Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Crime Fiction and the N Word

I recently read a crime novel by a white American novelist that made frequent use of the N word for black people. The effect was disastrous and made me embarrassed for this well known writer. No one had told him in a while that white people probably should not use this word in crime fiction even if they think they're hip and they know all the lyrics to Jay Z's Black Album.
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There is however one notable exception to this rule. James Ellroy's novel The Cold 6000 (2002) begins with the line: "They sent him to Dallas to kill a Ni**** pimp called Wendell Durfee." The N word gets used another four or five hundred times throughout the course of the book. I consider The Cold 6000 to be the best American crime novel of the last decade so is it a problem that this modern classic uses racist language with such impunity? In the case of 6000, I think not, although Ellroy is writing in 3rd person, it's the persona of a 3rd person bigot, racist, fantasist and nutcase. 6000 is an over-the-top examination of the American nightmare which began with the Cuban revolution and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King. James Ellroy is an ironist not a racist and I feel that his use of the N word is not offensive (at least to me).
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Much more troubling is the line in Farewell My Lovely (1941) when the civilized, pipe smoking Philip Marlowe says to Detective Nulty "When is the inquest on the ni**** coming up?" It's the casualness of Marlowe's remark that's so disturbing. Clearly he uses this language with his friends and confederates. He's not showing off. He doesn't need to. This is how Marlowe thinks of black people. It diminishes him immeasurably in my eyes. The line of course is not used in the 1970's film version (above).
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The corrosive effect of the N word was well known by the 1940's. In 1941 the N word had already been effectively banned in Hollywood movies and most northern newspapers. Indeed the N word's unpleasantness was apparent way back in 1885 when H Rider Haggard said in King Solomon's Mines that to call someone a ni**** was vulgar and rude.
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Very occasionally I get asked for advice by neophyte writers. I generally stick to the tried and true formula: write what you know. But I'll throw in a piece of advice here, gratis: if you're not African American you should be very careful with the N word even if you're, say, Elvis Costello; chances are that you are not the supreme ironist that James Ellroy is and your use of this word in your fiction or your songs or any other art is going to be a disaster.