Back in late November, Stellaluna posted meta entitled Storytelling that I rather liked. It made the argument that stories aren’t “just stories” and authors can’t use this as an excuse for unwitting or insensitive depictions of typically disenfranchised groups. I liked it for this reason: I think it’s too easy and too common for stories to be dismissed as “just fiction,” as though what the author has used the story to say doesn’t matter. But it seems Stellaluna’s essay has caused quite a stir, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s being misinterpreted as saying something that it certainly is not.
Wemyss first seized on it in his rather cumbersome retort On the responsibilities of writers. Here’s a paragraph that sums it up pretty well:
The idea that it is a writer’s responsibility, if not to write to pattern, then at the least to go back and ensure that the work is politically Bowdlerised, is not only utter balls; it is the high road to writerly ruin. The writer’s responsibility is to write the story that clamours to be written, take him where it may, and to write it in the best possible English. The writer’s responsibility is to her story and its characters. Failure to remain true to that responsibility is always fatal.
Stellaluna didn’t say that.
I think it’s fairly clear from the examples that she uses that Stellaluna certainly prefers stories that positively portray characters of color, women, and GLBT characters. But I find it difficult to see–even with Wemyss’s use of bold italics underline to show where Stellaluna transgresses into advocating for self-censorship–where she actually says that a writer must consider what a story says “between the lines” and that a writer must edit and censor a story to portray typically ignored or maligned groups positively.
Instead, it seems to me that she is saying that writers should be aware that their stories and their characters might be seen by some readers to carry a message about these subjects and that writers should keep this in mind when writing. She also makes the argument that readers have a right to analyze a story for such messages, even (presumably) when the author doesn’t wish them to do so. Not knowing Stellaluna personally or being familiar with her fandom(s), I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that she is directly addressing authors who find their stories undergoing critique for seeming, to some readers, to express support for racist/misogynist/heteronormative ideas and stereotypes and defend themselves by arguing that “it’s just a story,” hence trying to have their cake (keep offensive depictions in their stories) and eat it too (still be regarded as progressive and hip to prevailing fannish ideology). With that argument comes the assumption, then, that offensive, insensitive, or stereotypical depictions of characters belonging to a particular group don’t matter. Stellaluna argues that stories aren’t just stories, and these depictions do matter. I would agree with her.
However, I would not argue that authors should sanitize their stories in the name of so-called “political correctness.” Nor does Stellaluna–Wemyss’s post notwithstanding–make this argument. But authors need to take responsibility for what their stories say. If they write in a way that depicts all gay men as effeminate theater majors interested in sex with anything with a dick, then they need to take responsibility for the reaction that may cause in some readers. Does that mean that they need to change the story? Of course not. But neither does it mean that they get to act all pie-eyed and innocent and claim that, no matter how offensive the ideas their stories seem to support, that these ideas are meaningless because they are, of course, fiction and are, therefore, beneath discussion.
In the comments to his first post, Wemyss likes to draw the comparison to religious fundamentalists. Their ideas of morality are at odds in many ways with the ideas advocated by most people in fandom. Why don’t they have the right to make similar demands as those who are politically correct, demanding that all stories have to be revised “with a list of boxes to be ticked off” to assure that they meet a particular fundamentalist creed?
They do have the right to author stories that meet these standards, and they have the right to comment on stories with these ideas in mind. Who is saying that they do not? Actually, this sentence nicely summing up Stellaluna’s thesis could apply just as easily to a fundamentalist creed as it does to a “PC” ideology, once removed from her examples:
I need to think about what my story is saying the subtextual and metaphoric level as well as what’s happening in the surface action of the story; and I need to think about whether I’m making any unconscious assumptions regarding gender or race or sexual identity that I did not intend.
I have just written a story intended to uphold a fundamentalist ideology. In the story, I have two gay characters. Clearly, I want to portray their homosexuality negatively. However, in the course of also demonstrating that I “love the sinner, hate the sin,” they come off as too empathetic for my audience, who accuses me of a GLBT-friendly agenda. Just as Stellaluna cautions, I should have thought about “any unconscious assumptions regarding … sexual identity that I did not intend.”
If I was to make one critique against Stellaluna’s post, it would be that I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the fact that readers can be wrong. Not all readers will agree. And where one reader is applauding the depth with which the female characters are treated, another is complaining that the story is misogynist in places; one of my stories earned just this reaction. Who was right? Well, neither and both: each was correct in that no interpretation is wrong, but this also means that no interpretation can be universally correct either.
Ironically, Wemyss wrote a second, lengthy post in reply to comments on the first post. Now, I was not the only person who questioned whether he “got” Stellaluna’s post in the first place or was accusing her of a liberal agenda where he wanted to see a liberal agenda (versus where there was actually evidence of a liberal agenda versus generally good advice using examples clearly aimed at a liberal audience). Yet, he doesn’t address this point at all in the second post.
However, perhaps most revealing, he does use the second post to go off on a lengthy diatribe attempting to debunk the notion of privilege, using a definition of privilege that likens it to an abacus: earning privilege here and losing it there (+5 for being gay! -5 for being male!) to come up with a sum total at the end. This, I think, reveals that he not only misunderstands terribly the concept of privilege but also that he entered into this debate with his own agenda, which I suspect was baiting a contingent of fandom into an argument over the existence of privilege and “political correctness.” I could be wrong here and guilty–as I think Wemyss is–of reading too much into the words of someone with whom I clearly disagree politically, but I find it interesting that as many people questioned whether Stellaluna was saying what he thought she said, that their concern was ignored entirely in his rebuttal in favor of disproving privilege.
Regardless, I think it was much ado about nothing. I believe Stellaluna was saying that writers need to be conscious of the fact that readers may take messages from even the most innocent and frivolous of writings. Therefore, it is prudent to think about these things when writing and revising, and writers should be prepared to take responsibility for their words. I would mostly agree with this, subjective interpretation notwithstanding. And I really think that was all that she was saying.