Politically incorrect moments in literature; Rolling Stone's 100 greatest singers; the NBA's most improved players; Ursula K. Le Guin and George R. R. Martin
You know those colorful mini-books displayed near the
register in any bookstore? The industry calls them “chunkies.” I learned this
from Virginia Vitzthum, a friend on the inside, whose
book would make an ideal holiday gift for the online dater in your life.
The chunky I’d like to write would be called 49 Politically Incorrect Moments in
Literature. You could topple a titan with each citation:
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Some of the
anti-Semitic quips in Crime
and Punishment (1866) come from the characters. Others, like this
one, come from the third-person narrator: “His sleepy glance touched coldly on the approaching Svidrigailov,
and he had that expression of long-suffering querulousness that has been
stamped without exception on all Jewish
- Ernest Hemingway: In The
Sun Also Rises (1926), narrator Jake Barnes refers to a “nigger
drummer” as “all teeth and lips” (69). His friend Bill Gorton uses the
N-word six times in one paragraph to describe a boxer (77).
Another example comes from William Kennedy’s Ironweed
(1983), which takes place in Albany,
NY, in the 1930s. Here’s how the
third-person narrator describes Saint Anthony’s Church: “It was the church
where the Italians went to preserve their souls in a city where the Italians
were the niggers and micks of a new day” (120).
That sentence typifies why
novelists often need nasty words.
“Nigger” and “mick” succinctly convey what
“black” and “Irish” cannot: the historical
reality of ethnic prejudices. Moreover, the language in any novel must
to its era and characters, heedless of derogatory connotations. Huckleberry
Finn’s voice would ring false if he did not introduce Jim as “Miss Watson’s
big nigger” (3).
Of course, all of the above instances are from books
published before 1990. Know any contemporary examples of politically incorrect
literary moments? If so, please email them to me. I’ll be sure to cite you if I
ever get around to making my chunky dream a reality.
During Thanksgiving, my family hotly debated Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest
Singers of All Time. It’s an excellent list – you probably won’t get angry
about the order or omissions until you leave the top 50. I was most upset to
see the that the top 100 didn’t include Townes Van Zandt, Paul Simon, Jackson
Browne, Nico, Cat Stevens, Ben Harper, or Lucinda Williams. But the list was so
strong that I’m hard pressed to tell you whom I’d omit to include any of the
above, other than Christina Aguilera (No. 58).
Fifteen games into the NBA season, I’m ready to announce my
most improved players:
Harris, G, New Jersey
Nets. The Nets (8-7) are 8-3 when he plays. Take away his atrocious
three-point aim (7-for-26) and Harris is shooting 76-for-148 – better than
.500. His 23.5 ppg ranks seventh in the league. In previous seasons, Harris
never averaged more than 16.0 ppg. Most impressive, Harris ranks second in
free-throw attempts with 11.4 per game, behind only Dwight Howard. In his fifth
year, Harris is yet another example of how point guards often require several
seasons to develop. It’s something to keep in mind while young Mike Conley and Acie
Law continue to struggle.
Salmons, G, Sacramento
Kings. He’s averaging 19.2 on .505 shooting. He ranks 12th in minutes per
game (37.9). And he’s not just a numbers guy. To watch Salmons play is to
witness perimeter prowess (.417 from three) and defensive hustle (1.2 steals
per game). Salmons won’t get all-star attention because the Kings (5-14) have
sucked without swingman Kevin Martin. But Salmons – who never averaged more
than 13.0 per game prior to this season – belongs in the all-star conversation.
He’s one of the 40 best players in the league, for my money.
Chandler, F, New York
Knicks. Say this for Isiah Thomas: he knew how to draft. In his second
season, the ultra-athletic 6-8 Chandler,
21, is averaging 14.9 ppg, more than double his rookie average (7.3 ppg). He’s
shooting .453 from the field and .758 from the line, both improvements from
last season (.438 and .630). He may be the only untouchable player on the
rebuilding Knicks (8-8). It would not surprise me if he’s the first Knick of
the D’Antoni-Walsh era to get a contract extension. Kevin Durant and Greg Oden
were the big names of Chandler’s rookie class; and
when all is said and done, they may be the only two players in the class who
are better than Chandler.
Biedrins, C, Golden
State Warriors. His
stats are up across the board. He’s shooting .539 with 15.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.5
blocks, and 1.2 steals. Imagine what his numbers would be if he played with
either a decent point guard or a power forward who could help him with the
dirty work. Alone in the paint on a lousy Warriors team (5-12) filled with
shoot-first wings masquerading as teammates, Biedrins should push Yao Ming and
Al Jefferson for all-star votes at center.
- Philip Roth: In Portnoy’s
Complaint (1969), narrator Alex Portnoy says: “Yes, the only
people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the
Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound
like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine! No wonder the waiters can’t intimidate us. To
them we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP!…” (90).
Robinson, G, New York
Mason, G, San Antonio
Young, F, Philadelphia
F, Oklahoma City
Hawes, C, Sacramento
Thanks again to everyone who sent congratulatory emails about
the publication of “A Loss to the Stuffed Animal Kingdom” in Issue 4 of Keyhole. One such note came from John Stauffer,
a college professor of mine whose latest book, Giants:
The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, came out November
8. It’s already getting raves on Amazon.
And I'll finish this month's blog by linking to Wisconsin Public Radio, of all places. Their hosts recently interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin and George R. R. Martin (who both happened to win Hugo Awards
in 1975). The subject is science fiction as a literature of ideas. Le
Guin and Martin were not interviewed together; my holiday wish is that
one day they will be.
Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has appeared in Keyhole and been honored by Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.