Saturday, July 24, 2010

Responsible to Whom?

Ever since the Romantic age, artists have been told that everything should be subordinate to the work.  Hate your mother?  Use it, it's material.  A lifetime of simmering resentment?  Express it, it'll tow your story along.  Present your friends, thinly disguised, as idiots?  Well, there's the truth of daily life on the one hand and the Truth of Art on the other.  Get it all out there.  Let the Work arise triumphant from the Wreckage.

Despite the snarky tone of the paragraph above, I more or less agree with the Romantic premise.  That puts me in a delicate position because I generally write about people who are much worse off than I, people who can't defend themselves.  The poor and oppressed of Thailand, while they'll probably never read a word I write, deserve to be presented carefully and with some conscience.

I wrote about the abandonment of street children in three books and the methodical exploitation of the poor by the rich in one, Breathing Water (although it's sort of background music for all the books).  In the new one, The Queen of Patpong, the subject – wrapped inside a thriller – is the Thai sex industry and what it does to the women who enter it, either through coercion or plain old poverty.  These women have very few choices in life, and while their stories are temptingly dense with drama, the last thing they need is to be exploited literarily as well as physically and emotionally.

So.  In writing the new book, I found myself being much more than ordinarily sensitive to its fairness, for want of a better word, toward its characters.  But that didn't mean I could romanticize them or present them as a chorus of cherubim: there are bar workers who cheat, steal, abuse drugs, assault their co-workers, abandon their families, even exploit their children by offering them as sexual merchandise.  My goal, to the extent that I had a coherent goal, was to present them as fully as possible, as individuals, most of whom were doing the best they could with the bad hand they'd been dealt.

And every time I thought it was working, a quotation from David Sedaris would come to mind:  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.  To me, that meant that I had to be doubly sure that my intention was clear and to use that intention as a sort of measuring stick to try to gauge the reaction readers might have to the story -- to make sure (for example) that if they wanted to read it for titillation, they were going to have to work pretty hard to get there.

It seems to me that a lot of mystery and thriller writers have to deal with this issue, especially since we've long emerged from the so-called Golden Age of British (and faux-British) upper-crust mysteries in which, as Raymond Chandler put it, the suspects sit sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other while the detective crawls over the carpet with a magnifying glass.  Thrillers and mysteries these days often explore the lives of those on whom the rest of society steps.  I know, for example, that Leighton's Brazil and Michael and Stanley's South Africa have institutionalized inequality to a degree that at least equals Thailand.

So I'm asking everyone, how do you work with this material?  Is there any special responsibility?  If so, how do you see it?  And to readers, what (if anything) do you think our responsibility should be?

I'd love to hear from some of you.


  1. Have you ever seen the film The Last Life in the Universe? The sex industry is a subplot in the life of the secondary character, but somehow the way it's put in place is beautiful--without discounting its impact, it becomes part of the background of a truly enchanting film.

    Not that this really answers your questions, or solves any problems, but I think it's important to experience (wonderful) stories where an aspect of life that's often portrayed for purposes of shock or titillation isn't the main part of a character's life (somehow much of The Sopranos comes to mind as well).

  2. Tim, I think you answered your own question.

    "My goal, to the extent that I had a coherent goal, was to present them as fully as possible, as individuals, most of whom were doing the best they could with the bad hand they'd been dealt." What woman freely chooses this lifestyle? What woman wants to be a commodity? They make the choice because they have no choice.

    The men who use women see them as "other", different, less-than, faceless. The women who come to Bangkok are fleeing poverty, burying their true selves for the sake of bread for their families in the villages they left behind. They take western names and the men who buy them for a night neither question nor care that the women next to them are so much more than what they pretend to be.

    "Thrillers and mysteries these days often explore the lives of those on whom the rest of society steps." Writers bear the responsibility of shining light on the circumstances that deprive the poor, boys and girls barely out of childhood, of any option but to be used by people. It isn't any easy task to educate people who can afford to buy books that the names in the story may have been changed but the characters have real world counterparts.

    May I suggest a piece that you, Tim, posted on Murder is Everywhere on January 17, 2010? You called it "Behind the Smiles" and it gives readers the unvarnished truth about the ends to which the poor are forced to go.

    I think you and Leighton, in your books, give dignity to those from whom it has been withheld. That's the responsibility.

  3. Sorry. I forgot to sign my comment.