Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Where does a writers responsibility begin and end?

Following my post on Fifty Shades of Grey, and the white hot rage it and it's message inspired within me, not to mention arguments such as racefail (which still has cause to rear it's ugly head from time to time) and this recent article in the Guardian, I've been thinking a lot recently about a writers responsibilities.

There isn't a lot of fiction out there that elevates any minority to positions of equality. Those that do exist are most often found within the realm of science fiction and fantasy, though there are equally as many fantastic universes created which still seek to oppress minorities, seeming to long for the good old days, when women were little more than princess in ivory towers and slavery was normal.

Any media can be a force for change, putting forward points of view that make us stop and questions ourselves and our preconceptions. Star Trek having a black woman on the bridge, for example, was unthinkable in the 60's. Of course the majority of telephone operators in a telephone exchange were women, so perhaps making her the communications officer was not that ground breaking after all. It made a bold leap, no doubt, but was that leap bold enough? Why couldn't Spock, the second in command, have been a woman, or heaven forbid, even the captain! Even just making a woman the navigation officer would have been better, and at least then the Enterprise would stop and ask for directions when needed!

Ulhura, the Enterprises chief communications officer
The thing is, it doesn't matter how far you go, for some it will never be far enough.

Then of course, there is the minefield of which minorities to support. Women? Gays? Ethnic minorities? The disabled?

Well, there are also a few further problems for writers here.

First of all, so you've decided to make your lead character an ethnic minority. Good for you... Now what? People of different upbringings naturally have differing views of the world, how do you get into the head of something you haven't experienced? How would a white man or woman, for example, understand what racism feels like? We might have things we can draw on, such as most women having experienced sexism in their lives, thereby understanding a little of what prejudice feels like. However, a white woman is unlikely to be followed around a shop by security guards because they are assumed to be a thief, or at least a risk. A white woman is unlike to stopped and searched by the police just because they "fit the profile" of a terrorist.

They say write what you know, but there are 1001 tiny things that affect how we are brought up and determine the kind of person we will grow into. When dealing with a prejudice that we aren't personally familiar with, how can we presume to understand it? There's reading to be done on the internet, of course but that can only take you so far.

And that's just the branches of Christianity!
When you're talking diverse subjects, like faith, how can you hope to grasp what it is like to grow up under the belief system of a religion that you don't subscribe to? What subtle pressures can be brought to bear on followers and their children?

Which naturally leads me to worry. If I get it wrong, will I be accused of racism, ableism or homophobia?

That's my biggest fear, that despite research, my ignorance will shine through in some form and cause offence.

I have already experienced this when writing historical novels. Two things I didn't even think to check were out of place in that time period. Then I had other people coming forward and telling me how stupid I was because this or that didn't happen back then, even though I have the research to back up those plot points.

It's a bit like that age old misconception, that people thought the world was flat in the middle ages. They didn't. This has been proved time and again, but were you to pen a historical piece about a ships captain circumnavigating the globe in the middle ages, someone would come out of the woodwork to tell you off for that. If you depict the world as flat during the middle ages, someone else will come out and tell you off for thinking that this was true of the middle ages.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Imagine how much worse those instances would be if you were dealing with sensitive issues? I could easily see an author quickly developing a reputation for prejudice.

So there you go, I am afraid to do more than touch on issues that might inflame someone's sensibilities, unless I have personal experience of those issues.

The sad fact is that today, you are more likley to be called out for trying to include a minority, than for simply keeping the status quo and leaving them our all together.

A nuclear family, as most people would picture it
That's a sad state of affairs but it leads nicely onto point two. Mass appeal.

Generally speaking, we writers want our books to appeal to a wide audience, which means writing characters that readers can relate to. It's fine to have a gay man as the sidekick, but if your hero or heroine is gay, you are cutting down on the number of people why are likley to want to read your books. Many potential readers will shy away from a gay hero/heroine based on religious views, simple prejudice and homophobia, or as is most likley, a worry about their ability to relate to such a character.

I view my target audience as women, but how many women are going to relate to the sometimes open relationships that gay men have. How many will relate to the promiscuous lifestyle of the gay 'scene'. How many will want at least one of the characters to wear a fabulous white dress on their wedding day oops, I mean, civil ceremony day?

So right there, by appealing to a minority of your potential audience, you have alienated the majority. It may not be right, it may not be fair, but it's true.

Alex Cross
Tell me something, what was the last mainstream novel you read that had a black person as the protagonist? Or a disabled person? Or an Muslim person? Or a Hindu person? Or a Jehovah's Witness? Such books are out there, of course, but very few make the mainstream. As a general rule they are published by niche presses who only publish gay/black etc fiction. The only two mainstream exceptions I can think of are the Alex Cross books by James Patterson, and one book which featured a wheelchair bound paraplegic character front and centre (I'm sorry, I forget the name of the book). I've read well over 1000 books in my lifetime and that's not a ratio to be proud of. I have never sought to avoid such books, but equally I haven't happened across many.

It's because of both these reasons that I haven't made a minority (other than women) a central character in my books.

So do I have a responsibility to these other oppressed groups to showcase their stories?

Well no. There is no law or even moral that says I have to help any oppressed groups. My personal moral code dictates that I stand up to racists, homophobes, ableists and sexists (and indeed the law bans many such outbursts and those responsible can be prosecuted) but that's really where my moral responsibility ends; stopping prejudice. Going the extra mile, presenting minorities and the oppressed as equals to readers (who may or may not be prejudiced) isn't anyone's responsibility. Not even members of those oppressed group.

I have no right to expect that EL James as woman, should be any less prejudiced that the rest of society, and believe me, there are still a lot of sexist and misogynistic people out there. Even worse, some of them are women.

What would happen to these men on Conan the Barbarian's world
It does make me terribly sad though, when those old tropes are brought out once again. Is keeping slaves really all right as long as they're called something other than human in your fantasy world?

In a world where warriors are everything and the weak nothing, I do wonder what happens to the warriors who are injured in battle (something I have never seen touched on in such fantasy novels). Are we to assume that they are hidden away in asylums or hospitals? Perhaps the truly brave warriors would rather die than live differently-abled?

Worse still, sometimes disability is still used as a punishment for the bad guys and they are seen to have gotten their just deserts for being such awful people. Other times, their hideous, crippling, 'othering'  disabilities are the reason or justification for their villainy!

So this is my own rule for both writing and reading books.

Mr Glass, not exactly the greatest depiction of disability
Above all, do no harm. What do I mean by that? If you can't be progressive, if you can't present an enlightened world view, at least don't be regressive. If you decide to include a minority or an oppressed group in your book, don't reinforce outdated prejudices.

If the only black/disabled/gay person in your book is the bad guy, maybe you need to think about what message you're sending and why. 

Even when writing a historical or fantasy novel, remember that you are writing for a modern audience. Yes, people did own and trade in slaves, but at least have someone in your novels recognise how wrong that is, or at the very least, question it. Slavery is not something that was ever universally thought to be good or right; there have always been those who fought against it.

When I write a historical novel, I simply cannot write about heroines who spent their days calling on other women to gossip, embroidering and organising dinner parties. That kind of life holds no interest for me and women have always worked. I'll say that again, women have always worked. Yes they have, even if most middle and upper class women didn't, the majority of women did. There have also always been mavericks among the middle and upper classes, those who pressed for equal rights, fought oppression and even had jobs, though they were very different from the jobs that working class women did. Some were artists, writers, composers or playwrites, others were scientists, mathematicians, and governesses were almost always upper middle class women.

I will not have a protagonist who is involved in the slave trade, and if mentioned at all, it is only to approve of the 1807 Act which abolished it within the British Empire. It galled me to have to write about the lies that the British told over the Indian uprising but without a time machine, my characters couldn't know anything other than what the press reported at that time. However, they didn't jump on the bandwagon, vilifying all Indians, they instead prayed for all those who had lost their lives.

So that's my line in the sand. If a book written today doesn't keep up with modern sensibilities, then I won't read that book. Unless I have a damn good reason (and I cannot think of one) I also won't write that book.

Regardless of your minority status (or lack thereof) if you should decide to go above and beyond the call of duty and have minorities front and centre in your novel, I applaud you (and hope that you won't get too much grief for sticking your head above the parapet). 

If like EL James, you decide to reinforce age old stereotypes and present women as submissive, not to mention reinforcing damaging stereotypes, such as that a woman's love can change a violent man, then expect me and others to call you out on your shit.


  1. Great blog post.
    For me, the joy of good fiction is the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes so I'd love to see more fiction written with a non-standard main character. Even if they're a different race to me or a different sexuality, a good writer should still be able to create a character with something I can identify with. So I hate the idea that fiction can only have mass-market appeal if the main characters are white middle-class graduates. Perhaps that's the fiction people buy because it's all they often have access to?

    I share your concern about trying to write too much about experiences I've never had myself; for me, that's a matter of accepting that other people can write from that perspective much better than I can. But I can at least do my best to create unique characters who have their own quirks, rather than fitting some tired old stereotype.

    1. Thank you.

      "Perhaps that's the fiction people buy because it's all they often have access to?"

      I'm sure you're right and those niche presses I mentioned just don't have the budget to get their books into many stores. Of course, the digital age is slowly levelling the playing field in that respect.

      I'm also pleased to see that this is changing in the mainstream. I haven't noticed it so much with literature, but certainly more and more mainstream movies are putting black actors front and centre, which I think is a good indication of progress; both that studios are willing to bet big bucks on some black lead actors and that the movie going public obviously isn't put off by that.

      Of course, percentage wise, it's only a tiny proportion of the total movie production, but it's a start.

      "I share your concern about trying to write too much about experiences I've never had myself; for me, that's a matter of accepting that other people can write from that perspective much better than I can. But I can at least do my best to create unique characters who have their own quirks, rather than fitting some tired old stereotype."

      As well as regurgitating the old stereotypes, conversely I have also often seen the argument that some black characters are basically just white people in black skin. Minority groups even fight among themselves about how certain things should be handled, what's a correct representation of their group and what's a wrong or offensive one.

      The movie The Women is a perfect example that I am qualified to discuss the issues involved. I hated that movie so much that I almost walked out. It's one of the most offensive and sexist films I've seen in recent years, and yet it had an all female cast and crew! I found myself saying "Well if that's the best we can do, no wonder Hollywood is so sexist". We had a chance to shine, to empower, to show that women could make great characters and movies. Instead they trotted out the same old annoying and offensive stereotypes.

      Sex and the City on the other hand, did some things brilliantly. I hardly ever saw the show but I went to see the first film. I was thrilled when Samantha dumped her boyfriend because she loved herself too much to be in a relationship, because life as a woman can still be rewarding without a Prince Charming, and women are allowed to be selfish, despite what we're taught. That's not a perspective that's often shown.

      Of course, one of the first comments from a friend as we left was "It's a shame that Samantha didn't get a happy ending too." That was her happy ending! We aren't all wired the same and we don't all want the same things!

      It's striking that balance which I think stops some people (such as me) from tackling sensitive issues.