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Letters to the Editor 

Week of Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Novel Misinterpretation

OK, but do we really have to imagine Shakespeare, exhumed?: I should have guessed that things would get shaky in Anneli Rufus' review of my novel 1906 ["Playing With History," Books, March 31] when she declared the "two words I have come to dread: A NOVEL." She doesn't hate novels, she states, she hates historical fiction, in which real characters are re-created. Were her hatred for such efforts universally accepted, then Shakespeare should be exhumed and flagellated for Julius Caesar, Peter Schaeffer shunned for Amadeus, and one of my heroes, Gore Vidal, dismissed for daring to create a fictional portrait of Lincoln that many felt expanded our knowledge and sympathy for him. I agree with Ms. Rufus on her fundamental premise: I too detest film and fiction that butchers and bastardizes real people. Most recently, Sue Russell, author of Damsel of Death, a biography of Aileen Wuornos, challenged the fictional interpretation of Ms. Wuornos in the film Monster. I found Ms. Russell's story enlightening and the film disturbing for its liberties.

But what Ms. Rufus failed to do in her critique of my novel was offer any substantive criticism; hers was purely an exercise in angst and attitude. Eugene Schmitz, the pivotal figure in the 1906 disaster, has long been portrayed as a suddenly decisive leader rallying the city in its darkest hour. He was not. I portrayed him as contrary evidence indicates: a desperate man who abdicated authority to the military and ordered open hunting season on anyone even suspected of looting. It was not the police, as Ms. Rufus states, but the military that shot several hundred people. It was the corrupt Schmitz/Abe Ruef regime that repeatedly ignored pleas from the devoted fire chief, Dennis Sullivan, one of the quake's first victims, and left the city vulnerable to the disaster. Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston has long been portrayed as a hero marching to the city's rescue; in truth, too many of his men got drunk on the job, looted stores, and used dynamite to start hundreds of fires, spreading both the disaster and the death toll. The official death toll has stood at 478 people since 1907; the number is easily 10 times that. Is it disingenuous of me to state the dead should be counted?

All those issues and the less-than-favorable portrayals of our late sacred cows are at the heart of my novel. I spent seven years, read hundreds of books and thousands of documents, to avoid what Ms. Rufus and I both despise: aberrant historical re-creation. Yes, I put words in their mouths: words more revealing than those we have been fed for a century. Until we figure a better way to produce historical fiction, I'm stuck with the technique. Historical documents support my portrayal of Schmitz, Funston, John Barrymore, Enrico Caruso, Dennis Sullivan, and a host of others.

I believe 1906 is a more accurate portrait of what was and what happened than the Official Story. And yes, we are in greater jeopardy today, and yes, it will happen again, and yes, I believe good storytelling has the power to enlighten and motivate.

As for Ms. Rufus' dismissal of my "bloodless title," I'm checking to see if Ash Wednesday is available for the paperback.

James Dalessandro
Author, screenwriter, 1906
San Rafael

Sick of Silke

But, we think, protesting a bit much about the lesbian nuns: OK, finally after 12 years of readership I am forced to write! Why, oh why, do you persist in allowing Silke Tudor to write for your paper? Essentially she has been writing the same column/articles for years. Is it a prerequisite that every article must refer to obscure S/M amateur dramatics viewed by a few "select" Missionites on a Tuesday at the Odeon? Must every article include the words "kinky," "wild," "lesbian," "go-kart," "beer," "nuns," etc. etc. etc.? Now, I have nothing against drunk lesbian nuns on go-karts, but a little variety wouldn't go amiss.

Ms. Tudor seems stuck in an early-'90s San Francisco. Where many of her contemporaries moved on, Ms. Tudor remained: sad, tired, and kind of out of step.

Vincent Calluci
P.S. Like you'll print this!!

Editor's note: You have us wrong, Mr. Calluci. We love to print nasty letters -- especially when we can show them to be wrongheaded, as we can, in this case, by printing the following missive, which deals with a Silke Tudor column on a special kind of war photographer.

And like you'll read this: I wanted to thank you for such a moving and sensitive article ["Art From War," Night Crawler, March 10]. I came across it by pure chance and read it many times in one sitting. Thank you.

Helen (Last name withheld by request)

Jonesing for Jonesin'

What's a six-letter newspaperman's word for "canceled," starting with "s"?: Three weeks ago, I noticed that Jonesin' was suspiciously absent from your publication. I assumed it was left out to make room for the expanded music section that week. But it wasn't there last week, and it's not there today. I saw no mention of Jonesin' being discontinued, so what's up? I need my crossword fix. Please tell me Jonesin' has not been permanently dropped. I currently walk three blocks up the street each Wednesday to get SF Weekly. EBE and SFBG are available right outside my workplace. I like all three papers, but only SF Weekly has a crossword, and it's the only reason I walk all the way up the street. If Jonesin' is gone, I see no reason not to opt for convenience and grab the mags in the stand right outside. Please bring back Jonesin'!

Amber Martin

Editor's note: Yeah, I spiked Jonesin', mostly because I never heard a peep out of anyone about it, pro or con. Now I've heard a peep. A very ... tiny ... peep.


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