Rampell’s Rules 5 and 6

Last time, I borrowed a column from the Washington Post opinion writer, Catherine Rampell. It was a marvelous, fun, insightful commentary on grammar and writing. In that post, I covered the first four of her six rules. They’re on-point advice on mechanics and process. I said I’d comment on the last two rules in the next post. Then, I wrote, rewrote, trashed, wrote again, and finally came to this:

Rampell’s Rule 5 is: You must be willing to write, say and even be things that are unpopular.

  “Writing well,” she says, “takes moral courage.” Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion page writer, digs deeply into this idea in a piece called “The Encroachment of the Unsayable” (10/19/20). “Our compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their words in fear. (…) The result is safer, but also more timid; more correct, but also less interesting. It is simultaneously bad for those who write, and boring for those who read.” Both Rampell and Stephens are commenting on reportage, not fiction. But Stephens’ “boring to those who read” is a knife in the heart of a novelist.

When do a few trenchant words become the rhetorical slap on the sunburned shoulder of a reader’s sensibilities? And when does that matter? What do I do about the fact that I am being told, usually politely, to worry about things that may offend readers? (And why the hell would they be reading a novel if they didn’t agree to risk being offended?)

My first draft of this post was a long response studded with examples of comments made on my writing. It sounded a lot like whining, so I cut it. Currently, I’m using the operating rule that if the criticism requires an assumption about the person writing (as in me, an old, semi-priveleged white male), I ignore it.

So we can pass on to Rampell’s rule 6, which appears like the hope that was last to escape Pandora’s box:

Rule 6: Be kind, even when you don’t need to be.

We could all do well to follow that, couldn’t we?

Agatha Christie and Sexual Abuse

Agatha Christie gave me the courage to include a currently-risky idea in Fatal Score

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not as widely-read in my own genre as I should be. The category ‘Thriller’ is a subset of Suspense, which is in turn a subset of Mystery. So I set out to read some contemporary and classic mysteries. My prior post covers several contemporary works. 

I’ve just finished Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, widely considered to be one of her best. It’s also the best-selling mystery of all time. 

It makes one understand why she is so important to the genre. The book was published in Britain in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers, taken from the minstrel song that structures the plot. It has been published in the United States under a couple of titles (including a substitution of ‘Indians’ for the n-word, which probably worked fine in 1940 but is surely suspect today). The edition I read uses the last line of the song. Which brings us to fashion, which is to say, what is considered good form at a point in time.

Clothing fashion moves quickly. I always thought writing fashion was far slower. But even eighty years ago, writing fashion was quite different than today.

Today, authors are encouraged to minimize the number of named characters to reduce confusion. By my count, Christie has twenty. We are taught not to switch character perspective (point of view) often. The exception is the Romance category, which tolerates rapid POV change (derisively known as head-hopping). Christie would give a heavy-breathing romance novel a run for its money. In dialog, we are told not to lead with ‘he/she said’, because we end up with a string of them. Christie does it all the time.

The point for me is, after all that, And Then There Were None is a ripping good story. Clean structure set up by the poem. By the second death, every reader knows what’s going to happen and has hints as to how. The technique issues quickly become irrelevant to the reading of the story.

I mention all of this because I got a surprising response from one of my (female) beta readers of Fail Deadly. In the story, Weezy is captured and tortured to force her to keep a secret. The torturer is a man, and when he gets the opportunity (when his female boss is not around), the torture is sexual. The beta reader said, “I would not read this. No agent will accept it.” The gist of the argument was that the tenor of the times will not allow it, particularly as written by a man. Too sensitive; too toxic. 

Unfortunately, the despicable acts are important to character arc, so I’m presented with a conundrum. Weaken the story or risk rejection and censure?

Emboldened by several other female beta readers and my editor, I finally concluded that the bones of the story override the sensitivity of the times. Hope I’m right.