When I finished my latest read, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, a swirly mass of thoughts that had been, well, swirling around in my brain suddenly solidified. The novel’s protagonist, Miriam Black is not your average hero. One Goodreads reviewer described her thusly:
She’s lurid, vile, bad-mouthed. She has an attitude problem, more than one.
Not exactly the type of character most of us would expect to cheer for, or even to like. But I did like Miriam. No, I loved Miriam. Miriam is one of my favourite kinds of heroes and her creator did one of my favourite things: he didn’t give me what I wanted.
This is the heart of my swirly mass of thoughts. I’m tired of formulas, reboots, and sequels. I’m tired of seeing the same stories re-packaged and slickly marketed with the sole purpose of parting me from my money. I’m tired of black and white cliché characters that never stray far from expectations. I’m tired of safe.
Art is not about safe.
I’d never heard of Chuck Wendig before I found Twitter. I’m not even sure how I found him there but his often-absurd tweets made me laugh. I checked out his blog, then his books, and then scrolled through some of the reviews for his work. I was intrigued—as much by the one-star pans as the glowing praise. (Actually, maybe more by the one-stars, with comments like: Miriam’s narrative is peppered with the amount of dick and dick-related tangents and jokes that are characteristic of only male-written books.)
Wendig took a risk with Blackbirds. It isn’t hard to see why some readers would be offended, (though if you think dick jokes are solely the domain of men I’ve got news for you). But to call the language and gory descriptions in the story gratuitous is to miss the point completely. If you’re writing about a character with a messed up childhood,a girl who eventually acquires the “gift” to see how people die in gruesome detail without either the ability to stop those visions or the power to change the outcome for the victims–if you write about that person and try to convince me that her life is in any way clean, normal, or G-rated, I’ll call bullshit. Wendig’s frequent descriptions of the deaths Miriam sees are part of what made me empathize with her. I was squirming after the first two or three, imagine living with hundreds? And her colourful language, as with so much else about Miriam, is self-defense.
Miriam Black is bent, if not broken, but she’s a hero in her own way. This is an uncomfortable story, yes, but it’s truthful.
The best art is about truth.
When I say that Wendig didn’t give me what I wanted, what I really mean is he didn’t write dishonestly. He didn’t tone down Miriam and make her more likeable so that I, the reader, would find her more palatable. You see, it’s not really what I want to which I refer, after all, but what other people think I (the reader, watcher, listener), want.
This is why we have not one but four Die Hard sequels. Because Hollywood thinks what I want is not something new, original, and risky, but simply more of the same story I liked back in … 1988. This is why for every ground breaking novel that defies the odds and becomes a bestseller, you’ll get a barrage of second-rate copies and rip offs. This is why pop music exists. This is why everything is wizards. And then everything is vampires. And then everything is zombies. And then everything is…?
Hey, if you liked that, obviously you want more of that, right? NO! I liked that because it was different, or challenging, or thought-provoking, or a hundred other things that appeal to me, not because it was exactly like something else I liked.
I love artists who take risks. I may burn George RR Martin in effigy every time one of my favourite characters gets killed off on Game of Thrones but…damn, he keeps me on the edge of my seat. Knowing that no one is safe, not even the best and most beloved characters? How exciting!
For an example closer to home, how about Can Lit darling Angie Abdou? Her novel The Bone Cage was a Canada Reads Finalist and featured two hard-not-to-love protagonists in a quintessentially Canadian storyline. So what did she write next? The Canterbury Trail, which is, according to a one-star Goodread reviewer:
…too (gratuitously, I feel) full of sex, drugs and bad language. If this is truly a depiction of west coast ski culture, I’m glad I’m not a part of it.
News flash: It is an honest depiction of west coast ski culture. Remember that thing I was saying about art and truth?
I loved The Canterbury Trail, not despite the drugs, sex, bad language, unlikeable (yet likeable) characters, rapidly shifting POV’s, and fittingly dark ending, but because of all that, and more. Truth, truth, truth, that’s what Abdou gives her readers. You can read my review for more juicy details.
I haven’t finished writing my review for Blackbirds, yet. Be assured it will contain the words “kicks ass” more than necessary.
Yes, there’s room in my heart for traditional stories and loveable protagonists, when they’re written from the heart and the story grips me. (Harry Potter, I’ll always love you). But if that was all there was to storytelling, I would wash my hands of it forever. Give me your Miriam Blacks, your Dexter Morgans, your Lisbeth Salanders, your Walter Whites, your Al Swearengen’s. Give me your ugly, vile, cussing, n’er do wells, and social outcasts. Show me your guts, I can take it.
Don’t give me what you think I want. Give me your truth.
p.s. I couldn’t post this without mentioning that I actually “listened” to Blackbirds on audiobook. With my limited amount of free time, I have become an audiobook convert – books while cooking, running, grocery shopping! (If you want to squeeze a few more books into your life, I highly recommend you start listening to them). I want to give a shout out to Emily Beresford, who narrated Blackbirds. Narrators can make or break a story and Beresford definitely made this one, for me.
Until next time, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life!