What the novel or short story reveals about the writer
Mostly, I read because I want to taken away on a journey which transports me into another world, another age, a different set of circumstances. It’s not exactly escapism as I don’t want to flee the world I live in but I do want to experience something different. So to have the sensation of being tugged abruptly out of my consciousness and thrust into the writer’s reality which lies beyond the story is a truly dissonant experience.
I experienced this last week when I was all cosied up, reading a murder mystery by Ruth Rendell. A Sleeping Life opens with the discovery of a woman’s body which Inspector Wexford tries to identify.
The story was a little dull but well-written: Ruth Rendell certainly knew her craft. It was also somewhat implausible as many murder mysteries or psychological thrillers are, but I ‘m willing to suspend disbelief up to a point.
Anyway, there I was reading to be essentially entertained and then bam! Phrases such as “negroid girl”, “pale Negress”, “Jewess” brought me to an abrupt, screeching halt. Suddenly I was looking in at a writer looking out at “me” and seeing what she sees. Othering. Rendell didn’t seem to know how to deal with multi-cultural London (“pure races and mixed races” and noise and dirt) and there is a sense of relief when the scene returns to the tranquil Sussex countryside, where all is in order. (Except for Wexford’s daughter and her caricatured rebellion against sexism.)
There are more horrors in the portrayal of the flatmate Malina Patel which was just plain weird. Malina oozes exotic flavour and she is clearly capable of driving all the boys crazy with her tiny hands and such. But alas, she is clearly unstable and Wexford has no time for her at all.
The novel was published in 1977. Not that long ago. I mean, we’re not talking about the Victorian era where you could expect to be insulted, left right and centre. Years ago, I remember reading an Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Yellow Face” where he presents and therefore implicitly encourages white fears about “race-mixing”, that any off-spring would be unrecognisably “Other”.
“Holmes, with a laugh, passed his hand behind the child’s ear, a mask peeled off from her countenance, and there was a little coal black negress, with all her white teeth flashing in amusement at our amazed faces.”
An elementary knowledge of genetics dictates that the offspring would display the phenotypes of both the mother and the father. It’s impossible that a child of dual heritage would be “coal black” (a crude and lazy description). Unless the mother was of African heritage too but that’s a whole ‘nother story. The portrayal of the little girl is simply problematic.
Conan Doyle continues but with a little more subtlety.
“She touched a spring, and the front hinged back. There was a portrait within of a man strikingly handsome and intelligent-looking, but bearing unmistakable signs upon his features of his African descent.” (My own emphasis.)
So for me, that sense of being shaken out of one state of consciousness and thrown into another reality- where I don’t choose to be- means that the novel or the short story has failed on one level. Indulgence in stereotypes, lazy clichés and a lack of humanity or nuance means that the storyteller has revealed more about him or herself than about the characters.