Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Writing With Responsibility

For a while now, writing and re-writing the script for Oak and Thunder, I've been wrestling with the main character. Specifically (and I'd say this is a common issue) with her sex being different from my own.
Can I do this? Will she end up a caricature, do I even have a chance of empathing out what a woman would think, do and say in the situations I describe?
After reading quite a few "How to"s and various writing guides specifically aimed at this problem, I decided not to worry about it too much. Of course I'm reading female writers' work, of course I will ask women for feedback, but ultimately I want to write a solid character, giving it the same treatment as all the other ones.

All this research however allowed me to see how many different (sometimes quite contradictory) ideas there are out there, about writing female and minority characters in stories.
Some of them stood out to me as reasonable or useful - chief example among these was Ursula Le Guin's method/philosophy. I highly recommend her collected essays - "The Language of the Night":

Now, in OaT, my main character is a woman, her best friend would be probably described as non-heterosexual and many characters in the story are not "white".
The thing is, none of these choices were made (primarily) for the sake of inclusivity, being progressive, or activism. They sort of happened, mostly springing out of the setting I chose or from myself. 
My primary goal is to write an interesting story, not a political statement.
"Recent American SF has been full of stories tackling totaliarianism, nationalism, overpopulation, pollution, prejudice, racism, sexism, militarism, and so on: all the "relevant" problems...But what worries me is that so many of these stories and books have been written in a savagely self-righteous tone, a tone that implies that there's an answer, and why can't all you damn fools out there see it? Well, I call this escapism: a sensationalist raising of a real question, followed by a quick evasion of the weight and pain and complexity involved in really, experientially, trying to understand and cope with that question....If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No door shut."
Le Guin, a very vocal feminist, of course wrote some books held up as examples of SF activism - " The Left Hand of Darkness" among them, a story set in a world of androgynous beings who develop temporary sex+gender only at the time of mating. It would seem she's not fond of easy answers, of black and white interpretations of the world. (her essays on Tolkien and his concept of good and evil are great, a firm rebuttal to anyone claiming T.'s work uses a simplistic and childish sense of morality)
"The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialize in this country. He says that if you think you can fly very fast, why, then you can fly very fast. And if you smile, all is well.
What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons-horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless "Why?" and "What's next?"...What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, childish questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken - errors are more valuable than truths; truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow's stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud."
(emphasis mine) 

In other parts of the book, Le Guin warns wannabe-writers from becoming preachy. What we write comes from us, it's inevitable our view of the world, ethics etc. will seep into it. It's the easily given answers to real questions and problems that lead to preachiness and eventually - propaganda.

From "Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin":
"I have often been told by critics that my writing is too didactic, my adult books, that the moral is too clear. And I'm always embarrassed and afraid they're right, because the book as I wrote it was sort of an argument to me, and when it's written, it all sort of becomes clearer. And so it seems perhaps more didactic, and less a sort of an ongoing argument which usually it was, while I was writing it. I never wrote a book, ever, with the intention of teaching something...Some of my stories are openly polemical, but that's a bit different, art and polemics can go together."
and in another answer:
"Art is action...Any practice, any art, has moral resonances: it's going to be good, bad or indifferent. That's the only way I can conceive of writing - by assuming it's going to affect other people in a moral sense. As any act will do...Taken as a whole, overt moralizing is not an admirable quality in a work of art, and is usually self-defeating...I don't want to get on hobbyhorses in my fiction, saying that this is "good" and this is "bad"."
I'd very much like to avoid moralizing and preaching  in my own stuff, as well as criticizing or shunning the work of others for not doing so.

I think everyone should make whatever they think is right and good. And if not create, then support, help others create whatever it is you enjoy or whatever you feel is important.
(at this point I listed a few things being made where I thought they were "doin' it 'rong", but then I took my own advice and deleted it. Judge not...etc.)

To finish this post, I'm borrowing a quote from Nuno Miranda Ribeiro:
(from comments on this blog: http://www.blographia-literaria.com/2011/01/dispossessed-by-ursula-k-le-guin.html)
"I think that Ursual K. Le Guin, and don't trust me fully, because as someone who admires her, I am biased, does not try to think for the reader. She uses her view on society, of course, but what she does is what she calls (and I trust her, because I admire her) "thought experiments", where she, by the artifice of science fiction, creates situations (societies, civilizations, moments in history) where elements of human nature, of the dynamic of society, of the complexity of gender relationships, can be looked upon. But then she never tells the reader, "this is what you should think about it".
I would like to make this my approach to writing, as much as I can.

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