Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stereotypically, I don’t conform to stereotypes

Last weekend I was trolling through my various book-related news feeds and came across this well-written review by Randy Boyagoda in The National Post of Sandra Birdsell’s new novel, Waiting for Joe. The review could best be described as “tough love” but that’s not what caught my attention. Instead, it was this gem of a sentence appearing about two-thirds of the way through the piece:
Finally, we encounter some First Nations people who, stereotypically, don’t conform to our usual stereotypes about them.

Boyagoda is probably alluding to a flash of disingenuousness that he’s spotted in Birdsell’s novel, but for me this sentence stirred up some bigger questions about the craft of writing itself. Authors are, or at least ought to be, forever ensnared in what Martin Amis calls ‘a war on cliché’, but I’m wondering if this war be taken to an unreasonable extreme. Has literature, especially here in Canada, gotten to a point where undermining stereotypes in characters has itself become stereotypical?

Now, I haven’t read Waiting for Joe, so I’m unfamiliar with the scene(s) that Boyagoda is referring to. But we might assume that Birdsell deliberately eschewed First Nations stereotypes – after all, everything in a novel should, in the end, be deliberate – and did so because she either a.) was sincerely aiming to avoid cliché and preconceived notions about First Nations people in the hopes that her portrayals of them would be seen as fresh and unconventional, or b.) she was merely concerned that if she did present them in a stereotypical light, her work would be construed as politically incorrect. But is either of these rationales necessarily honest? And isn’t this what we want of our literary authors – to present characters and situations as honestly as they can, regardless of whether that presentation is clichéd or offensive?

Speaking as an author, I’d say this is part of what makes creating believable, vibrant characters so bloody difficult. On the one hand, you want a character to be as individual and multidimensional as you can make her. On the other hand, you want to capture those extremely telling details that create instant recognition of that character in the reader’s mind. It’s a tricky balance. Thinking about this reminds me of a conversation I had with my initial editor at Norwood Publishing during our first meeting about Off Book. We both got on a tangent about family and she finished hers by saying, “Of course, my mother was the type of woman who wore her best pearls all the time, even in bed.” I was struck dumb by this description. I mean, it’s a pretty horrendous way to talk about your own mom, but on the other hand– wow. Doesn’t that one line just tell you everything else you need to know about that person – what her house looked like, what kind of magazines she read, what sort of driver she was, how she might have felt about the monarchy? It encapsulated a whole human being in a one-line quip.

Of course, there’s no easy answer. Both the indulging in and avoiding of stereotypes can result in some disastrously fraudulent writing. I look at my own background and wonder what aspects of it would typify me if I were a fictional character. Yes I grew up on Prince Edward Island, but don’t bother swaddling me in seafaring images or tales of life on a farm: both of my parents were civil servants and I had a relatively standard suburban childhood. On the other hand, if I told you that my dad says ‘slippy’ instead of ‘slippery’ and my mom serves potatoes at every evening meal and can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t, do these details necessarily scream ‘Islander’ at you?

I have very little advice to offer other than this – always err on the side of honesty. In the end, that’s what long-term readers will judge you by. Details – especially the small ones – should always have a ring of truth to them, a bigger truth that paints an honest picture.

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