Our Censorious Era (“How dare you write that”)

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Following on from that post the other day on For Such a Time, I’ve read here and there about accusations of “racism,” “privilege,” and “Western cultural arrogance” in “romance” and “young adult” literature. That’s not an easy subject to address in a blog post. However, authoring as I do for adults (and not for children), I just wanted briefly to note my view. (Separately, I’ve already addressed the issue of an author spewing hatred while “hiding” behind his/her characters.)

Naturally, not every novel by every writer is going to be fantastic. Still it is chilling to read anything that even vaguely argues authors should be wary about exploring characters who aren’t much like themselves. That could lead, in itself, to writers becoming fearful of trying to create what could be some truly worthwhile literature.

Free Stock Photo: Group of business workers.
Free Stock Photo: Group of business workers.

Indeed it’s hard to envision how interesting and thoughtful fiction could ever be written if writers were limited to writing about only the same sex/ race/ ethnicity/ religion/ national origin/ sexual orientation as themselves. For consider all of the great books that would not exist if that stricture were applied rigorously? Just a single example: white South African Alan Paton writing brilliantly about black South African characters in his classic Cry, the Beloved Country. Should that novel not have been written?

On my pages, a half-Japanese/ half-Korean does not speak for anyone but herself and her own life. A Paris-reared, half-French/ half-Lebanese is herself and no one else. A Long Island white half-Italian-American cop is not every Long Island white half-Italian-American cop. A gay Italian professor does not represent all gay Italian professors. A construction company owner does not stand in for every owner. A retired French soldier is not EVERY retired French soldier. And a divorced, late middle-aged American crime novelist who enjoys pursuing European women now half his age, and sometimes “catches” them, definitely does not represent ALL crime writers.

If you as a reader believe a character comes across as a vacuous bigot, that may well also be exactly what the writer intended you to think about that character. We seem to be forgetting this fundamental reality: novels are supposed to make us think. If not, what’s the point to them?

Since not everyone in the world is an angel, not everyone on the pages will be, or more importantly should be. Some must be sexist, racist, and generally downright awful. It’s inescapable.

Some characters will also be cash-rich in a way we are not. Others will appear to have social and educational advantages we lack and will never have. Others will be selfish. Others will be dopes. Others will be…. something else.

As we turn the pages, we should squirm now and then. We should cringe occasionally at what we see. We should be angered at times, too.

And we should not be afraid to ask “Why?” And we should wonder, “How can we address that?” Much as in the real world.

But we seem to live increasingly with an outlook that craves characters be self-affirming to us as readers. Many seem not to want to stumble on anything in stories that makes them uncomfortable. If they do exist, the “narrow-minded” must “see the light” as the narrative moves on and change for “the better” by the suitably uplifting conclusion.

Or maybe that desire has always been there, but it’s just that, owing to “social media,” we are now simply much more aware of it? Some American writers who had set up shop in Paris in the 1920s did so because they believed that only by being separated by an ocean from the U.S. could they write freed from what they considered a “prohibitionist” and harshly conservative country. They felt the political climate at home was simply not conducive to creativity and that it condemned writers who offered up much beyond bland conformity.

Today, there is no “abroad” in the sense that they experienced it. The internet is everywhere. Books are available globally almost immediately.

We are also sure we are more enlightened compared to the U.S. of those days, of course. In some ways, we probably are. Yet in demanding we be “insulated,” that authors produce novels that are often little more than self-esteem-boosting comfort food in which no one says a harsh word, thinks an ugly thought, or voices an unpopular opinion, are we really all that much different than a century ago?

It seems little wonder that some authors nowadays confine themselves to producing outright fantasy. Writing about vampires, wizards, aliens, trolls, and flying broomsticks is much less literarily dangerous than endeavoring to try to create human characters in all of their awkward complexity. After all, the latter invariably have a nationality, a race, a religion (or a lack thereof), a sexual orientation, a hair color, a weight…. and quite likely certain prejudices about other human beings.

Just a few thoughts. Have a good Wednesday, wherever you are. πŸ™‚

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