I never reach that particular destination, it’s all been interesting. Indeed, it’s a great metaphor for a long, sometimes  diverted, but fully engaged lifetime. And what a great title for a book! Hands off, other writers! If I ever write a memoir, (unlikely, but never say never), that’s what I’m going to call it.

I will not, however, be taking the long way to England three weeks hence, although I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of taking a ship across the Atlantic, always enraptured by movies and books in which such a voyage takes place. Yes, even Titanic.  But I am hoping to have a few ‘long way’ adventures somewhere, somehow,  across the big pond.