One of the things that has always attracted me to speculative fiction is that it is a medium to push past the boundaries of our everyday world and to explore concepts that otherwise might remain neglected. Most of the people I know who share my love for spec fic possess some common traits – questioning minds, an iconoclastic nature and a refusal to accept the answer “it just is”. Great spec fic is not safe, it takes us outside our comfort zones and introduces us to new worlds and concepts. If you only want to read stuff that simply reinforces your own beliefs or goes to the same familiar places, then I don’t believe spec fic suits you. So, the question I have to ask is – when did we become so timid?
With apologies to H.L. Mencken, I would define political correctness as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be offended by something you have written or said. This desire to avoid offending anyone at all results in blandness, because if you have anything worth saying it will offend. That is the nature of truth, it is the price we pay for telling it. By truth I don’t necessarily mean bare facts, spec fic by its nature plays fast and loose with facts, I mean the greater truths about human nature that we can communicate (some of us better than others) through fiction. Spec fic gives us a medium to explore the big questions – religion, race, gender, politics – in a fresh new framework. But, when we discuss those topics in any depth at all we are going to offend people. Whether that is because what we say contradicts their own opinion or because or negative experiences they have had or simply because it makes them actually think, there is a huge potential for offence there. But isn’t it worth it, just to get some dialogue started?
I am, in many ways, a conservative person. Much of what I read doesn’t agree with my world view, in fact, some is downright antagonistic to it. But to me, that is a good thing because it makes me look at my beliefs through different eyes and from another point of view. It shakes my complacency and makes me really evaluate why I believe what I do, and explore why I came to the conclusions that I have arrived at. It makes me think. If my beliefs are worth having, then they will come out the other side. If holding them up to the cold, hard light of Truth makes them fade away they weren’t worth having in the first place.
There have been a couple of incidents of late that have made me think about this. The first was the recent furore over Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader list, or more specifically how they withdrew some titles after some negative feedback. Foz Meadows has addressed this much better than I, and you can read her excellent roundup here. From my point of view, I find it disturbing that the comments of a few were able to hold BM hostage in such a way, the irony of course is that from not wanting to offend a couple of people they have now offended a great deal more.
But, I think it is deeper than that. There seems to be some sort of promotion of the idea, unconscious or not, that fiction that is confronting is somehow undesirable. The world is not a pleasant place. Bad things happen, and stories where they don’t are taking the whole suspension of disbelief thing a little too far. But, worse than that, BM’s decision is sending a message to authors of YA spec fic that if you dare address an uncomfortable or controversial topic you will be penalised and I can’t see how that is going to improve the quality of that genre.
There was also talk about how it might be a “trigger” for those who have suffered abuse, and I can see that might be the case, and I have nothing but sympathy for those who have suffered. But, did anyone think that it might be a way for some people to work through their issues, by being able to explore them in a fictional context, allowing them to work through them in their mind? And, I think that if you know something is going to affect you badly then you avoid it, rather than expecting it to never be written about. Personally, I think that growing up having an awareness that, yes, bad things do happen equips young adults for the world we live and shows them ways of dealing with real life issues when they arise.
Another issue I came across was this post from Tracie McBride. This infuriates me on so many levels. Aside from the sheer cowardice of the publisher (essentially they are saying it’s not that we have any personal convictions about the matter, just that we don’t want to get sued), the idea that only people from certain cultures can write about their mythologies strikes at the very heart of what we do. Does that mean that only people of my racial background can write about kelpies and banshees and the Fair Folk? Or is it one set of rules for one group, and another for different groups? And, isn’t the art of storytelling the way we preserve cultures and heritages and make sure that they aren’t lost in an increasingly homogenous world?
I have read the story in question and it in no way denigrates or belittles the culture in question (and it is a great story). And, as far as I know, it is true to the traditional legend concerned. But even if it wasn’t, if it was a new approach, would that be an issue? I have read stories where the Fair Folk are really aliens, or where God is actually a super computer from the dawn of time. These are legitimate reinterpretations of traditional legends or myths or religions to provoke thought and to entertain and I can’t see an issue with that. If I come across a story that uses my heritage or my belief system in a way I don’t like (and I have quite a few times), I am free not to read it. But, it doesn’t belong to me.
Of course, there is always a balance to be found in all these things. I don’t see the point in writing for the sole purpose of offending or belittling the things that are important to people. There has to be something you think worth saying, otherwise you are just like a little kid swearing for the shock value. And, as spec fic writers, I believe we have a responsibility to avoid the lazy stereotypes of the world around us. The idea that one race or gender is better than another has no place in spec fic if it is presented as a truth, but characters or cultures who act that way can be a useful tool for exploring those ideas….and showing how false they are.
On a side note, if you want an example of what not to do, one only has to look at this post. When I read the original market listing, I couldn’t believe that the publisher had been silly enough to do that, and I knew that people were going to be very angry about the choice of language used (it one of those “grab the popcorn and sit back and watch” moments!). And so they should be, it’s not a case of political correctness; it is a case of obsolete stereotypes being reinforced by people who should know better. And talking about the editor being a woman just muddies the water, and is in fact sexist in itself. There are not two standards for sexism depending on your gender, or for racism depending on your race. Credit to Ticonderoga, they have addressed the issue, but I can’t believe it got out there in the first place.
I grew up in a very small, isolated country town and I certainly wouldn’t call it progressive. There were not many people who were a different colour than me (though I was fortunate to have someone who was very important to me and my family fit that criteria). In many ways, it was the spec fic I read that shaped my perceptions of people different to me. Growing up reading books where race and gender were treated a non issues influenced the attitudes I hold to this day. Having heroes who were different colour or gender to me, who were equal in every way to the white males in the stories meant that there was no way I could think myself better than anyone for those reasons. Seeing that an open mind and having a distrust of the status quo were considered desirable traits in the majority of what I read meant that is what I wanted for myself. Reading the horrors of violence and injustice and intolerance and having the effects of those things spelled out on the pages before me made me vow to always do my best to make sure I would not be guilty of such things myself. If no one had been brave enough to write about these things I would be a very different, and a lesser, man than I am today.
Spec fic has a proud history of challenging the status quo, of going places no other writing will go and of being above the prejudices of the world in general. We can’t let a fear of offending people neuter that power. We need to be brave enough to write about the tough issues, the ones that make us tremble when we sit down to type. It is by doing that we can actually change the world, and bring about the shining futures that we imagine. New worlds are for the brave, not the faint of heart.