The Last Thing On Our Minds

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.

Lemon Juice
The best ink for agenda?
DarKobraCC BY SA 3.0)

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?

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10 thoughts on “The Last Thing On Our Minds

  1. I don’t much care, actually. I use the characters that fit the story. I have recently realized that Cannibal Hearts is lacking in heterosexual female characters, but I’m not going to make one up and shoehorn her in just to try to achieve some kind of balance. If you pick a group of people at random you’re not going to end up with the same distribution as the general population. That’s just how probability works.

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    1. I thought you might be on the side of writing the story that interested you and letting the world make of it what they will.

      Good point about probability. Maybe next time someone starts worrying about diversity in their work I will bring up the probability of two people in a small group having the same birthday; once they see that the idea that 10 characters will share many characteristics might seem easier to accept.

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    1. Interesting point. I had not considered writing to a brief.

      Instinctively I feel that it would still mostly sort itself, as it would be unlikely someone who disagreed with the tenor of your existing work would ask you to write for them.

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    1. Maybe, although some writers do clearly have a conscious message to their fiction (Swift in Gulliver’s Travels for instance).

      My thought was that – until we are skilled at writing – setting out to include our own message in each book is likely to cause issues.

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      1. “I make movies. You want to send a message? Call Western Union”. I don’t know if that’s a genuine quote from Sam Goldwyn or just a Hollywood legend, but they are words I live by nonetheless.

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  2. Just to be clear – my issue was more that my writing would be judged because it wasn’t diverse enough rather than on whether I’d written a good story. I don’t think the answer to adding more diversity to speculative fiction is making existing authors write more diverse stories. I think the better answer is including a more diverse group of writers within the genre. (I, personally, know other’s opinions, am annoyed by them, and then proceed to do my own thing regardless of what they might think.)

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    1. As I hope my readers saw when they clicked through.

      I tend to agree that having as diverse a group of writers working in a genre is better than a few trying to write many perspectives; however, I think that writers trying to expand the diversity of their own work is a good way to make that genre accessible enough to writers outside that mainstream.

      Of course, being annoyed at the portrayal of certain groups in fiction can also be a strong motivator to write the “real” story.

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