|conversations: Nobody's Heroes
| Lenore Weiss, fiction editor
Deborah Grabien, novelist
Tony Brown, poet
Roz Kaveny, critic & essayist
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, radio host & author
DEBORAH GRABIEN: Tricky, because I'm annoyingly organic as a writer: it's all about voice and humanity, otherwise the character has no base and bores me. So said character's heroism (or anti-heroism) becomes situational.
My current project, "The Kinkaid Chronicles," has a deeply flawed, ex-junkie, chronically ill musician at its heart: JP Kinkaid is muffled, passive-aggressive, enabled. But he sums it up as he grows throughout the series: "I may be dim, but I'm loyal." When he needs to step up, he does - and surprised the hell out of me doing it.
Summation? Heroism, for me, is less an end goal than it is a personality trait.
ROZ KAVENEY: But a personality trait that is sometimes moulded by circumstances and more often emerges through them. Becoming a hero is always a voyage of self-discovery.
I am here wearing two hats, both as critic and as aspiring writer.
As a critic, I'd say that 'hero' is a structural role in a particular sort of narrative. All narratives have a central figure and in narratives in which the subject is a struggle of some kind, that central character will be, to the extent that the struggle is central as well, a hero. I think that a hero, then, is someone who steps up when there is a need, even if that is only in their own life. Because we are not just talking about Hercules, we are talking about people who cope in their own lives.
Many years ago, when I was hospitalized, I spent time talking to an old woman who was blind and a multiple amputee from diabetes and smoking. She was courageous and charming and coarse and took responsibility for how her life had panned out and laughed a lot - she had stayed the heroine of her own life. And was keen to see what came next, even if it was more pain. One night the ward conspired to let me watch opera on the television - 'The Cunning Little Vixen' - and afterwards she said 'Well, that was interesting, now tell me what that was all about.'
As a writer, heroes are people who take responsibility for the situations I have put them in and come up with witty lines I really had not planned.
TONY BROWN: I am not sure if I ever write about heroes in my work. I do, however, write about heroism.
As a kid, I really didn't have heroes that I can remember. There were people I admired - my dad, and a handful of Native leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull - but I don't recall that I thought of them as role models, heroes, or people to emulate. No posters on the bedroom walls, no comic books, no favorite movie characters or television heroes.
When I got older and began my lifelong obsession with music, there were some musicians I thought of in what I guess was the more traditional heroic sense - Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Anthony Braxton - in that I was inspired to follow their journeys, and to see my own steps along my path as similar to theirs.
What eventually happened, I think, is that the similarities among them - the urge to try new things, to persevere, and to damn tradition and convention as needed for their own creative endeavors - merged into an idea of what heroism means to me personally. I see that in my work; possibly my most "heroic" poem ever is an ode to the transformative power of punk rock, and to punk's ideal of laying bare hypocrisy and corruption. My protagonists are flawed, frequently unpleasant, petty, and venal at times; they may do heroic things, but I never see them as "heroes."
In our society today, I think there's a desire to see heroism personified - to have a person to point at and say, "this is what heroism looks like." I think it's difficult - we know so much more about public figures than we used to; it's hard to maintain the uncorrupted image we seem to crave. Our fictional heroes, by contrast, seem to have more leeway to make mistakes and be human - the tragic flaw doesn't seem to translate well into public life, but it's alive and well in popular culture, I think.
ROZ KAVENEY: There are two things that are closely linked - the coming to heroism of the person who becomes, at least for a while, a hero, and the performance of individual heroic acts, which may, as you rightly point out, be the transgression of hitherto taken-for-granted artistic boundaries. Since one can be heroic simply by enduring - 'the better fortitude/ of patience and heroic martyrdom'- the two do not have to go together .
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: I'm a sucker for the deeply flawed hero. One of my favorite authors is T. Jefferson Parker. He doesn't compromise voice and character for plot. All of his suspense/crime novels feature a flawed protagonist. His characters may be seen as heroes by the other characters and by the public, but their own lives are full of missteps. I love that. In the end, everything doesn't turn out all rosy for them, either. Their victory is always a result of their own doing, not something or someone acting upon them.
Well, isn't that how it is for all of the best heroes, whether in the mystery/suspense genre, lit. fiction or whatnot? Harry Potter is so appealing because he's had such a rocky beginning. To not have the love of a parent, or even a relative, at an early age, well, what could be worse? And the recent incarnation of Spider-Man is so appealing, too, because of his flaws. He may be a superhero, but he's kind of geeky, has trouble with his studies and his landlord is on his back and he can be a klutz now and again.
I've never loved perfect people in fiction. Who truly does? Even fiction that is camouflaged as chick lit - Jennifer Weiner, Melissa Banks - the female heroines are so flawed, and so appealing. Jen Weiner has fat heroines. Melissa Banks' heroine can't get it together with a male love interest or with her job.
I could go on.
LENORE WEISS: I suppose the old adage, "Write what you know," is the place whence forth heroes come. I think to a certain extent we may be asking, "Well, what makes your heroes fascinating to other people and not just to you?" Yeah, there's that tragic flaw thing that Barbara refers to ... I also think there's an issue of topicality (iz that a word)? Dialogue. Language. Hearing a character speak in today's lingo. And there's that awesome specificity of place and time and originality that an author like Christina Stead achieves in the "Man Who Loved Children."
DEBORAH GRABIEN: Tricky, switching caps from writer to reader (I actually read very little when I'm writing, and I've been writing hard for the past three years) but I'll give it a shot:
I'm completely with Roz on my own personal definition of heroism being that the character remains the hero of his or her own life. For me, that's the primary definition, in fact.
I'm also with Barbara, on the flaws creating the interest. I'd add that the flaws are what make the character sympathetic in the first place, creating the resonance point, the echo chamber for the reader.
I'd use Michael Chabon's magnificent "Kavalier & Klay" as a prime example of that: Kavalier, on the surface, seems to me the more heroic character - but every time I go back and read it, Klay rings more and more of my "recognition of humanity" inner bells. They both take heroic journeys, within the parameters of Michael's story and setting, but Klay, the smaller, less obvious protagonist, is the one who deals with his world better, more honestly, more strongly.
I have a sinking feeling that if most other writers updated those characters and that setting - WWII and the years surrounding it - to Iraq and the current quagmire, the heroic qualities would be far more shallow. Sound bytes instead of heroism. We've gone from the Age of Anomie to the Age of Obvious, and back again.
I'd like to see someone write it without the "bring it on" and "mission accomplished" sensibilities. You know?
ROZ KAVENEY: It is perhaps worth pointing out that the word 'laconic' refers to the Spartans. I love the story that, outnumbered at Thermopylae, the Spartan king was told by a Persian herald, that the Great King's army would fire so many arrows that they would blot out the sun. 'Very well' said the Spartan, 'we shall fight in the shade'. And there is the epitath 'Go tell them in Sparta that here, obedient to their laws, we lie'. Of course they were also evil, slave-owning, torturing bastards (though less misogynist than the over-rated Athenians), but clipped and witty is the way to go.
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: I like what Lenore said. Certainly place and time is a big deal-no, a huge deal. Landscape. We want to live in that world, that landscape, for a time (if not forever).
TONY BROWN: Y'know, I've realized I never think that much about heroism. I think that's a comment on it by itself.
I would bet that if I walked around my local coffee house and asked people who their heroes were, they'd be unable to answer. I don't hear a lot of heroes in the poetry I hear in these places, and when I do, it's generally someone speaking of a relative.
Maybe fiction writers need heroes for their work more than poets do these days. So much of modern poetry, bad and good, is self-absorbed. It's hard to treat yourself as a hero in your own work.
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: So true. I really had to think about this. When I think of my own fiction, I don't think in terms of heroes. I think in terms for protagonists, and that's about it. I can think of heroes in terms of other writers' work.
TONY BROWN: In looking over the responses and comments here, I'm struck by the fact that we haven't seen fit to define "hero." I know I define it in a way that certainly connects back to the classical meaning of the word, but there's a definite pop-culture twist in there too for me: the idea that "hero" represents a cleanly envisioned character who captures a certain way of life, a role model for behavior in response to certain circumstances. Is that even possible, given our increasing knowledge of the interwoven complexity of living in this century? Yesterday the US killed the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The tabloids here are rejoicing in his obliteration; in his hometown of Zarqa, Jordan, he's mourned as a martyr and a hero. My mother-in-law has a picture of George W. Bush on her coffee table and I've heard her refer to him as "her hero," which sentiment I suspect is not shared among the folk of Zarqa (never mind this list). Who's right? We can establish our own standards of heroism and say they're universal, but not everyone will accept them.
ROZ KAVENEY: But most people most of the time will see the difference between being a hero and being a crazy fuckwit obsessed with cutting off heads/sending people to execution and with almost invisible theological differences, or being convinced that an invisible friend tells them what to do. People saw Stalin and Hitler as heroes, in their day, and history has not, as it happened, absolved them. Genuine heroes are usually recognized as such even by their enemies - Saladin for example, has been admired as much in the Christian West as in the Muslim world he saved from Crusaders.
TONY BROWN: I'd lay odds that some of my own avoidance of classically defined "heroes" in my work comes from my suspicion of the potential hollowness of the term, and I suspect I'm not alone. It certainly seems to me that understanding how people currently define their heroes, as opposed to how "hero" is classically defined, is one road to understanding how the world has gotten to its current state.
LENORE WEISS: I like what Tony said. We all have different ideas of "hero." In addition to everything we've talked about - putting a frame around certain heroic "qualities" - For me, it's someone who's involved with the issues of the day and grapples with them on a larger stage - allows an audience/reader/listener to understand through an unfolding narrative how a particular character responds to certain challenges - and what choices are made. As a reader and author, I'm interested in the human story. To get inside the actual cost of making a choice...
BARBARA DEMARCO-BARRETT: I think "hero" is a term you see used more in more genre-based writing - mysteries, romance. When you're writing literary fiction or poetry, the term seems odd, out of place. It's also a hyped-up term, one that's difficult to use on your own work.
DEBORAH GRABIEN: I'm coming at it from another seat, one with a sideways view, peering between the monogrammed superhero capes and the big noisy social consciences. I don't the term "heroic" is specifically definable. More than that, I tend to actively back away from the need to define the term at all. I don't think it's tangible, or consistent, and as Tony points out, that definition is going to resonate differently for pretty much every human being alive. And honestly, I don't necessarily see heroism as being in any way associated with grappling with the larger issues of the day. I mean, yes, it obviously can be and I'm sure it often is, but that particular definition doesn't resonate in me, in any way. I'd rather write the character and see where he or she goes, because, as said before, my own definition - which may or may not be my end readers' definition - is essentially identical to Roz's. If said character happens to take on racism, or civil liberties, or torture by oppressive regimes, cool. But I don't for one instant believe that that's what defines any character as heroic. Summing up: My own definition and sense of the heroic is in the details, not the big picture. Someone who lives with physical pain, someone who manages to be in their own skin and balance the world around them, someone who manages kindness or generosity of spirit in the face of the odds that every day brings most people? That's my definition of heroic.
ROZ KAVENEY: Being in your own skin - that's part of what I mean. Heroism seems to mean totally inhabiting who you are, for a moment, in a good way. Hence the smart lines and the daring actions and the energy to do the right thing.
LENORE WEISS: I think to a certain extent we're saying the same thing ... yes, the human story, but what I'm trying to express is that the time and terms of that story often find themselves located within the nexus of social issues ... not to force them there ... they just are - "The Color Purple," "Beloved," "Taras Bulba," "Oliver Twist," - all these authors draw upon material that was relevant to their characters within a particular present. But for me what really makes characters and story come alive are those extraordinary details of dialogue, place, and description. Why else would I care?
(The conversation doesn't have to end here, feel free to continue the discussion in The November 3rd Club Forum !)