Revisting the NYCentric perspective
According to our Blog Guru, we here in Flyover country have been ghettoizing our entries. We post "official" blogs, then we just let commentary hang at the bottom. It would be better, he said, is we responded to comments in regular posts. That way, we'd have a much more dynamic blog, more of a free flow.
In the spirit of dynamism, I thought I'd revisit a comment by one of my co-Flyover writer Jennifer A. Smith, who wrote in the wake of two blog posts last week by Joe Nickell, in Montana, and me, in Savannah, about the NYCentric perspective.
Joe's comment centered on Alex Ross's piece in the New Yorker. Mine centered on "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story," by John Berendt. Both of us took issue with the gee-whiz attitude toward things these New York-based writers didn't expect to find outside New York. This approach, though ostensibly complimentary, we argued, is simultaneously condescending.
For Ross, it was the discovery that there are quality orchestras in the American Outback. The issue is a little more complicated for Berendt, but it has to do with applying Southern stereotypes to a narrative loosely associated with reality.
After reading my post, Jennifer added to the conversation a concern about the authority of those who write about the Outback. "Who should tell the stories about our communities?" she asked. "Or, more pointedly, who has a right to?"
She continued: "I believe the answer to that should be as broad as possible, even if the results don't always satisfy. What I'm concerned about ... is that if we swat away writers from the major-metro publications, we're effectively saying 'Don't try to write about us, because you'll just get it wrong.'"
I think that's a great point. As Drew McManus, of Adaptistration, notes in his comment to Joe's post, others like him have been taking a whack at the problem of Big Apple sensibilities being applied to the rest of the country for a long time.
If we, as writers, journalists and thinkers in the American Outback, hope to add something constructive and meaningful to the national conversation, we have to aim for something constructive and meaningful -- not just spew bile at fancy-pants city slickers from NYC (I'm exaggerating, of course, but you see my point).
My answer to Jennifer's question is the point of this post and I hope you have stayed with me while I circuitously get to it.
In a nutshell, my answer is simple and complex, just as the practice of being a news reporter is simple and complex: Get the story, get it right, be fair and be balanced. But we must also try to represent reality with as much fealty to the truth as you can, while living with the frustrating existential knowledge that representing reality is an endeavor often easier said than done.
Though Ross's article suggested a gee-golly-there-is-some-fancy-art-making-going-on-out-here-in-the-sticks kind of attitude, I believe, from my experience reading him on a weekly basis, that he strives to represent reality objectively and truthfully -- though he might need someone to point an error on occasion.
Berendt, however, is another story.
In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," he was conscious of what he was doing -- setting out to find a sensational story (in two senses of the word) and writing a fabulously sordid and intriguing international bestseller.
Problem for me is that even though I love the book -- it's wildly entertaining, and it has influenced my own writing in terms of learning to master characterization, narrative and scene development -- it's still, in the end, disingenuous.
This is not to detract from the positive influence of "The Book," as we call Berendt's nonfiction novel in Savannah. It has done this city enormous good.
Tourism is our second biggest industry. Tourists are fueling an arts resurgence. Tourists are spreading the word about Savannah's beauty. Baby boomers on the verge of retirement often decide to relocate here, bringing with them cultural expectations that are almost always higher than those that came before.
Still, Berendt's Savannah isn't the Savannah I know. I am a journalist who believes reality is often not as easy to understand as it we might think. Sometimes what we think we "know" can turn out to be wholly erroneous.
To use a historical analog, White America used to think it "knew" African America. In the post-Civil Rights Era, though we haven't wholly overcome the ravages of racial bigotry, at least most of us, even bigots, are aware of what racial bigotry is and know that it's illegal in some cases, unethical in most.
To take this analog even farther, when I think about how Berendt applied what he thought he knew about Savannah, and by association, the South, to his book, what comes to mind is how, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, whites (and eventually blacks) performed around the country in blackface.
They did this mostly for white audiences, using the language and gestures that audiences then perceived to be an accurate representation of Southern blacks. Obviously, blackface is tasteless and racist. But, setting aside the obvious overtones of violence, hatred and white supremacy associated with the institution of slavery, representing blacks in this way was also incongruent with reality.
It was entertaining, but is was also disingenuous. That didn't matter, of course, to white audiences. They "knew" what African Americans were like and those entertainers, some extremely famous and talented (think Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer), who smeared pitch on their faces were just like African Americans.
Berendt was writing for a reader who did not live in the South and he was giving them what they would expect from a story about a murder, scandal, homosexual love and a cast of characters that could only be found in a sleepy town in the still-exotic Deep South. He gave them, in a way (minus the evil dimensions of racism), what minstrel showmen gave their audiences.
Entertainment, but disingenuous entertainment all the same.
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