RE: RARA-AVIS: Re: Those were the days (was Creationism vs. Evolution (was Once more...)

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 02 Sep 2000

Tribe wrote:

"I'm certainly not gonna defend Ellroy's use of language and the like. It bugs some readers and others like his stuff notwithstanding (count me among the later). But Mark, I'm sure you're not saying that because things weren't kosher back then, they shouldn't be written about."

You're right, I'm not saying that. My problem with Ellroy is not his use of epithets, but his uncritical use of them (uncritical as in simplistic; I'm not saying he should automatically criticize any use of harsh words; casual dismissal is as uncritical as casual acceptance). By setting his books in a time when those words and attitudes were more acceptable, often endorsed, and insisting he is using the words simply for temporal verisimilitude, Ellroy is sidestepping the issues of writing and using those words in the 1990s. Authors like Lansdale use the "N" word fairly often, but are aware of its shadings when coming from different mouths.

"If anything, the more things change, the more they remain the same in terms of language, un-correct depictions of women and minorities and the like. Hell, just look at the RICO suit filed against the LAPD."

Agreed, much of the LAPD seems to hold many of the same views, but the public perception of those attitudes is very different. Which makes it a fascinating issue to explore. There's a complexity of attitudes (and questions about being open about or hiding those attitudes) that offers numerous possibilites for characters and plot. As a matter of fact, isn't this the issue Pelecanos means to explore in his next book?

"Chandler didn't write about those attitudes in stronger terms 'cause he just couldn't get away with it back then. Even so, Marlowe could use the racial epithets with the best of 'em."

I agree with this, too. Although some of Chandler/Marlowe's comments bother me, I can understand them in context and set them aside. Chandler was a man of his time. However, Ellroy is also a man of his time and that time is now. He is not a writer of the '50s using those words, but a man of the '90s, choosing to write about the '50s, so he can glibly use those words and dance away whenever he is criticized for it.

However, I am not saying '90s values should be imposed upon the past if that is the setting. I think Mosley walks that line very carefully (of course, his main theme revolves around questions of changes in racial treatment so he engages the questions I think Ellroy ducks). All I'm saying is that I've come to question why Ellroy's books are always set in the past; it makes me wonder if he might not think of it as a golden age of sorts.

Now I thought the world of the LA Quartet, but this tendency really started to annoy me in American Tabloid. I am even willing to admit that I may be letting his obnoxious public persona flavor some of my disillusionment. I know I won't go to any more of his signings, but I wonder if I will actually skip his next book. Wasn't it Garcia Marquez who said he always swore he wouldn't read the next Borges because of the author's right wing politics, but when the book actually came out, he couldn't help himself, since Borges was such a good writer?


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