Sunday, February 27, 2011

Taking Offense

My website is on the cover of my books, and I get anywhere from 10-20 e-mails a week from readers.  These letters mean a lot to me.  In fact, one of them arrived at just the right time and said just the right things when I was seriously considering junking THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.  Without that letter, I probably wouldn't have finished the book.

I noted this in the Acknowledgments section of QUEEN and specifically invited readers to write to me.  Since then, the average flow of letters has doubled from 5-10 a week to the present level.

Three days ago I got a letter from a woman who opened by saying how much she'd enjoyed parts of the two Poke Rafferty books she'd read and talked about how much talent I have.  I was feeling tall, handsome, talented, and flattered when she opened her third paragraph by saying that she was sorry she'd be unable to read the other books in the series because of "sexist, misogynistic and politically Neanderthal" views I had expressed.

Well, that got my attention.

I backtracked through the books to find the passages to which she'd referred.  (She didn't identify all of them, but she was quite clear about four things that had really pissed her off.)   And here's what I discovered.

She was confusing a characters's opinions with the writer's opinions.

All the characters whose sentiments had peeved her so were either villains or were morally neutral in the scheme of the book and expressing sentiments that helped to establish who they were.  The opinions were not expressed in the narrative.  They were not given to characters who might logically be mistaken for the writer's proxies in my books, to the extent that I have any.

My first reaction was to see whether I could get this reader's Novel Reading License yanked.  Novels hold up a mirror to the societies in which they're produced, and one of the ways they do that is by exploring the words and actions of those who live outside the polite boundaries every society establishes.  Any novel that takes itself even halfway seriously will teem with objectionable characters.

The only valid defense I can find for her objection would be if I were, in fact, trying to have it both ways: pretending to condemn these views and actions while actually using them to titillate my readers.  And, sure enough, she had titillation in mind: one of the things she objected to were the "pages and pages" devoted to prostitution in the two books she read.

Well, I defend my right to write entire volumes on prostitution.  I'll write pimps, johns, tricks, madams, whole brothels.  I'll write psychopathic Blackhawk operatives and mass murderers, sadists and corrupt cops, card cheats, sex addicts, merchants who misrepresent the age of cheese, consumers who rip the DO NOT REMOVE tags from mattresses, and anyone else I can think of.  And I'll check once in a while as I write them to make sure I know which way is North on the book's moral compass, and if it's where I thought it was, I'll keep writing.

Several people wrote to tell me that they couldn't finish A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART because of the violence done to children.  I understand that, and in that book I agonized over how to present it.  I wound up never showing it directly: it was either filtered through Poke's (revolted) consciousness as he viewed it, or told by the victims who survived it.  Still, I can understand not wanting to read about it.  I can even sympathize with it.

But I can't sympathize with the person who reviewed it on Amazon and called it "child pornography," nor can I sympathize with the woman who can't tell the difference between a character's conviction and the convictions of the book's writer.  In spite of both of them, I'll pretty much go wherever I want to go, morally speaking, as long as I'm comfortable with my reasons for going there.

Some readers, I guess I just don't need.


  1. Tim,

    Someday I'm certain you'll write something with which I disagree. But not today.


  2. Tim,
    I guess we've all had these experiences. I think they upset us not because we disagree (which we do) but because the reader so clearly misses the point we worked so hard to make.
    We've been taken to task for the sex scene in A Carrion Death. It's crucial for character. Then there's swearing. Batswana don't do it a lot, but other real people do. We've even had a complaint about bad grammar in dialogue...
    For what it's worth, I thought you expressed the child pornography in A Nail through the Heart very sensitively. Our next book involves children, and we face similar issues. Hope we can handle it as well as you did!
    This is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with Jeff!

  3. Ditto! A fictional horse dies in a struggle for human life in my next. I imagine the animal rights people will be on me for that. My favorite comment so far: the 17th century Spanish noblemen and women had names that were too long. Crime novels that have sex and violence? We must be a bunch of perverts to make up such lies about how human beings might actually behave. Arrghh!

  4. They read, but only the words. My mother is a lot like this. She's a avid reader in her mid-80s, likes serial killer books I can't bear to read. ll she sees in a book is the words, and the story they tell. That doesn't hurt her full enjoyment of the books she reads, because there's nothing else there. She completely misses character nuance, and rarely, if ever, if moved to think about what she's just read beyond putting the letters into words in her mind. I'd never recommend one of your books to her, not because they're not outstanding--you know my thoughts about the quality of your writing--but because she'll hate them for the sexual situation and discomfort they promote in the reader.

    I love my mother dearly, and there's nothing she wouldn't do for another, but we rarely discuss books beyond a superficial, "I like this guy," or, "I don';t think you'd like him, Mom." I suspect there are more of her than there are of people who read for the sub-texts like those who'd comment here will do.

  5. Like most people in the west, I thought of Thailand as sex market central for the peddling of females and children. I was a bit hesitant about reading A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART but I had read the Simeon Grist series and decided to "trust the author." If the book gave too much information about the under side of life in Bangkok, I could just close it.

    Having read the four books in the series (twice), I think it is safe to say that this woman looked through the book, she didn't read it. The Poke Rafferty series is about a family and the core values of Rose and Poke aren't much different than those of any family anywhere, especially regarding their daughter. I know a family who is dealing with the American court system in pursuit of custody and it is terrifying and ruinously expensive. They could identify with Poke and Rose.

    Through the books and this blog, you have been educating those who are open to it about Bangkok and the real people who, because of poverty, are pushed into making very hard choices. Those choices are generally about what is best for the family.

    Risking being accused of blatant blog promotion (mine), I submit a piece from the review of A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART that was on the blog June 28, 2010:

    "A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, the first of Timothy Hallinan’s Bangkok thrillers, balances family, love, loyalty, and hope against evil that destroys the spirit and sacrifices innocence to perversion.

    I read A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART a few years ago. Tim’s post, “Behind the Smiles”, on the Murder is Everywhere blog, sent me back to the book and I am glad it did. I found things I missed in the first reading and I understand some things better because of what I have learned about Thailand through Tim’s posts.

    In the blog, Tim writes that Bangkok is the 'meat market where the children of the poor, both male and female, go to sell their beauty.' The men who use them believe “there has to be something real, something genuine, behind smiles like those. And there are: poverty and powerlessness.”

    Unfortunately, what someone is thinking as they type is often not the same thing as the person who is reading what was typed. Authors continually take a risk when they turn a book over to publishers and those who read it. The four books, so far, in the Poke Rafferty series, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER, and THE QUEEN OF PATPONG (one of five books nominated for an Edgar Award this year), are lyrical, poetic, and reflective of an ethic that rings true no matter who is reading it. New readers of the series should start with A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART as the story builds and relationships strengthen.


  6. I've run across this before, not too much in my own writing, but quite a lot in other writers. I've lost track of how many writers I've seen accused of racism because one of their characters was racist. I might have fallen into the trap as a kid of thinking a writer meant everything they said, but by my late teens I understood the difference between character and writer. In a funnier example from my own work, I was talking to a fan once who was gushing about ghosts and was convinced I would believe in them because of a story I'd written. It came as quite a shock to her that I didn't actually believe in ghosts.

  7. Tim, were these letters written in green pen? The odd ones always come in green pen.

    This rings true. I have had countless people taking me to task for the torture scene in The Blood Detective, at talks, signings, and in letters and emails. It happens all the time. One woman even admitted she liked her gore only in aftermath. I think every now and then we owe it to our readers to depict some of the violence we often only show the results of. Plus, it was, like those actors who gain notoriety from flashing parts of their anatomy often say, integral to the plot.

    Given the most graphic scene involves a man as victim, I was shocked to read an readers review condemning me for the 'usual casual misogynistic violence towards women'. You do wonder through what prism people read your books.

  8. They read your books, Dan, with their minds closed. They know what your wrote before they opened the book.


  9. Hi, everybody, and thanks for the agreement. It seems almost over-obvious to make this point, but look -- all these writers have had to deal with it.

    Michael, it's hard to believe anyone would go off-beam about that sex scene, or about anything "exploitative" in your books, which are completely character-driven and intensely moral. But then there's Dana's mom and the other readers like her who can swallow blood and gore (note the active verb) but who blanch and swoon at sex. I really don't understand this: to normal, everyday people, sex is pleasurable and necessary for the continuation of the human race. Blood and gore are neither, at least not to most of us. But nailing someone's ear to the wall is okay but a kiss below the belt is off-limits. Go figure.

    Annamaria, you're on the verge of running up against the craziest readers of all, in my opinion: the ones who can tolerate any level of (fictional) brutality to a (fictional) human being but go stark staring mad ad (fictional) brutality to a (fictional) animal. I don't get it at all. I'm capable of discerning between my dog, Ralphe, and, say, Lassie, and I know the difference between Ralphe having a limp and Lassie having a limp. Why does this distinction defeat so many people?

    (I probably just got myself in trouble. The agitators for fictional kindness to fictional animals are not a particularly flexible lot.)

    Thank you Naomi, and thank you, Beth - not least of all for the review of NAIL. I know NAIL is difficult; when people ask me which book to read first, I try to gauge their sensitivity to certain kinds of violence and imperilment, and sometimes suggest they start with THE FOURTH WATCHER instead. So your response, Beth -- because I know you take real-life issued seriously -- is especially welcome.

    (OH -- BSP of my own. I just discovered accidentally a LIBRARY JOURNAL review of NAIL that the people at William Morrow for some reason never sent me. It's a rave, and in part it says: "More than once, Hallinan gives Poke a turn of phrase so original and beautiful that readers will want to stop reading to savor the language." I'll take "beautiful" any day. Or "lyrical and poetic," as Beth puts it -- as long as it doesn't draw too much attention to itself.

    Charles, the racist thing and Dan, the misogynistic thing are the two roughest to deal with. I personally am horrified by the recent bowdlerization of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but I'm not really qualified to comment on whether it's a totally bad thing. And as a man, it's hard to see anything wrong in the claim that there's a lot of misogyny in books, but I can say that we all work hard to keep it out of our own books. Sometimes women are the victims, right? True in the real world, true in the fictional one. I have the feeling that if we followed this particular line of reasoning to its extreme, we'd have the lip-service world of Hollywood thrillers in which Angelina Jolie, all 88 pounds of her, kicks every male ass in sight. I bought it in KILL BILL, in part because that movie was so damn funny, but I don't buy it most of the time.

    Anyway, thanks to all for speaking up. And Jeffrey give me time. I'll put something idiotic up soon.

  10. I have the utmost faith in you to find the way. :)

  11. Too many readers do not grasp the concept of fiction.

    However, all of us have a hot button issue that makes us stop reading in our tracks. I have a problem with children being hurt, even something as innocent as having their feelings hurt. I would never complain to a writer for telling a story. Instead I read the plot description on the book and don't buy it. Don't be too hard on the reader, she meant well. She had become a fan of your work and when you hit her button she felt betrayed. It was not right or fair to you, but when does that have anything to do with how we reacted emotionally.

    All a writer can do is tell the story. How people react to the story is up to the reader not the writer.

  12. Absolutely not, michael, we are free to vote with our feet, as has been said about movie audiences.

    Also, David Sedaris summed this up brilliantly: "Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it."

    Those other people are, of course readers. I don't want readers whom my work would appall because I don't want to appall anyone. But I reserve the right to want readers who can tell the difference between a writer and his/her characters.

  13. It has puzzled me for years that readers who are otherwise entirely equal to nuance and complexity can't distinguish the character from the author. Maybe it's the same process that has created the deep political division in the country today. One shouldn't even try to gain insight into repugnant views.

  14. Even the media seems to not understand imagination. They have a hard time believing that anything the writer writes did not come from the writer's non-fiction life.

  15. Albert, there seems to be a vein of, "If we don't try to understand it, it'll go away" in American political discourse, as well as a tendency to apply blanket labels -- especially the fraying and (I think) largely outmoded "left" and "right" to virtually every idea that arises. The media doesn't help -- look at them trying to make sense of the "Tea Party" (right) members in the House of Representatives forcing a "cut to the defense budget" (left) in the form of $435 billion for a redundant jet fighter engine. It doesn't fit into a slot; it might actually force them to think; so they'll ignore it. (And I mean media that's traditionally labeled right and left.

    Michael, I believe that the media in America, with a few extraordinary exceptions, has been crippled by dumbing down. If HUCKLEBERRY FINN came out today the headline in The Huffington Post would be MISSOURI AUTHOR USES N-WORD.

  16. I have such a different take on this. Frankly, I love people asking whether I was a serial killer, revolutionist assassin, monk murderer, corrupt government official, etcetera. It beats hearing, "Hey, weren't you a lawyer?"

  17. Well, yeah, Jeff, but I mean -- a lawyer?

    Sorry. Cheap shots aren't admirable, but they're so inexpensive.