If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll see that most of my posts are transferred over from my Tumblr account. This one, however, is a WordPress Exclusive, entirely because … let’s say, it’s not the sort of discussion where Tumblr shines.
My best friend and I have been having a conversation lately that could be summarized as Writing Problematic Material (and How to Avoid It* (Without Floundering Eternally in a Mire of Doubt)). How do you avoid writing problematic** things? How do you recognize when you’re doing it?
As sf/f writers, it’s something we wrangle with a lot. There’s that degree of removal created by its quasi-separation from reality, but at the end of the day, it’s a small degree. Sf/f can be misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc, often blatantly so, and even more often, that slight removal from reality serves more as a cloak than anything else.
That said, didactic sf/f that imports our world’s issues straight into a setting that’s supposed to be different is awful. It’s not 1:1. In fact, one of my major annoyances where I am an Oppressed Person(TM) is the inability of so much mainstream sf/f to conceive of things being different. I don’t mean “there are dragons, why not equality?”*** It’s not any particular work. It’s just that so much of the time, patriarchy and homophobia and racism and so on are treated as integral features of society, any society, somehow obligatory. In general, there’s this refusal or inability to conceive of society without familiar forms of systematic bigotry, except 1) in rare cases where their nonexistence is (tediously) the point, or 2) much more often, we’re told that the setting is totally egalitarian!!!! when it plainly isn’t.
No, not everything fits this trend. But a lot does.
So, on the one hand, there’s avoiding the bullshit “well, it’s fantasy!” excuses, as if novels written by real people, in the real world, for other real people in the real world, can or should be removed from the context of real life. Plenty of things are intrinsically problems, regardless of the fictional justifications you build around them. On the other hand, novels are, in fact, stories—not moral tracts.
And of course there’s the basic conundrum of … okay, writing stuff that’s all straight white etc men is pretty damn inexcusable. Don’t do that. Simultaneously, however, portrayals of everyone else have been so nasty for so long that they’ve accrued massive backlogs of problematic tropes. So while not writing marginalized people is extremely Wrong, writing them opens you up to further extreme Wrongs.
It’s not a Catch-22. The fact that you have to navigate problematic ways of portraying Group(s) X does not mean that it can’t be done with at least moderate success in some respects. We’re seeing that more and more with popular sf/f, whether cartoons like Steven Universe and Avatar or new takes on familiar franchises like Mad Max and Star Wars. None of them are perfect, but realistically, nobody’s going to write the perfectly progressive**** novel or television show or whatever (much less one that’s universally recognized as such). And, in my experience of writers, the determination to write that work is often paralyzing, leaving them(us!) mired in constant doubt and a fixation on conscious morality above all else. Obviously, what your book is doing in the world matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters. If the craft isn’t there, the language, the characterization, the pacing, the balance of modes, then it doesn’t matter how meaningful it is.
Rather, I feel like there’s a range of … flawed, but not significantly contributing to the wrongs of this world, that we should aim for. Trying to write that perfect thing only sets yourself up for disappointment. It won’t be perfect. It can’t be. And if you think you’ve achieved it, it’s only going to make criticism hit harder.
*I am not referring to writing about problematic things, which in itself is perfectly fine, acceptable, and in fact, necessary to do. I’m talking about works that are, in themselves, artifacts of bigotry—overtly, or in terms of microaggressions like stereotypes and implications. So let’s not build that strawman, hm?
**Problematic: I know the word has been over-used to the point of being not only trite but near meaningless. Nevertheless, it’s really the only one I can think of that encompasses what I’m talking about: “bigoted” implies something stronger and more obvious, “offensive” suggests a clarity that isn’t always present, and is about the response of others rather than inherent qualities at any rate. (The moral version of if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest: if something grossly offensive never offends anyone, is it offensive?)
(Yes. But let’s go for clarity here.)
***I hate that argument. Social dynamics that relate to our own operate on a completely different level than magic/dragons/FTL travel. And I, for one, do not appreciate being considered comparable to nonexistent creatures and technology. The problem is not that people are happy to change up reality with dragons yet not marginalized people, but that they are failing to represent reality. Marginalized people of various groups exist and have always existed; for instance, actual medieval Europe was more diverse on just about every conceivable level than fantasy theme park medieval Europe.
****If you’re not trying to write works that are socially progressive, this is—obviously, I should hope—not for you.