I’m writing this from the continuing COVID-19 crisis, the accelerating economic fallout, and the inevitable political firestorms that rage in and around those things and all the endemic problems those things shine a brighter and brighter light on. This is a time when everything seems political, when anything seems to be somehow controversial, when no opinion is without vehement disapproval… and we’re supposed to keep writing during this? We’re supposed to just press on?
It’s 2020 and there’s no excuse for obviously bad behavior. I will not accept that there’s anyone out there who “didn’t know” or “didn’t realize” that their obviously abusive, even violent behavior wasn’t obviously abusive or violent. It’s not a matter of trying to navigate some new, ever-changing set of arbitrary rules—the rules have been there all along and are not arbitrary. Please tell me you’ve known all along that it’s not okay to strangle someone or rape someone or force someone out of any part of any community because of things like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. This isn’t a post about how to behave at conventions: behave like a decent person with normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards. This isn’t a post about which authors are “problematic” and so therefor should be silenced. And this isn’t a post about how to not be silenced by writing within some set of new, ever-changing set of arbitrary rules that don’t actually exist in any case.
This is a post reminding you to write, first and foremost, for your self. Write a story that says what you want to say, and says it in the way you want to say it, without fear of disapproval from some unknown “they.” Let’s be honest, there really is no they there.
Now, this doesn’t mean you try to sell a middle grade fantasy with A Game of Thrones levels of sex and violence in it. There will be some reasonable category limitations that you need to learn and adopt as part of being a reasonable professional—going back to that idea of normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards.
This also doesn’t mean that you have to write outside your comfort zone, or write to shock, if you are writing for an adult audience. But even then, careful about putting too many filters between yourself and your writing. You may not want to go as far as Allen Ginsberg, quoted in a 1966 Paris Review interview:
The problem is, where it gets to literature, is this. We all talk among ourselves and we have common understandings, and we say anything we want to say, and we talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re gonna fuck tomorrow, or what kinda love affair we have, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague—anybody tells one’s friends about that. So then—what happens if you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your Muse? The problem is to break down that distinction: When you approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friends.
…but tell your story in your voice, emphasize what feels important, brush past what doesn’t. Personally, I’ve never had a conversation with my friends about assholes and cocks, so my Muse will be safe from that. But that’s me, not you, and not, apparently, Allen Ginsberg. Filter yourself based on your instincts not on what you think most people will think is okay, what you think agents want to sell, what you think editors want to publish, what readers want to read. This is especially important since, I assure you, you have no idea what most people will think is okay, what agents want to sell, what editors want to publish, what readers want to read. What all those people want is something original, fresh, readable, and entertaining—in one way or another.
And I’m hardly the first or only person to point this out. In an interview, again, with the Paris Review, the brilliant James Baldwin said:
Obviously you can only deal with your life and work from the vantage point of your self. There isn’t any other vantage point, there is no other point of view. I can’t say about any of my characters that they are utter fictions. I do have a sense of what nagged my attention where and when; even in the dimmest sense I know how a character impinged on me in reality, in what we call reality, the daily world. And then, of course, imagination has something to do with it. But it has got to be triggered by something, it cannot be triggered by itself.
It’s true that characters, however fictitious they eventually become, at the very least start with someone we know in one way or another from reality. And there I am again with “one way or another.” Some authors populate their books with fictionalized (or even semi-fictionalized) people from their own lives: friends, enemies, relatives, coworkers, teachers, etc. Actually, I should say: all authors do this, even those authors who aren’t consciously aware of those connections. We also conjure up people from history or current events, people we’ve never met in real life but who we have some opinion about. These are people we admire or despise… it doesn’t really matter. But we, authors, are people who live in a community of other people. We don’t know anything of people except what we’ve experienced of people, so when we set out to create a fictional person, we of course draw from that set of experiences. And yes, this absolutely goes for fantasy and science fiction as well, even if you don’t know any real life wizards or Martians.
Likewise, fantasy and science fiction of course can convey your view of the world around you. Same as you’ll use real people to inspire your fantasy characters, you’ll use the real world to inspire your fantasy worldbuilding. Genre fiction absolutely can, and I submit always does, have something to say. But does that mean we have to censor ourselves in response to tense and judgmental times? Keep in mind, yet again, that we always want to remain in possession of normal human levels of empathy and perfectly obvious ethical standards, but it’s also worth noting that a fantasy novel, any more than a “literary” or historical novel, can’t hypnotize people into believing something they wouldn’t normally believe. The novel 1984 definitely got a lot of people thinking, but in no way put an end to oligarchical totalitarianism, and Dune may have warned against the dangers of a single resource economy, but fifty-six years later we’re still just as addicted to oil as we’ve ever been.
In “Problems of Fantasy,” S.C. Fredricks wrote:
We should now admit that Fantasy fiction is not intended to inculcate dogmatic beliefs. If it were, why should Fantasy also always be so idiosyncratic, so unique and personal in its vision of reality, so individualistic in its style and expression? This does not sound like a very intelligent or effective way to proselytize for one’s narrow religious or philosophical cause. The stronger thesis is that Fantasy should make us sensitive to the bad beliefs that we already have and open to new, better ones. Fantasy is in this sense intellectually subversive. Such a view implies, for instance, that C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra-trilogy should be read as an imaginative critique of modern scientism and not as closely argued orthodox theology (though this does not preclude Lewis from being a fairly orthodox Christian). Fantasy thus seems to appeal to the intellectual non- conformist in us all.
I like that—I like thinking of myself as an intellectual non-conformist. But still, as Richard Russo warned us in “The Lives of Others”:
Writers use people. We tell stories because we must. And the source of that must isn’t talent or knowledge or the authenticity that derives from research and lived experience. It’s mystery. What we don’t understand is what beckons to us.
Follow your muse, write for your self, and just like you find characters in the world around you, some you love and some you hate, readers will find authors in the libraries and bookshops around them, some they love and some they hate.
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