It’s an awkward time to be a writer in these (dis)United States. We see the ravages of identity politics destroying almost everything that held us together as a nation. Both because of and in response to that, reactions to those holding different views are getting more knee-jerk, more emotional, more extreme from one day to the next. The days when most of us bought a book for reading enjoyment are probably long gone. Instead, we have to figure out what perspective, what identity, what prescriptive ideology the author is going to try to foist on us, and whether we want to deal with that. It’s a sorry situation.
It’s now reached the point where to avoid such issues is to be regarded with suspicion. If we try not to take sides, to simply tell a story and entertain our readers without preaching or persuading or proselytizing, there’s clearly something missing. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!” clashes head-on with “If you’re not against us, you’re for us!” Not preaching a particular ideology offends those who follow it, and encourages others who reject it to “claim” us as one of their own, even though we may want nothing to do with them.
I find this particularly on my blog, where my attempts to be even-handed in discussing issues often lead to rebukes from readers in comments. I happen to think that even-handedness is a virtue, and vitally important if we’re to maintain any sort of civil society at all; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a wimp and refuse to stand for anything. I simply acknowledge that others hold certain things dear that I don’t, and they have every right to do so. If I expect to be allowed to hold and propagate my views, I must extend the same right to them. If I don’t, I must expect my own rights to be similarly restricted.
Sadly, that’s affecting our books as well these days. If we want to tell a rattling good story, its quality is all too often judged by whether we have – or don’t have – characters and/or a plot that reflect(s) certain ideologies, or philosophies, or perspectives. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s possible to do that well unless we have an insider’s perspective on them.
For example, I’ve been criticized for having mostly male protagonists in my books – but I’m a man myself, and I know how to write in a man’s head. I can’t write well from a woman’s perspective, because I don’t understand it through their eyes. I find this is one of the major problems with writers who create characters of the opposite sex: they never quite get into their characters’ heads. I can ask my wife for guidance on how women see things, but what she can verbalize is only a pale reflection of the richness of the experience in her heart and mind of being a woman. It can’t encompass that reality in a way I can readily understand, or with which I can identify.
In the same way, I don’t think I can write general, non-“message” fiction well enough to satisfy most the competing, clashing “messages” being thrown around in everyday society. I can only write well about things with which I have some sort of internal identification, or sympathy, or emotional bond. There has to be a gut-level interaction if it’s to be convincing, not just an intellectual or academic acknowledgment that it exists.
I’d like to hear from other writers about this. I’m sure some won’t agree with me, but others might. How do you handle the problem of trying to tell a story when the world is full of competing messages, many of which will stridently disagree with your own perspectives, and get in the way of pure “story-telling”?