In preparation for one of the best writing conferences of the year, we here at Fiction Unbound got in touch with noir author and all-around cool guy, Benjamin Whitmer, to talk about his chosen genre, the likability of characters in darker stories, and his work at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He is the author of two novels, Pike and Cry Father, and will be talking on the panel at the salon “Despicable Me: The Likability Problem” at Lighthouse’s annual Lit Fest in Denver, Colorado. Lit Fest is a two week extravaganza of seminars, parties, workshops, and readings for writers of all types and flavors. If you are in the area between June 2nd and June 16th, you should absolutely drop by and see what all fuss is about!
Danyelle C. Overbo: First off, how long have you been teaching at Lighthouse and how many Lit Fests have you participated in over the years?
Benjamin Whitmer: I’ve been here a little more than three years. Lighthouse has been a revelation for me. I’ve never really been a part of any writing community, and it’s been a game changer for me on a number of levels. As to Lit Fest, this’ll be my third. It’s one of my favorite times of year.
DCO: What are the classes you teach at Lighthouse? What are your favorite topics to teach?
BW: I seem to have settled down to three classes, basically. My noir class, a long form narrative class that exists to pull in both my memoir and novel Book Project folks, and reading as a writer classes about Cormac McCarthy’s stuff. Usually Blood Meridian, but I’m branching out to No Country for Old Men and The Road in the fall.
DCO: You are on the panel "Despicable Me: The Likability Problem" at Lit Fest this year. Can you talk a little bit about why you were chosen to discuss that topic?
BW: I guess it’s because my characters are known – by those few who know them – as being unlikable. I actually don’t have that problem with them: I love my characters. I know they’re not for everyone, but everyone isn’t for me. They’re tremendously flawed, but who isn’t? Most of the books I read that feature characters that’re supposed to be likable just come across as bland to me. But I know my perspective is entirely skewed. I’ll read a book on the New York Times bestseller list and hate the characters so much I think the author’s trying to pull a fast one, but then I talk to somebody else and they’ll tell me how much they identify with them. It’s moments like those I realize I really shouldn’t be out in public.
DCO: Your books are considered neo noir or "hard-boiled" fiction. How does this genre encourage the sort of "anti-hero" characters that are sometimes considered unlikeable?
BW: My first two novels get called noir and I agree with that, for the most part. The definition of noir is pretty simple to my mind. It’s Dennis Lehane’s definition: Noir is “working class tragedy.” And in tragedy, the characters have to be tremendously flawed. That’s built into what tragedy is. You can’t find me the blandly likable protagonist in Macbeth or Oedipus Rex. They’re not there because that’s not what the genre does, and those aren’t the questions it addresses. It’s a genre that does a different kind of work.
I’m not sure there’s really any place for it in the American crime fiction genre. Most of what’s sold in the US as crime fiction is really superhero fiction. It’s just these superheroes are detectives or cops and get the occasional bourbon hangover or whatever. And that’s nothing I have any interest in doing. I like reading some of it, and think there’s some great writing in the genre, but it’s not my bag.
DCO: What do you like about writing characters who are flawed in this way?
BW: It’s not really something I like or dislike. I mean, I’m trying deliberately to work with the specific genre of tragedy as I understand it. It’s just always been what I’ve gravitated towards. It’s been that way since I was a kid. I’ll watch a Shakespeare comedy that ends with a wedding, and cool, I’ll think it’s fun. But for me, I’ve always liked the other plays better, the ones that end in a pile of dead bodies.
DCO: What (if anything) don't you like about writing characters like this? What particular challenges do you face?
BW: The main challenge is the asinine belief among marketing folks that characters have to be likable. As David Vann said, “We have the idea in America that a book should have likable characters and make us feel good by the end. This is a new and idiotic idea and erases 2,500 years of literary culture.” We’re in a pretty dismal time in the US when it comes to publishing, in large part due to this idea. I’m finding lately that I read fewer and fewer contemporary novels from the Big 5. It’s just not worth the time. There’s still plenty of wonderful books I haven’t read that were published, say, prior to 30 years ago, and they speak better to me. And there’s so much great stuff being put out by independent publishers, I just don’t have to bother. Hell, in my opinion, Broken River Books, run by one guy in an apartment, has put out more great books since its inception than all of the Big 5 combined.
I don’t see it changing anytime soon, unfortunately. Hell, it works. I mean, if your sole standard is money, then demanding every book have a likable character and an uplifting ending is a huge success. Just like if you think money is the sole standard, then releasing another Luke Bryan album or comic book movie makes sense. It's only a failure if you care about film, music or literature. For my part, I prefer Jamey Johnson to Luke Bryan, and most of what gets put on the Barnes and Noble tables bores me senseless.
The worst part is that US readers have now been trained to expect likable characters and uplifting endings. And as Flannery O’Connor said, “One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club.” So now we live in a nation of book clubs.
DCO: What do you think readers gain from delving into these darker stories? Do you think these stories have any special relevance to the issues we face today?
BW: I think they probably have the same relevance they’ve always had. None of this is new. What’s new is the idea that dark stories are an outlier. There’s always been a place for both dark and light stories up until this specific moment in this specific place. At no other time and in no other place in the world has any culture been stupid enough to believe there’s no place for them. That takes a special kind of psychopathology.
DCO: What do you think the biggest misunderstanding readers have about noir and neo-noir? What would you want them to take away after reading one of your books?
BW: Two things. The first being, it doesn’t just mean sleazy. As Daniel Woodrell said, “Just because, you know, a story’s set in a dark, dingy bar, and there’s a blonde at the bar who’s not wearing any underwear, it doesn’t mean it’s a noir yet.” The other is that it specifically can’t be about detectives. Detective fiction and noir are antithetical to each other. As Otto Penzler put it, “Not only are these two sub-categories of crime fiction not the same, they are philosophically diametrically opposed to each other.”
DCO: What is your least favorite interview question to answer? And why? (I hope it's not one of these!)
BW: Of course not! No, my least favorite questions have to do with why my books have to be violent. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to beat the interviewer over the head with any book of American history ever written about any subject. Violence is what we do, and to my mind, if you’re not writing about violence, you’re not writing about America. I always wonder that the folks who ask that question don’t spontaneously combust from the cognitive dissonance it requires.
For great noir, be sure to check out Pike and Cry Father and come to see Benjamin Whitmer talk more about the likability "problem" at Lighthouse's Lit Fest at the beginning of June. What are your favorite least-liked characters in noir or fiction in general? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.