Category Archives: Southern Discomfort

Is Our Writers Learning? Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho (with spoilers)

Continuing to study urban fantasy in response to that feedback … I enjoyed Zen Cho’s BLACK WATER SISTER (cover by Tiffany Estreicher) but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it (and didn’t like it as much as Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen). Part of that is that it’s a New Adult book: Chinese-American protagonist Jessamyn is an Ivy League graduate whose career dreams have crashed and burned (I never quite got why) so she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s also a lesbian with a girlfriend bit hasn’t come out to her folks yet. Now she’s heading back home with them to Penang in Malaysia where her father, recently recovered from cancer, is getting a job with his Chinese-Malaysian family.

Much like coming-of-age novels, the mid-twenties crisis is a turnoff for me. Things pick up as it turns out Jess is haunted by Ah Ma, the ghost of her maternal grandmother whom she never met. Ah Ma was a medium and servant of a local deity, Black Water Sister. A local big-shot developer with mob ties is planning to pave over the temple where the goddess’s altar sits; Ah Ma wants Jess to help derail this.

This, of course, proves much harder and more dangerous than it looks. The developer has no qualms about having obstacles like Jess rubbed out. Ah Ma is a nasty piece of work, a criminal in life herself, with no qualms about using her granddaughter. Jess has medium abilities herself and Black Water Sister wants Jess as her new high priestess (not how they phrase it in Malaysia, but that’s the concept).  And Jess’s girlfriend is convinced by Jess’s sudden lack of communication and reluctance to leave her parents that it’s all over.

The Malaysian elements are absolutely fascinating, particularly the rhythm of people’s speech. I really like Jess’s parents as characters: a lot of first-generation Americans get stock types for parents (traditionalist mother, affable father) but this couple feel like individuals, not generic. The developer’s son is a good character too, a seemingly nice guy but not strong enough to be genuinely nice when Daddy needs him.

On the negative side, Jess’s girlfriend is virtually a cipher, much less fleshed out than the parents. Jess herself is too passive, either threatened by the bad guys or used as a tool of Ah Ma and Black Water Sister. There’s one point where she forces a meeting with the developer that she shows some drive to control her own fate, otherwise she just keeps telling Ah Ma “no” while slowly wearing down. Black Water Sister’s fate — free her from the trauma she carried over from when she was a mortal — is a stock ghost-story trope and it left me unsatisfied. So did the ending in which Jess finally decides to out herself to her parents, but we don’t see their reaction. I get the point — the book starts with Jess completely adrift and ends with her finding direction — but I really hoped her parents would be able to deal and I’m disappointed not to know.

What I learned: This novel doesn’t start with much at stake, but it makes up for it by Jess’s emotional state. She’s frustrated, full of doubt, thrown into a culture she doesn’t know (her parents left Malaysia when she was very small) and generally miserable. Which is certainly true of Maria in Southern Discomfort (she’s also pushed around but tries harder than Jess to get away), but she doesn’t come in until Chapter Two. I’ve considered making that the start, but I’m not sure the novel would work without the backstory and the relationships established in Chapter One. I’ll think about it again, though.

Then there’s Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The opening has some life-and-death stuff going on, but then it slows down quite a bit, as some of my writing group have pointed out when I read parts of it. As it isn’t finished yet, this may be easier to fix than to rewrite Southern Discomfort.

So a useful read, and, overall, a good one despite the bits I didn’t like.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Two books

Continuing to read fantasy with an eye to that feedback on Southern Discomfort I got a while ago.

BLACK SUN: Between Earth and Sky Book One by Rebecca Roanhorse worked for me even though I don’t normally like epic fantasy. Part of that is the strong characters, par the setting (based on pre-Columbian North America). Also, unlike a lot of epic fantasy, sharing info about the worldbuilding didn’t become tedious as I often find it.

The book opens with a woman, over the opposition of her husband, performing some kind of magic ritual on her son, including sewing his eyes shut. We then jump forward some years to start with Xiala, a female smuggler of a matriarchal society widely feared for their sea magic. She’s recruited to carry a mysterious passenger to Tova, one of the world’s great cities, using her powers to control the weather and get the boat across the open sea (like many sailors in ancient times, sticking close to the coast is preferred).

Meanwhile, in Tova, we meet Naranpa, current high priest of the sun. She’s risen from the bottom dregs of society to lead a priesthood much less powerful than it used to be. Some think she doesn’t deserve the gig …

The book is third-person POV, usually close up and that’s how we get our exposition: people reflecting on their past, current politics, their relationships. This can easily turn heavy handed but Roanhorse makes it work. And when it works it’s much less tedious than working into conversations (as in Black Wolves which I found insufferable).  That I liked it gives me confidence in Southern Discomfort‘s exposition, as I went much the same way (which is not to say I’ll do it as well, of course).

While the feedback on my book mentioned epic fantasy having a slower pace and starting with lower stakes, I don’t find Black Sun‘s pace slow: the tension is high from the first. However it is much more personal stakes — Naranpa’s political struggles, Xiala dealing with her crew — even though it’s clear as we go along that the stakes are rising.

DIE AND STAY DEAD by Nicholas Kaufmann, by contrast, ups the stakes very quickly. This sequel to Dying Is My Business opens with the amnesiac thief Trent and his friends saving a woman from a mage/serial killer sacrificing them to his kid. The killer knows something bad is coming and he hopes his demon-deity will save him. It’s action packed, then after Trent gets the woman home, we get some mystery (she’s worried about someone else stalking her). When Trent goes back to see her the next day, she’s been killed, cruelly.

We learn early on the stakes are high. Twenty years ago a cult tried to summon a demon prince to destroy the world. They botched the job and died instead … except one. Now he’s putting together the mystic McGuffin that will enable him to complete the work. Trent & Co. have to beat the villain to the McGuffin, but Trent’s distracted by a beautiful woman who recognizes him — is this his chance to get a life back?

The book is enjoyable and I’m sorry V3 isn’t in the pipeline (Kaufmann says sales were to low for his publisher). It’s biggest flaw is that there are two big reveals, both of which were obvious well in advance. That may have been intentional (one of them is so very, very obvious) but it didn’t work for me.

There’s a lot of exposition here too, even in the slam-bang opening chapter. However it is slam-bang, where Southern Discomfort is a political strategy session (and an unrelated personal discussion) interrupted by murder. Not slam-bang.

The Impossible Takes a Little Longer is better in that respect as the opening chapter involves KC preventing a ritual sacrifice. It’s tense (I hope). However things in the current draft slow down considerably for the next couple of chapters, something I’ll have to think about when I go back to the book (probably not until after Alien Visitors is done).

Another thing that occurs to me is that urban fantasy tends to go considerably wilder than Southern Discomfort does. Kaufmann’s book has mages, demons, Trent, vampires, zombies and necromancers. The world has a hidden, magical history. Southern Discomfort is closer in some ways to intrusion fantasy — one piece of magic intruding into a nonmagical reality (Impossible is a good deal more colorful).

So the reading was useful. And fun to boot.

#SFWApro. Cover illustrations by John Picasio (top) and Chris McGrath (bottom)

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Is Our Writers Learning? Pax Demonica by Julie Kenner

As I mentioned a while back, the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort suggested I read more urban fantasy. Perhaps she has a point because reading Julie Kenner’s PAX DEMONICA I discovered it shows exactly the kind of pacing problems she said I had (and in discussing them, there will be lots of spoilers. Be warned).

I didn’t expect that when I ordered the book because I love the Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series. Kate Conner is Buffy with the serial numbers filed off, an orphan trained by the Catholic Church for Forza, the demon-hunting fellowship. By the start of the first book, she’s retired, married with a kid and her adventuring days are long behind her. Then the demons start returning … but after V5, Demon Ex Machina, her published killed the series. Kenner went on to other stuff but realized a few years ago that self-publishing was an option.

At the end of the previous book, Kate had a number of questions about Forza, such as how Eric, her dead first love and father of her daughter Allie wound up alive and possessed by a demon. They’re off to Forza’s Rome headquarters to get some answers. It’s a tense trip as Stuart, Kate’s husband, briefly walked out on Kate when he got the whole story about her side hustle.

Adding to the tension: demons attacking Kate demanding a McGuffin of some sort. A girl showing up who claims to be Kate’s cousin (Kate’s an orphan with no knowledge of her birth family).  Kate discovering she comes from a long lineage of Forza demon slayers. Eric’s warning that she shouldn’t trust anyone in Rome.

It turns out the McGuffin is a key that can bring on the apocalypse, literally bringing hell to Earth. Some of the demons are on humanity’s side in wanting to stop it: they like possessing mortal forms so they’re opposed to their fellows who simply want to destroy the world. Despite their assistance, the destruction demons get the key and open the gate to Hell. Kate and Co. figure out the gate’s location, rush to it, and discover that Allie has inherited some of Eric’s demon side — enough that her human/demon blood can close the gate. The world is saved!

It’s a solid plot, but the execution is imbalanced. Despite the demon attacks, the first three-quarters of the book spend way too much time on personal stuff: Kate rejoicing in being back in Rome, Allie pushing against her parents to go off and explore, sightseeing (a running gag is that they never actually make it to the tourist destinations. It should have been funnier than it was), Kate and Stuart rebuilding their relationship. All of which is typical for this series, but normally the threat level is high enough to balance it out. Not this time.

Instead we get the threat jumping to omega level in the last quarter. Backed up by a lot of exposition to rationalize how the Conners, Kate’s cousin and the McGuffin all showed up in Rome at the same time. It was too much exposition for such a small portion of the book, and Eric’s warning never pays off. Even the Forza priests who put a demon in him were doing so with an eye to his future child sealing the gates.

Which is a minor complaint: the book’s rosy view of the Catholic Church feels like the equivalent of “copaganda.” Not that every story with a Catholic priest has to make him a pedophile (Southern Discomfort has a perfectly decent priest) or that every nun runs one of the Magdalene laundries. It’s nowhere near as bad as Tarn Richardson whitewashing the Inquisition in The Fallen but it still feels like Forza should have had a little bit of a dark side.

I must admit, if Southern Discomfort made the editor feel as disappointed as Pax Demonica made me, I’m not surprised she rejected it.

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So about that feedback on Southern Discomfort

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I got a No on my most recent Southern Discomfort submission, with some feedback about what they thought were the book’s problems (I’m not naming names even though I think the feedback made a lot of sense).

The good stuff: Great concept. Great title. Starts in the middle of the action

The not-so-good: “This feels like you’re writing an urban fantasy at the pace of an epic fantasy, and the expectations of pacing and genre conventions clash.” Urban fantasy requires higher stakes, with more urgency and tension, and that’s not what I’m delivering. I think that’s a good analysis, I’m unsure whether it’s something I want to fix.

It’s true that an epic fantasy can take a lot longer to develop the sense of threat and urgency because it has more pages to work with. Another comparison could be cozy mysteries like this one by my friend Sherry. They’re all about developing the community and the relationships between the protagonist and her boss/family/neighbors, etc. As Orson Scott Card observed, mystery readers can accept the first chapter or two just sets the stage; they can wait.

The cozy vibe is definitely what I’m going for (though I didn’t use cozies as a template or anything). Southern Discomfort is very much about the community, the impact being run by two elves has had on it, and how the death of Aubric is changing everything. But even by that standard it’s an odd duck. Cozies are typically first person; this isn’t. I have Joan, Maria and Cohen as the main POV characters but there’s several others who get bit POV parts (Father Michael most notably). That’s probably a tough sell too, but I don’t know that I can get the scope I want without it.

My rejection letter recommended I try “getting that sense of urgency and tension into the story before you slide in chapters/moments with the more slowly paced EF chapters/moments.” Can I do that without losing the community feel? Even after the opening chapters (I only sent in Ch. 1-3) it seems like the pacing is still epic fantasy/cozy for much of the book, though the tension increases near the end. Maybe a rewrite just isn’t practical.. Besides, I like what I’ve written. I’m not averse to changing it to be more marketable, but I don’t want to end up with a book I like less. Still, I’ll give it some thought.

Or maybe I won’t. At this point in my career, I’m kind of pessimistic that I can find The One Simple Trick that will make my stuff more publishable. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a steady seller; it takes multiple tries to sell any of my shorts and I’ve never sold a novel. A part of me says screw it, just self-publish instead of trying to change.

Of course it’ll be a while before I have time to write fiction again, so I don’t have to make a decision for a while.

The advice does make me think about The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The current draft is showing very much the same sort of pacing, as a couple of people in my writing group have pointed out. So when I finally get back to it, I’ll keep that in mind and see if I can’t ratchet up the tension. Whatever I do with Southern Discomfort, the feedback may yet prove valuable.

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A somewhat chaotic week, but a productive one.

Although today was pretty much a mess.

I got about a third of the way through the abortion/birth control chapter of Undead Sexist Cliches. I watched E.T. for Alien Visitors, as well as the special features on the DVD (I usually skip them when it’s a Netflix DVD, but they proved useful for my Aliens and Children chapter). I got my Leafs done, and a little bit of work on Questionable Minds. I also got word that No One Can Slay Her made it out of the slush pile to the second round of reviews and so did Southern Discomfort at Baen Books. Neither of which means a sale — I know that from experience — but still, that’s good news. And I sold a couple of copies of Sex For Dinner, Death for Breakfast in a discussion of Bond on FB.

The dogs, however, ate up quite a bit of time. I took care of them Wednesday while TYG was working on something demanding and they proved, as they often do, a distraction (they’re much quieter sitting with her in the bedroom). Then early this morning, Plush dog woke up in some sort of pain, and wandered around the bedroom, with his back legs giving out a couple of times. As TYG had been up late and needed sleep, I took Plushie down with me to the living room (I was already up — bad night of sleep again). Normally I’d have tried drifting back to sleep but while Plushie seemed fine I was worried enough that I couldn’t bring myself to sleep. And caring for him meant I didn’t get any early morning work done, nor did I exercise. The rest of the day I was pretty dazed; I managed to finish my Leafs for the week, then it was pretty much sleep and blogging. I’ll be taking him to the vet later today. Prayers appreciated that it’s something simple to fix and definitely not seriously threatening.

Oh, and I published a blog post on Atomic Junkshop about the insane, illogical plot of Avengers #60 which worked for me as a teen but looks more ridiculous every time I reread it. But the John Buscema art never stops looking good, like this shot of the wedding reception.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Holmes quote on my mug says that it’s a mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (though Holmes did that quite a bit), but I think his reason why is much more applicable to writers. In fiction it’s perfectly fine to theorize about your story (plot, character, twists) before you write it. The trouble comes when what we have in mind doesn’t work for the story on the page, but we don’t admit it.

Case in point, my original concept for No One Can Slay Her was set in the 1930s. Jenny was harboiled instead of aristocratic; her wife was a Nisei instead of a beatnik; the opening of the story involved a foreign agent putting her under a sleeping beauty-type spell.

Trouble was, as I fleshed out the main concept it didn’t hold up. The rationale for the spy enchanting Kate didn’t make sense, neither did Jenny’s response. Even after I changed the characters to their current, 1950s versions, the villain’s scheme still seemed pointlessly convoluted. So I rewrote pretty much the entire plot until it worked.

The alternative is to twist your story or your characters to suit your concept. One of the things I hated about Lost was that maintaining the mystery required massive amounts of idiot plot: Locke makes a cryptic comment about what the island wants, everyone looks thoughtful but nobody ever grills him about what, exactly he knows or intuits. In the mystery novel Have His Carcass the murderer’s plot is absurdly complicated because that’s the only way Sayers’ can justify her opening, in which Harriet Vane finds a fresh-bleeding corpse on a beach at low tide with nary a footprint around it.

Avoiding twisting can require changing the original concept, but it may be your characters or your story has to change. Every cozy mystery is built around the concept of an amateur detective investigating a mystery; as mystery novelist Barbara Ross says, that requires giving your protagonist a very good reason for investigating instead of leaving it to the cops. If you don’t have a good reason (and some novels don’t) you can’t drop the murder investigation so you have to change your character or your plot to provide one.

I had the same problem, as I’ve mentioned before, with Southern Discomfort. My protagonist Maria really didn’t have a good reason to help Olwen McAlister avenge her husband’s death, and I kept trying to find one that would make her stick around Pharisee and fight. Turns out there wasn’t, so I had her do what most normal people would do when threatened by a supernatural killer: run. Only it turns out this isn’t an option … This makes Maria considerably less heroic than I wanted, but there’s no way around it.

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Forging ahead, regardless of the facts

“When you write a story, you have a predetermined end in mind, and the challenge is to make the facts match the ending. This is what I call “the fictific method.” The challenge of the fictific method is to make all the facts along the way to lead to a believable result based on those facts. Unfortunately, more and more we are seeing storytellers whose goal is to reach a certain result regardless of the facts.” — Brian K. Lowe.

Lowe cites two ways this happens: 1)The writer ignores the facts they’ve’ established so that they can make the ending come out the way they want it to. 2)The storyteller establishes false facts: changes history, ignores the way things normally work, or has people behave in ways nobody normally would.

Raymond Chandler’s classic essay The Simple Art of Murder really hammers the classic British mysteries of his day over #2. Cops who don’t follow any of the established rules or use the tools at their disposal to crack the case. Or consider the murder scheme in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase: it’s an absurdly elaborate plot it’s unlikely any killer would use. But it has to be used to set up a seemingly impossible crime, a man murdered on a beach at low tide with nobody leaving footprints in the sand.

Or consider Avengers #38 (cover by Gil Kane). The Asgardian Enchantress places a love spell on Hercules to get him to attack the Avengers for her. At the end, the good guys snap Herc out of the spell, but the Enchantress still has the magical power to annihilate them. Instead, when Hercules tells her to get lost, she just walks out because … she’s in love with him and can’t bear to kill him along with the others. This comes out of nowhere; she’s shown absolutely no interest in Hercules up to that point, unlike Thor, whom she was constantly hot for. But it was the simplest way to end the story, given her Asgardian magic way outclasses the team.

Or take a scene I wrote into Southern Discomfort. After some nasty magic starts paralyzing people, I had the Pharisee County Hospital treating it as if there were a strange outbreak of stroke cases. My friend doctor and author Heather J. Frederick pointed out that strokes don’t work the way the magic did, so that wouldn’t be the diagnosis. I went back and reworked it and settled on the doctors deciding it was some kind of fast-spreading disease — which was scarier because 1973 wasn’t as prepared for epidemics as we are now.

Which is the key to making the fictific method work. If you can’t get the ending you want, given the facts of your story, either change the facts or change the ending so everything flows logically. Hopefully once it’s finally published, everyone will agree that I did.

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Putting the pieces together

Like (I imagine) a lot of writers, I’m tossing around ideas in my head even when I’m not writing. Maybe more when I’m not writing, as I’m not required to focus on anything.

A lot of it is less plots or characters than just bits of things. Opening lines. Names. Ideas. Scenes unattached to a story (particularly climaxes. I love imagining dramatic climactic confrontations). I sometimes think they’ll just float around in limbo unattached because I’m very linear in my writing: I can’t start with a scene and then write the story that leads up to it. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Lately, though, I’ve noticed I’ve been able to use several them.

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates incorporates bits of several ideas floating around in my head. A story about a small-town reporter. A female lead with the first name Pershing. The idea of a thief stealing something off a baggage carousel that turns out to be supernatural — I’ve had that floating around in my head since before security cameras were everywhere, one reason I wound up setting the story in the 1980s.

Impossible Takes a Little Longer will, if it ends up the way I anticipate, use up a scene I’ve had floating in my head for a couple of decades, which I won’t spoil here. I didn’t start from that scene and work back, it just suddenly struck me how well it would work in the book.

I’ve done this occasionally with earlier stories. Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves, one of the stories in Atoms for Peace, used a name I’d had in my head, “Elegy” Walker, though very differently from my original concept. Maria, my protagonist from Southern Discomfort, drew on an earlier character in earlier drafts, an Italian-American living in a small Southern town. The difference is so marked, I may go back and reuse that earlier version somewhere else some day (ditto a supporting character, Megan O’Donnell, who got dropped entirely).

It feels really good when I get to use up one of these ideas. Really, really good, like an itch that’s been lying there, waiting for the scratching. I’ve got maybe two more climaxes I’d really, really like to put to use — let’s hope the trend continues and I can do it before too long.

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The setting novel and me

I think of myself as writing primarily plot-centered stories, or sometimes character centered. But I’m wondering if both my last novel and my next haven’t turned into setting stories like Crazy Rich Asians and Airport.

Certainly Southern Discomfort isn’t primarily a setting story. It’s the battle of Olwen McAlister, Joan Slattery and Maria Esposito, among other characters, against Gwalchmai, the elven murderer. But Pharisee Ga. and its people are very much one of the characters. What does the death of Aubric McAlister mean to them? How are they coping with the disasters his death has unleashed? What happens if Olwen dies too? In various scenes we learn about the churches, the business set-up and Pharisee’s complicated race relations. None of this affects the plot, but I think it would be a much worse book if I didn’t include all that.

The downside is that this kind of thing can easily bog down a book instead of enriching it. My previous draft did just that. The scenes that built up the town involved way too many POV characters (one per scene, but taken over the course of the novel …) and rarely had any tension. This go-round I worked on each scene so that the characters wanted something or were worried about something. And I cut into the POV characters by making Father Michael and his brother, the mayor, the key viewpoint characters in most scenes. It still might be too sprawling and lacking in tension for potential readers (certainly it didn’t grab the agents I submitted to). But I’ve rolled my dice, so hopefully it’ll find a home somewhere.

Then we have Impossible Takes a Little Longer. This has always been partly about the weird world that results when millions of people have some sort of paranormal ability — psychically healing engines, exorcising ghosts, flying, shrugging off bullets or seeing through walls. And that includes changes to history, politics and geopolitics. Silicon Valley seceded in the early 1980s. The former British colony of Rhodesia is the psionic state of New Zimbabwe. Zohak, a monstrous figure of evil in the Shah Nameh has taken over Iran and forced the rest of the Middle East to ally against him. None of this plays a major part in the plot, though the lack of a computer revolution (“Cyberia” keeps the good tech for itself) does affect daily life (no cell phones, no social media). It’s mostly told in little references and my protagonist’s narration here and there.

Overall, though, it’s been very plot-centric: someone’s targeted KC — AKA the Champion, masked guardian of Northwest Florida — and she has to find out who before everyone she cares about is dead. Now, it seems to be changing. There’s lots more about the culture and factions of the Impossibles, the really powerful paranormals. About the changes Mayor Darla Jeffries has made to New York City. Then came the chapter I worked on Tuesday.

(Dinosaurs, conquistadors and Romans hanging out? Yes, that could easily happen in Impossible).

I’d already established the existence of the extraterrestrial Stardians (think of them as a second-string 1980s cartoon/toy line) next to Dallas, replacing a kind of alt.Comanche empire I had in the previous version (as discussed here). And that KC got a lot of help climbing out of the train wreck of her teenage years thanks to the insight of the Stardian mystic Darkbreaker. So I planned to have her talk with Darkbreaker about what’s going on, but the novel’s bad guy interrupts and takes him down.

Only now the Stardian city is getting much more elaborate and colorful and taking up a lot more space. To reach it, KC’s walking across a mile-deep chasm on a bridge that appears to be crystal and ceramic. I honestly have no idea what it’s like on the other side, but perhaps I need to explore it.

As it’s a first-person narrative I don’t have to worry about too many POV characters. However this draft could easily end up being too talky or showing too much worldbuilding. Which a lot of people like, but I usually don’t, so I’d rather not go that route.

But for the moment, I guess I’ll follow where my instinct leads.

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Two views of the 1970s

As I was a teenager during the 1970s, I have a fondness for the decade irrelevant of its actual merits. After finishing Southern Discomfort back in January, I reread one book on the decade and read a new one. They present such different perspectives they make a useful reminder that decades are not easily summed up. Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, right-wing, left-wing, they all shape our perspective. Richard Linklatter’s acclaimed Dazed and Confused was set in 1976 when I was in high school, but its Texas students might as well have been Martians for all I connected with them.

The reread was Thomas Hine’s THE GREAT FUNK: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) In the Seventies. Hine’s view of the decade is that the repeated blows of stagflation (stagnant wages + inflation), Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis left America uncertain about where it was going. But for a lot of people that was an opening: if the old ways weren’t working, why not try something new instead? New styles (“The seventies weren’t about bad taste, they were about rejecting taste as yet another form of authority.”), women’s liberation, sex manuals, mysticism and interest in the paranormal (one of the decade elements I played with in Southern Discomfort), consciousness raising, fashion revolution (when the big names in fashion declared the miniskirt was dead, nobody listened), Our Bodies, Ourselves (“The book’s message is that the system has failed us, so we must come together to fix things, and our feelings while doing this are as important as the hard facts.”) and being open to people whose new direction wasn’t the same as yours. Even allowing for nostalgic bias, Hine captures a lot of what I like about the decade.

By contrast, Ron Perlstein’s  THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (one of a trilogy looking at conservatives from Goldwater to Reagan) points out that faced with a chance to try new ways of doing things, a big chunk of America insisted they weren’t going to, and the hippies couldn’t make them. They wanted to believe America could and should be like the 1950s and hated being reminded otherwise, and they didn’t want to deal with the implications of Vietnam, Watergate or the Congressional investigations that showed the CIA and FBI had spied on American citizens in defiance of the law.

Enter Ronald Reagan. As Perlstein sees it, Reagan’s genius was that he divined what voters wanted to hear and gave it to them (while Perlstein was writing pre-2016, it’s hard not to see a parallel with Trump). Yes, America was the greatest country on Earth. Yes, we could be proud of what we’d done in Vietnam. No, Nixon was not a bad man (in an eerie echo of 2019, Reagan even compared impeachment to “lynching.”) No, the FBI and CIA were great American institutions, it’s the people questioning them who are bad. Never mind that his stories were often lies and also made no sense (if unelected goverment bureaucrats are bad, why are the unelected bureaucrats running the FBI and the CIA so wonderful?), they reassured people they were right not to doubt, right to think there was no need to change and try new things.

Reagan got a considerable boost from a new political funding mechanism called PACs, and from more sophisticated operations for polling and staying in touch with voters (it seems Sen. Jesse Helms was cutting edge with this back in the day). As a result, when Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination in 1976, it came right down to the wire at the convention before Ford won, only to lose to Jimmy Carter (whom Perlstein sees as offering a similar feel-good snake oil to Reagan, though with a Southern flavor).  At 800 pages, the book is a densely detailed read — the blow-by-blow of Republican infighting was more detailed than I really needed to know, though as I’ve said before, that’s a matter of taste, not a flaw in the book. One detail that might be a flaw is that while Perlstein portrays right-wing opposition to Roe v. Wade, more recent articles show there was a lot of acceptance and support for legalized abortion on the right; I dont know how the two reconcile.

What is a flaw in both books is the effort to shape pop culture to their themes. Hine argues that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist both reflect the baby boom’s ambivalence about settling down and having kids. Perlstein sees The Exorcist as putting the modern woman in her place (a single mom needs the help of traditional Catholic ritual to save her child from Satan!) and sees cynicism (The Parallax View0 and nostalgia (American Graffiti) in the movies as a product of their time; new therapeutic approaches such as EST, Scientology and Primal Scream Therapy likewise show a desperate search for a way to deal with what’s gone wrong in the country

I don’t buy it (even though I’ve also described Parallax View as a product of its time). There were child-centered horrors before the 1970s and cynicism wasn’t new either; the entire noir subgenre of the 1940s and 1950s shows a corrupt world that can’t be completely purified. Scientology started in the 1950s and while EST and primal screams might be newer and look flakier than psychoanalysis, it’s not like going into analysis was a more sensible, realistic approach to self-healing (Robert Bloch’s fiction frequently equated it to the lowest of superstition). Not everything fits neatly into a worldview or an interpretation.

Reading both books make me very glad I didn’t try to make Southern Discomfort any sort of statement about the era because that would be way beyond my abilities. Decades are big and complicated … but in a way, that’s liberating. All we have to do is carve off one small slice and make that real, not the entire thing; Dazed and Confused may not have worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true to its era. Hopefully my book (allowing for the elves and the magic) is too.

#SFWApro. Cover photos by Neal Barr and National Archives, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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