Modern wars are remembered in images, from Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier during the Spanish Civil War to Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima during WWII, to the more recent pictures in Iraq of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Stephanie Sinclair’s photo of a dead Iraqi girl. These are images so powerful that the seer will forever remember the moment she first encountered them. They transcend being worth a thousand words; they are concrete facts of war that are impossible to ignore or dismiss. But on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the war in which images had the greatest impact on public opinion is still Vietnam. One harrowing photograph, popularly known as Napalm Girl, was taken by AP photographer, Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, in the small village of Trang Bang and published through the AP to newspapers worldwide. Ut’s picture shows Kim Phuc, aged nine, running down an empty road, burned by napalm, naked in a group of clothed children, helpless next to armed soldiers. But what is the legacy of that photo, or of any of the recent wartime pictures of Afghanistan or Iraq? Do they have a strong enough impact to raise a call to action? Or has society become desensitized, avoiding that which causes moral discomfort, or, more chillingly, have we become aesthetic consumers of such imagery? Vietnam was the first living room war, the first war filmed in color and then in moving pictures. Yet it is still this single black-and-white photo that manages to encapsulate everything we guessed was wrong with a war. Kim Phuc’s anguish assumes a religious gravitas. Although the anti-war movement had been gaining strength since the late 1960s, it went from being considered anti-American and counterculture to becoming mainstream in the early seventies, due in part to revelations of the My Lai massacre in 1969, the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and the continuing barrage of pictures showing the devastation of innocent civilians caught in the war. Kim Phuc’s picture, taken not quite three years before the fall of Saigon, was at a period when most American troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, during the policy of Vietnamization — handing over duties to South Vietnamese counterparts— devised by President Nixon. The napalm strike the photo records was ordered and carried out by South Vietnamese military. Does the fact that the bombs were aimed at North Vietnamese military hiding in the village, that the burned civilians were an unintended consequence, change the picture’s power? Or is the horror of unintended consequences precisely the point? The most recent pictures to bring similar public outcry were of humiliation and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Politicians said it was an isolated incident, an unintended consequence of the war. Since then, additional photos of abuse both in Afghanistan and Iraq have come to light. Congress voted to keep those new photos from the public, citing their indecency. Historically, governments have wanted portrayals of war to create public support for the sacrifices of a country’s soldiers. But Vietnam reversed those expectations. Although Americans had already had a steady exposure to disturbing images of the war, from Malcolm Browne’s 1963 picture of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, to Eddie Adams' 1968 picture of General Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner during the Tet Offensive, Kim Phuc’s picture was disturbing in a different way: AP headquarters at first rejected the photo for the indecency of frontal nudity, rather than focusing on the bigger indecency of children being burned alive. Ut and head of the department, Horst Fass, argued that napalm had burned off her clothes and refused to crop the photo. Finally an exception was made because of the news value of the story. In audiotapes of conversations with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon speculated if the photo was real or if it had been fixed. Nick Ut later wrote: “The horror of the Vietnam war recorded by me did not have to be fixed.” Catherine Leroy, an award-winning photojournalist who covered Vietnam, said in an interview with PDN: "We were not subjected to censorship. It was unprecedented, and it will never be repeated again. We have now entered 'the brave new world' where disinformation and censorship are being implemented and access reduced to photo opportunities." If you search the internet, you will find eloquent pictorial essays on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are not bombarded with them by newspapers, magazines, and television news as during Vietnam. One has to go look for it. Admittedly, this is a thing most would prefer to look away from rather than look at, afraid of what one might find and what that might call on one to do. Although the Chicago Tribune ran Stephanie Sinclair’s photo of the dead Iraqi girl, some worried that it was too graphic, and a compromise was reached to include a story on the legacy of cluster bombs with it. According to an interview with Sinclair on Salon.com: “I found that the Iraqi civilian story was really hard to get published in U.S. publications. And I worked for many. I don't know why. I think they're looking at their readership and they think their readers want to know about American troops, since they can relate to them more. They think that's what the audience wants." As photographers in Vietnam went from being supporters of their country to critics of their government’s policies, they also faced their own ethical dilemmas. Was it enough to record the devastations of war without getting personally involved? Did that make one an accomplice? Or did one have the duty to prevent harm, bring aid? Here’s what Nick Ut did. He gave water to the burned girl, and then he drove her the ten miles to a hospital. The staff, seeing the extent of her burns, put her aside to treat those who had a better chance of survival. Ut would not allow this. He used what he had. He said that he was a reporter, that he had taken her picture and that it would be famous around the world. They helped her right away, and she survived. Only then did Ut leave to go develop his film. The picture went on to win a Pulitzer and become one of the most famous photographs of all time. When Ut was debriefed later that day, he didn’t mention helping a girl. In London, twenty-eight years later, Kim Phuc told the Queen: “He saved my life.” For the next three years, until the war officially ended on April 30, 1975, Nick Ut regularly visited Kim and her family. She now lives in Canada, married and with her own children. He lives in Los Angeles and is still a photographer with AP. In a recent interview with the BBC, he said she calls him Uncle Nick. They speak on the phone once a week. “We are like family now.”
Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. —King Lear The dilemma of the likable character. It’s good to have a character who we root for, who has flaws but works to overcome them. We are taught as fledgling writers that our characters need to be complex but also sympathetic. Even as a teacher, I’ve noted on student papers that a particular character wasn’t interesting enough to carry the story. But have we as a reading public become too soft, too politically correct, insisting that the character be accessible, understandable — gasp, a nice guy? Do we make the same demands with the classics as we do contemporary works? Would we insist, in the romantic realist tradition that Robert Stone descends from, that Melville's Captain Ahab be someone that we can relate to? Or that his obsession with the whale be something that can be fixed in a twelve-step program? I’ll admit one might not want to run into a Robert Stone character at a classical music concert, Shakespeare play, Hollywood movie premiere, or, more likely, a bar, but that’s not because he or she wouldn’t be charming, erudite, clever, but because after reading these stories one knows the darkness that lurks beneath the polished surface. First, an anecdote. Many years ago I attended a weekend workshop taught by Robert Stone. This wasn’t some glossy MFA graduate program, most of us were pretty new at writing, and we were all in awe of Stone. Over half the class was male, and many of them had traveled the country with a heavy stack of his novels in order to have them signed. He did sign them, dog-eared piles of them, with kindness and delight. In class he was soft-spoken, intelligent, and thorough in his critiques. He treated us like the writers we hoped to someday be. Then one morning, he came to the workshop wearing dark sunglasses. And he didn’t take them off. A thrill went through the class, as if at last we were seeing a real Stone character in action; we had achieved the dream of all fans, the conflation of the author with his creation, which we secretly believed to be the same thing all along. After all, here was one of the original Merry Pranksters, a man who hung out with the Beats, who was known to indulge in drugs, who went to dangerous places like Vietnam and the Middle East, looking for trouble. The man who famously said: “… you can’t experience too much — to the degree it doesn’t destroy you.” Our minds were racing with the possibilities that made the glasses necessary. After the first story was critiqued, Stone reached up and realized his glasses were still on. He took them off and chuckled, apologizing. I think he said they were prescription, and he forgot to change them for his regular ones. Only then did we notice the room was bright, full of sunlit windows. A small sigh of collective disappointment went out of the class. What we were in thrall to that day, and what fans of his work look forward to in book after book is the unique Stone character. As soon as I opened Fun With Problems to the title story, I knew I would not be disappointed. Peter Matthews is an aging attorney whose “ambitions had faded,” an alcoholic, a womanizer. “He was the man whose ex-wife had once said of him, ‘You don’t care whether you even get laid, as long as you can make some woman unhappy.’” That is precisely what Stone is after in story after story, digging under the surface of appearances to the raw stuff of life. In an interview, Stone talks about the “unaccommodated man,” a term out of Lear, speaking of his fascination with characters in wartime, in emotional or physical ruin, in addiction. His method is to strip his characters of their veneer of civilization to see what remains. In the three-page story, “Honeymoon,” the aging main character ogles his young bride, amazed at his own carnal luck in a tropical paradise. We, as readers, start to moan inwardly that we are in middle-aged crisis territory, a story filled with tender little epiphanies spring-loaded along the way, but now Stone begins the excavation. As soon as the nubile bride goes for a swim, the man weeps and calls his ex-wife, begging to come home. Okay, we’re thinking, that’s different. But things in Stone’s world never go as planned, as the wife begins to speak: “… And I said to myself, He’s gone, I’ll die, what will I live for?” “I’ll come home.” “What will I live for? He’s gone. Oh, poor little me. But now I think I’ll live, Tiger. Fucking right,” she said. “You wanted to be gone? Get gone. Have a great honeymoon.” How refreshing indeed — no sex rehab, no counseling, no apologies. Sin and judgment, taken neat. I love Stone’s novels for their breadth, the multiplicity of storylines, the exotic use of place that exerts pressure on the characters, but the short stories necessarily have to do away with much of this, although there are glimpses. In "Fun With Problems,” Matthews rents rooms from a Colombian couple: “Mr. and Mrs. Esquivel… fled Colombia in the grip of La Violencia and had little tolerance for conflict.” In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” the three main characters' storylines converge as they wander a creepy, fog-shrouded island. But the main battleground is inside them. Stone eschews backstory, we are given the characters in their fallen condition, unexplained. In an interview, Stone said that “High Wire” was one of the only stories he’s written in first person, that he finds the distance of third-person more intuitively correct. This distance keeps the reader from falling into sentimentality, from explaining away the bad behavior of the characters. In the story, “From the Lowlands,” Leroy, a smug, successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur seems to have it all — a trophy girlfriend, a trophy house. He is also thoroughly unlikable — he’s maneuvered his business partner out of the company, he cheats on his girlfriend, he gives an unpaid-for candy bar to a kid and watches him get in trouble for it. But Stone’s universe is a mechanistic one in which nothing in life comes free, in which everything must eventually be paid for. Things go wrong. A thunderstorm, his girlfriend dumps him, his larder is empty, and the eggs he cooks have blood specks in them that look like skulls: “They were elongated, cephalic, with inward curves that might mark cheekbones.” Suffice it to say, Leroy gets his due in the end. No fatuous insights, no forced happy endings, no comforting moral outcomes. Because these are mature stories, the characters have a self-knowledge that allows the stories to avoid easy cynicism and retain heart, however black those hearts may be. In “High Wire,” Tom acknowledges he will not act on his love for a beautiful actress: “In the twisted light I saw her out there sauntering toward a brass horizon and I wanted to follow after. But I was not so foolish nor had I the generosity of spirit. I was running out of heart.” Stone is like the friend who when you tell him you have a terminal disease doesn’t pretend he hasn’t heard it, doesn’t spout platitudes, or talk about miracle vitamins that cure everything. He is the kind of friend who orders a round of stiff drinks, holds your hand, and looks into the abyss with you. Sometimes you want that kind of friend. There are not many writers like Robert Stone, and none of them do it as well.
It has come to my attention that a favorite interview question for authors, especially debut authors, is what you did before you were a published. There is the vague compulsion when answering that the more outlandish, the better. The idea is that the reader, and aspiring authors out there, are interested in a Susan Boyle-like rags-to-riches story. Cab driver to Best Seller? Yes! Grocery clerk to Nobel Prize winner? Cool! As if literary success — and that’s a flexible definition that would require its own essay — were akin to winning the lottery, or better yet, being struck by lightning. These lists give one the impression that deciding to write came more as a whim, that one day while cutting someone’s hair, the idea for scribbling down Anna Karenina occurred. Or while working as a short-order cook, one decided on the plot of Babette’s Feast. What is behind the fascination of such lists and what are the realities? Which brings me to Susan Boyle. My husband dragged me to the computer to watch a YouTube video of her singing, which I frankly didn’t want to watch, and yet, I, along with 60 million other people quickly felt my heart in my throat. Why? Because, to quote the movie Jerry Maguire, we live in a cynical world, because most of us are like the snickering girl in the audience — one look at Susan, and we know lightning isn’t going to strike there. And yet, deep down, we all want the playing field to be level, for the underdog — those not well connected, pedigreed, likely — to succeed. We root for Rocky Balboa, the self-published grandmother, and the short-order cook to pen a masterpiece. These profiles feed into that fantasy as much as those commercials that promise you thin thighs in two weeks. So what happens when the writer achieves that holy grail of a published book? What the profiles fail to reveal is that the literary apprenticeship is a lengthy one for the majority, that getting published at all is difficult, and to get paid enough to not do anything else but write is virtually a dream. The supposed average money earned by a novelist is $10,000, but if that novel takes two years to write, then cut that in half, $5,000. As one online article trenchantly stated: “Most novelists and story writers would make more money if they worked full-time at McDonald’s.” Ouch! Susan Boyle got beat by a silly dance troupe, but went on to make a bestselling CD sold round the globe. Those of us with a new book coming out? Not so much. In fact, those jobs that are so intriguing are precisely the reason books aren’t getting written. During my own apprenticeship, I wrote in the park while working on remodeling houses, wrote in the afternoon while trading stocks in the morning, worked in an art studio doing bookkeeping, writing at night, but all through that I considered myself a writer, although I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t make my living that way. When the technology market crashed, I found myself with more time on my hands to write. Writing as a paying profession has always been an insecure proposition. Tolstoy, born into the aristocracy, flunked out of college and lived a playboy existence running up gambling debts, escaping them by running off to join the army. All of these experiences are in his books. Later he ran his estate and wrote. Tolstoy, in short, had a trust fund. Are there any nascent epics being written in the service area of McDonald’s, I wonder? Honoré de Balzac is a writer more of us can empathize with. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, “he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine.” Hear you there, Honoré. A key fact of Balzac’s career — he wrote 100 novels and plays, all the while trying his hand at a bunch of different jobs in order to earn his living. He failed at all these money-making pursuits. His end was particularly troubling for me: According to the favored, possibly apocryphal story, while writing to the point of exhaustion in order to pay bills, he supposedly overdosed on countless cups of very strong coffee! The truth for most writers, then and now, is that the majority of those jobs both fuel our fiction and keep us from writing it. Richard Ford famously wrote two novels that didn’t sell well, and he gave up fiction for sports writing. When the magazine he was writing for folded and Sports Illustrated didn’t hire him, Ford had some time on his hands. Then came his breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter. The rest is history. James Ellroy kept working as a caddie through six novels, and used his advance on the seventh to do his own promotion. Richard Russo, Michael Ondaatje, and many others kept teaching until they reached a level of readership through several books where it made more sense to write than teach. Of course, these are the success stories, authors whose names we recognize. There are writers who shall remain nameless who gave up lucrative careers in law to go get an MFA, who are now languishing at community colleges teaching English composition. Still no big book contract. I know, I know, Honoré hated the law. Then there are the ones who failed to earn out, the chilly story of "Jane Austen Doe" in Salon and her tale of diminishing book advances. Others who wrote one book and never a second one, who gave up and went back to regular careers, or who went to graduate school. Is it Darwinian survival of the most talented, or has writing now more than ever become an avocation rather than a career? Does society owe you a living if you make a product no one is buying? Has fiction writing turned into a hobby? Perhaps a writer like Jacob Appel is the future. With both law and medical degrees, as well as an MFA (as well as being licensed as a New York City sightseeing guide so he’s the quirky arc all ready), Jacob, while practicing medicine, has also managed to publish over one hundred short stories in almost every literary journal out there, as well as win many short story prizes. And he writes plays. Jacob said that a windfall in writing might cause him to curtail his hours practicing medicine, but he would never quit it. “… if one spends enough time away from the world where people have to go to work every morning, one risks losing touch with the life one wants to capture on the page. Waking up at noon and writing in one's pajamas may have worked for Samuel Johnson, but it's a dangerous recipe for most of us.” In the interests of full disclosure, I will report that I emailed Jacob at four in the morning, and he answered within five minutes. I don’t think the guy sleeps. And I’m typing this right now at noon. In my pajamas. The majority of writers I know have a complicated mosaic of various jobs, juggling writing, teaching, freelancing, family. It is difficult, and it is a necessity, and most of us who keep doing it can’t imagine doing anything else. When I asked Jacob about the even greater financial difficulty of being a short story writer, he said: “The people who love short fiction, I believe, are writing already, even without financial incentives.” I believe the same can be said for most novelists out there. Will some of the magic leave the author profile when it goes something like this: student, short-order cook at McDonald’s, lawyer, novelist, teacher, short-order cook at McDonald’s I am very grateful to have a novel coming out this year. I still work part-time with my husband, take on freelance projects when I can get them, still teach part-time. I have hopes that I might be lucky enough to sell my second novel. I will keep the want-ads close. Bonus Link: Working the Double Shift