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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
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Group Reads: Post-1990 > Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: Female characters, June 2012

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Jessie J (subseti) | 296 comments The female characters in the novel seem a little two dimensional and stereotypical to me. Anyone else see that? Another trashy white girl!


Christopher (chriswinters) I think you're right, although I don't necessarily think it's a female character problem. I just think Silas and Larry take priority over everyone else. As far as I've read, the best secondary characters are Larry's father and Silas's mother and they serve more as character development for their children than for themselves. That's not the way it has to be in novels, but in my experience a novel where every character gets a full treatment has to be twice as long as this one.

But I do think female characters are a problem in "manly literature" like this. I'd cite Cormac McCarthy, who we just finished reading, as someone else who has trouble writing well developed females. He even admits that "I was planning on writing about a woman for over 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so..." (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001...).

Being a woman, how does this effect your reading of the book? Is it offensive, does it hinder your ability to relate to the characters?


Jessie J (subseti) | 296 comments Not offensive, no. And I don't mind having flat characters that are "background" for main characters. What I do mind is not having any "thought" toward those characters.

I enjoyed the book, but I can't say it was great. The stereotypes were very formulaic.

-Mistreated female black character: check.
-Trashy white girl with potentially sexually abusive male father figure: check.
-Long-suffering white mother with no use for black main character: check.
-All-powerful white father who totally screws up sons: check

Change the words a bit, and you've got the plot of a big, thick fantasy novel. Or a murder mystery set anywhere.


Lisa So well said Jessie. This was a good book but not a great book. Part of the problem that I had with the story was that the female characters didn't feel real to me.


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Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jessie wrote: "Not offensive, no. And I don't mind having flat characters that are "background" for main characters. What I do mind is not having any "thought" toward those characters.

I enjoyed the book, but ..."


Stereotypes would not exist if their characteristics were not so prevalent in society. Unfortunately.

Stevens


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Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Lisa wrote: "So well said Jessie. This was a good book but not a great book. Part of the problem that I had with the story was that the female characters didn't feel real to me."

Oh, they're real. As many of the group know, I was a career prosecutor. And I was the director of a domestic violence and sexual assault services program. The woman with the rattlesnake in her mailbox does not appear only in the pages of CL, CL. Nor does, the young woman with a sexually abusive step father. When you have spent time with them, handed out tissues, and taken them before juries to tell their stories, they are not flat at all, but very real, suffering human beings.

Stevens


Kathleen | 127 comments As the director of a rape crisis center, they rang true to me, as well. Sexually abusive stepfathers leave absolute devastation in their wake.


Christopher (chriswinters) Kathy wrote: "As the director of a rape crisis center, they rang true to me, as well. Sexually abusive stepfathers leave absolute devastation in their wake."

Maybe the problem isn't that the female characters aren't real enough, but that they're too real, but only in one specific way. Yes, there are many women who are abused by their stepfathers or are single mothers who work two jobs to care for their sons. But what makes them feel unreal is that that's all they are in the story, there are not enough other details there to make them sympathetic characters. Does she like jazz music or country? Does her jaw click while she eats toast? Those are the details that humanize a character. I think stereotypical characters are fine as long as they are given defining characteristics.


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Diane Barnes | 4113 comments Mod
If an author tried to give depth to every character in the book, it would be neverending. There have to be peripheral characters to carry the story along. But I also felt like I knew quite a lot about the teen-age neighbor; enough to understand her motives and to feel sorry for her.


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Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "If an author tried to give depth to every character in the book, it would be neverending. There have to be peripheral characters to carry the story along. But I also felt like I knew quite a lot ..."

I must agree. This is Tom Franklin, not Dickens, Trollope, or Tolstoy. I'd also like to say I couldn't have written this novel and if those critical of it can, they should do it. It's easy being an armchair quarterback.

Mike
Stevens


Jessie J (subseti) | 296 comments Mike wrote: "I must agree. This is Tom Franklin, not Dickens, Trollope, or Tolstoy. I'd also like to say I couldn't have written this novel and if those critical of it can, they should do it. It's easy being an armchair quarterback."

I don't see critical discussion as being an "armchair quarterback." It's a good book, not a great one, and one of the reasons it's not great is because of the flat, stereotypical characters. That's my opinion. There's nothing wrong with talking about why a book is not great, in identifying those points, in detail.

Some books are better than others. One of the reasons some books are better is that they *don't* rely on peripheral characters that can be found in any other mystery or fantasy book. That was point one for me.

A point related to that is that, of the peripheral characters that were presented, the female characters were especially flat for me. Perhaps Franklin does not write female characters well. Again, that is my opinion.

To say that the situations presented in the novel don't exist was never questioned. I'm talking about writing fiction, not nonfiction. Somehow this discussion took a wrong turn, and I'm not sure how...


Jessie J (subseti) | 296 comments I've got it! I read waaaayyy more genre fiction than you guys. That's the explanation. It makes a lot more sense now.

The trick with traditionally formulaic fiction is to make it fresh. I think Franklin is actually writing a bit of formulaic fiction--a mystery. But it's also considered Southern Lit., which most of you guys are familiar with.

Here's where our differences may occur. To me, he's following the formula a little too closely in places for him to fit into my definition of "fresh." However, he does portray time and location wonderfully, so he is spot on in that respect for my own definition of "Southern Lit."

In other words, this may be an issue only in my own head.

:^)


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Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jessie wrote: "Mike wrote: "I must agree. This is Tom Franklin, not Dickens, Trollope, or Tolstoy. I'd also like to say I couldn't have written this novel and if those critical of it can, they should do it. It's ..."

My comments were not meant to offend. And if they did, please accept my apology.

However, I am very frank. I don't beat around the bush. Yes, that's a cliche', but it serves its purpose from time to time.

It is my "non-fiction" life through which I interpret fiction. I'm sure most people do. We know the lives we lead and view the world through the perspective which has been engrained in us. That which you characterized as stereotypical is not in my world. Therefore, what appeared as flat to you did not feel that way at all to me. Further, as others have commented the central themes revolve around the two central characters, Silas and Larry.

I've often turned to the words of James Baldwin when discussions take the turn you perceive:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

You indicate uncertainty in how this discussion took a wrong turn. For me it was with your exclamatory comment in your first post to this thread, "Another trashy white girl!"

I would refer you to the comment by Kathy Connolly previously posted.

"As the director of a rape crisis center, they rang true to me, as well. Sexually abusive stepfathers leave absolute devastation in their wake."

I was intrigued by Christopher's comment that perhaps Franklin's female characters in this novel were too real. Oh, yes. They are.

So, I suppose the question becomes, was Cindy just another white trash girl? In whose mind? Franklin's? Society's? I don't think she was trash.

Cindy Walker was a victim that did not deserve to be sexually abused and did not deserve to die. And that is the shame that Silas must live with. Perhaps, if he had spoken up, Cindy's murder might have been solved. And Larry would not have been ostracized by the community. But that would have been a different story, wouldn't it? Why, that would be a fairy tale.

Mike
Stevens


Jessie J (subseti) | 296 comments Mike wrote: "You indicate uncertainty in how this discussion took a wrong turn. For me it was with your exclamatory comment in your first post to this thread, 'Another trashy white girl!'"

Ah, OK. I see what you mean. I, too, am very straight forward, so this discussion doesn't bother me. I'm also accustomed to a more, shall we say, unfettered "academic" approach to literature, which may seem a little surgical to some people in the group.

My comment was based on several previous comments about "trashy white girls" in Southern Lit. that I made in this group and not a reflection of my own opinions about "real" people. I don't think the character presented was trash, either. In fact, I don't think "trashy white girls" exist, but they seem to be a stereotype in Southern Lit., again, in my opinion. Which is one of the reasons that I've never been fond of Southern Lit. in the past.

So, to make myself clear for future discussions, which I'm certain will come up again: I don't believe in trashy white girls per se; however, they seem to be a stereotypical foil in Southern Literature.

In reality, I actually consider myself to have been the stereotypical "trashy white girl" presented as such most of the time, not because I was trashy, but because of my economic circumstance growing up.

But we are talking about literature here. And yes, my reality does color my interpretations as I read, as does each and every person's reality. I am eager to understand how other people perceive the same things that I read, or I wouldn't be here.


Christopher (chriswinters) Mike wrote: "I was intrigued by Christopher's comment that perhaps Franklin's female characters in this novel were too real. Oh, yes. They are. "

I was actually trying to support Jessie's argument that the characters are flat. I think that the secondary characters in Crooked Letter are inarguably flat, if we take to mean by "flat" that a character exhibits minimal unique characteristics. They are boiled down to their respective essences, that of being a beaten stepdaughter or a poor single mother. If all that is exposed about a character is their one or two essential characteristics, that is by definition a flat character. Those essential characteristics may well be very realistic and qualities shared my many people you've met in real life, but they are still just the bones of what could be a well-developed character.

Since personal experiences seem important to this conversation, my wife works in an organization for homeless adults with mental illnesses. Any good person would say "I care and sympathize for homeless people, even homeless people I have never and will never meet." But real empathy requires getting to know the person in more aspects than the obvious, e.g. homelessness. Any great documentary or fundraiser for social causes will focus not on the group as a whole; it will focus on one or two people and give their personal stories, including details about their character that are not immediately relevant to the social cause. The point is to show that this person is more than just a homeless person.

Likewise, Franklin didn't take the time to write any more than two well-developed characters. It doesn't bother me too much, because that obviously wasn't his goal in this book. But I do think that's one reason it's hard for short novels to become classics or "great" books. There's just not enough room in which to fit the greatness.

And let's all agree that none of us here can write the books that we're reading or else we already would have; but we can still criticize them. If not, why do we even have a book club?


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Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jessie wrote: "Mike wrote: "You indicate uncertainty in how this discussion took a wrong turn. For me it was with your exclamatory comment in your first post to this thread, 'Another trashy white girl!'"

Ah, OK...."


And, that you are here I am very glad about. I imagine we'll have spirited discussions in the future. We approach literature from our own unique perspective. It is the reader's interpretation that keeps a book alive. Were it not for different interpretations through the years, many books would die an early death. And many have. A lot of them deserved that early death. *grin*

PEACE!

Mike
Stevens


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