Last week M.H. Lee posted about how their enjoyment of reading books had been tarnished by their experiences of the creation of fiction. There are several points worth reading, but frequent readers will not be surprised that the one that especially caught my attention was the concern that authors who are not actively promoting diversity in their books might be part of the problem. However, they might be surprised that my opinion is that ensuring diversity might the last thing we need to worry about in our own fiction.
I like the novels of Robert Heinlein. I find that they move forward at a good pace, are filled with exciting incidents, and have interesting ideas about possible futures; in short they are entertaining science-fiction. Reading and enjoying Heinlein’s work for decades has not made me ascribe to his political or social beliefs. I can say the same of other authors who fall in different parts of the belief spectra.
Conversely, I do not like BBC’s The Thick of It. I believe it is a realistic picture of corruption in government, all be it with a comedy glaze, but the dialogue does not engage me, and the characters do not inspire empathy; in short it was not as entertaining as doing something else. I can say the same about a number of popular programs based around vastly different theses.
The key difference is entertainment. We prefer well-written fiction to truthful fiction. Before we write a story with a message we need to write a story. The conscious creation of an ethically perfect narrative comes after the 10,000 hours (or however long it takes for each of us) of writing to learn.
The alternative is to risk consigning a story to death by a thousand edits. I wrote a draft of a vampire novel during NaNoWriMo last year, one of the concepts of which was to avoid the “vampire as flawed romantic lead” trope. As I had written much more intensely than my usual rate I set it aside for a few weeks to stop the joy bleeding out. When I came back to it my first thought was that the number of male to female characters was not statistically equal to reality. Then I started to worry that one of my protagonists was too objectified. Instead of editing and expanding a story that was probably, by an objective standard, less filled with objectification and negative stereotyping than many novels, I became paralysed by the fear it contained any hidden prejudice at all. Despite my intellectual awareness that I need to push past it, and over six months having passed, I am still unable to re-engage with a story I enjoyed writing.
Maybe the issue is also smaller than we believe. The Thick of It is a satire, so the writers intended a political message, but did Heinlein set out to write his books to advance an agenda or do they match his politics because he wrote books with characters who acted as he believed people did, books that contained societies that interested him? Even if we are not consciously including a message, a belief that the sexes are equal will unconsciously steer us away from air-head blondes who exist just to swoon.
From an even more extreme perspective, as Kevin Swanson’s denunciation of Star Trek: Into Darkness for promoting bestiality shows, if someone else wants to find evidence a work is filled with negative messages enough, they can probably find something to hang it on.
So, while I believe everyone, author or not, benefits from examining their writing for accidental stereotyping I am trying to make the presence of an unconscious bias the last thing I think about when I edit rather than the first, and fiction with a message the last style I attempt not the first.
Do you edit your work to remove unconscious agenda? Do you believe people should write what they enjoy irrespective of any political slant it might have?