I don’t like reading about rich people. There—I said it. I’ve withheld a few reviews lately because I’m aware of this bias and feel it could potentially distort my assessment of books and films that focus on the trials and tribulations of the rich. Boo hoo; the tiniest violin in the world is playing for you, wealthy white woman who shops all day for designer clothes, throws lavish dinner parties, and somehow winds up bored with her life. I love Tilda Swinton, but I *knew* I Am Love was not a film I would enjoy; still, Rosa wanted to go, so we passed on Helen Mirren’s Love Ranch and I tried my best not to mutter under my breath for the two hours it took for a beautiful Russian woman to realize the meaninglessness of her life as matriarch of a filthy rich Italian family. Her response? Have a torrid affair with her son’s not so wealthy business partner. He’s a chef. His culinary concoctions “speak” to her. She sees him downtown, doesn’t want to get caught stalking him, so pops into a bookstore and pretends to be absorbed in a book. He spots her, calls her out in the street, and she simply walks off with him–BOOK IN HAND! Can I tell you that every time that book showed up on screen, I cringed. I cursed. She didn’t even PAY for that book! I have no patience for that kind of entitlement; I can’t spend hours watching stick thin people with too much plastic surgery lounging about in designer clothes. With beautiful art on the walls, and servants who weep when their employer is exposed as an adulteress and kicked out of her beautifully decorated mansion. That’s my first confession.
My second confession is this: I’m almost as impatient with black-authored books that feature a white protagonist. Even as I write this, I’m trying to come up with an exception, but I can’t. Part of the problem is that these black writers seem to choose wealthy white folks to write about, which leads back to confession #1. I don’t want to hear about *anyone* who’s so rich they can’t find any meaning in their life. I don’t have much sympathy for people who drink fine wine, dine well and often, lounge by the pool, attend the best private schools, and then feel haunted by their lack of purpose. I’m reading White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi right now; I really liked her first novel, Icarus Girl, but didn’t have much luck with her second, The Opposite House. This third novel is highly original and very creepy, and I *did* consider staying up til 2am in order to finish the last twenty pages. But I didn’t. Because it was starting to look like the two working-class black people in the novel were going to get “consumed” by the haunted house. All because of their loyalty to the beautiful anorexic white girl in stilettos that everyone in the novel obsesses over. The writing is exceptional—I muttered a bit for the first 50 pages or so, b/c the novel was going slow and I wanted to put it down, but felt obligated to keep going out of respect for the author. What makes a good book? Beautiful prose is not enough. Not for me. I need a certain kind of storyteller, and I suppose I now know that I’m biased against stories that focus on people I believe to be unimportant. Or less important than others—people without all that privilege, people who have actual jobs and urgent issues in their lives. Like Sade, the Nigerian housekeeper who makes weekly visits to a loved one being held in an immigrant detention center. Or Tilda Swinton’s daughter in I Am Love—she’s still rich, but she goes to London to study art and falls in love with her older woman professor. THAT’s a story I could get behind. There’s a new film about a lesbian contemporary of Jane Austen: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister—she’s rich and white, and I’m still going to go see that film. But I worry it will be like Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which was visually stunning but otherwise lacked a substantive, original plot. Maybe I’m not romantic enough. I don’t know—maybe these are just my limitations.
Lastly, there’s an interesting piece on The Huffington Post—Staceyann Chin writes about the appeal of memoir over fiction, and its attendant risks:
When most of us who write memoir are honest, we admit that everything is fodder for the page; everything that happens between me and my sister, me and my girlfriend, me and the grocer who is homophobic, could make it into a blog, or an essay, or the next book. There is no boundary between the writer and the lover, the writer and the daughter, the writer and the friend. Over the years I’ve certainly got better at cloaking identities, but I always pull directly from my experience. My imagination is infertile. I have no ability to create a scenario out of thin air. So I have to make do with what happens to me. The result is a strange gulf between what I feel as the events are unfolding and what is revealed to me when I eventually reconstruct the experience for my writing. If left untended, this gulf widens with time. Which means if I want to remain truly connected to anyone I have to exert constant effort to remain present in both arenas of consciousness. Girlfriends have begged me not to write about them. Some have threatened, others have pouted, and one even left me because I could not create clear boundaries between what we live and what I write. For better or worse, I am wired to make narrative of everything. Writing my life helps me to make sense of it.
I have a certain respect for memoirists because they’re saying upfront: I only want to write about my life. And I have respect for black authors who decide to utilize the forced intimacy most of us have with members of the majority. What I dislike is the tendency of some authors to write novels that are really just thinly-veiled autobiographies. If you’re writing fiction, you can draw upon your lived experiences, but your protagonist shouldn’t look just like you…ok, I’m done griping! time to finish reading White Is for Witching so I can return it at the library and pick up Jeffery Renard Allen‘s Rails Under My Back…