Teri answers a few questions about her newest book for young readers, Guilty? Crime, Punishment and the Changing Face of Justice

Q:  Why did you write this book?

I believe the law—as taught in law school— can be presented to young readers in all its complexity and ambiguity. Personally, I was never much interested in government or civics classes—until I went to law school, and I discovered how fascinating the material is.

My hope is that a young reader will pick up this book and think, “Hey, this stuff is interesting! I want to learn more about it.”

What was your overall argument, or point?

My argument was there are problems with the ‘law and order’ model, and my point was to show young readers the competing values in the ‘due process’ model.

I believe young people are exposed to lots of law and order. They understand why the police catch ‘bad guys’ and why the prosecutor brings charges against them. The thinking and rationale behind the ‘due process’ model, however, is much less intuitive.

Why do you present problems without suggesting solutions?

The way to achieve the perfect criminal justice system is to find the perfect balance between the competing needs of the due process model and the law and order model.

Everyone will have a different idea what that perfect balance is.

My goal was to get young people thinking about how to achieve that balance, not prescribe solutions.

Why did you include the example of the killing of Osama bin Laden? What does that have to do with United States criminal law?

I used the killing of Osama bin Laden as an example of a deliberate, premeditated killing that is not [generally] considered a crime by [most] Americans. I used the killing to show that defining murder is not easy, and is often culturally biased.

In the words of one professor, quoted in the book, “Some killers are put in the electric chair. Others are given medals of honor.”

Why do you leave out so much important stuff?

A book on criminal law and procedure could easily be 2,000 pages. The law governing Fourth Amendment alone could fill a few volumes.

The book was intended to be a brief introduction, a jumping off point for discussion and further reading.

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 6 — conclusion

This is the final part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.

For some years now, dystopians have been all the rage, particularly among books published for young adults.

Nobody seems to be writing utopias these days, probably because our culture has grown too cynical for utopias. One writer friend told me it is not possible to write a true utopia: Either the story will not have any conflict, or it will be a dystopian in disguise. “It seems like a perfect world, but . . .”

If you want to talk about important utopias in western literature, you have to back a while.

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) has been called one of the most influential books in western literature.

Utopia describes an idealized island community upon which perfect social harmony has been achieved. On this island all property is community owned, violence is nonexistent and everyone has the opportunity to work and live in an environment of religious tolerance. Many social movements throughout history have drawn upon More’s work for inspiration. While possibly unachievable Thomas More’s “Utopia” gives a vision of what could be.

Thomas More published his book in 1516. If nations, and cultures, have life spans, 1516 was surely the youth of western culture. The period was fraught with dangers and disease, but people largely held comforting beliefs: They largely believed humankind had been created in the image of God, and they believed humankind lived at the very center of the universe. They believed mere mortals to be capable of heroic greatness.

In 1905 H.G. Wells published A Modern Utopia in which two travelers fall into a space-warp and suddenly find themselves upon a Utopian Earth controlled by a single World Government. This other planet is exactly like Earth in every way, except that the people found a way to live without war in perfect harmony.

An other major utopia I know of is Skinner’s Walden Two, published in 1948. The characters achieve a utopian society by rejecting free will, and rejecting the idea that people have a soul or spirit. Walden Two assumes that people are entirely controlled by their environment, so altering the environment can generate a perfect society.

The last true utopia that drew a wide readership (that I know of) was published in 1954 by Arthur Clark.

Modern day utopias are often dystopians in disguise. An example is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. From the jacket flap of The Giver:

Jonas’s world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

The society is initially presented as utopian, but as the book progresses, the society appears more and more dystopian.

My favorite dystopian-in-disguise is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a story by Ursula LeGuin about a perfect society that can remain perfect only as long as all inhabitants close their eyes to the suffering of a child. The story serves as an allegory of how some people — the fortunate ones — live in luxury and abundance made possible by the suffering of others, with slavery as one example.

A dystopian is an imaginative way of presenting an exposé or a warning. The dystopian holds up a mirror up to life, magnifying and reflecting back the worst fault and excesses.

I see the value in dystopians. One of my favorite books of all time, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopian. The story is both horrifying and fascinating, showing what can go wrong if fanatics seize control of the government and where disastrous ideas and misguided behavior can lead.

Dystopians infuse us with horror. They wake us up from complacency and force us to consider how much worse things could become if we don’t set aside apathy.

There is also no denying that stories that scare us can be fun the way a thrilling amusement park ride can be fun. Screaming as the roller coaster careens around a corner is certainly a thrill. Horror stories, including dystopians, offer the same heart-pounding fright.

Horrifying stories can also purge us of certain kinds of fear by showing us that it is possible to rise above even the most adverse circumstances.

Most importantly, dystopians can serve as important warnings, teaching us to see evil and take action before the evil has a chance to take root.

Several classic dystopians came from the disillusionment and bitterness that resulted from the Marxist revolution in Russia. Animal Farm is both an allegory of the Russian revolution and a dystopian view of how a revolution can go wrong. The refrain “all people are created equal, but some people are more equal than others,” shows the corruption that arose from the revolution, and cynically concluded that even a revolution born from idealism is bound to go wrong because of human greed. Animal Farm, and stories like it, teach us to see warning signs of political corruption.

Nineteen Eighty Four has — in my view — been justly called one of the best books ever written. It’s depiction of how a totalitarian government can gain complete control over the hearts and minds of its citizens is a must-read for everyone who wants to understand how we can be manipulated and controlled.

So I do see the value in dystopians.

But any way you look at it, a dystopian tells ugly lies. Children being set up to kill other children is ugly and evil — even though, of course, this is exactly what happens any time two opposing armies recruit seventeen year old boys and send them to meet on the battlefield, while the winners are cheered.

A dystopia, by its very nature, sees the meanness in human nature and imagines how thoroughly mean and evil people can be.  Dystopians, for all their value, tell ugly lies.

The question is whether the value of the lesson outweighs the presentation of violence and horror and the telling of ugly lies. Are we more likely to imitate the horror, or become numb to horror, or are we more likely to learn the lessons?

The answer for me is to walk down the middle. I think there is value when an artist shows us the forms evil can take. Having a “political doublespeak” as a metaphor helps us recognize it when it occurs.

On the other hand, the constant depiction of commonplace and meaningless violence and suffering as a form of entertainment is surely harmful and perhaps even depraved.

The larger question is this: What becomes of a culture when true cynicism and bitterness sets in, when artists can only imagine ugliness and horror?  Like a star in a galaxy approaching old age — is there nothing to do but wait and watch as the light burns out entirely?

Or is it possible to set aside bitterness and revive a youthful exuberance and belief in the greatness of the human spirit?

The answer, I believe, lies in Dostoevsky’s assertion that “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Who can better show beauty than the artist? Ages past have looked for a messiah or prophet, but it seems to me that the prophets of old were artists of a certain type: They were creative visionaries who can show the world as it might be and help us find a way to a better tomorrow.

If the artists are unable to imagine a beautiful the world as it should be, who can?

So I conclude this long series by ending up where I started: because life imitates art, the artist should tell beautiful lies.

That is how the world will be saved by beauty.

The 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

I will take a break from my series of blog posts about how life imitates art to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court, under the leadership of Earl Warren, handed down its decision declaring segregation in schools illegal.

Brown v. Board of Education was one of those rare Supreme Court cases which entirely changed the fabric of life in the United States. While it took several decades for schools all across the country to be integrated, the handing down of the decision had immediate and very radical effects. When the Court said segregation in schools was unconstitutional on the grounds that “separate can never be equal” — that segregating black and white children tells the black children they are inferior — people caught the drift. If segregation was unconstitutional in schools, what about buses? What about lunch counters and drinking fountains?

Shortly after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down, Rose Parks stepped on the world stage, and the Montgomery Bus Strike got underway.

What I’d like to do, on this 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, is suggest a few books anyone interested in civil rights in America should read.

Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, by Richard Kluger purports to be a history of Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, it is a stunning and remarkable complete history of blacks in America. I came away from this book with a new understanding of American history. What I understood was that we began fighting the Civil War at the time the Constitution was drafted, and the issue of equality for blacks was not resolved until well into the twentieth century.

To truly understand the miracle of Brown v. Board of Education requires a look at the enigmatic and fascinating chief justice responsible for the decision. While there are lots of biographies out there, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made, by Jim Newton, is one of the most recent and comprehensive. In the words of one reviewer, “Earl Warren was the most important politician of the twentieth century not to achieve the presidency.”

Of course, it’s impossible for me to talk about books about Brown v. Board of Education without at least mentioning the fact that Barbara Rose Johns, 16 years old in 1951, played a much more important role in the civil rights movement than she has been given credit for.

Next week I’ll go back to thinking about life imitating art . . .

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 5

This is the fourth part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.

In college, I stumbled on an idea which entirely boggled my mind. The idea was this:  Ancient people didn’t simply see the world differently. They saw a different world.

Literally. The world they saw was not the same as the world we see.

I am not talking about the cultural differences which change with each generation. I’m talking about the physical world — the trees, the skies, the wind, the ground itself.

This makes sense, if you think about it. When you look up into the sky, you see what you understand to be there was well as what appears to be there. So doesn’t it make sense that the natural world changes its character depending on the understanding we bring to it? This, it seems to me, is the exact theory behind Oscar Wilde’s idea that nature imitates art:

For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.

If so, it is not is not only the artist who changes the world we see. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, among others, have entirely changed the universe for us.

It’s like the question asked in Philosophy 101: If a tree falls in the woods, but nobody hears it, did it make a sound?

If you’re thinking, “of course it does,” consider the fact that sound waves are not something heard until the ear turns the sound waves into electrical signals that the brain can understand. So if there are sound waves but no ear to convert the waves to signals, there really isn’t “sound.”

So the answer is no. If the tree falls in the woods but nobody years it, it did not make any sound. The motion sent waves through the air, but those are not sounds.

If you look up into the sky and see a cold, unfeeling and mostly godless universe in which pain is pointless and human cruelty makes no impression on an unfeeling cosmos, the world you are seeing is different from others who look up and see the stars and planets revolving around the earth, with humanity at the center.

One of the major shifts in how people viewed the world of course happened in ancient Greece during the Hellenistic period. Earlier, during the time of Homer, the natural world was a mystical place, explained through the tales of heroes and gods.The Greeks knew the stories were not literally true, but they were used as allegories to understand nature and human nature.

Then, the pre-Socratic philosophers, came a new beginning — an attempt to understand the world scientifically — and ever since, there have been quarrels between those who want to understand the world via facts and those who want to understand the world via science.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, the ancients produced “delightful fiction given in the form of fact,” while the novelist today presents “dull facts in the form of fiction.”

Here is the problem with the modern worship of facts: Facts are limited and can only take us so far in our understanding of the world. This is why art and religion seek to answer the truly important questions — questions about the meaning of life, for example — through art and metaphor.

This brings us to a question: If, as a culture, we have grown bitter and cynical, seeing humanity as essentially depraved, the universe as cold and unfeeling, and suffering as pointless, how can we tell beautiful lies?

Carol Bly, in a lovely book called The Passionate Accurate Story, bemoans the fact that America has so much ugly-hearted fiction. She considers why, and suggests ways fiction can rise above what is merely ugly. Many of the following ideas are from Bly’s book. I should add that while I’m talking about fiction, the same may apply to other forms of art and entertainment as well.

Some of the ugliness in modern fiction, according to Bly, comes from salacious violence. The author gets a kick out of thinking about grotesque, sordid, and bloody details, and knows the reader will, too. The violence is gratuitous; it is there for no purpose other than to titillate.

Some of the violence, though, is there through a mistake in calculation: the author thinks that exposing the reader to this or that specific ugliness or evil will teach the reader not to participate in that ugliness or evil. In fact, as abundant psychological studies about the effects of violence on viewers demonstrates, people imitate what they see, rather than learn from the moral brought out at the end.

One flaw with modern fiction, according to Bly, is that people assume serious literature is some sort of exposé. Their mindset when reading or writing is exposé some evil or other.

Carol Bly says first the writer must leave the donnee, which is French for “given.”  Leaping off the lily pad of the donnee is what divides fiction writers from journal-writers and autobiographers. Too often, a writer wants to “capture” some emotion or factual truth — but fiction, for Bly, “is not about capturing anything. A good story is never about what actually happened. It must at least partly be about humanity and our earth. What actually happened can be the gist, or the start-up, but the fiction writer cannot cling to what happened.”

This seems to me to be another way of saying that art doesn’t imitate life, that art is something imagined and invented. Art may take real life as its subject, but the artist reimagines and reinvents.

As an aside, I should add that exposés, investigative journalism, memoirs, nonfiction news coverage, documentaries and other forms of nonfiction are all absolutely necessary and important. They are not, however, imaginative art in the sense I am speaking. Autobiography and documentaries do — and should hold a mirror up to life. Imaginative art is not, and should not be, autobiography. If the work reflects accurately, there is nothing imagined.

Bly says one way the artist can create imaginative works which, while acknowledging the evil and ugliness in the world, present stories which are not ugly at heart is for the work to be imbued with values and morals: If the artist comes to the work with a sense of values and right and wrong, the work will have meaning beyond presenting what is merely ugly or evil.

Carol Bly goes on to suggest practical advice for writers: Make a listing of your values. Learn to get past your own bitterness and cynicism by understanding that most conflicts are not between good and evil, but are more complex and subtle. Develop your powers of sympathy so you have less disdain for people in general.

At first blush, this seems to be good advice for people in general and writers in particular.

The problem I see with all of this is this isn’t enough. Carol Bly says avoid ugliness by making sure your villains are not pure evil. Let your villains be more multifaceted, as real human beings are more multifaceted. But is a work less ugly if instead of saying, “Ralph is an evil child molester,” the writers spends two hundred pages showing the abuse Ralph himself suffered as a child that turned him into a child abuser? While this may increase our sympathy for Ralph, and prevent Ralph from being a flat, cardboard villain without any real dimension, I don’t believe the work is any less ugly, or rises above exposé.

The business of the psychologist is to explain how and why abusers become abusers. The business of the artist is to imagine beyond what is.

Carol Bly also suggests that people try to be less disdainful and less cynical.

But if the culture is disdainful and cynical, what can the artist do? If the culture is essentially nihilistic, how can it be helpful to tell a person who is a product of the culture to stop being disdainful and cynical?

But once more, this blog post is growing long, so I will leave those questions to the next blog post.

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.

J.W. Krutch, in a fabulous essay, “The Tragic Fallacy,” gives an explanation for why modern fiction and literature contains so much ugliness and relatively little greatness of spirit.

He says the lack of greatness in modern fiction isn’t because readers and writers are interested in the commonplace and ordinary suffering, but because as a culture, we have come to see the human soul itself as common place, and emotions as mean.

Writing great tragedy, according to Krutch, requires believing in the greatness and importance of humanity. Great art arises when “a people fully aware of the calamities of life is nevertheless serenely confident of the greatness of man, whose mighty passions and supreme fortitude are revealed when one of those calamities overtakes him.” In other words, in great art, the violence or tragic circumstances are introduced to show the nobility of the spirit which achieves its greatness through the suffering. The suffering has meaning.

Moreover, he claims that all works of art which deserve their name have a happy end. Tragedy, for Krutch, ends happily when some nobility or greatness of spirit is revealed. Juliet dies, but not before she shows the transcendent powers of love. Othello dies, but only after he fully understands the meaning of his actions.

Krutch then claims that as a culture we cannot produce great tragedy because we no longer see the human spirit as inherently noble and good.

“God is dead,” Nietzsche famously said more than a hundred years ago. More specifically, he said:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche did not mean that God was literally dead. He meant that growing atheism meant that the belief in God could no longer serve as a moral compass or give meaning to life. He warned that growing atheism could lead to a belief that life is pointless, which in turn would lead to despair.

In past centuries, human beings believed themselves to occupy a center place in the universe. The belief that humanity has been created by a divine being in the image of that divine being similarly gives meaning to life and a belief in the greatness of the human spirit. Many blame modern science for dislodging humanity from its former position in the center of the universe.

The poets of the romantic era reinterpreted the story of Genesis, declaring that we are all born innocent, into a childhood Eden. Then, at some point in the child’s life, the child comes to understand eros and thanatos, sex and death, symbolized in Genesis by eating fruit of knowledge. God, in Genesis, said:

You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

You have to wonder about the “you will certainly die” part because Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, but they didn’t die — at least not literally.

Something else died. But what? And why?

The romantic interpretation says that what died was their innocence. The eating of the fruit of knowledge taught them about sex and death, and after coming to understand these things, the childhood garden of Eden was destroyed.

The romantic poets saw the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory for the loss of childhood innocence each of us experiences in our lifetime. Each person, for a short time, experiences the wonders of childhood innocence before coming aware of sex and death, and being expelled from the childhood bliss of Eden.

As an aside, this interpretation of Genesis was a departure from a previous interpretation, which believed all people after Adam and Eve were born guilty, or born in sin.

Perhaps nations and cultures also have lifespans. A culture or nation can be born naive and hopeful and innocent, believing in its own greatness and invincibility and immortality. Then the nation or culture experiences trauma, sees and does evil, and loses its innocence.

I think the mid-twentieth century was a turning point for western culture, particularly American culture. I think it could be said that by the middle of the twentieth century, our own national innocence was lost.

There were certainly atrocities before 1945. There were genocides and virulent forms of slavery and institutionalized human cruelty. But when the methodical scientific methods of the Nazis and the horrors of an atomic bomb became known — when modern science was put to work to destroy millions of people in a sweep and whole cities in the blink of an eye — something changed. Combine these man-made horrors with the disappointments of the Russian Revolution and a growing atheism and a decline in the belief that the human spirit was great and central to the universe, and it seems to me American culture lost its innocence.

It makes sense, then, that people who grew up after the Holocaust, and after the dawn of the atomic age, and after humanity was dislodged from its central place in the universe, were born into a world which could not help being cynical and bitter.

It seems to me a few other things happened in the twentieth century which caused a national loss of innocence.

Since the drafting of the Constitution, there have been people who abhorred slavery an wished to see it abolished. Similarly, there have always been those who spoke out against the massacre of the native Americans. Nonetheless, for most of our history, large sections of the culture embraced the institution of slavery as morally acceptable, and embraced a belief in the manifest destiny of America to claim the entire country from the East Coast to the West Coast. But in the twentieth century, Americans were able to look back, and — as a culture — understand the evils that had been perpetuated through slavery and the massacre of the Native Americans. In other words, the country became fully aware of the evil it had committed.

A century that dawned with Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God was dead lost its cultural innocence and came to see the universe as a cold and uncaring place.

I think it could be said that in the twentieth century Americans tasted the fruit of knowledge, came to understand death and evil in a whole new nihilistic way, and a culture lost its innocence. Bitterness and despair and cynicism set in.

Perhaps this explains why so much American fiction, particularly that labeled “literary fiction” is essentially nihilistic.

I believe this series is moving toward a point, but this post, too, is getting so long I’ll have to continue next week.


Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 3

This is the third part of a series that began here. I suggest beginning with Part 1 and reading forward. Thanks for coming and reading.

Last year, I joined a book group – six women who love books and meet every month or so to discuss a book and select a new book. The group generally selects novels from the top of the literary bestseller lists, the books with five-star reviews from major reviewers.

I was taken by the ugliness in these books — the violence, the horror, the rapes, the murders, the sheer pain in the lives of the characters. The fictional worlds invented by the authors we read essentially presented a nihilistic view of life. The lives and suffering of the characters had no meaning, or very little meaning.

When the group met to discuss the books, I was highly critical. In fact, so far I have disliked all of the novels. The other members of the group seemed to enjoy the novels. One member startled me by using the word “entertaining” to describe one of the books. I was afraid I would be kicked out of the group for being so critical of the books we read.

No, I won’t tell you which books. But I will tell you that my most persistent reaction was, “But where is the beauty?” There was nothing but pain and suffering.

One member of the group, in response to my constant criticism, finally said, “But this is what life is like. Life isn’t all hearts and butterflies and happy endings.”

Whether life is, in fact, essentially nihilistic is beside the point. Her view was that the world is nihilistic, and art should present life as it is. 

I agree with Oscar Wilde that if a creative work does nothing more than reflect the world as we understand it, it is not art, because it is not creative.

It is possible that the authors of these horribly depressing stories of rape and violence and pointless suffering do not believe life is nihilistic, but simply want to get published and make money, and they figured out the way to get published and read by book groups — and labeled “literary” by the publishing establishment — was to write about pointless violence and suffering.

This is not to say, of course, that all books on the literary bestseller list present a nihilistic view of life — but it seemed to me after six months in the group that a fair number did.

Now suppose Wilde is right: Life imitates art, which means all this nihilistic fiction is creating a more nihilistic world.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry cites impressive studies showing that television is a powerful influence in developing value systems and shaping behavior. Among the effects of violent programming is that viewers:

•become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence

•gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems

•imitate the violence they observe on television; and

•identify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers

Studies on children show that sometimes watching a single violent program can increase aggressiveness.

There are campaigns encouraging people to reduce their smoking and intake of fatty foods on the grounds that smoking and eating fatty foods is harmful to the body. Perhaps someone should be cautioning people against a steady diet of blood and gore and pointless suffering on the grounds that it is harmful to each individual psyche, and the well-being of the country as a whole — not just for children in their formative years, but all of us.

Wait, you might say. Nobody claims that television is art. Television is a business run for profit. The point of programming is to draw as many viewers as possible so ratings — and profits — go up.

Publishing, too, is a business. Publishers want to earn money. For that matter, writers want to earn money. Therefore — the argument goes — nobody claims a work which attempt to make a profit can be art.

I disagree. The commercial aspects of television, and books, and movies, does not mean there can be no art. One has nothing to do with the other. The creators of the programs are creating fictions. They are using their imaginations to invent lies. Fiction means something made up — a work of imagination — whether the medium is television, movies, or books. Commercial fiction, commercial television, and commercial films are just as capable of creating beautiful lies as ugly lies.

If you watch enough of a certain type of movies and television program, you’d think exciting car chases are common. You might think police are constantly chasing bad guys, who careen around corners, narrowly missing startled pedestrians, jumping over barriers, sometimes even bridges, even though some of the car chases in movies include stunts that entirely defy physics and thus can only occur imaginatively.

In real life, thrilling car chases are extraordinarily rare. This makes the many car chases depicted in television and movies are a lie. Car chases which defy gravity and the laws of physics, which careen through crowded cities destroying trash cans but avoiding people is an even bigger lie. The exaggeration and falsity of the car chases make them a work of the imagination. Done well and for a point, car chases can be high art, the same as any work of imagination.

I suggest that literary novels consisting of 500 pages of trauma and horror to the exclusion of all else is probably also a lie, particularly when the main characters are an average sort of American family, at least outwardly. While the average American family certainly experiences times of trauma and horror and death and sadness, the average American family also experiences moments of joy, and hope, and love.

Telling only the ugly parts is a lie. Moreover, telling only the ugly parts for no apparent purpose other than to present ugliness and show that life is and can be ugly is an ugly lie.

Just as I don’t believe the commercial aspects of a work have anything to do with the artistic value, I don’t believe what is called genre, or commercial fiction, has less merit than what is called literary fiction. Whether a work of fiction has merit has nothing to do with such labels. Often, in fact, fiction labeled genre — science fiction or romance or fantasy — is often work of much greater imagination and beauty than work labeled serious or literary.

Okay, you may be thinking. What about, say, Romeo and Juliet? There is plenty of violence in Romeo and Juliet. Is that not art?

The violence in Romeo and Juliet — or at least most of it — serves a purpose. Shakespeare intended to entertain and earn a profit by drawing large crowds, and he was not above using horror or sexual innuendoes to draw the attention of his audience — but the violence frequently serves a larger purpose.

Romeo and Juliet, as symbols of young love, die — as young love must die. Even if Romeo and Juliet had lived to marry and have children and reach old age, something would have died because the intensity and feverish pitch of that first blush of youthful love cannot last. Perhaps such impulsive and youthful love is replaced by something more stable and more mature, but something would be lost.

Moreover, Romeo and Juliet, as characters, are clearly inventions. Romeo and Juliet are more heroic and braver than mere mortals. They love more deeply than mere mortals. Their love and heroism — particularly Juliet’s — are more perfect and complete than real-life love generally is. They are exaggerations, and hence lies.

But they are beautiful lies because in creating them, Shakespeare did not show what love frequently is. He showed us how great and powerful love can be.

That is what makes Romeo and Juliet great characters in a great work of art.

Even though Romeo and Juliet are larger than life, when we read the text or see the play performed, many of us imagine we are seeing a reflection of ourselves, when — most likely in youth — we loved with such intensity and abandonment. Shakespeare seems to hold up a mirror to our own experiences. We feel we are seeing parts of ourselves reflected. We are not. We are seeing perfection, which doesn’t exist in the real world.

Our real life experiences strive to imitate the perfection Shakespeare shows us. Life, which is essentially imitative, strives to be like art.

I don’t believe Shakespeare was trying to create art. He was trying to earn a profit and be a successful playwright. But when he invented lies, he invented beautiful lies. That is what made him great.

Not that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have its plot and other flaws. It does.

But what we remember is the grand scale of the passions — passions great enough to shake the cosmos. Here are the concluding lines of the play:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun for sorrow will not show his head.

Go hence to have more talk of these sad things,

Some shall be pardoned, and some punished,

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

The tragedy was so important that the very cosmos were affected: The sun for sorrow did not show its head.

In the final scene, when the feuding families saw the bodies of their dead children, they agreed to end their feud. They erected statues of the young lovers in the newly peaceful Verona. The love of Romeo and Juliet, great enough to shake the very cosmos, also changed the fabric of their community.

Again, this blog post is running long, so I will continue next week, considering the world view in which human suffering can indeed shake the very cosmos.

Here is an interesting blog post claiming that the term “literary fiction” is a clever marketing ploy.

Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 2

The idea that life imitates art isn’t so surprising, right? Among other things, that’s the idea behind the studies showing that children become more violent after watching violence on television.

Oscar Wilde, in an essay published in 1905, claims that life imitates art more than art imitates life. He goes even farther and claims that even nature imitates art.

What? He actually claims that nature follows the landscape painter and takes her effects from the painter?

Exactly so, says Wilde.

"A Street at Night," by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“A Street at Night,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“Where,” asks Wilde, “if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

“You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. 

"Reflections on the Thames, Westminster," by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“Reflections on the Thames, Westminster,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis.

“Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my coming to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines, to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and overemphasized.”

"Flint Castle," by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

“Flint Castle,” by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

I attended a history lecture once in Boston. The lecturer was discussing the writings of a group of monks in the middle ages who traveled over the Alps. They wrote about their journey, but never once mentioned the spectacular landscape. There they were, traveling over mountains of incredible majesty and beauty — but they didn’t seem to notice or care. Instead, they discussed philosophy and religion.

Oscar Wilde would say that the monks in the middle ages didn’t notice the spectacular landscape because the painters of the Romantic era had not yet interpreted the grand landscapes in a way that taught people to see the beauty.

 "Romantic Landscape," by John Trumbull  (1783)

“Romantic Landscape,” by John Trumbull (1783)

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” is a cliche based on an obvious truth: Beauty is subjectively brought to the object by the person seeing it. Until artists taught people to see the beauty of a grand landscape, the beauty simply wasn’t there.

Wilde, of course, goes further and says that the landscape itself wasn’t there. While there was a physical world, it wasn’t the physical world we see today because what we see is imbued with our subjective understanding of what is there. (I’ll explore this idea more later.)

In the middle ages, when survival was a struggle, the natural world was menacing and frightening. The eighteenth century, which saw the rise in cities and the ability of humanity to become the master of nature, allowed artists to invent the spectacular landscape as a thing of beauty.

The two main points I take away from Wilde’s essay are these:

(1)  No great artist sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.

(2) The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art.

This brings me back to Ibsen’s Nora. In 1879, Ibsen invented a truly modern woman, a woman way ahead of her time. He departed from what was real, and commonplace, and dull. He told a beautiful lie. It could be said that Nora taught generations of women what they could be and could do. Or it could be said that because life is essentially imitative, the type of woman created by Ibsen has become fact.

Next week I’ll continue with a look at the ugliness in so much American fiction and consider why so much of our fiction and art lacks beauty.

 You can read Oscar Wilde’s entire essay here.


Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 1

I’d like to explore the idea that because life imitates art, the fiction writer, as an artist, should invent beautiful lies.

I’ve been thinking about these issues as I write a children’s story about a group of children who, after surviving the experience of being stranded on a frozen island, set out to save the world using radical and unconventional methods.

I understand that there is much in the title of this blog post which requires explanation, so bear with me as I think out these ideas.

I’d like to start with Ibsen’s Doll’s House as an example of an artist inventing beautiful lies.

Here’s the story of The Doll’s House, in a nut shell:

Nora and Torvald have been married eight years, and have three children. Torvald sees Nora as his silly and irresponsible plaything, who he indulges and controls. Nora happily plays the role of the cheerful songbird who entertains and worships her husband.

But there are a few things Torvald doesn’t know about Nora. Earlier in their marriage, she borrowed a large sum of money so that he could recuperate from a serious illness. To get the loan, she forged her dying father’s signature. As she viewed her forgery, she was sparing her dying father the painful knowledge that Torvald was deathly ill, and she was acting heroically to save her husband.

Nora hides the forgery and loan from Torvald, paying the loan back herself by working on the side and saving from her household allowance. She doesn’t want Torvald to know about the loan because she believes that when he does learn her secret, he will understand he is indebted to her, and this will injure his masculine pride, thus ending their present happiness.

Meanwhile, Torvald gets a job as manager of a bank and promptly fires Krogstat, who was once disgraced for forgery. Krogstat is also the man Nora borrowed the money from.

Krogstat threatens to tell Torvald of Nora’s forgery unless she intervenes and convinces Torvald to rehire him at the bank.

Naturally, by the end of the play, Torvald learns of Nora’s forgery. She expects him to protect her by offering to take the blame, which of course, she will not allow him to do.

When Torvald learns of the forgery — to Nora’s shock — he turns on her, calling her names and telling her she is unfit to be a mother. Also to her surprise, he plans to submit to Krogstat’s blackmail — something she never expected him to do. He shows that he cares only about maintaining his own image.

The audience, of course, saw this coming, but Nora truly believed that Torvald would seek to protect her, and would feel grateful that she loved him so dearly as to take such steps to save his life. Instead he tells her that their marriage is now an empty shell. They will keep up appearances. She will remain in his house and the outside world will believe all is well, but she will not be allowed to raise the children because they might learn dishonesty, and he will keep her under close watch.

In a last minute reversal, Krogstat changes his mind as a result of his relationship with Nora’s friend and newfound happiness. He returns the forged note and will no longer blackmail Torvald into rehiring him at the bank.

Torvald cries, “I am saved!”

Nora has been watching Torvald’s reactions with horror and deepening understanding the emptiness of her marriage and life she has been leading. She has been a doll in his house, nothing more.

She thus tells Torvald she is leaving him. She tells him that he was right when he said she is unworthy to raise her children:  “I am not up to the job. There is another job I have to do first. I have to try to educate myself. You can’t help me with that. I have to do it alone. And that’s why I’m leaving you now. . . I have to stand completely alone, if I am ever going to discover myself . . .”

He tries hard to stop her, believing that they can return to the way things were now that the threat of blackmail has been removed, but she packs her bag, takes off her wedding ring, and walks out on her marriage and her children in order to find herself.

The play ends when she slams the door behind her.

When The Doll’s House was first performed in 1879, audiences were shocked. While it was not unheard of for a woman to walk out on her husband and abandon her children, the result was always scandal. Ibsen’s play, however, presented Nora’s decision to walk out of her marriage as a necessary step to maturity after a lifetime of allowing men to define her.

While feminists ever since have seen the play as showing the reality of marriage for women in the 19th century and championing one woman’s attempt to reach maturity, the play was also considered radical and somewhat dangerous by suggesting that all people owed something to themselves, including the right to stand as an individual. As Nora says in the end:

“I believe that, before all else, I am a human being, no less than you — or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on believing what the majority says or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.”

A Doll’s House was based on what happened to Laura Kieler, Ibsen’s good friend. Just like Nora, Laura desperately needed money to save her husband’s life. Initially she asked Ibsen for help, but he refused. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help isn’t clear. She therefore signed an illegal loan document to secure the money. When her husband discovered her secret loan, he divorced her and had her committed to an asylum. Later, at her husband’s urging, she returned to him and her children.

Shortly after she was committed to the asylum, Ibsen wrote the play, changing Laura to Nora. In making the change, Ibsen changed what actually happened, which was lurid and sad, to what should have happened.

In other words, Ibsen told a beautiful lie.

It could be said that Nora taught generations of women to find dignity and autonomy. If you haven’t read the play, I highly recommend it. Ibsen is a master of drama and character, and at least for me, the play still packs a punch in the year 2014.

This blog post is already long, so in my next post — which will be next week, on Friday — I will expand these ideas by considering Oscar Wilde’s theory that because both life and nature imitate art, the calling of the artist is to tell beautiful lies.


Thinking about why Barbara Rose Johns was Forgotten for so Long

In 2000, when I first became interested in Barbara Johns and knew I wanted to write a book about her, it seemed like nobody had heard of her. I asked a friend who taught African American history in a local community college. She had never heard of her. I asked a classmate from law school who had a strong interest in the history of civil rights in America. He had never heard of her. I first pitched the idea for my book to Howard Reeves at Abrams in 2009 because he was particularly knowledgable about the American civil rights movement and African American history. When he first read my proposal, even he had never heard of her.

Barbara led her strike in 1951. Taylor Branch, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years suggested that Barbara’s story was ignored because it was unheard of to credit a child with playing a major part in national politics and history.

I understood that Barbara was ignored because, in addition to being a child, she was black, poor, and female. Scholars have discussed the “invisibility” of black women. A Shining Thread of Hope, written by Darlene Clark Hine in 1999 mentions Barbara, and demonstrates that black women played a much more important role in American history, including the struggle for civil rights, than they have been given credit for.

Another reason Barbara’s story may have been overlooked may have had something to do with the painful backlash her community suffered when the white community responded with hate and anger to  the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation: Barbara’s home county, to avoid desegregation, shut down its schools. The whites formed a private school for whites only; black children were left without an education. Black families were broken up so that children could be sent out of the county for school. The denial of education to the many black children who remained in the county wreaked havoc on those children and their families for decades to come.

There were those who blamed the pain on Barbara. In an article published by the Farmville Herald in 1960, the author, Colonel John Charles Steck, accused Barbara and the others who demanded equality of “turning their native county into a battle ground.” In Steck’s view of the situation, the races had been “happily and peacefully coexisting” when Barbara stirred up all the trouble.

Now, at the start of 2014, just before my book is about to be published — 14 years after I first became interested in Barbara’s story — I am surprised by how many people I meet have heard of her. A friend who teaches at UC Davis told me that she uses A Shining Thread of Hope in her college course, and discusses Barbara’s contribution to the civil rights’s movement. The Moton Museum in Farmville, where visitors can learn all about Barbara and her strike, was established in 1994, but wasn’t opened to the public until 2001, and didn’t really get rolling until about 2008.

Also in 2008, a monument was erected on the Capitol Grounds in Richmond in honor of Barbara and her classmates.

Barbara’s sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, noticed an uptick in recent years in the interest in Barbara. She said, “The word is spreading.”

The word does in fact seem to be spreading. But why now and not earlier? Is it because the United States is ready to accept, as a national hero and leader, a teenage black girl?

No doubt Barbara’s gender and age were a large part of why her contribution to the civil rights movement was overlooked.

It now occurs to me there may be something else as well.

I recently came across this article which asserts — surprisingly — that as a society we dislike innovators.

According to this article, we purport to value creativity and innovation, but in fact, risk-takers and those who think outside the box are often shunned and silenced by most people who prefer the ease of the status quo.

According to the article: “We are raised to appreciate the accomplishments of inventors and thinkers—creative people whose ideas have transformed our world. We celebrate the famously imaginative, the greatest artists and innovators from Van Gogh to Steve Jobs. Viewing the world creatively is supposed to be an asset, even a virtue . . but it’s all a lie.” (emphasis added)

The article then goes on to cite impressive studies about how most people are actually biased against creative thinking and put pressure on risk-takers to conform. They are “satisfiers” who want to avoid stirring things up, even if means forsaking a good idea. Studies show that teachers prefer the children who follow directions rather than those who come up with creative ideas, and that true risk-takers face constant criticism and rejection.

While I was interviewing Barbara’s former classmates, I met a former Moton student who hadn’t wanted to participate in the strike because at the time he hadn’t believed a strike was the best way to go about  getting a new school. This person also resisted my suggestion that Barbara’s idea was innovative and creative. “Hadn’t there been labor strikes before that?” this person asked me. He didn’t think her idea had been particularly creative — just not the best idea, and likely to cause problems.

It seems to me that there’s a difference between a labor strike and a peaceful demonstration intended to shut down a public institution in the name of racial equality. It also seems to me that putting together the idea of a labor strike with the idea of a peaceful boycott demanding racial equality was quite creative. When the civil rights movement got going a few years later, Barbara’s approach was the approach generally adopted by the leaders of the civil rights movement.

It also seems to me that the first person to do something takes the greatest risk. When Barbara led her strike, segregation was still the law of the land. The larger civil rights movement got started a few years later, after Brown v. Board of Education actually gave people the rights that Barbara demanded.

In 1951, the idea of integrating schools was shocking, entirely upsetting the status quo and social order. In 1951, the idea that blacks would peacefully protest inequality and in fact, achieve equality under the law was largely unimaginable.

2014 is a very different world from 1951. Much of what was shocking and new and innovative in 1951 is commonplace and accepted now.

Today, decades after Dr. King’s March on Washington and “I have a dream” speech, what Barbara did is seen as an accepted method for protesting unfairness. Her idea is no longer radical and shocking and innovative. It’s something we’re used to and comfortable with.

Perhaps today, for these reasons — and of course because at last enough people are able to accept that a young black woman can play a leading role in national politics — we can embrace Barbara as an innovator, a ground-breaker, and a great American hero.