The Help & the Assigning of Authority in Literature

I haven’t yet been able to read The Help, nor have I seen the movie, but I’ve definitely seen and heard the backlash from everyone from bloggers to the Black Women Historians. What people say most often, alongside the inaccuracy of what the consequences of these women telling their stories seems to be, is that here is this white woman telling our story…as if she could ever know what it was like. How dare she?

This topic is a touchy one for most writers, I would imagine, as it speaks to our rights as writers: who gave us the authority to write about people who belong to cultures and races other than our own? Can I ever write a story with all white characters as an African-American, historical stories that portray racist characters or characters who I would never interact with? What about rich people or people in extreme poverty? Where can I get permission to write about an experience that is not my own?

This issue of who has the right to tell a story of a shared past is part of my one literary novel attempt, the Southern Gothic Novel.  I wanted to write about the power of voice and who has authority to tell history, and should they have that right. I write about people who, on the surface, aren’t likke me: some are white, some are affluent African-Americans, some are addicts. But I choose to focus on things I believe are universal to all of us.

I don’t know if Kathryn S. did her research thoroughly, or if she wanted to be historically accurate. I don’t know if she expected this backlash at all. I know she had a story she wanted to tell and kept trying to sell rejection after rejection. I hear the book is well written. Just because many of the characters are African¡American and depicted in a time of segregation doesn’t mean I should have been the one to tell the story. Just because a white character publishes the thoughts of Black women doesn’t mean she stole their voice.

As an English Literature degree holder, I’ve read pieces by both women and African-Americans in which an introduction by a reputable white male had to be inserted to vouch for their veracity, that the author actually wrote it, and that the author has the authority to tell the story. I heard how Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography may have been changed to suit white publishers. There’s no doubt that as women and African-Americans, our voices have been stolen, regulated and co-opted throughout history. However, as a writer and an African-American woman who knows this legacy, I can’t authorize or take part in an effort to strip anyone of their right to try to write and explore the world from a different perspective, especially one that doesn’t seem to be demeaning or disrespectful.

I’m interested to hear all of your perspectives on this issue of voice, authority, and writing across the racial divide. Leave me your thoughts.

The Ten Commandments of Editing Self-Help, Relationship Books

During the course of time that it took me to edit my father’s book, I developed many different “rules” for the editing process. Here, I attempt to share these insights and techniques with you. These are all my opinion and should not be taken as gospel. It is written specifically about the self-help genre, as this is the type of book I edited.

X. Thou shalt remove/correct typical grammar mistakes. This is a commandment of editing any type of fiction, with the exception of dialect/vernacular passages in fiction written to emulate a pattern of speech.

IX. Thou shalt be ambivalent to statistics. The interpretation of statistics, as put forward by the author, will be allowed to stand unless there is a gross error in logic or feasibility. It is not the editor’s job to posit their opinion of the spin the author puts on the data unless they are specifically asked to do so.

VIII. Thou shalt handle humor with care. Written humor can be tricky to navigate. It can be hard to convey without vocal inflection or visual clues. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that any humor present in the work is as humorous read as it is said.

VII. Thou shalt competently execute tie-ins/tie-backs to other chapters. Be sure to refer to the chapter by name when referencing it. Also, be sure to indicate whether you are reminding the reader of a concept from a previous chapter (ex. “As previously stated in “Heartbreak Hotel…”) or are introducing a concept to be expounded upon later ( ex. “This concept will be discussed in depth in “Conversations and Conversions”).

VI. Thous shalt fina a way to say the same thing a thousand different ways. Self-help jargon can get repetitive, especially as the same characteristics may be  highlighted in different chapters for different reasons. Make sure that you find effective synonyms and similar phrases to avoid using the same words over and over again.

V. Thou shalt strengthen wishy washy propositions with assertive language. No one likes to take advice from someone who sounds unsure of their own message. Wherever only one solution is offered, avoid using soft language. For example, instead of saying, “It is quite probable that all men are dogs,” say “All men are dogs.” (Of course, this is a rough example, but hopefully you get what I mean) The point is to present your solutions and ideas with conviction, support the argument, and move on as if everyone can agree with your conclusion.

IV. Thou shalt learn the basic chapter structure and flow and ensure adherence to it. For example, in my dad’s book every chapter started with a brief story that introduces the central relationship issue(s) dealth with in this chapter. He goes on to expound on the issues presenting by this brief story before giving a solution or a strategy to deal with them. One or two chapters did not offer any solutions or strategies, and I brought this to his attention. Did he want to offer solutions? Should the person seek professional help? If the purpose is to address problems in relationships, you should offer ways to address them in each chapter.

III. Thou shalt keep the voice of the author despite changes. Each author has a unique style and voice in which they write. While you are editing, it is important to do so working within the author’s unique style and voice. Otherwise, the sections you have corrected will seem out of place with the rest of the manuscript. Even if you have to tell the author what’s not working and have him or her correct it, it’s preferable to an inconsistent voice.

II. Thous shalt read at least once for enjoyment. We can get so caught up in trying to make sure that things are said clearly and the grammar is correct, we can lose sight of the story that’s being told and the advice that is being given. Make sure you read the work at least once with no aim other than to enjoy the work and try to see the author’s point of view. This helped me greatly in the editing process.

I. Thoul shalt remember this is not your book. No one should be able to see where you’ve changed and tweaked things except the author. Your job as an editor is not to write the book as you see fit, but to display the author’s work in the best light possible. You are cleaning it up, mending a few frayed edges, but it’s not your handiwork.

Do you agree with this list? Would you add anything to it?

Get Out of There, Me!*

*Please excuse the horrible grammar of this post title–there is a reason for it. Thanks, Management.

So, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between projects again. After writing a post that seemed to indicate I was back on the college memoir “for real,” I’ve actually been working on the marriage kit book. I know, I know: I’m such a tease. 😉 Here’s the thing I’m already having trouble with: I can’t seem to keep a neutral voice.

Anyone who knows me, or follows my relationship blog or personal blog, knows how I feel about marriage. It’s not hard to tell that I take it seriously and feel the institution is still important, even though I’m not yet married. I don’t think that my stance is wrong; far from it. The problem is that what this book is about is about exploring marriage, what makes it work, what doesn’t work, how and why are people still marrying in an age rife with divorce and discussions on whether or not marriage is obsolete. I want to write this as more of an investigation of marriage, an impartial telling of what I find, not a passionate defense of what I believe–at least in these initial phases. At this point, I’m trying to damp down my incurable romantic self and get “just the facts, ma’am.”

I recently finished reading One Pefect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. Despite the provoking title, it’s actually an investigation of the bridal industry from top to bottom, as well as the origins of “traditions” we associate with getting married and what weddings/marriage signify from an anthropological and sociological standpoint. The author doesn’t give much of her opinion, except in sarcastic asides, until the epilogue. I think this style would fit perfectly with what I want for the marriage kit project. Although, I’ve kept the interviews neutral, I’m finding it difficult to keep other areas impartial.

Does anyone else have this struggle with non-fiction, or does anyone struggle with voice in general? What could I do to strike the right tone with this? What do you do to establish the voice or tone of your work?