Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Cheating At Solitaire

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Every once in a while I get asked to speak at writer’s conferences, and when I do, I invariably get asked (after the two thousand demands for the phone number of my agent) how somebody goes about writing a detective novel.

The thing is, I don’t know how “somebody” does that. I only know how I do that, and my way may not be the kind of thing other people do.

When I write fiction, I always start with character–with a person I want to understand better, or a group of people who seem to form a constellation around an issue or a problem. It’s people I’m interested in, not plot. My sons take me to superhero movies and I fall asleep in the fight scenes.

Cheating at Solitaire started with my fascination not so much with a person as with a group of people, all young women, who seemed to have a lot in common and yet not a lot that made much sense. For those of you who have read the book already, this should be clear by now. I wrote about the “pop tarts,” as they get called a lot, the girls who seem to be more famous for how often they get drunk in public than for anything else they do, who are considered newsworthy because they’re supposed to be “celebrities.”

Now, I find a lot of things fascinating about this group of people, including that odd circumstance where they buy friends rather than have them, but what finally brought me around to trying to write about them was the fact that, for all their silliness, they have an enormous effect on the students I teach.

I ought to be clear here that I teach only part time, on the “college level,” and that a solid majority of my students are from the inner city. I started doing this about ten years ago, and the one fact that has remained unshakable ever since has been this: this is a group of people so culturally isolated as to comprise practically a separate nation, unlike the one you and I are used to.

I’ve read a lot of nonsense about “minority students” and “lower income students” over the years, not the least being that those two descriptions are identical, but the fact is this: my students are by and large very bright; they’re by and large very hard working; they’re by and large not addicted to the chains, piercings and tattooes version of ghetto chi.

What they are is drowning in a world where they have no context whatsoever to explain themselves to themselves, or their lives to the wider world. in fact, they know little or nothing about the wider world.

These are people who have never heard of the novel “1984,” but if that was the only kind of thing they had trouble with, their situation wouldn’t scare me so much.

Consider the following incident: I was teaching poetry to a freshman Intro to Lit class, and we read Langston Hughes’ “Theme For English B.” I asked my students what they could learn about Hughes’s life from the poem, and one of them ventured that we could tell that Hughes was poor, because he was living at the Harlem YMCA, and not in the dorm at Columbia, where he was going to college.

I pointed out that it was much more likely that Hughes was living at the Y because, being black, he wouldn’t have been allowed to live in the dorm–and was greeted with stunned, incredulous shock. Not allowed to live someplace because you were black? But that would be against the law!

It’s not that my kids have never heard of the civil rights movement. It’s that they don’t understand enough about history to put itin any kind of context. They know it happened, and maybe that it had something to do with lynchings, or possibly drinking fountains, but the whole episode is hazy,

They live, in a way, in an eternal present. Everything is as it has always been, and will probably always be the same way. People get rich when they win the lottery or get a record contract, or sometimes they go to “college” and become lawyers, or something. It all sort of drifts off into a fog.

And some of them die in that fog, if not physically, intellectually and morally. They fall back into a sea of passivity I’ve never been able to figure out how to get them out of.

Others, though, want desperately to “make something of themselves,” to live a better life than the one they’re used to–and that’s where the Pop Tarts come in.

A middle class kid comes to class knowing that the Pop Tarts are not normal, and not real. An inner city kid knows this, too, but he has no counterexamples to help him chart a different course. There are the people he knows from his neighborhood–the good people ground down to nothing; the junkies; the gangs–and what he sees when he turns on MTV.

The idea that it is possible to develop a sense of oneself that is not dependent on the admiration of other people, that it is possible to be admired for things that do not concern either the money you have or your willingness to sexualize every aspect of your identity, is beyond them.

It’s not just that they don’t know what 1984 is, or what was going on that we needed a civil rights movement to correct.

It’s that they’ve never met Elizabeth Bennett, or even Becky Sharpe. And they really don’t know anything about Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” or Edith Stein’s death in Auschwitz or Sara Teasdale and Amy Lowell trying to change the face of poetry in a world where all “real” poets were men.

We tend to think of civilization as something we have. Well, here we are, born in America at the beginning of the 21st century–this must be Western Civ.

But civilization is not something we have, it’s something we do, and any one of us can just not do it. For many of my students, they don’t do it because they don’t know it’s there to be done.

They do know how to get the TV turned to VH-1, though.

And when Paris Hilton flashed her vagina at the cameras that first night on the red carpet, they were probably watching.

Written by janeh

September 29th, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Cheating At Solitaire'

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  1. Congratulations on getting the blog up and running, Jane.

    The next problem will be to determine how to unscramble the eggs so carelessly broken in the creation of this Brave New Omelet.


    29 Sep 08 at 8:17 pm

  2. I had trouble figuring out how to comment. Clicking on a line saying “with 1 comment” isn’t obvious. :(


    29 Sep 08 at 11:01 pm

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