If You Can’t Tell People of Color From Dogs and Martians, I Can’t Help You

I did a bit of spitting and stuttering about this interview of The Coen Brothers by Jen Yamato on social media, but the more I stewed, the more I had to rant about, so I thought I’d take it to the lengthier venue of the blog.

Ignore the title of over at The Daily Beast. This is only tangentially about The Oscars. It’s far more substantively about the Coens who, after saying diversity is important, spin on their heels and dig in when questions of diversity are leveled at them (specifically, their newest film). The most egregious response comes from Joel Coen, when asked about criticism of a lack of non-white characters in Hail, Caesar!:

You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

I suppose I should at least be impressed by how very many ways Coen is fundamentally wrongheaded in such a short space. I mean, efficiency of language is something.

Still:

Let’s get some of the most hateful bits out of the way right here. A white, straight man is sitting around telling his Asian-American female interviewer that she’s an idiot for questioning his choices as a creator. This is such prototypical whitemansplaining that we might as well just stop using other examples. Joel Coen wins the crown.

I’ll give him some mild kudos for thinking to include “three Jews” in his hypothetical list that Writers Don’t Make. In the end, though, whether he’s throwing an ostensibly self-deprecating bone at himself or not, he still just implied that switching out white people for ethnic minorities if there isn’t A Big Reason for it is as asinine as replacing people with dogs. Aside from the fact that you’re only half a step removed from making “mongrel” comments, there, someone who claims to know “how stories get written” should probably know the difference between people and dogs. (special exceptions for writers of werewolf and anthropomorphic fiction notwithstanding). If you don’t, I’m pretty sure no one asking you questions is the one who’s an idiot.

More specific to the film in question, though, it sounds like Hail, Caesar! is exactly the kind of story which did start with a list of character concepts: The Marquee Actor, The Water Movie Starlet, The Hollywood Fixer. It’s a “day in the life” movie, after all, predicated on the notion that there are a lot of stories to tell about different Hollywood types. That kind of story by its very nature involves sitting down and thinking about which iconic character types you want to explore, what unique elements you want to bring to them (because if this is the same story we’ve already heard, why do we give a fuck?), then finding a way to weave them together.

Which is to say, if you’re already sitting down and saying we want a story with a big name star and someone from those Busby Berkely water musicals and a fresh-eyed kid and a grizzled veteran, you’re doing exactly the thing you’re pretending is idiotic: making a character list  with types of people in the real world.

Meaning that in the actual examining, it’s not idiotic at all. It’s how you craft characters. You sit down and think about who the people in your world are. Where they’re from. What they do. You give them lives and backgrounds. Different lives and backgrounds. If you didn’t, you’d have a story filled with a dozen of the same person. Which, short of that bit in Being John Malkovich, is a boring, horrible idea.

Pretending that taking a few moments in your character-building to consider the ethnic or sexual or gender or disability backgrounds of your characters as you strive for a vital, varied world that engages your audience is — at the insanely least — disingenuous.

And on the subject of four of one, three of another, etc., it’s long past time we stop pretending there’s a quota going on here. Seriously. There’s a request for storytellers to be more thoughtful about the world around them. That’s actually pretty much your job. It doesn’t help that this all comes with the infuriating implication that a movie full of white people is one where race happened naturally. Never considering if there was maybe too much White Default going on in the story is, actually, a choice.

If someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you have an answer which suggests it was for reasons other than being too lazy to conceive of any other configuration, fine. Whether or not it resonates, at least it means you thought about it. But when someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you just get dismissive and defensive, that tells me you never thought about it before.

In the end, I’m utterly exhausted by the authorial defense which insists that taking five minutes of story planning to consider that people other than the White (mostly male) Default exist in the world is some kind of egregious impediment to creativity or artistic integrity or storytelling or whatever-the-hell other stand in for The Muse happens to be word of the day.

People of all stripes exist in the real world. If you’re a storyteller, you’re building a world, too, and it is nothing short of lazy if you do not — in the course of that worldbuilding — consider the place of diverse individuals within it.

On Storytelling and Alien Perspectives

The latest episode of The Sockdolager podcast is live. Editors Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus share their insights on what they liked, loved, and noodled over for all of the stories in the Fall issue. As you may recall (and if you don’t, obviously I am un-subtly reminding you), this was the issue in which Hide Behind saw the light of published day.

Alison and Paul say a lot of the kind of complimentary stuff that makes the self-deprecating voices in my head squirm and wriggle, which is always nice. I won’t rehash all of it, because you should just go listen, but I will say I was especially happy that they made note of Yuna’s asexuality.

I did a lot of fiddling and angsting to find a way to make Yuna’s sexuality explicit without something so clunky as “As an asexual, Yuna…” in the narration or, worse, giving someone horrible “You see, Yuna, since you’re asexual…” dialogue. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

In editing, we never actually discussed any of the characters’ sexuality, though, so I’ll admit part of me wondered, but: it reads. Huzzah!

The other interesting bit I wanted to highlight is a discussion Paul and Alison have about whether or not this story takes place on Earth. Which never occurred to me, though I suppose it should have: while I was shopping this story around, a fantasy-only market I subbed it to rejected it explicitly because they thought it was too sci-fi for them.

Here’s the thing: in my head, “Hide Behind” takes place on an alt-history Earth filled with folklore come to life. However, I also have the benefit of having read the other stories I’ve set in this world. Only, one of those was published in an anthology that I’m not sure has got a lot of attention, one is forthcoming and thus isn’t in very many hands, either, and the others are either out on sub or aren’t even finished yet.

Stripped of other-story context, it makes sense. Most of the other stories lean a lot more heavily into the folklore and magic aspects. Yuna and Ruthie’s story, though, is probably the lowest on magic of any of the Tall stories. Which is intentional. I very much wanted to explore the nature of medicine and science in a world populated by so much fantastic, magical stuff. How do you navigate that, I wondered?

As a result, the mystical nature of the world gets a whole lot more grounding. When you actually start dissecting a giant and performing botanical grafts of trees with healing fruit, things become less magical and more alien.

Which, honestly, is its own kind of cool. “Hide Behind” is a story about characters who are alienated in a lot of ways, after all. Given one of my intentions with the Tall stories is to create works that can stand on their own (I’ve not sold more than one of them to the same market), but which can also provide a different experience for folks who have read more than one, this actually feels like proof of concept.

Also: I blame Firefly. ;)