The popular tumblr meme “White People Almost Kissing, a book by Nicholas Sparks.”
Preternaturally successful novelist Nicholas Sparks talks about writing in a way that would make me physically ill if I aspired to be a novelist. I do not, and yet I can still feel a bit of bile rise when he says things like “I never loved writing. It’s very, very challenging…I write because I think I can do it, because I think I can. I guess I’m more into the challenge of doing it again as opposed to the love of writing itself.”
All of Mr. Sparks’ novels have been on the New York Times Bestsellers list. All of them. He writes love stories with an undercurrent (or sometimes heavy-handed overtone) of potentially love-threatening sadness, such as a protagonist with a serious illness or star-crossed lovers being kept apart by disapproving families, and they lazily roll from the bestseller lists to the movie studios, and the money keeps rolling in.
He sets his stories in small towns near his home of North Carolina, in the American South. He often emphasizes his American Southern-ness, and his stories are just dripping with the idea of “America.” It’s just the idea of America though, because Mr. Sparks doesn’t portray anything resembling the actual America we know of and I doubt he’s even visited it for more than a few hours while waiting for a connecting flight from Hollywood back to Sparkslandia. The America that Mr. Sparks seems to know is magically old-fashioned, even when set in the present day, and everyone is white. Everyone.
Mr. Sparks has every right to create his worlds to his liking. That’s a part of being an artist. Also, they do say “write what you know.” I have a deep appreciation for the full spectrum of art–not everything needs to be Schindler’s List. His predictable romantic dramas certainly have a place in the realm of what constitutes entertainment, but when they become the norm, I have a problem.
Should Nicholas Sparks novels and the movies that spring forth from them suddenly be set in locales with more ethnic diversity just because I say so? No. Should Nicholas Sparks arbitrarily start writing about only Black people being reunited after decades and kissing in the rain? Nah. It shouldn’t be arbitrary, but yes it might be a good idea, simply to reflect the truth of the country he’s so proud to live in and represent. Putting art on the back burner for a moment, (wink-wink), it might also be nice to open up his body of work to be more appreciated by wider audiences. Except that those who systematically erase us tend to only remember or pander to us when it serves them financially and apparently Nick doesn’t need our dollars or think we have any for him.
Of course, lots of rich white people think of “America” the way Nicholas Sparks portrays it. In writing of an America where everyone is white (and also straight), he’s certainly not breaking any new ground. But must he be so handsomely rewarded for laying fresh cement atop the old ground? Regurgitating romantic storylines of unbearable whiteness and heteronormativity has paid Mr. Sparks incredibly well.
That smile is so money.
Not unlike Iggy Azalea or Bethenny Frankel, Nicholas Sparks’ work has every right to be as annoying and mediocre and white yet popular as it wants to be. But when it is rewarded with contracts and six-figure deals, that becomes what success looks like. The erasure of anyone but the same white archetypes within the work itself is compounded by our resulting erasure in the industry itself and they perpetuate each other in a vicious cycle.
The more popular Nicholas Sparks’ crap is, the more of it he gets to make, and the more of it is put into the world forever and ever amen. If his books fly off the shelves and the movies made from them get butts into seats, he’s paid well and gets to do it again. Understanding the commerce of it all, I had previously not spoken out against his work. After all, it isn’t my taste, but that’s fine, and I’d rather support Black writers and other PoC than wring my hands because Nicholas Sparks’ life is insulated to the extent of parody. It’s not like he actively dislikes non-white people or goes out of his way to exclude them, right?
Or does he? Last week, a lawsuit surfaced which alleges that he has done just that. In a 47-page legal complaint, Saul Hillel Benjamin, former headmaster of the school Nicholas Sparks founded in North Carolina, made multiple accusations of racism, Anti-Semitism, homophobia, and defamation specific to treatment of Mr. Benjamin himself. Of course it is noble of Mr. Sparks to use his considerable spoils to found an institution of learning, but the suit claims that when the headmaster made efforts toward more ethnic diversity, questioning that only 2 of the 514 students were Black, Mr. Sparks replied “ Black students are too poor and can’t do the academic work.” Allegedly he also allegedly ignored complaints of gay students being bullied and endorsed some despicably named organized bullying event called the “homo-caust,” as well as allegedly disparaging Mr. Benjamin personally for his Jewish faith, humiliating him publicly, and ultimately telling people that his accusations toward Mr. Sparks were delusions resulting from Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is also a main plot point of Mr. Sparks’ most well-known story, The Notebook.
These are presently only allegations, which Mr. Sparks’ legal team aggressively denies. His entertainment lawyer is quick to point out that he himself is both gay and Jewish, and hey—I’m sure some of his best friends are Black.
Call me a cynic, but I feel certain that they’ll handle these serious complaints in a way that will have little to no effect on the upcoming October 17 release of the newest Sparks movie, The Best of Me. The Sparks machine is zooming along at full speed, with the movie adaptation of his The Longest Ride in post-production with a 2015 release date, and principal casting was completed last month for the next one, The Choice.
And the money keeps rolling in.