October 19, 2002
"Novel" tripe

Today's Seattle Times has a guest editorial that dresses up the same tired old tropes against the war in a spiffy new suit. Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist and a professor at Portland State Univeristy. Her shtick is to dress up her criticisms of the administration as a critique of the "storyline" from a writer's point of view, forgetting that real life doesn't always work well as a book.

• Today, the book on attacking Iraq

Sure, President Bush is surrounded by all sorts of well-meaning consultants, analysts and spin-masters, but it seems that he's been getting some bad advice about story-telling — especially the story about Iraq. I'm no political pundit, but I have taught literature and creative writing for a while, and I had a few lesson-plan notes I thought President Bush might find useful.
• Show, don't tell: This is the oldest creative-writing-class axiom of all. Readers crave tangible details in a story instead of bland assertions. It's much more convincing to have physical proof that Saddam Hussein is capable of or planning to injure us than merely declaring he's part of an "axis of evil," which is actually a fairly weak abstraction.

I'm sure she feels the same way about North Korea, and all those foolish concerns about their non-existent nuclear weapons program. Oh, wait, you mean they're TRUE?

• Pacing is crucial: Stories have to unfold at a natural, organic tempo in order to seem genuine. Pressuring Congress to make a hurry-up decision on a question as big as whether to attack another country, about two minutes before a major election, feels forced and manipulative.

There has been no hurry, considering that Iraq has been a topic for quite a few months, now. The fact that is came at election time is due to the fact that Bush acquiesced to Democrat demands to study and discuss the issue thoroughly. We could have been done months ago if not for that acquiescence.

• Don't drop your story lines: Readers like to follow a story from beginning to end. Don't trail off in the middle of hunting Osama bin Laden to attack a new villain — that just leaves us all dangling.

Osama bin Laden is DEAD. There is no more story there, no dangling storyline. We've moved on to the next chapter.

• Avoid cliché and hyperbole: A term like "war" implies there are two sides capable of fighting each other. But Iraq has already been devastated by the Persian Gulf War as well as our economic sanctions and foreign policy. Previous weapons inspectors tell us that Iraq barely has an army — much less any real "weapons of mass destruction" (see above: hyperbole, cliché and abstraction).

If Iraq is so devastated by war and sanctions, how can they pay so much money to Islamokazis in Israel and the West Bank? Since there have been no weapons inspections (or weapons inspectors) in Iraq for four years, there is no reliable figure on the size or state of Iraq's army or weapons programs. As to the "hyperbole, cliché, and abstraction" about weapons of mass destruction, see above: North Korea's non-existent nuke program.

• Draw on personal experience: The most authentic stories come straight from our own life experience. Merely having your father state "I hate that man" (i.e., Saddam Hussein) is not satisfying to readers. I've visited the Middle East and taught lots of Middle Eastern students and I've found that they respect and admire America and that most of them would love to live here. The "bad guys" are a distinct minority — just like in this country.

Correction: Bush's father hates Hussein because Hussein tried to have the elder Bush assassinated. Further, the war is not against Iraq, but against the whole evil, corrupt, oppressive regime in Iraq, a distinct minority.

• Familiarize yourself with your subject: If you haven't read any novels or seen any Hollywood movies told from an Arab perspective, you might ask yourself why that is. Ask yourself: What am I not hearing? Ask yourself: Is this really the story that I want to tell?

There are few movies told from an Arab perspective in this country because there is not a market. Does Abu-Jaber believe that Hollywood would deliberately ignore a market where there is a profit to be made? After all, she is about to rant against corporate greed.

Consider this: There may be other, more powerful and immediate narratives we need to hear right now — tales of corporate greed and ruined life plans, right here at home; stories of pollution, disappearing forests and clean water, and global warming the world over. True, "war" is a grand story full of sound and fury, to paraphrase Faulkner, but maybe we want a different story right now. Maybe what we need to hear is the story of ourselves.

Perhaps she has it backwards—we cannot worry about corporate greed and ruined life plans, pollution, disappearing forests and global warming, because of the need to do something about Iraq. Her justifications have been used by anti-war activists of all stripes to argue against involvement in any war. They are indefensible when they are held up to the light of day. She "advises" Bush to avoid cliché, then engages in it herself.

posted on October 19, 2002 01:07 PM


I must admit I'm deeply troubled by this strong entry. Still, Portland is not left bereft of resources. I've noted a contenduh over at my joint.

posted by Moira on October 20, 2002 12:20 AM

Funny that a professor of literature should "paraphrase Faulkner" and not the guy Faulkner copped the phrase from -- Bill Shakespeare...

posted by Brian Swisher on October 21, 2002 04:52 PM

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