Lauren Baratz-Logsted: “T.B.: Saying the Unthinkable in Fiction”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: While we’re on the move, Lauren Baratz-Logsted was kind enough to offer us an essay about her experiences with reading reactions.]

I didn’t set out to write books that would piss people off.

Of course, when it happens, I don’t mind it so much – at least, I’ve come not to mind it so much. When I sit down to write, since I primarily write books of a comic or satirical nature, my intention is to create something that will make people laugh and, between the laughs, think.

As far as intentions go, when I originally left my day job as an independent bookseller back in 1994, I didn’t plan on writing comedy or satire. I thought, like many a bright-eyed writer jumping into the fray, that I was going to write the Great American Novel. But I don’t think any writer can control her natural voice any more than she can control her tendency to check her Amazon numbers on an hourly basis. But the big surprise was that, when I sat down to write, the voice that came out was a decidedly comic one.

My first novel, The Thin Pink Line, was published in 2003. On the surface, the book is about a self-obsessed Londoner who fakes an entire pregnancy. But if you scratch the surface, you’ll also find a scathing indictment of the notion that, all too often in life, people make life-altering choices (marriage, children, et al.) – all because “everyone else is doing it.” Sometimes, they avoid serious thought about what the decision actually means.

When my book hit the stacks, things began well enough. All the pre-pub reviews were positive: Kirkus gave it a starred review with PW calling it “hilarious and original,” blah blah blah. What writer wouldn’t want to hear that? Particularly the “blah blah blah” part. But then the Amazon reviews started popping up and I realized I’d done something unexpected: I’d written a book that polarized audiences. If you look at my page there, you’ll see that out of my 100 reviews, half are for five stars, while the other half are one-stars. Not that reviews have any affect on my writing. And that’s not to say I don’t care at all about what people think. But if at the end of the day I’m proud of something I’ve created, then that has to be enough. I always like to say that I’ve been compared, variously, to Swift and shit.

While I respect the right of readers to hold the latter view, I hope no one will hold it against me if I prefer the former. As for the one-stars, they mostly seem upset about a single thing: they hate what my character does! Now, we don’t even need to get into the issue of people picking up a book that’s cover actually says the character fakes an entire pregnancy and then getting upset when she does, in fact, fake an entire pregnancy. The point is that I’d struck a nerve with people, many of them fundamentalist in temperament, who misconstrued things a bit, obviously believing that I (as the author) was endorsing Jane Taylor’s behavior.

I’ve come to realize that if readers don’t get that a book is satire from the get-go – satire being defined in my Webster’s Tenth as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule and scorn; trenchant wit, irony or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” – they miss the point of the exercise entirely, preventing themselves from enjoying the book. If I had to pick just one area of writing that is most likely to be misunderstood by an American audience, it would have to be satire. Before Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby opened American editors’ eyes to a new way of seeing, I regularly received rejections from publishers saying that while they thought the material was hysterical, they didn’t believe Americans liked comic novels or satire. And now that a lot of comedy and satire is published here, there is still a problem in that publishers are so bent on presenting heroines as being likable, as being “the girl next door,” that readers are understandably confused when they find those heroines doing over-the-top things like, say, faking an entire pregnancy. My characters are almost never girls next door. In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to live next door to my characters! But, hopefully, if you read the books, you’ll laugh a few times at the things they get themselves up to. And maybe you’ll find yourself thinking in the process.

And now I’ve written a third book, A Little Change of Face. And again, some readers have completely missed the point of the exercise.

A Little Change of Face is about Scarlett Jane Stein, a very attractive, 39-year-old, unmarried, Jewish librarian from Danbury who, for one reason and another, decides to sabotage her own looks in order to find out how the world will treat her once she’s no longer a swan.

So far, so good. No one had any trouble with that part.

However, they did have a problem with one of the supporting characters, T.B. (standing for Token Black).

Romance Reader at Heart, a website devoted to romance novels, wrote, “As if that name is not ridiculous enough, Scarlett and her friends talk in Ebonics while in TB’s company (TB is a lawyer and obviously uses Standard English). I am not even black and I found this offensive.” And the ubiquitous Harriet Klausner, who described my clearly British protagonist Jane Taylor as “Turkish” in a review of my previous book, The Thin Pink Line, weighed in with the following, “…and Scarlett speaking hip hop with a black attorney pal seem inane for educated people and clearly in poor taste. Simply Scarlett needs to dump her best pal and treat TB (don’t ask) with respect maybe the love of her life will do likewise.” Ah, well, grammar notwithstanding, at least Harriet gave me five stars anyway.

Sometimes, when in doubt, I’ve learned to let crazy Jane Taylor do my talking for me. Here’s Jane, talking about her problems getting the wording regarding race right in my second novel, Crossing the Line:

I hadn’t known many black people in my life, but what few I’d known, I’d liked. Oh, I do know that sounds like one of those backhanded compliments, like when someone says, “Some of my best friends are Jewish” – which really is true in my case, but only in the singular, since my best friend, no ‘s’, is David and he is Jewish. (At least, I’m pretty sure he is; he never really talks about it.) And, anyway, what would be better, to say that some of my enemies are Jewish or that the few black people I’d known I’d hated? Neither of which would be true, of course. As a white Christian, my random sampling of other races and religions was just too limited to make any kind of meaningful sweeping generalizations. All of this said, if anyone else ever comes up with a way to say, “I’m not a racist” without people automatically knee-jerking to “Ah, she’s a racist” or “I’ve liked what few black people I’ve known” without sounding like some kind of insufferable prig, please drop me a line.

Oh, and here’s one last interesting part on that subject: I can say “I hadn’t known many black people in my life, but what few I’d known, I’d liked” and fully realize that there will be some who will find the remark offensive. And yet, any remark I make about the white people I’ve known would have to be more offensive, the truth being that having known a ton of white people in my life, there had been precious few I’d genuinely liked. So there.

Jane, as most readers agree, is often nuts on most subjects, but here she’s saying something that makes sense to me and it relates directly to A Little Change of Face and the problematic – for some readers – character of T.B.

For intelligent readers who read the book closely, I don’t think they’ll have a problem seeing what I’ve done here. I’ve created a character who is an indictment of the fact that, however far we may think we have come since the Civil Rights Movement, all too often, in books and on TV and in film, African-Americans are still relegated to supporting roles in our society. As T.B. says to Scarlett when they first meet, referring to her own nickname, “I am the movies, and TV too…I’s the judge and the pediatrician and the prosecutor…I’s the local color, I’s the next-door neighbor, I’s the best friend who gets killed so the star can get angry…I’s expendable.”

And anyone who is willing to take a hard look at the entertainment industry would have to honestly agree, she’s right. Friends, one of the most successful sitcoms in history, and even set in New York City – New York City! – is about as white a show as there ever was. And just look at the three people who die in the beginning of Jurassic Park: the fat guy, the smoker and the black man – this is Hollywood’s definition of who’s expendable.

But Scarlett doesn’t see T.B. as expendable and says as much. Indeed, she refers to TB as “the glue” and anyone reading closely should see that as well. T.B. is the female character that Scarlett is most consistently honest with as T.B. is with her. T.B. is the female character who most consistently provides Scarlett with unconditional love and support and, again, it goes both ways. As for what is inaccurately characterized as Ebonics in the book, I’d have to wonder if someone who could see such a shadow where none exists might not be carrying around their own collection of racial guilt or if they’ve ever even had any close friends of another race at all.

Here’s some of my own personal history and you can take it for what it’s worth:

When I was twelve years old, both my best friend and my boyfriend were black, and while the latter is mostly forgotten, the former still blazes clear in my mind 30 years later and will for as long as I have memory. Stephen King, another writer who’s been maligned for other issues than I have, does occasionally get things right . In his novella Stand By Me, he passes a remark that has stuck with me in essence all these years: the best friends you will ever have are the ones you have when you are 12 years old.

As far as I am concerned, the character of T.B. is as much a tribute to that friendship as it is anything else. It is a tribute to two young girls, both very short, who played basketball together and talked slang together. Despite both of the girls being highly educated, they often lapsed into the vernacular that T.B. and Scarlett used. They laughed and loved and argued so much sometimes it made the fans in the stands uncomfortable.

I know in my heart that even if the entire rest of the world reaches misimpressions about the character of T.B., that young girl that I loved so much, Donna, would totally understand.

I do realize that, as writers, we do not get the luxury of sitting on every readers’ shoulder – I’m picturing a very mini-me here, perched on your shoulder, a glass of Shiraz in my hand – directing the reader’s attention to what’s important in the work, explaining jokes that don’t go over at all, or correcting misimpressions. But one still does hope for intelligent readers, readers who can be depended upon not to mistake an uber-British Londoner for a Turkish woman. And, maybe just occasionally, readers who are intelligent enough to see that what others might perceive as racism is in fact anything but.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July 2005. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.