Storytelling: Much Ado about Nothing?

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.

But …

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.

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19 Responses to “Storytelling: Much Ado about Nothing?”

  1. Niki says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you–I read some of the criticisms of Stellaluna’s post and kept wondering, “Did they read the same post I did?”

    I hate the “It’s just a story!” excuse, too. I get that there’s only so much an author can do to prevent people from getting offended–that’s not the point. If your story is so important that it “has” to be written a certain way, that still doesn’t excuse you from dealing with any consequences. And I think that if you portray a group negatively and don’t have good justification in the story for doing so, that’s at the very least sloppy/lazy writing. (“What’s an easy way to make sure the readers get that a character isn’t evil and untrustworthy? Well, if s/he isn’t white…”–not that people tend to consciously think that, but…)

    Bleh, I hope I’m making sense… it’s 5am and my brain feels scrambled. ^_^;

  2. Dawn says:

    You make perfect sense … much better than I would have been able to do at 5 am! :)

    I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who was baffled by the fact that Wemyss seemed to be arguing against a point that was never even made. (Well, the comments on his first post also attest to the fact that we’re not crazy …) And in so many words! It is one thing to dash off a comment that misses the point, but to spend so much time on a post that seemed well thought out and that he seemed to take time in constructing … and then that second post! *headdesk* Anyway, this is why I can’t help but believe that the actual content of Stellaluna’s post mattered less than engaging a particular contingent of fandom in an argument over privilege, which he seemed itching to do.

    ”What’s an easy way to make sure the readers get that a character isn’t evil and untrustworthy? Well, if s/he isn’t white…”–not that people tend to consciously think that, but…

    But it shows up enough in movies, books, and on television that I have a hard time believing it’s not on people’s minds. And, in addition to minorities as villains are minorities that get killed off right away (GLBT characters fit here too) or that give their lives to save the white/straight protagonist. Yes, I think those archetypes need to be questioned, even if it’s “just fanfic,” else we’ll never see fairer representations of female, minority, and GLBT characters.

  3. Rhapsody says:

    Okay, I tried to read wemyss second entry, trying to distill what he truly thinks of it instead of quoting over and over writers. It just feels like its getting nowhere – a bit of hot air is being spouted there.

    Anyways back to your point:
    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 wonder about that. I recall having such a discussion elsewhere regarding almost the same topic in which a writer should take responsibility for writing. I think that there is not much one can do as a writer about it because somewhere someone will always without doubt take issue with what you write. You will never ever please everyone with what you put out there. Yes I know you find the GLBT issue important, but you know at the same time that I’ve grown wary about this issue because in my society, the GLBT issue has advanced so much further that it isn’t a big deal to me to read it in your stories or that this should be an underlying theme in your story. If there is a same gender couple in it, I think oh, sweet yay looooove!, but I won’t go like ooooooo Dawn is addressing and making such a great point for the GLBT issue here, wowie? I just see two people loving each other without needing to see the GLBT agenda pursued there.

    Do you understand what I am getting at? I, as a reader, do not want a writer to get worked up and worry about how something will land with a reader. I am an adult, I do not need the writer to dance carefully around the issue for me. I can either put the work down or read over it: its my call. It would feel like censorship if the writer cuts out parts if they think their audience can’t handle it. I would have had a hard time taking a writer seriously if I’d knew. I rather would want to see a writer feeling completely free in what they choose to write, put their words out there as unhindered as possible (just think of what Salman Rushdie could never have achieved worldwide if he’d thought about taking responsibilities for his words, offending senses of his ex-fellow country men). Sales figures, page clicks will tell the writer whether there is a market for their ideas or not, but please do not start to fret about how a potential reader might get upset about something, because that is even before the quill touches the page a battle lost. Within fanfic, I have seen topics written about which if writers would self-edit themselves might never have made it to an audience or reach those readers who can identify them and in a way find healing while reading a work. A censorship as well might also work against what it can aim! There are so many works out there who might be confrontational for some groups, but overall needed to be told in order to create more understanding.

    What I like about stellaluna_’s essay is how she wants to leave it up to a reader if they want to dive deeper or not, that is something I agree with, obviously.

  4. Dawn says:

    I agree with you, Rhapsody. I don’t think that you can please everyone, and no way do I think a writer should ever have to. Self-censorship is awful, no matter the agenda it serves. What I would take issue with–and what I think Stellaluna was addressing–are writers who put all sorts of things down on paper and, when people find meaning in those words that the writer might find unpalatable, try to have their cake and eat it too by claiming “oh, it’s just a story; what I write here doesn’t matter!” allowing them to make offensive/stereotypical constructions in their stories while remaining “liberated” off the page. Or, one step further, authors who feel that it’s wrong for their readers to discuss a story in such a way: They never intended for their story to have a message about race/gender/sexual orientation, so a reader is wrong in seeing one there.

    I am a feminist, but I sometimes write stories where my female characters behave in ways that my “feminist agenda” would find less than desirable. Why? Because this, to me, reflects real life. Real life doesn’t neatly align itself along the lines of so-called “political correctness.” But this is something that I do knowing that people may object. I take responsibility for my words.

    For example, I have a story that one reader (who has read a good amount of my work and knows me quite well online) found to be misogynist. Clearly, I didn’t intend it as such. Is she wrong? Of course not. I can’t argue with how she sees my writing. Other readers have applauded my portrayal of women in the same story. Those readers aren’t wrong either. But I still have to, at some point, take responsibility for my words, and I have considered the first reader’s points, even if, in the end, I don’t agree with her.

    For this reason, I don’t think it’s an easy topic: There is far too much subjectivity in reader responses. As you point out, a story that is edgy in the US is commonplace in many countries in Europe. Or a story that one person finds liberating, another finds insulting. Look at the debate over the right of disenfranchised groups to apply labels to themselves that, in the past, have been used to subjugate and insult: lesbians who call themselves d*kes, for example, or black people who call themselves n*ggers. Some see this as an insult; others see it as liberating that they can take those hurtful words for their own proactive uses. Stories are no different, and I expect that a story like By the Light of Roses, where I am being applauded by one reader for breaking barriers, another will point out stereotypes that I make about gay men that, while inadvertent, still work negatively in the story. Still, I take responsibility for my words, even if I don’t always agree with some of my readers in the end.

    Or: in a story like BtLoR, I have had readers on other stories that would be deeply offended by it. I don’t dance around those readers. I don’t change my words to please them. I take responsibility for the offense that I cause them and challenge them (and myself) to consider why that is. But I don’t pretend, upon such a confrontation, that my words don’t matter because they’re fiction, that the offense I’ve caused somehow isn’t real, and that the topic is off-limits for discussion simply because I didn’t take fundamentalist Christians into account when writing BtLoR, so their view of my story and how my story affects them simply doesn’t matter.

  5. Juno says:

    I didn’t like Stellaluna’s post very much because she’s mixing too much in the way of politics with story-telling. Wemyss’ first entry I found much more enjoyable in that it was quite witty and entertaining. The second one made me see stars and hear voices after the first paragraph, which is when I gave up on it. 😉

    Thing is, sometimes a story is just a story, and not a political message (either way).

    However, a writer should always be aware of what they are writing and why. If only to know what hits them when readers make the mistake of confusing an author’s political convictions with those of the protagonist.

  6. Dawn says:

    I have no problem with politics in stories; we’d be without a lot of good stories if we kept them separate. (I don’t think you’re making this argument … but I’m not sure! :) ) However, I don’t think that we need politics in stories; in fact, I’d say most stories are best without it.

    I do, however, think it is impossible to have a story without us in it to an extent: not necessarily politics but culture, morals/ethics, biases, beliefs, et cetera. Which is why I think writers need to take responsibility for their words and agree with you that an effort at awareness is a good thing.

    I thought Stellaluna’s post suffered most from one-sidedness in her examples and from not addressing the subjectivity of interpretation enough. I think that’s why it was so easy for Wemyss to either mistake what she was saying (if I’m being generous) or spin her post to his advantage (if I’m being cynical). But I also get the feeling that her post was aimed to people or arguments occurring offstage, and that might explain some of it.

    Wemyss … he is an entertaining writer when he’s not showing off. I’m being cynical again, but there are some writers who, whenever I read them, I get the feeling that they’re trying their hardest to make me feel stupid, and I don’t like that. As it is, I kept up just fine with his heavy-handed literary allusions, but I felt it was waaaay excessive and was a cheap way of making his message sound more impressive than it was (because, in the end, two dozen literary allusions or not, he was responding to an argument that was never even made in the initial essay. If he’d concentrated more on responding to Stellaluna’s text rather than invoking the texts of dead white men Milton, Keats, and Wilde et al, perhaps he would have caught this. Fail.)

    On confusing the author and the protagonist … *sigh* That fails even more.

  7. Juno says:

    Since I am writing political stories all the time as you know, I guess it’s fairly obvious that I didn’t mean it THAT way. 😛

    What I loathe is being exhorted to fashion my stories as vehicles of political propaganda for ANY cause, no matter how worthy it may be. Because that leaves me with no ground to argue against the OTHERS doing the same. What if all Christian fundamentalists took Stellaluna’s advice to heart and wrote stories that show how they picture a woman’s life?

    This smacks to much of Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude of ONLY standing up for the freedom of opinion if people disagreed with establishment RIGHT ALONG with her.

    So I definitely side with Wemyss more than with Stellaluna.

    As a writer, my responsibility belongs first and foremost to the story. I must tell the best story I possibly can. That’s all. Actually, that’s MORE than enough IMO.

    NATURALLY, that also includes plot and setting (thus also politics, ethics, culture 😛 ), characterisation, style, grammar etc etc etc

    But I am under no obligation whatsoever to use my stories to transport a political or religious or really, any kind of message at all.

    Naturally, my personal convictions will influence how I tackle certain topics and motifs, how I argue against them or for them in my story, depending on what the story demands. It would be naive to assume anything else. And that’s also why we READ and WRITE, isn’t it? Who’d be interested in reading generic, computer-generated stories?

    Soo… If my story demands a believable MCP, I’ll do my utmost to write him. If the story needs a feminist and human rights activist, I’ll do my best to portray him or her effectively…

    What I resent is the tendency among certain feminist liberals I encounter online and offline who try to tell me how I ought to feel, how I ought to think, what I ought to like or dislike, and finally, how I ought to write.

    Historically, I think it was bad enough having men trying to do that. Nowadays that’s over – at least where I live. Thankfully. But I must say I don’t like patronising attitudes among women any better.

    Of course a writer is repsonsible for her words! SHE or he wrote them. And not the Holy Spirit or some alien. She or he should better know what they wrote and why. What they wanted to achieve.

    As far as missions beyond that are concerned, however … correct grammar and spelling would be enough to get started, I think.

    ~~~*~~~

    ”At any given moment you have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.”
    – Christine Mason Miller

  8. Dawn says:

    However, as was the whole point of my post, I don’t see where Stellaluna is telling anyone that s/he must write so-called “politically correct” stories.

    I think her post suffers from one-sided examples that make it seem she is saying something that she is not. However, her thesis could apply just as easily to a religious fundamentalist as to a liberal/progressive/radical/whatever:

    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.

    Even with Wemyss’s oh-so-helpful bold italics underline (!!), I don’t see any point in Stellaluna’s post where she says that constructing a story that goes against the prevailing liberal fannish opinion is unacceptable. (I’m happy to accept help on this point, please! I read the post three times–two times specifically looking for when she tells me that I must write PC–and couldn’t find it anywhere, but I could be missing something.) Rather, I think she is reminding fans who want to maintain that they are supportive of racial or ethnic minorities/women/GLBT people and characters that they may want to consider whether or not they are depicting those characters insensitively; one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too, be a comfortable part of the fannish status quo while falling back on ignorant stereotypes because it is easier or hotter or whatever to do so.

    What if all Christian fundamentalists took Stellaluna’s advice to heart and wrote stories that show how they picture a woman’s life?

    I would not find this problematic. I support free speech and creative freedom, and I cannot claim this if I don’t support this even when the opinion being offered is one that I find unpleasant or uncomfortable. Much as it galls me, if I want to GLBT groups to be able to protest and march in my country, I have to allow the same to the KKK and Neo Nazis and Westboro Baptist Church and other groups that I find deplorable. I like to say that one really knows that one supports free speech when defending the right to speech one loathes! :)

    Of course a writer is repsonsible for her words! SHE or he wrote them.

    I don’t know Stellaluna personally, so I can’t be sure, but I suspect she aimed her post at people who were not willing to take responsibility for what they wrote but rather dismissed any concerns being raised by readers as “unimportant because it is just a story.” (I think that, too, is a weakness of the post: that she seems to be addressing a person or issue offstage. Of course, she probably didn’t expect to be Metafandomed, and her main readership might possess background knowledge that I–coming from outside her fandom–do not have.)

    But anyway, I have heard the “just a story” excuse used before to excuse laziness in general. In Tolkien fandom, luckily, that rarely crosses into the territory of hurting or offending people.

    One example I can think of was discussed on Metafandom a while back; I don’t recall the fandom, but someone had written a story that used the human rights atrocities of the Cambodian Pol Pot regime as a backdrop for a PWP, to create a somber mood for the story. (I’m working from memory here. I have no idea where to find the original post short of going through a year-and-a-half of Metafandom entries!) It happened, though, if I’m recalling correctly, that a Cambodian reader found the story; her family had been affected by the events the story was using casually as backdrop to serve as a mood for a sex story. She was hurt/upset/bothered by seeing her family’s suffering treated inconsequentially; she approached the writer and was told along the lines that “it’s only a story,” it was “only a setting” and really had no meaning beyond that.

    Do I think that the writer should have self-censored and chosen a different setting just because it might upset someone? Of course not. Nothing would get written if this was our litmus test. But I think she should have taken the time to think about the purpose for which she was using real people’s real suffering and, when confronted by a reader who was hurt by her choices, had the guts to take responsibility for her choice. Either: “I’m sorry, it was an insensitive choice and I didn’t mean to hurt you and you bet I’ll think harder about my choices in the future,” or, “I’m sorry that I hurt you, but I really feel this was the right choice for the story because …” But dismissing the effect that her choice had on this reader was, I think, irresponsible, and I think this (not an attempt to turn fandom into a press stamping out fanfics bearing the same bland PC message) was Stellaluna’s point.

    For that reason, no matter how entertaining or clever a writer Wemyss is in his first post, his first post is completely off-point. He seems to be an intelligent guy; for that reason, I have a hard time believing that he completely missed Stellaluna’s point that completely. Of course, I don’t know him; I hesitate to make anything looking like an accusation that he was using Stellaluna’s post as an excuse to bait the “PC” contingent of fandom (for whom his disdain is apparent), but it does look like that to me, when his second post doesn’t even touch the biggest argument against him (that he missed Stellaluna’s point entirely) but somehow manages to make room for a big long rant about how privilege doesn’t exist. Hmmmm …

    What I resent is the tendency among certain feminist liberals I encounter online and offline who try to tell me how I ought to feel, how I ought to think, what I ought to like or dislike, and finally, how I ought to write.

    This is understandable. I would agree. I don’t shape my characters into a feminist “agenda,” even though I am myself a feminist. My stories have been criticized for this, at times. But, in the end, there is a story beyond an agenda. I do make an effort to show strong or at least complex women beyond the princess/witch dichotomy some authors (*cough* Tolkien *cough*) seem prone to. For example, I wrote a novella about the Darkening of Valinor and what role Finarfin’s wife Earwen might have had in restoring Telerin and Noldorin society after the kinslaying and banishment of 90% of the Noldor. Earwen ends up schlepping all over Aman in place of her husband, who is overcome with the trauma of all he has witnessed and done, and unable to take his place as king. The story was written for the self-explanatory Strong Women challenge on the SWG … but, in the end, the story required Earwen to hand over the reins to Finarfin. The final scene is Earwen standing behind her husband as he walks forth to his coronation, very much in a woman’s traditional role.

    As a feminist, I loathed having to write that last scene; I sooo wanted Earwen and Anaire to establish a queen-led society that, despite the challenges they faced, trumped what they’d had under Finwe and Fingolfin. I hope that I wrote that scene in such a way that Earwen wasn’t seen as giving up or being subjugated but making a choice … but I’ve no doubt that the ending disappointed some people. Such is life. The story needed to be that way; I (like Earwen 😉 ) made my choice and I take responsibility for it and am willing to defend it.

    I think that feminists/liberals/whatever who demand that there is a correct way to think or write and don’t take into account the value of discussing and sharing ideas–even when they don’t agree with those ideas–are really no better than the similarly rigid and narrow-minded religious fundamentalists they deplore.

  9. Niki says:

    LJ is down at the moment and I can’t access Stellaluna’s essay to be completely sure of what I’m saying, so I hope I’m not about to put my foot in my mouth or something…

    What I loathe is being exhorted to fashion my stories as vehicles of political propaganda for ANY cause, no matter how worthy it may be. Because that leaves me with no ground to argue against the OTHERS doing the same. What if all Christian fundamentalists took Stellaluna’s advice to heart and wrote stories that show how they picture a woman’s life?

    IMHO, Christian fundamentalists should be able to use their work as vehicles of political propaganda if they want–but they have to accept the consequences that go with it, so you still have a right to be offended by their stuff and to react to it. I gathered that Stellaluna was essentially saying, “It’s just a story” is not a free pass out of criticism, and “It’s just fiction!” doesn’t mean that a reader has no right or reason to feel offended at something–not so much “You should use your work as propaganda.” So I’m thinking it’d be just as silly for a GLBT rights activist to portray a GLBT person as a normal human being with wishes and hopes and dreams that any heterosexual human could have, and then react to criticisms about it from fundamentalist Christians with, “Come on, it’s just a story!”

    …er, there was some point I wanted to expand on that with concerning, “But what about stuff like magic and witchcraft and Harry Potter, or people claiming that violent video games increase crime?” but my brain just ran away on me. ^_^;

  10. Dawn says:

    Thank you, Niki, you were commenting at the same time as I was and expressed what I wanted to say perfectly … and in about a tenth as many words! >.<

  11. Juno says:

    Hmm, you’re all reading Stellaluna’s post completely different from the way I do. I just can’t find in her essay what you get out of it. LOL!

  12. Niki says:

    I’m pretty sure Stellaluna didn’t expect to end up on Metafandom, so I’m probably being a little lenient on judging the essay beyond initial impressions, to tell the truth. (Goodness knows I’d be screwed shocked and unprepared if an “essay” I posted in my LJ got linked to metafandom.) 😉

    But I also tend to get quotes and points that may seem relatively small compared to the rest of the essay stuck in mind and maybe amplify their importance a lot as I digest everything, and in this case, these two quotes were the ones that stuck with me:

    “On point three up there, regarding subtext and metaphor, I should clarify that I don’t consciously write either of those into a story, nor do I go into writing a piece with the idea that I’m going to write about a particular theme. That’s a really good way to be didactic and/or to end up writing something where the characters are bent, and perhaps warped, in service of the story, instead of the story existing in service of the characters.”

    and:

    “I don’t want to say it’s every reader’s responsibility, because some people just want to engage with a story for the exciting plot developments or for their favorite characters, and that’s fine; we all seek out what we need from a story, and hopefully we find what we’re looking for.”

    I’m assuming that’s why I walked away with the impression of Stellaluna’s essay that I did. :)

  13. Dawn says:

    Juno: Well, everyone will see things differently. :)

    When I initially read Wemyss’s post–which came out a couple weeks after Stellaluna’s post, which I had read when it was first posted–I assumed that he had a legitimate point. It seemed to jive with what I remembered of Stellaluna’s post, and he even cited quotes.

    However, even the quotes he cites don’t make his point, and upon revisiting Stellaluna’s post after reading his, I was scratching my head because she never makes the argument that he’s rebutting.

    If someone–anyone–points out one line in Stellaluna’s post that says that writers have an obligation or imperative to write “PC,” then I will recant my point here.

    But, carefully reading her post twice now looking just for that point, I haven’t found it.

    Niki: I think you’re spot on that she didn’t expect to be Metafandomed. I could be wrong about that; it might be interesting to look back at the posts before the one where hers was featured to see if it was recommended as a comment and, if so, who recommended it.

    The post feels to me like it is directed at a specific audience with all the assumptions that come with it. I think that makes it easier to either mistake her point (because of the heavy reliance on “PC” examples) or to approach it without fully understanding the offstage issues that I think she aimed the post at.

    Either way, the quotes you cited are a good example of why I still think that Wemyss completely missed the point and why I’m skeptical of the guy’s intentions because of it.

  14. Rhapsody says:

    But, carefully reading her post twice now looking just for that point, I haven’t found it.

    Hmmm I can see why Juno would agree more with Wemyss that Stellaluna, actually I am still irked at the feeling why I should take into account every possible reader out there and how they might react after I wrote something.

    I think when looking at the citation that is used as a debating point, I started to ponder at what point a writer should be taken responsibility and actually given the loaded meaning of that word, would it cover that exactly? So what to me Stellaluna is saying is that upon creation, a writer should take responsibility to what she writes and oh my, that is censorship to please an audience and potential readers with PC. This does hinder the creative process immensely because beforehand a writer will feel restricted and I can see why many would balk at that (including Wemyss). However, the Pol pot pwp example you give is about taking responsibility afterwards and that – to me at least – is a different ballgame. That says more about how to deal with hurt feelings of readers, groups and what more afterwards, however this will not change the story and does not necessarily mean that the author will change his or her ways: that is completely up to her. It will not force a writer to write politically correct to appease.

    I do think that if a writer engages in communication with her/his reader, then in a way an author takes responsibility for her words. Stellaluna, the way I read her post talks about taking responsibility during writing, editing and not afterwards (although she briefly touches upon readers). I can see how that makes people balk at that.

  15. Dawn says:

    I think there is an assumption being made that being aware of racist/misogynist/homophobic/etc subtexts and biases in one’s story means that the author must change the story to meet the so-called “politically correct” agenda.

    Stellaluna’s post doesn’t say that anywhere.

    There is a huge difference between being aware of what is going on in one’s story and changing that story to meet a particular group’s expectations. For example, I used the example earlier of my story “The Work of Small Hands” and how the ending of that story really reaffirms a traditional role for women that might be offensive to some. I am aware of that. Did I change the story? No, I did not.

    At the same time, if someone approaches me and says, “I hated the ending of that story. You gave all that the woman had accomplished to the man. It’s sexist!” I do not think it’s fair for me to declare that it doesn’t matter because it’s “just a story” and therefore has no bearing on feminism, misogynism, and so on and the reader, therefore, has no right to dislike or even be offended by my choices.

    I take responsibility for my choices in that story. I thought them through and made what I thought was the best choice for the story. I stick by that opinion.

    I guarantee that even the most innocuous story out there will offend someone. No, it’s not possible to think of every reader’s reaction to every little thing, and I don’t think Stellaluna’s post advocated that, much less advocated writing or revising the story to offend the fewest people. But if I affirm that I am a feminist and yet write stories that constantly depict women negatively, then maybe I need to think a little harder about what choices I’m making in my stories. That does not mean that I have to change those choices; they just have to become choices and not unconscious happenings. I certainly should not dismiss my writings as though they have no bearing whatsoever on my feminism.

    Furthermore, Wemyss and subsequent comments have spoken as though there are hard and fast rules where political correctness are concerned. There certainly are not. I am reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for my course on women’s fiction. This novel is considered an important piece of literature for both women and African Americans. Yet critics lambasted Hurston as sexist for allowing her strong female protagonist to be beaten by her true love, and they criticized her depiction of African American culture as stereotyped. Even advocates for such causes don’t agree. Should Hurston have sanitized her novel to remove these two elements? Of course not. What a loss it would have been if she had! But I’m fairly confident that, faced with such criticism, Hurston doesn’t wave it off as unimportant because it’s “just a story.” That, to me, is what it means to take responsibility for one’s writing: to acknowledge that it has the power to move, bother, inspire, and hurt people, and that those reactions can’t be dismissed so easily. That acknowledgment carries with it no compulsion to change, just to understand the force of words.

  16. MithLuin says:

    Let’s say someone writes a story about child abuse. Maybe even a PWP about an adult taking advantage of a child. Readers certainly can be offended by the choice of subject. If the author says, “It’s only a story,” they do have a point – there is no victim, because the child in the story is ficticious. But. The readers also have a point, and the issue is seldom the topic of the story but rather how the author chose to portray the characters and actions. Is there a defence of the actions of the abuser? Or is the focus on the fear of the child? Or is it a completely unrealistic poorly thought out sex scene with little rhyme or reason or thought of what the characters would really be experiencing in this situation?

    In other words, criticisms of a story for showing caricatures or something similar are literary criticisms aimed at the skill of the writing. That’s fair game. If you disagree with the ‘point’ of a story, that is fine too, but such criticisms are more in the realm of whether or not you admire the philosophy the author is invoking more than whether or not the story was well written. The author can claim that the work was not serious and was just written for fun, but really can’t curtail reactions to it. I suppose you could criticize an author’s penname if you wanted to, but it is good for the reader to recognize what, precisely, they are complaining about.

    Stories can exist solely for the purpose of allegory or propaganda. Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead is all about people living out her philosophy and being justified by the author for doing so. She is most certainly trying to sell certain ideas to the reader.

    Personally, I think that pointed comments aimed at the reader more than the characters tend to stick out and take the reader out of the story. It doesn’t matter where on the political/social spectrum the comment falls; if it isn’t topical to the story, it is probably unnecessary. This doesn’t mean it can’t fit. If you are writing of the slow buildup of a slash relationship in a fandom world, and have one of the characters think (once they finally get together), “This is so right; I can’t believe anyone would think this is wrong,” this could be believable in your story – even if you are portraying a fantasy culture that was not shown to be opposed to homosexual relationships prior to the comment. But regardless of how appropriate the comment is in the world of the story, the reader will recognize that the people who ‘think this is wrong’ happen to live in the real world. Intended by the author or not, it is a bit of social commentary, and there is nothing wrong with seeing it as such.

    Tolkien does this most blatantly in Lord of the Rings when he has Gandalf chide Frodo for his (understandably) harsh reaction that Gollum deserved death. “Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Yes, it is applicable to the scene at hand, but it is also a social commentary on the death penalty (or could be read that way).

    The reader is free to agree or disagree with any social commentary, political opinions, philosophical musings or moral dilemmas an author inserts into a story. I do not think that the author should leave such things out *if they are relevant* nor do I think a reader should have to remain silent if they wish to comment on ideas that were incorporated into a story. Nor do I think there is any assumption that liking a particular story means you agree with all views espoused by the author.

    So, if someone claims it’s “just a story,” the response should be, “yes – a poorly written one,” or an insensitive one, or one that promulgates racial stereotypes (or whatever the complaint may be). Criticism should stick to the level of the story, but that doesn’t mean the ‘real’ issues don’t count for anything just because the settings and characters are ficticious.

  17. Dawn says:

    Mithluin, thank you, that was beautifully put! :)

    I really like your example from Tolkien. That is one of my favorite lines from LotR (once upon a time, long ago, it was my email sig line) partly because I took it as a social commentary, and it’s a view with which I agree strongly.

    However, there are plenty of other aspects of Tolkien’s writing with which I really do not agree, or where I think he could have done a better job (recognizing that I bring a modern perspective to issues of racism and sexism where JRRT was status quo or even progressive for his time), and I do agree that these are legitimate criticisms. I would love for there to be some brown Elves! Or for a female character as complex as Aredhel to be really kick-ass rather than acting as a cautionary tale! Alas … that is what my own original fiction is for. 😉

    I suspect that the “it’s just a story defense!” is a way of diffusing uncomfortable contemplation for the author. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as racist, sexist, or homophobic; declaring one’s artwork as unimportant seems the ultimate way of detaching the implications of that work from one’s personal beliefs. Or, as I’ve said in a couple of comments (and I think the post as well), having one’s cake and eating it too. :) I remember when I first had a story declared “misogynist” by a reader, I panicked. That must mean I’m sexist! OMG!! I came to realize, as you said, that criticism of the story isn’t necessarily criticism of the author, although I can say from personal experience that deciding the degree of correlation does not make for nice contemplation! :)

  18. Helen says:

    One thing I find disturbing is how many people judge a writer as racist, sexist or homophobic based on a single character. It is, in itself, racist to consider a single character as a symbol of their entire race.

    Personally, I don’t write races, genders or sexualities. I just write individuals. I’ve never yet been accused of racism, although I have been accused of not being feminist enough (probably because I am not a feminist). I write my females as capable human beings, not as victims of some imaginary patriarchy.

    If a writer writes every member of one group as a stereotype (positive or negative) that is bad. However, if an individual character of a particular ethnicity happens to be bad or stupid, that could just mean that the writer has no prejudice and so does not over-compensate by making everyone with darker skin perfect.

  19. Dawn says:

    One thing I find disturbing is how many people judge a writer as racist, sexist or homophobic based on a single character. It is, in itself, racist to consider a single character as a symbol of their entire race.

    I find it interesting that your impression is that this is the prevailing opinion among those discussing or arguing for more equitable treatment of “The Other” in fiction. My experience has been exactly the opposite: I find that those who try to help authors write The Other generally caution against two things:

    1) Viewing your black/gay/female character as representative of the entirety of black/gay/female people.

    2) Attempting to compensate for centuries of mistreatment (or invisibility) in mainstream literature by making The Other a flawless, perfect character while characters with whom the author identifies are allowed to be complex human beings, including being negative characters.

    Here is my link collection on articles about race, many of which concern writing The Other and from which my judgments in this matter are based.

    But, I think you sum up the advice given in those articles pretty well when you say, “Personally, I don’t write races, genders or sexualities. I just write individuals.” 😉

    As for the Feminism Question …

    Personally, I think that denying the existence of patriarchy–that is, a cultural norm where male interests predominate–is kind of like denying the existence of the Atlantic Ocean. If you don’t think that there is a such thing as patriarchy, then where do you suppose that gender discrimination comes from?

    As for equating “feminism” with “victimhood,” I offer the following analogy:

    If I am forced facedown into the mud so that someone else can stand on my back to make himself or herself taller, then I am left with two options.

    I can remain lying in the mud.

    Or I can try to stand up.

    I, personally, would try to stand up. That can be seen in two ways. You could say that, in standing up, I am making myself a victim because I am acknowledging that another person forced me down, held me there, and perhaps injured me in the process. Or you could say that, in standing up and acknowledging the injury done me in the process, then I am asserting myself and putting myself as an equal to those who would otherwise hold me down.

    To fight discrimination–gender or otherwise–requires some acknowledgment of injury at the hands of the dominant group. If that makes people who fight for their rights against a dominant group “victims of some imaginary [oppression]” then so be it: They are victims.

    But they sure as hell aren’t better off lying facedown in the mud with someone else’s bootheels digging in their back, even if they are making assertions all the while of their independence and their superiority to those who take it upon themselves to stand up and fight back against a system that is hurting them. I.e., asserting that a system of oppression is “imaginary” does not erase that oppression and certainly doesn’t make you more independent than me. It does, however, make you an enabler in a system that works to shift power constantly in its own self-interest.

    But. In your comments on my Mary Sue post, you seem to value highly the independence that JRRT allows his female characters with the presumption that women deserve to be permitted control over their own lives and fates. I have a hard time believing that you are advocating women as inferior to men.

    If you’re asserting the independence/equality of women, even when it flies in the face of what males desire of them, then I have bad news for you: Even if you don’t agree with every person in the broad feminism movement (neither do I), you’re nonetheless a feminist.

    *hands you your membership card* 😉

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