Friday, August 17, 2007

It Cuts Both Ways

Months ago I talked about how the press has a tendency to misrepresent statements, and provided my own examples about how easy it is to do that. I referred to that earlier this week, and I hope this is the last time I find myself thinking about this for a long time. (This does get beyond the arguments, btw.)

When I posted yesterday the only name I mentioned was Ian Rankin’s. The reason was deliberate. Sure, it was the recent uproar in the press that brought up the topic, but it ties to other things I’ve talked about – the radio debate between David Roberts and Mark Billingham, for one, the recent online attack on Ken Bruen for another. And that’s why I said And there are a lot of people out there who have nothing to do with the other side of the writing community, left feeling uncomfortable over the comments made, feeling as though there's active hostility (which may or may not be true, depending on the argument and the people) and feeling as though they don't want to be around any of those people. It wasn’t just about Rankin. Certainly not just about Rankin and Val McDermid. Val was just one of the people who spoke out months ago when a comment Rankin made in an interview resulted in wide-scale criticism on him, with some alleging he was anti-lesbian, etc.

I think the broader issue to consider is one that Olen Steinhauer raised earlier this week when he asked, Can Novelists Just Be People?

The short answer? No. Whatever you say in an interview, at a public event, on a panel, on radio… all of it can come back to haunt you later. This is hardly a news flash.

At this point in their careers, I guess I’m stunned Val or Ian would be surprised by anything they see from the press and the public when they make comments in interviews or at public events. I was pretty quick to point my fingers in a different direction last fall, at the journalist who conducted the interview, and at the number of people who just took what was reported verbatim without even questioning it.

Today, Val McDermid has been reported as being upset for the way her own comments were represented in the press this week. Speaking to McDermid yesterday though, her anger wasn't directed at Rankin - but at the way the story has been reported. "Ian and I Instant Messaged each other when this story broke and were very amicable," she tells me. "We are still friends - he danced at my wedding, for Christ's sake!"

As we chat, McDermid is scanning reports of the incident on the internet, becoming increasingly incensed. "Why was only my sexuality mentioned?" she asks. "I was on stage with Denise Mina, who supported and expanded on what I said, but because she is, inconveniently, a self-confessed heterosexual, the only remarks reported on were mine.

"I did not even mention Ian's name," she adds. "Not because I was frightened to, but because I wanted to have a wider discussion about the issues. The way it has been reported makes me sound like a mad, paranoid lesbian." It's easy to see her point. Yesterday morning the page three headline in the Times read: "Revenge of the bloodthirsty lesbians."

McDermid is appalled at being referred to as "bloodthirsty" (although she is thinking very seriously about having a T-shirt made up with that headline). "It's preposterous nonsense," she says. "It makes me sound as if I'm some kind of ghastly bloodsucking demon, who shouldn't be allowed near small children. It doesn't help when the media uses such headlines, making me appear as if I have my meat cleaver ready to chop Rankin's gonads off.

"It couldn't be further from the truth," she quips. "I take my cooking seriously."

One thing I’ve learned from this is that, no matter how many news stories you read about something, you can’t be absolutely certain about the facts. I’ll take one report that’s questionable with a grain of salt. But when I see the same thing from a number of different sources it’s always seemed fair to conclude it’s been properly sourced and that things aren’t being blown too far out of proportion (assuming these aren’t wire stories).

The truth of this whole issue has been mired in misrepresentation from day 1, and nothing’s changed.

It’s a good interview, one that demonstrates we have yet another example of how things get twisted in the press. For all the reasons I argued vehemently last fall for people to not jump to conclusions over Rankin’s reported remarks (and the widely inferred meaning attached to them by people on blogs and forums) I should not have assumed there was any intention to dredge up an old argument yesterday, and I apologize if I gave anyone that impression.

Now that I’ve had an opportunity to read Val’s comments in the interview, I think I can (perhaps) finally understand why the issue was raised again. (I still wish it hadn’t been. No matter what the intention it’s come off badly, as evidenced by the strings of biting comments on all the news articles, as well as comments on author forums.) It really is a shame that that one topic overshadowed far more critical topics, such as purchasing managers for major chains not reading books by women.

The interview is good for other reasons. It reminds me of all the reasons I have so much admiration for Val’s work.

In one of the previous books in the series, The Last Temptation (2002), Jordan was brutally raped while working undercover to expose a people trafficker. Unlike most of the characters in male crime writers' novels, however, Jordan lived on to fight another case. McDermid writes about sexual violence in a way that humanises the victim, and believes in portraying the reality of such crimes and their effects. "I wanted Carol not to be a victim," she explains, "so women who also did not want to be a victim could aspire to her."

I’ve always had an appreciation for Val’s willingness to go at tough issues in her fiction, delving into things that aren’t easy to write about. And she doesn’t sugarcoat it either, which is good, because there’s nothing more insulting to people who’ve experience violence than to have people dismiss it and the way it can impact their lives.

I also think that it may be that many women write about violence because they’re more often the victims of sexual violence. (I’d add men that can be deterred from writing about rape because people start assuming they have rape fantasies. I’ve heard male authors state on panels and in interviews that they’re reluctant to write about pedophiles and rape.)

Whether men or women write the more violent crime fiction is a question nobody is likely to ever try to tackle directly, at least, not any time soon. I certainly know a number of male authors who write violence.

Putting my own 2 cents on the subject, I think women who are lesbians experience more discrimination, despite changes in society. I think about how everything I write can be interpreted, and even as a woman I worried about one thing I wrote some time ago (not published). After being raped a woman eventually begins a relationship with another woman. I worried a lot about that, about people assuming I was inferring that the reason women are lesbians is because they’ve experienced abuse. I don’t think that for a second. I think abuse can affect a person’s decision about who they’d like to have a relationship with, but it’s certainly not the reason someone’s gay, straight or otherwise. The character was, in part, inspired by a real situation I went through, when a woman talked to me about all the abuse she’d experienced from the father of her children and how she’d finally experienced a loving, nurturing relationship. And then she broke down and cried because the relationship was with a woman.

She felt so conflicted herself, there was nothing I could really say to her. Just listen. And think about how sad it is that so many people have terrible, unhealthy relationships. It seems so simple to just want to love and be loved, but it gets twisted and complicated and then people meddle, tell you who you are and are not allowed to be involved with, tell you what is and is not acceptable.

Me, I’ve never had a problem getting along with guys. On any given day about 70% of the emails I get from friends are from guys. There’s no universal truth that abuse or the absence of abuse will influence a person’s sexuality. That’s simplistic thinking.

But I still worry that if that character ever sees the light of day I may be forced to defend her existence. (Actually, this reminds me of an email I had from Al Guthrie the other day, but I can’t talk about that, or I’d have to kill everyone who read it.)

It goes back to what started this whole thing to begin with. People make assumptions, and judge, without all the facts.

Maybe it says more about us when we do that than anyone else.

I hated to think that there may be a real conflict between Ian and Val. It certainly came off as though there was a spat this week. I’m glad to be proven wrong about that. I am also aware of one... contrived publicity stunt in which authors agreed to publicly argue, within the past year, to raise their profile. When I touched on that the other day I wasn't thinking about Val and Ian, and I want to be clear on that point. I wish people wouldn't create and exaggerate arguments in public for publicity, because it's tense for everyone. There's enough to argue about already, without trying to create false drama. Believe me, if I express anger with someone, you can bet I'm seriously annoyed, but the majority of my real conflicts have actually been kept out of the public domain.


Randy Johnson said...

Unfortunately, in today's world, words like gay, lesbian, liberal, and even racism, are flash points to get people to pay attention to the crap being spewed out, whether on television, in newspapers, magazines, or online. Most of us, and I like to think I'm one of them, pay no attention. But there are a lot who do. That's how politicians work. Throw so much mud and filth that their real actions are obscured from enough people that the world has fallen into the shape it's in. Naturally I'm referring to my country, America. Sorry about the rant and getting slightly off subject.

Sandra Ruttan said...

No need to ever apologize Randy. Rant away. And believe me, it's not much different this side of the border. If anything we're more hypocritical about it.

Jersey Jack said...

The only problem with Free Speech is that it's afforded to all, even dopes.

Sandra Ruttan said...

True Jack. And there have been enough times to be frustrated over that.

Although in the midst of all of this, there was another dispute I didn't even touch on, between two intelligent people, publicly. Hey, we all know me, someone takes a swing stand your ground. But this one was just stupid.

Seems to be the norm lately. Didn't I just pledge to stay away from people who provoked me to argue recently? I'll have to leave Earth. :(

norby said...

Is this all back to that ridiculous woman Danuta Kean? Jesus, poor Val.

You and I talked a lot about this at the time Sandra-while there may be valuable issues in there, this person has managed to obscure them by sullying the image of two well-respected people. All for the sake of her ratings.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You said it Norby.

angie said...

I figured there was something else going on...figures it was another bit of taken wildly out of context bullshit!

One of the things I've always liked about you is that you'll set the record straight.

Sandra Ruttan said...

What else can you do? Anyone who pretends to be perfect isn't fooling anybody, least of all themselves. You know the story about the blind men and the elephant? That's a good analogy here. Just over a year ago there was an interview on Murderati, with Laura Lippman. Laura made a remark about someone she missed, and it came up in the comment trail that people thought she meant the author had died. She hadn't said that, but the context did open the door to the misunderstanding. IIRC Laura quickly spoke up to set the record straight.

In all honestly, I think that's the best lesson to learn about this. If all the otherwise intelligent people in this business who know - from their own experiences and the experiences of others - that things can be distorted in the press had afforded Ian the benefit of the doubt instead of assaulting him last fall, we wouldn't be here now.

And, perhaps if Ian had said something sooner. (Elsewhere I've seen a recap of what actually was said at the festival, which asserts he explained the comments last fall and what happened.) He was on tour when it blew up and by the time he was in a position to be asked for comment it seemed to be dying down. I don't blame him. It isn't always easy to know the best course of action in these circumstances.

But I am glad Val didn't let this misunderstanding fester for another 10 months.

Peter said...

The one edifying result of this sordid little controversy has been Val McDermid's comments. She asked hard questions about the writing and the business sides of crime fiction. (I read her comments in a report by a journalist -- you know, one of those people who distort things and eagerly fan controversies.)

One thing I have not seen is Rankin's explanation for what seemed, at the very least, a stupid remark. Why did he say what he did, and what did he mean by it?

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

Obviously, not all reporters distort things Peter! And many things (at least used to) get changed in the layout phase. I remember knocking someone on the head for removing words from a story to make it fit and changing the meaning of a sentence.

Of course, I've also known a few who would twist anything to get a scandal. My journalist ethics class, taught by a reporter from The Globe and Mail, was a distinct experience in a lack of ethics. I sat through whole classes where they taught us how to use narrative in a piece to distort the meaning and how to dig for scandal stories.

And I have repeatedly read on blogs grumbling from authors over being misquoted.

As to Rankin's full explanation, I'll have to see if I can dig up the public online source simply. On one of the lists I'm on someone went through a comment trail on one of the news stories and pulled out the accounts from people who'd actually attended the events in question, and I knew someone at one of the events myself. One of the news stories I read (and thought I linked to? But there have been a lot of stories...) did have part of his explanation. In order to get the whole picture here you have to do a bit of digging... Or ask Ian.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Whatever Rankin said and why ever he said it, journalists (and, one hopes, non-journalists as well) recognize that when a public figure says something stupid or embarrassing and is called on it, his or her first response is to deny having said it.

With so much journalism done via video and tape recorder, however, many statements end up preserved on tape. So the author of the statement or his defenders claim the statement was "taken out of context." I invite anyone with infinite patience to look for accompanying explanations of how, in what way, the statement was "taken out of context." The phrase itself is not an answer, but rather a nostrum, a verbal formula intended to dissipate all questions without answering any.

That's what Rankin's defenders are doing. The same is the case with references to the reporter who interviewed Rankin as "that ridiculous woman." She may be ridiculous, but saying so does not make it so unless one explains how and why it is so.

The shame of it all is that the defenders of Rankin could be asking useful questions. Was his remark a thoughtless joke, uttered with no bad intent? If so, what about Rankin's attitudes and the climate in which he holds them allows him to joke about such a subject? Why would someone connect lesbians, crime fiction and violence, even as a joke? Do women, lesbians included, who write crime fiction, approach violence (or any other subject) differently from the way their colleagues do?

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

I blogged at length about this last fall, and I'm not going to repeat all of it. I did, however, demonstrate how in my own interviews it would be possible for me to quote someone directly, and infer meaning that was not intended, which was clear in the broader context of the enitre interview.

Believe me, people often say things to me they otherwise would not, because they know me. And then in the context of an interview, someone who doesn't know the person doesn't understand all the history of a remark. I've extracted things myself that I felt would be open to misinterpretation - even very little things.

Ian Rankin never denied the comments in the interview. I believe by the time he was reachable he felt that it had blown over and saying anything would only reignite the situation. Then it was dredged up, again and again, by others.

As I've said here elsewhere, this actually was touched on, but from a different angle, at Harrogate last year on a panel both Ian and Val were on. In that context, it was a bit of a joke, but it was a joke that underscored the question, Does a person's sexual orientation influence their writing? At the time, the panelists had been given excerpts to read and they had to guess if the author was male or female. And if I really felt so inclined I could dig out the tape of that that I have that I'm not supposed to have and put the whole exchange up here, but I'm not going to.

I read the original, offending interview as presented to the public at the time. And I also did talk to Ian about it, in the context of a private conversation, which I'm not going to repeat, but while I believe the reporter misrepresented Ian's remarks in the context of the interview (and in fact, inserted narrative that inferred he was terrified of addressing this great unspoken truth which only served to affect how others interpreted his remarks) the greater sin actually was how people jumped all over him. The commentary started, that he was anti-lesbian, anti-woman. Where did he say that?

You want to take someone to task take them to task for what they actually said, and they may have to own up to a poor choice of words at the least or bad judgment or stupidity at worse, but person started the mudslinging and inferred meaning beyond the context of the original quote. Rankin's been judged way beyond the scope of that one interview.

While it may be true that things end up on tape, that's usually the tape in the possession of the reporter. How many authors take a tape recorder to their interview and keep a copy? Maybe they should, because I've seen many people talk about being misquoted. Having been misquoted myself, I believe them. In a situation where I know and trust the author and don't know the reporter I'll believe the author until absolutely proven otherwise.

Instead of rehashing it all, I'll repeat something I said earlier this week on it elsewhere:

I think it could be fascinating to have a real, candid discussion of all kinds of things that affect an author's writing and people's perceptions of it.

A woman writes rape and it's an insightful look at one of the most frightening things that could happen to a woman through fiction. (And if she's been a rape victim and talks about that in the promotional phase she adds authenticity to the work.) A man writes it and he's got rape fantasies - I've heard many male authors, on panels, say they don't want to write about pedophiles or rape.

Does anyone remember the Tom Hanks movie, Philadelphia? Tom Hanks plays a man dying of Aids... Shortly after that he was on one of the late night talk shows. I was a guest at a friend's house, and we were watching this. Hanks was going on and on about sex with his wife in the White House and I made some remark, something like 'take it to the bedroom and keep it there'. My friend said that with the movie that just came out, he was probably concerned people would question his sexual orientation, which was why he was saying all the stuff he was.

I haven't a clue, but the fact that my friend even thought about that validates the point - people often do not separate the art from the artist. Every single thing about an author, from gender on, can be analyzed as having a bearing on why a person writes what they do.

Do African-American authors write more about prejudice? Do victims of abuse write more about abuse? If we had more Native authors writing crime would they write about the problems on reserves? Is it possible if you've experienced more violence in your life that your work might reflect that? I could see a person going either of two extremes - idealizing the world and portraying the one they wish existed, or being very dark.

While no one character/situation I've written is exactly me or my own, I would be lying if I said things I've experienced in my own life didn't have a bearing on what I do and do not choose to write about, and how I write about them. I've sat and had discussions with writer friends about the wish fulfillment in our writing, what we sometimes give our characters that we wish we'd had ourselves. And it isn't things like a nice car or brown eyes - it's things like a great relationship with their mom or dad.

I'm always fascinated by things in a person's life that have influenced their writing, and that's part of the reason I interview people. I love trying to get inside their head and figure out how they work and what inspires them. Perhaps that makes me a bad person, but honestly, I don't see how people can be writers without having a fundamental curiosity about people and their motivations for everything. I am the eternal child, always asking, "Why?", even if only in my head.

And believe me, from now on, I'll be keeping a lot more of those why questions to myself.