. . .apparently the next in a series of posts about history. Who knew?
Asyouknowbob, I do some wandering up and down the internets, and I read a lot of strange and beautiful and inspiring and awful* and puzzling and infuriating stuff, just like you do.
Lately, in the course of my passage up and down, I’ve come across some essays, written by different people, at different times, reacting to different impetuses, all earnest and heartfelt, and every one taking as their theme:
I read fiction and I’m increasingly depressed, because I don’t see myself anywhere.
Now, on one level, I can relate to this frustration. After all, when I started reading science fiction, back in the 1960s, I didn’t see me there, either. By which I mean, not me, specifically, because who would want to write about me? But girls and/or women with an adventurous spirit who were aching to get out there and buckle some serious swash; solve their own problems; pilot their own damn’ spaceship; or, yanno, run the family carousel.
Now, the way I handled this problem was, when I got old enough, and good enough, I wrote stories with me in them — by which I mean, not me, specifically, because I’m even more boring as an adult than I was as a kid** — but stories in which girls and women take care of business, and who are just as smart/capable/funny/sexy/scary as their male colleagues.
I know this isn’t a route that’s open to everyone, and herein lies the problem. You might think that writing a blog post appealing to authors to put you — transperson, man of color, Thai woman, whatever — into stories would, yanno, move writers to do that. I mean, I know a lot of writers, and we’re a pretty decent lot, all told, and mostly we write in order to make people happy, by which I mean satisfied, so why wouldn’t we oblige the people making such simple, and on-point requests?
Well. . .because there’s an obverse side to every coin. And for this one, for every person who wants to see themselves in fiction, there’s at least one other person of the opposite view, who will fall like fifteen tons of granite paving stones onto the head of writers who are seen to be “appropriating” their lifestyle, culture, society. . .
The point of these folks is that writers who are not authentic, who haven’t lived in the culture, for instance, are going to automatically Get It Wrong, and besides that, they have no business writing about something they can’t possibly understand.
Writers aren’t necessarily any fonder than anybody else of having fifteen tons of granite paving stones dropped on their heads. Just sayin’.
Lest you think otherwise, I actually have some sympathy for the obverse point of view, too. But, truthfully? Not much.
Because, see, every time I write about somebody who isn’t me — by which I mean me, Sharon Lee, nearsighted, overweight, manic-depressive scifi writer — I’m writing about someone I don’t fully understand. I’m not, for instance, a man, though I’ve met a lot of men, and happened to have married a man. I’m not a norbear; I’m not a ghetto kid turned mercenary soldier; I’m not a sentient spaceship — Look. There are just an infinite number of things in this universe that I Am Not, and never will be, ‘k?
And yet I have the moxie to try to write about some of those things that I will never be. Can never be. I bring certain skills to the task of trying to capture those things and relate them convincingly: Imagination; research skills; a technique called If This Goes On; and another called, What If? . . .basic tools, but, used properly, they go a long way toward helping a story and/or character achieve verisimilitude.
“Verisimilitude” means “the appearance of being true or real.” In terms of fiction-writing, it means that the story I’m telling you has to hang together, and feel real while you’re reading it. That’s the contract between the writer and the reader, that the story will deliver while it’s being read. Second thoughts after you’re done is only Monday morning quarterbacking.
So. . .the middle ground here is. . .what?
I think the best that might be done is to ask that writers try their best to write stories that include people like you, and that they do their research and not perpetuate racist/sexist/ageist/whatever-other-kind-of-ist-there-is-this-week stereotypes. I mean, I think we can do that, as a group; hell, many of us are doing that. But I think, too, that some of you could take matters into your own hands. Write you. Join the club. Teach us.
I think, too, that we’re just going to have to take it as a given that writers are going to get things wrong. We know that, better than anybody. I mean, y’all have seen the little disclaimer on the acknowledgements page, where the author calls out by name all the people she asked for help? And then she says, “If there are any mistakes in this book, they’re mine”? We know that we’re gonna get something wrong, despite having done the best we can. None moreso, I imagine.
Granite paving stones are not really productive; the only thing you’re going to accomplish by dropping them on the heads of writers is writers who will retreat into writing what they know. *yawn* So, sure, tell us what we did wrong. Teach us. And, if you really believe that only authentic people can Get It Right, I can’t see anything except that you’re stuck — write it the Right Way, and show us how it’s done.
*in it’s original meaning, “inspiring reverential wonder”
**Though I did write a character who was living in kind of the same place in her family that I lived in my family, before I got old enough, and moved out. But that wasn’t so much writing me as it was using my experience to make the character real. Which is different; Aelliana isn’t me; I just lent her some of my history.