1.05.2007

Miss Snark is not a man


You railed at one (HHCom) writer for mentioning a Jewish character that didn't have any apparent reason to be Jewish. Is it considered poor taste to have some characters in a large cast be non-WASPS primarily for the sake of diversity? Or is it just poor taste to call attention to a character's ethnic/racial/whatever status in a query and/or synopsis?

My objection is that "the doctor who was a Jew" didn't tell us anything we needed to know in the hook and thus comes off as using religion to describe something that didn't have anything to do with religion. Would "the doctor who was a Zoroastrian" be seen the same way?

If the doctor couldn't work on Friday cause he's Hasidic that's something that adds to the plot.

It's like the newspapers that used to mention race ONLY if the subject wasn't white, as if white is the default setting for race. You'd find it hilarious if everyone assumed people were female unless otherwise indicated (females being the majority).

I much prefer a writer using assumptions against expectations. One of the most brilliant uses of this was one of Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar novels; I forget which ones. Harlan Coben is actually a master of using your expectations against you. I'm not the rabid fan of his stand alones that I am of his string of Myron books, but I do think he's a fabulous writer and story teller.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Miss Snark,

Someone with great legs like yours couldn't be a man ;-)

Terry said...

Since Myron is a white, Jewish basketball player, I'd say ALL of the Myron Bolitar novels go "against type." I've enjoyed every one of them.

Anonymous said...

Horrors! Even Miss Snark doesn't know everything.

Observant Jews (not just Hasidic) don't work on Shabbat, which is from sundown Friday to after sundown on Saturday.

Something to consider, if and when you ever run the COM again - writing is not a hobby, it's our work. Please don't limit the call for entries to a time when many of us abstain.

Observant in the Midwest

Word Doctor said...

This seems to be a consistent opportunity with us writers, as I see this in my manuscripts quite often. It's the ol' saying, folks:

"Show 'em, don't tell 'em!"

Go back and fix your dialogue, your beats, your internal monologue...anything but using narration for exposition.

(I will await the backlash with head held high, and fully-dressed this time)

Anonymous said...

stick to criticizing Hooks and young adult fantasy stories snark . you are not a writer.

if you want a jewish doctor or a nazi doctor - write one,
write what ever you want.

once you start censoring yourself you take away from your creativity.

the green ray said...

Miss Snark, it's so good to begin the day with one of your witticisms, "as if white were the default setting for race." It reminds me of that button I used to see, "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual?" Yours is the only blog I always go to immediately, a necessary start to the day, with my cigarette and coffee. Although it wasn't in the Crapometer, I just sent out a newly-improved hook, inspired by you. Thanks a million, as always.

Jeanette said...

I had this debate recently with a client who insisted on leaving a religion tag to a character to describe a character. I argued and argued that religious denominations are not adjectives.

Ben W in PDX said...

IMHO - using "diversity" in stories usually just means making people different colors, which is a cop-out. Make them behave differently, that's diversity.

HawkOwl said...

Actually, one's religion should be a relevant label, insofar that it should inform one's behaviour in at least most circumstances. All other things equal, a jew and a taoist would be very different people. Even the run-of-the-mill "I call myself a christian but I've never lifted a finger in my life to act like one" type is a separate paradigm.

Race is irrelevant in some cases, though often it's not. Religion really shouldn't be irrelevant to one's behaviour.

bill said...

To Anonymous:

You're missing the point regarding the doctor being Jewish. She's not arguing that the doctor shouldn't be Jewish. He could worship Zeus for all anyone cares.

By telling us he's a Jew, we can infer the doctor doesn't eat pork and doesn't work on Shabbat. Big deal, so do millions of other people.

In the full manuscript, his religion could help us get to know the character. In a hook, it's just needless information, like saying he likes Pepsi instead of Coke.

Anonymous said...

I would hope characters are not thrown into a story solely to meet some diversity oriented quota/break down and that the characters, once included, are not stereotypes.

WickedSmaht said...

Hey, Anon3, this isn't about censorship: it's about laziness. A lazy writer (and/or thinker) uses ethnicity as shorthand for character rather than creating a fully fleshed-out individual. It's boring if the doctor is Jewish (or black, or Middle Eastern) just because the writer wanted to check a box on the diversity scorecard (for example, see almost all ensemble sitcom casts today, or the cast of ER).

It's also boring and, frankly, insulting to the reader when the doctor is Jewish because that implies a set of Woody Allen-like neuroses or even a darker set of personality traits. You don't have to look any further than a Dan Brown novel to see paper cutout characters who are defined by their positions, and it makes for a dull read. You know the Church guy is going to turn out to be evil, so is it a big surprise when he double-crosses someone?

If the doctor's ethnicity (or beliefs, or social position) informs his actions, if it creates an inner conflict within the plot, then it's worth using. If it doesn't, then the author is being lazy. It's not censorship to ask an author to turn out a good product: it's professional pride.

Anonymous said...

"All other things equal, a jew and a taoist would be very different people."

Interesting perspective, but not necessarily true. All other things equal, one Jew and another are also very different people.

Miss Snark's point is well taken - the label by itself tells us somewhere between very little and nothing. As writers, we can do better than that.

THE PROFESSOR said...

I agree with Bill. Why include it if it doesn't have any significance to the narrative. If, for example, you were reading Malamud's THE ASSISTANT, then it would be important to know that the progtagonist is Jewish; otherwise, it's a so what? question.

Dave said...

The question is why do we make characters different from each other.
a) life is that way (oh wow, like the sun came up today too...)
b) we want to fill our novel with interesting characters in an effort to advance the story.
So therefore, the character's behavior depends a little bit on his ethnicity.

If I say "here's Moose the quarterback with his girlfriend Muffy" ... the reader sees a beefy muscular guy with a buzzcut and a busty blond cheerleader on his arm. Not only that, it's a good bet they are both dumb as rocks. (what a cliche story that would be, dull, hackneyed)... Their religions or ethnicities don't add to the story.

That's what Miss Snark said.

What religion was Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote? didn't matter
What religion is Monk? (and don't say OCD, that's a mental condition) - it didn't matter.
What religion was Audrey Hepburn's character in The Nun's Story? - here religion matters because it's an essential part of the story, Same with The Sound of Music. The Same with Agnes of God... The same with the Amish in Witness (Harrison Ford). Here, religion advances and informs the story. It enriches the story.

And for those of you who thought "save the cheerleader" to my examp;le above, that's not what I meant...
The other character of the Cheeleader (that I didn't write about) works and works well because this cheerleader has powers that no one else has, she heals. Plus, she ain't stupid and she ain't obsessed with herself. That's an excellent example of writing against stereotype to keep the reader or viewer interested.
(Think HEROES, the TV Sh0w)

Anonymous said...

I submitted a chapter to my writer's group with the line, "Can't beat a good Jew lawyer, Jonesy!"
Some in the group excoriated me for using language like that. The one Jewish lawyer in the group wrote on the submission, "Damn Right!!"

rkuga-A type of vegetable native to the Carolinas

Benjamin Solah said...

"religious denominations are not adjectives"

I love it!

Totally agree with you.

Laura K said...

Anon2 -

You know, I resent your implication that observant Jews don't have the ability to think ahead. No, you can't work. That doesn't mean you cannot have a non-observant Jew or a friend of any other religion send email for you. If you want to debate the religious implications of not working but having someone else push a button on your behalf, talk to your Rabbi.

If you feel really uncomfortable having someone do you a favor, then next time something like this comes up, take responsibility for addressing the problem *before* it becomes an issue, rather than castigating someone after it's too late.

Kanani said...

If a writer mentions the race of a character and then doesn't mention it again, then they're not delving deeply enough into that character. Race or religion probably means a lot more to the identity of the character than they realize. This isn't a problem, but it will be if the writer leaves race hanging like mistletoe and nothing much more happens. Writing race or religion in fiction is not like real life. The reader wants to know things, how things add up, how they work out.

The challenge for the writer who has done this is to go back and figure out why they mentioned it. How does it figure into the self-identity of the character? In what ways does the character either embody or eschew stereotypes?

Race and religion need not be a factor in every novel, but if one has mentioned it once, it becomes one. One can go back and use race or religion with the caveat not to fall into any of the traps that would mask the character's individuality. In other words, break the stereotypes ...don't have the character do the expected since behavior is influenced by many things, and many times race or religion aren't the leading influences in today's increasingly homogenized world. Whatever happens, work to create a strong, unique character with a voice.

Sundae Best said...

For a stellar example of how a character's religion can enhance a story (and provide tension), try to locate Jonathan Kellerman's "The Butcher's Theater". I got mine at a second-hand bookstore in 1989; didn't realize until the very end that someone tore out the last six pages. Took me nearly a year to find another copy.

That same MC, Israeli detective, Daniel Sharavi, makes a "guest appearance" in one of Kellerman's later novels. But he's a fascinating character who deserves center stage again.

So Mr. Kellerman, if you're reading...

archer said...

"Against type" is often a merely a goopy PC device to avoid giving offense. I say, offend all you like. I'll take one Fagin or Jim or even Rev. Bacon to a hundred and fifty of Grisham's Tom Cruise clones or Scott Turow's incomprehensible South American Jews and vaguely Slovakian antiheroes.

Anonymous said...

i see many defensive answers here-
people assume that you are using a persons religious backround or ethnic backround as stereotypical adjectives. but see it the other way around.

a persons ethnic backround affects the way society REACTS TOWARDS THEM. and thus the way they see the world.

until we reach the promised land that MLK talked about - then the way a person looks matters in this society.
e

Anonymous said...

It actually kind of annoys me when writers use "diversity" as a reason to bog down their writing with unneeded description. Religion doesn't have to be central to the plot but if it doesn't play some part in what's going on I don't really care.
Religion is something that a writer should consider as they're writing but the reader doesn't always need to know. Let the actions show who a person is - not all the reasons that they took those actions.

Anonymous said...

Observant in the Midwest:

If you're a published author, then writing is your work. If you are unpub'd, then it's a hobby, however much money or time you put into it. The IRS holds it to be so as well.

If you're already published, what would you need the COM for? To verify that you're good at writing hooks? If you have an agent, test your hooks on that person.

But I think you just wanted to gripe.