Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Lemony Snicket’s unfortunate event

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13 Words by Lemony Snicket

We go through a lot of picture books in my house these days, but one of my daughter’s current favorites is 13 Words by Lemony Snicket. I picked it up at the library on a whim, and although I wasn’t sure what her reaction would be, she loves it—we’ve probably read it two dozen times over the last few weeks. It’s a clever, slightly subversive deconstruction of vocabulary books for kids, with words ranging from bird (“The bird sits on the table”) to despondent (“The bird is despondent”), all the way through convertible, haberdashery, and mezzo-soprano. The result might have been insufferably arch or smug, but it cuts a neat line between being cute enough for kids and knowing enough for their parents. And it ends up as an engaging hybrid between a sweet picture book and a commentary on the arbitrariness, or absurdity, of children’s books in general, with characters and details introduced without explanation to be assimilated into the treasure heap of a child’s imagination. And while it all ends happily, it closes on a pleasantly melancholy note: “Although the bird, to tell you the truth, is still a little despondent.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to read it now without being reminded of recent events involving Lemony Snicket himself, aka author Daniel Handler. While emceeing the National Book Awards last week, Handler made the following remarks about author Jacqueline Woodson, who had just accepted an award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming:

I said that if she won I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer. Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your minds. I said, “You have to put that in a book.” And she said, “You put that in a book.” And I said, “I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama say, “This guy’s OK.”

To Handler’s credit, he responded to the subsequent outrage with an admirably heartfelt apology. Yet for those of us who admire Handler and his work, it still feels inexplicable—probably more so than any other incident since Lars von Trier made his own unfortunate statements three years ago at Cannes.

13 Words by Lemony Snicket

But as with Lars von Trier, a professional provocateur who can edge into a caricature of himself, Handler’s incredible cluelessness here can’t be separated from the very qualities that have made him so successful. If there’s a defining quality to Handler’s work, as with that of his friend Stephin Merritt, it’s an eye for the darkly absurd, and for such a smart, verbal, ironic personality, something like the watermelon stereotype can seem less like a hurtful image than like a self-contained illustration of the absurdity of racism itself. Taken out of context, it feels transparently ridiculous, as if the racists were unconsciously parodying themselves. For a sensibility like Handler’s, saying that black people like watermelon feels like the equivalent of saying, as he does in 13 Words, that a dog and a goat took a convertible to a haberdashery owned by a baby: a statement that points up the underlying incoherence of the whole business of racial stereotyping. Invoking it feels like a nudge to similarly attuned listeners, a wink that implies: “This image is so nonsensical that I don’t even need to make a joke in order to mock it—the bigots, not me, have done that for themselves. So we can all safely laugh at it.”

Except, emphatically, we can’t. The watermelon stereotype might seem inane on its own, but it’s only a single component of the much more troubling history of racial imagery that inevitably trails along behind it. When we view it in isolation, it’s easy to dismiss it, or even think of it as harmless, as online commenters do when they protest, sincerely: “But watermelon is delicious!” (This may be why a cartoon with similar overtones escaped the notice of the editorial staff at the Boston Herald last month, although it doesn’t excuse it.) Which isn’t to say that it can’t be mocked; none other than Cornel West himself speaks of the tragicomic view of life, in which we laugh in the midst of hate and hypocrisy so as not to fall into despair. But it’s a mistake to forget that what strikes us as absurd—especially when we see it from the outside—can retain all its old power to wound. Irony and knowingness are essential tools, but they can also be a trap, if they fool us into thinking that we can stand above or apart from a legacy that others experience on a daily basis. Handler knows this now, and his sincere contrition has gone a long way toward restoring some of the respect that he lost from his readers. Although, to tell you the truth, I’m still a little despondent.

Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2014 at 10:27 am

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