Monday, October 10, 2011

What does Your Writing Say about You?

I had a big debate a few years ago with a fellow who apparently believed that writers only express their real life viewpoints in their fiction. We were particularly arguing over whether a particular writer was “racist” because of a racist character in his story. As a writer of horror fiction who often features less than savory characters in my stories, I find this kind of thinking really disturbing. I wonder what conclusions readers are drawing about me because of the views and actions of specific characters in my fiction.

It has already happened to me twice. Back in the early 1990s I wrote a piece called “Turnabout is Fair Play” in which the “monsters” could only possess human females. It had to do with my idea of the hormone responses of the creatures. The possessed females were then very vicious. The first magazine I sent the story to promptly rejected it for being sexist. I revised it to make half the nasty characters male and it sold immediately to the next magazine I sent it to.

Why did I write a story with only female “bad guys” in the first place? I did it on purpose because by that time I’d sold about 20 short stories, and every single one had featured primarily male bad guys. I’d had only one female bad guy at all in any of these stories and she was a vampire. In a fun kind of way, I felt I’d been unfair to the male side of the species and wanted to spread around the evil. Even the title, “Turnabout is Fair Play,” suggested my intent, but my desire to be a bit more fair backfired. And it bothered me a lot because to this day there is at least one person out there who thinks I’m a sexist.

The second time it happened, I’d sent a kid’s story entitled “The Great Cookie Caper” to a magazine. In the story, someone is stealing the cookies mom is making and at one point mom laughingly teases her son about it being him because he’s getting a little “fat.” The “fat” was a mistake. I got a mini lecture in the editor’s response letter about being more considerate of larger sized individuals. Both of these incidents involved “editors,” not just your general reader.

This kind of misunderstanding is one reason I’ve never had a realistically portrayed human character utter a racist comment against another human group. It’s not very realistic because racist people really exist, but I don’t want my own personal feelings to be misjudged on the basis of what one of my characters might say. And I’m reminded of some criticism I’ve heard of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for being racist because of certain words used in dialogue in the book.

The Mark Twain situation brings up the issue of “tone.” I’ve heard people say that one writer’s use of racist characters is OK because the writer’s “tone” clearly indicates that he or she is not racist in their personal feelings. Wow! That really opens up a can of worms for me. I have a feeling that Huckleberry Finn is actually an anti-racist story, and it’s because of the tone I sense in the work. But I don’t consider myself sensitive enough to judge a writer’s racism, or other “ism,” purely from “tone.” Consider satire. A satirical story might feature characters who show exactly the opposite feelings from those the writer actually holds. But, 1) is everyone going to know the story is satire, and 2) what if a writer gets called on their story for being negative in some way and then promptly claims, “Oh, I was being satirical.” Do you know the difference? I don’t feel like I’m always going to make the correct judgment in such cases.

Personally, I try not to judge a “writer’s” character or personality from the fictional characters they put on the page. Now, I may not read a story that expresses certain types of thoughts or actions. For example, I generally don’t enjoy a story that features major characters who are overtly racist, but I don’t go from there to assuming that the writer feels the same way as the characters.

I used racism for most of my illustrations in this piece because I think folks understand the issue. However, humans are an opinionated group and the same issue can apply in multiple situations. Imagine a writer’s liberal character making negative comments about conservatives, or an atheist character making snide remarks about religious believers, or a bully character saying something insulting to a physically challenged character. The potential for misunderstandings is rampant.

I don’t imagine there is any way to avoid occasional misunderstandings of this type. I’ve probably made the same mistake myself. How about you? Do you make judgments about writers from their fictional characters? Are there times when it seems correct to do so? How do you know? And what does your writing say about you?

33 comments:

cs harris said...

I admit I have been deeply offended by racist comments against Arabs and Muslims I see in fiction, particularly in the past 10 years. For me, the key factor is, Who is exhibiting this racism and are they called to account for it? If it's the villain, then we can assume this behavior is not intended to be admirable. But if a "hero" displays gross cultural and religious ignorance and uses racist epithets, and the other characters and the author treat this as acceptable or even admirable, and the character never comes to see the error of his ways, then I think we can assume the author shares the characters' prejudices.

That said, I've been attacked for being racist for comments made by a character in a Civil War novel. I've also been quite viciously attacked for having my Regency-era hero be too "liberal" by someone who is obviously rather ignorant of early 19th century social and cultural history. The truth is, if what you write is powerful, someone somewhere is going to be unhappy with it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, true that you'll never avoid being attacked by someone. Although it makes sense to think that the "hero" better reflects the author's viewpoint, I still have some trouble with making that assumption. If it is satire for example, or if the author is genuinely trying to get inside the head of a character who has both negative and positive attributes, how do you tell which attributes are the author's. People have a very strong tendency to associate negative viewpoints with people and positive viewpoints with situation, but it's a basic kind of attribution bias that is seen in social psychology all the time.

Angie said...

I agree with Candy that it depends how the character is presented. If it seems that the author intends the reader to admire or root for a character who's racist, or bigoted in some other way, then I'd say that's at least problematic. If I see a pattern across several stories by the same author, then yeah, I'll probably assume that's how the author is.

I think it's easier to guess that an author has race issues (to use racism as an example) if the racism in the story is less blatant. A lot more people are unknowingly or thoughtlessly racist, because they've just never thought about certain issues and experiences from the POV of a person of color, than are blatantly skinheads or Klan members. The things that slip into a story automatically and without much thought are more likely to come straight from a writer's basic assumptions about the world.

For example, I read a book a while back where I thought it was pretty clear that the author had race issues, although I'd also be willing to bet she's completely unaware of it. She had three main characters. One was an albino, and was described as being very pale and white and beautiful. The second was white with more commonly light hair and skin, and was also described as having skin that was smoothe and pale and beautiful. The third character had brown skin, and it was described as being rough, like the tongue of a cat. No beautiful for him.

Umm, yeah. I wouldn't say based on these descriptions that the author is blatantly racist. I'm sure she considers herself a good person, and would express anger at, say, someone being harassed or beaten up because they were of color.

At the same time, though, she clearly has race issues. The descriptions were only descriptions and weren't particularly meaningful or significant in the story other than as character descriptions. (Although the fact that the civilized city people were beautiful and white while the rougher, unsettled people from the outlands were brown and not pointed out as beautiful, even though one of them was one of the romantic leads -- who are described in 99.9% of romances as beautiful or handsome or otherwise hot and attractive -- got another eyeroll.) She was just trying to show that these two characters were beautiful, and in her mind that means white skin. I'll bet she didn't even know she did it, but I'll also bet any person of color who read that story would feel it like a brick to the head.

Note that there's a difference between having race issues and being a racist. Pretty much everyone raised in the US has race issues; it's all but impossible not to, because bits and shreds of racism are all around and we breathe them in from the day we're born. Being a racist is a whole different level. Not getting the difference between the two, or that there even are two, is the cause of a whole lot of defensiveness and indignation and persistent misunderstanding that makes learning better so hard.

Angie

Ty Johnston said...

One of the reasons I so often write in a fantasy world is I can have my characters do and say things that would draw too much negative attention if the stories took place in the "real" world. Still, even sometimes fantasy writers catch a little hell.

I think some of this, perhaps even a large part, has to do with expectations of modern audiences. Audiences today too often don't want just a good story or a good read, but they want a story that validates their own opinions about ... well, just about everything, from politics to the styles of clothes they wear to religion to child rearing, etc. No, not all of the audience is like this, but enough of those who are vocal tend to be. Very few members of today's entertainment audience seem to take the time to think why they did or did not enjoy something. It's just "it's great" or "it sucked!"

Lynn Emery said...

The discussion of Huckleberry Finn strikes a nerve, I never considered this book or any Twain book as indicating he was a racist. I get very annoyed with black folks who rant about this, and even force schools not to use Twain's fine novels. Okay, I won't go on a mini-rant.

I've only read a few books where I could tell clearly that the author was expressing their beliefs (Atlas Shrugged and Animal Farm come to mind). But being an author makes me think twice before assuming a fictional book is what the author believes. But I think most readers take books literally, and confuse the fiction with the person who wrote it. Comes with the territory of being an author.

Tom Doolan said...

As a history major, I naturally tend to view characters' views and words in the context of the setting. For instance, if I were reading about a Civil War vet from the South, racist remarks would be very in-character, and in the context of his time and place, quite acceptable.

In fact, those who don't take this view perplex me. Especially in a history class. People will shout that the Founding Fathers owned slaves, as if it were a bad thing. That was normal for the time. Social evolution means times change. but the past is still the past. And to try to re-represent them in any other way (even in fiction) are doing a great disservice history in general.

Ok, maybe I ranted a bit. The point is, yes, some will take offense to certain things being included in a work of fiction. But, it seems to me that to not include them is to be dishonest with the reader. I'm lucky too, in that I write in fantasy/sci fi, so I can skirt this subject more often than not.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, that seems a pretty dangerous assessment to make about the writer, given the white is beautiful, dark not so much issue. I wouldn't feel comfortable making that interpretation, although, like you say, if it were consistent across many pieces that might make a difference. I might not particularly enjoy the phrasing, but I'd have a hard time going from there to a judgement about the writer's race issues. It's complicated because, too, though, this is description outside of dialogue, which may at least sometimes give us a better view on the author. The white is beautiful thing is also very old, though and not just American. It more generally has to do with the idea of 'light' as heavenly and night as dangerous and evil. If the author is influenced by these elements, coming from a lifetime of reading "western" lit, then she might not be expressing any racial issues at all.

Ty, I agree, and that's a problem for writers. You can't write a piece that is neutral on all issues, but a character might have feelings about things that I would not share personally.

Lynn, I was troubled by the Huck Finn issue, too. I actually asked some of my students and colleagues at Xavier, which is a primairly black university, and most were in agreement that Twain had meant to expose the racism rather than promote it.

Tom, that's how I feel about it too. In fact, the disagreement I had with that fellow involved an historical writer, who might have simply been expressing common racially charged phrases of his day without necessarily feeling them internally.

BernardL said...

Do you make judgments about writers from their fictional characters?

No, unless it's non-fiction

Are there times when it seems correct to do so?

No, again, it's fiction.

How do you know?

I don't, and I don't care. I'm not the thought police.

And what does your writing say about you?

Very conservative, which automatically labels me a racist/sexist/homophobe. Disproving a negative is a waste of time and energy. Worrying about it in your writing is a self imposed limitation I do not believe in.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't think I've read too many overly racist or sexist books. None come to mind. Mayb eI've just avoided them.
I'd never write about something that goes against my own values though.
And I've had many people ask why there were no women in my first book. I explain why in the second one. (And with the first book, I knew I just wasn't ready to write a female character yet!)

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

I have this weird pornagraphic dream of the deconstructionists, the thought police and the anti-smoking zealots in a three-way.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, nonfiction is a completely different kettle of fish, as you say. I think you can make judgements about writers from that kind of material, and of course you are generally intended too. One of the problems with making judgments about writers from their fiction is exactly what you indicate, that then other judgements are made as well

Alex, I have written about things that go against my own values, from a character's point of view. Part of it is my need to explore those kinds of thought patterns.

Ivan, trust you to bring sex into it. :)

David J. West said...

I think Ty and Tom nailed it. We can't pigeonhole characters as representations of the writers and it is also a great diservice to make historical characters act with modern sensibilities. I don't think anyone who writes a historical novel that happens to have Hitler is a nazi or even sympathetic-but there is no denying that the man had charisma that some people followed, same with Stalin, Lincoln, Washington, Jesus and Buddha (and a million others)

I often wonder how much people will look back on today and how backward we are. It seems ignorant to think we are currently at the apex of understanding-for as "enlightened" as society wants to think it is, I can think of dozens of prejudisms that currently get a pass.

But being too PC can also kill great writing.

Ron Scheer said...

Charles, as usual, you raise a thought-provoking issue, self-censorship. The fear of offending some reader has surely spoiled much great fiction and nonfiction. Fear has a chilling effect on the creative process. I'd want to follow the advice often given, to feel the fear and do it anyway.

The result in music for instance is the anxiety-laden yet brilliant compositions of Shostakovich who wrote under the critical eye of Stalin and must have been grateful for every day he didn't wake up in the gulag. The labels of sexist or racist, considerable as they are, pale by comparison with that.

G said...

Hmmm...let's start off by answering the post title first.

I'mm not sure what my writing says about me, 'cause some five plus years later, I'm still trying to redefine myself.

By redefine, I mean that I'm still trying to recover from the wreckage of my first self-pubbed novel because due to a particular passage that I wrote, it was used to erroneously portray me as a someone twisted individual who actually did what he wrote.

Because of that, there is still some residual of people trying to reconcile me as a person with me as a writer. What I write doesn't necessarily reflect on me as a person. An example of this would be the amount of sexual themes/scenes/ideas I write about, of which some of those items I actually don't feel comfortable in partaking of (like strip clubs).

As for rascist/provocative ideas/thoughts that bleed into a person's writing, that is somewhat of a trickier line to straddle.

My problem with that is when someone tries to inflict their skewered values (i.e. politically correct) onto stuff that was written in a different time period.

You can't judge yesterday's values with by today's values. If people want to get super offended by yesterday's values, all they have to do is look at a newspaper from the late 18th century through the early 20th century.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J., lord preserve us from the uncaring views of those who come after us. In the harshest of lights, none of us will likely come off enlightened, and that definitely troubles me.

Ron, that is true. Being cast on the dustbin of history is nothing with being cast into torment and death. We could all do well to remember that.

G., you're one who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing, and I know a lot of writers who have gotten it in one way or another. I think that makes us very wary, and very sensitive to the issue in others.

Chris said...

It's a shock when it happens, isn't it? For me it's all about context and setting. I've encountered some stuff that felt mean-spirited and quit reading it, then thought twice when encountering the author again, not because I thought that author's viewpoints may not click with me, but because I wasn't into their writing. But that hasn't happened very often.

Ciara said...

I've never written a character that went against my belief's. Well, villains I guess. I don't think I've ever read a book with racism or anything like that. I'd probably put it down if I did.

laughingwolf said...

i think some folks 'deliberately' misunderstand a writer's intent so they can create problems where none existed...

judge the story, NOT the writer

from my perspective, a tale is told to entertain... often for it to succeed, controversy is required, such is the makeup of humanity

some read things into the tale truly not there, which is a problem with the reader, not the story OR the writer

things writers 'got away with' then, are frowned upon now...

the same is true for all forms of storytelling, movies/tv/animation included

the world's full of 'unlikeable' things, as are tales, get over it!

if you're 'offended' it's usually because you want to be... no one can ever please everyone....

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris, I've seen the mean-spirited stuff too. It's very tempting to draw conclusions about the writer and I probably have at times. But it's an emotional response. When I try to look at it more rationally I often have to just admit not knowing.

Ciara, a lot of my villains are reallllly nasty, and not at all like what I hope I'm like. I've read a lot of books by folks like James Baldwin, who often had depictions of racism in them, although not from the hero's point of view.

Laughingwolf, very good point about people being offended because they want to be. I think that happens quite a lot.

oceangirl said...

I don't think I ever read a book and judge the author.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am most likely to create a character with an opposing view so I can critique it. But most often, the story is not about such things. No, that's not true. I will have to go through them and see.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oceangirl, I tend to critique based upon the writing itself rather than the opinions expressed inside the work.

Patti, I do that quite often. It allows me to examine it at length, which I rather enjoy.

KeVin K. said...

One of my favorite topics. One I think often about and used to write about regularly, but don't anymore.
(About the time I was accused of being a partner in an interracial marriage in order to legitimize my racism I decided to eschew any public debates about hidden messages in my work.)

My good friend fantasy writer Phaedra Weldon became widely known for being either anti-male or a dominatrix or both when her Zoe Martinique said "There's nothing more vulnerable than a naked man."

I do make an effort to reflect the world around me in my fiction -- which means strong women, people of color living their own lives without being some white character' sidekick or wise mentor, and folks matter-of-factly overcoming disabilities.

At the same time, as has been pointed out by a few other commenters, there are often tells, unconscious word choices that reveal something of a writer's live experiences and cultural programming. 99.999% of the time these are innocent artifacts of nurture. Which is why the writer is often hurt and confused by charges of sexism/racism/whateverism.

Writers should continually self-educate, seeking out knowledge gives us the tools and materials we need. But writers should not self-censor. Everything of value is offensive to someone, there is no relationship between these attributes.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm awaiting the spate of flack that will come with the release of my memoir turned fictionalized coming-of-age book. I purposely blurred lines but some will take everything as the gospel and it could get interesting.

Charles Gramlich said...

KeVin, I think you're right about the fact that everything of worth will be offensive to someone. And sometimes, some folks perhaps deserve to be offended.

Travis Erwin, anything where folks can point to "real life" people as the inspiration is likely to create at least mini firestorms. You'll have to let us know.

Liane Spicer said...

A skilled writer, like a skilled actor, can tell any story convincingly. If we don't confuse racist (sexist, psychotic, whatever) characters in films with the actors who play them (i.e. tell their stories) then why do readers confuse writers with their made-up characters in made-up worlds?

Classic example: Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel was actually used as evidence in court to prove that the author was immoral.

I often make judgements about writers, but I restrict those to assessments of their skill (or lack thereof), not their character flaws or morals.

X. Dell said...

Without concrete examples (i.e., seeing the work in question), I really don't feel confident in responding whether or not it is "racist" or "sexist" or "thisist" or "thatist."

I truly believe that people don't portray even fictional worlds in ways contrary to the writer's point of view except in a satire or some other burlesque. If a character, say, is clearly an antagonist in a dystopian world (and I would count Huck Finn as that) that is to be overcome, then I wouldn't see it as particularly offensive. On the other hand, if one has a racist protragonist, and that character's point of view is supported by the rest of the narrative, then I would say that it does reflect the writer's own perspective (e.g., The Turner Diaries).

Are you aware of people who, other than for reasons of ghostwriting or commercial pressure, spend that much of their time, creativity or talent penning narratives that do not reflect what they truly believe? That's not a rhetorical question--as much as you read, you might have actually come across such folks.

Even when there are commercial pressures, I would imagine the writer trying to negotiate some sort of compromise to instill their point of view.

Your experience with bowlderizing editors and such could have more to do with how things can be read contrary to context. Certainly, if that ran rampant, it could certainly stifle many writers' expression. Maybe you're saying it's happening now. But as an occasional reader of fiction, I do find a lot of racist and sexist reflections within mainstream writers, who realize that their readers hate what they perceive as "political correctness." In that case, maybe the racist expression is merely pandering.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, that's just what I do as well. I may bemoan a writer's lack of skill, or feel envious of it, but I try to avoid drawing conclusions about their character. Your comment about the actors not being confused with their roles is a good one.

X-Dell, I've deliberately written several stories that specifically did not reflect my own beliefs. I guess I was assuming that other writers have done the same. As Liane said, I think a lot of writers, and I've done it myself, take it as a challenge to create a role for a character that does not reflect their own standards or behaviors. In much the same way an actor might take on the role of Hitler or of a serial killer without wanting to be like those individuals. In truth, the complexities of all these characters probably are inside us somewhere, but they don't necessarily reflect the conscious persona we try to project to the outside world at least.

Cloudia said...

Fundamental attribution error anyone?

We confuse actors with the roles we love; thus the magic. And as magic people, authors must bear deep responsibility for their creations, monsters and beloveds.

Thought provoking, Charles.


(I believe that my writing says that I am deeply, yet matter-of-factually idiosyncratic in the best way - I hope :-)


Warm Aloha from Honolulu;

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eric1313 said...

Agreed with several above: I do believe many writers hamstring their own efforts because we need to so carefully navigate through these issues in this time of over-political correctness.

However, on page, do we actually have to say what a character's ethnic background is? Certainly, if it comes into play or if that is a theme, but most of the time when writing fiction outside of genres of sci fi and fantasy and others like it, saying what type of being a character might be filed under too many details. Characters are often best if the reader can picture themselves in that role. That's basic.

Sex is different though, we are obligated to tell the reader what sex our characters are (I'm sure it's true 99.9% of the time, some will have other examples, I'm sure lol). For one thing, hard to get good tension without that information. For another there's just a weird type of cultural obligation to defining male/female all the time, from our fellow human beings to animals to inanimate objects. We have to bring it in to stories one way or another or we aren't being realistic, but as you said one slip and people use your fiction as fact in regards to your person.

Anyway...

Sounds like your original manuscript (Turnabout...) was pretty good. Perhaps you need to publish a Charles Gramlich remix compilation!

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, idiosyncratic is not a bad thing. :)

Eric1313, "Turnabout" was published under the title "Splatter of black." Good point about the gender issue. I agree. That we need to know. I don't mention ethnicity unless another character remarks on it in some way.

KeVin K. said...

Race, culture, or other characteristics of characters can be very important -- even if those attributes are no central to the story.
Knowing many anime fans the example that leaps first to mind is the Air Bender series, wherein different real cultures/races were blended to form the four nations. (Though it could be argued that their choices -- like infusing the water nation with an Inuit-Polynesian fusion -- reflected racial/cultural assumptions.) Also in science fiction, because of the themes and values she wanted to address, Ursula LeGuin made Earthsea a no-whites zone. In CJ Cherryhs' Atevi series the human race, having expanded far beyond earth and the climates that engendered the superficial adaptations we call "race," is what she characterized as universally Brasilian in appearance; variations within a narrow palette.

So far there are no rumors of an Atevi movie. But, and here's were artist's ark of vision crashes against the rocks of real-world marketing. Book readers, manga-philes, and anime fans combined equal something less than 1% of the movie-going public, and vanish as a market share when compared to TV viewers. The majority of movie-ticket buyers and/or TV show sponsors in the USofA are white. So, much to Ursula LeGuin's dismay, the Earthsea of TV is all white (except for the obligatory wise sidekick of color). Paramount and M. Night Shyamalan white-ified the cultural diversity out of Airbender.

the walking man said...

As a poet and not a writer of longer pieces of prose, I have to, if I am going to connect put it all out there naked for the world to see. anything less and I find that there is a ring of hollowness to the piece.

But then a lot of people write poetry and I can see who wears the mask and who simply stands there in their naked imperfections and lets fly.

Social justice poetry at times needs hard words people find unacceptable but it would be less than honest to not use it. I am willing to be judged by my work and the use of words I CHOOSE within it.

But for fiction writers i think anyone who judges the author, unless it is blatantly an entire book that is homophobic, racist or any of the other odious traits of humans, it is foolish to judge a fiction writers personal belief structure on what is clearly imagination.