Science Fiction Repair Shop: If I Were A Bell (But I'm Not, So Ha Ha) Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-01-15 15:00:00 No comments

On Being Your Authentic Self - Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic

... worse than a lack of diversity is people whose intellectual impulses lay elsewhere attempting to write that way. ... I think people believe artists to have more power than they actually do. You can only write what you want. In fact you must only write what you want. That isn't the problem. The problem is that only certain people get to write what they want.The problem isn't the Lena Dunham show is about a narrow world. The problem is that there aren't more narrow worlds on the screen. Broader is not synonymous with better.

Time and again, I encounter — both in myself and in other creators — the problem of "what you know". If you are inclined only to know about certain things in a certain way (which, really, is an issue common to all of us), you have that much less facility to speak about other things. Nobody believes for a second that a writer of thud-and-blunder fantasy actually lives in a castle and swings a sword, but we'd like to think he did some homework about what was involved in doing both of those things, and has combined that factual stuff with some of his own insight into human behavior generally.

It's that second part that trips people up, me included. Too often we write about human behavior as we believe it to manifest — in ourselves, and in others — and not as we have actually witnessed it. We get in the way of our own powers of observation. It becomes dangerously easy to write about something that is not us in a way that simply mirrors our prejudices about the not-us. Pace all the male fantasy authors who write female characters atrociously, or who deal with anything outside of an Anglo-Saxon reference frame (which serves most of the time as the default substrate and linchpin for their fantasy world anyway) as if it were an exotica whose sole reason for existing was to give the heroes something to insinuate themselves with and add value to.

I suspect SF and fantasy to be peculiarly vulnerable to this, because it's easy to pretend the mere presence of things — an exotic setting, an alien race, a normative technology — constitutes an understanding of them. This is a little harder to get away with in less counterfactual genres: you can't write a Western and put inaccurately-depicted Indians in it because of a whole body of existing literature, real-world research, and real-world people who can set the record straight about such things. But if you're "making it all up", those strictures don't apply, and so it's easier for an author to get away with such things -- and easier for the reader to accept them on face value, and easier for a future generation of authors to look at that cycle of behavior and assume it's okay to do that.

What sense does it make to invent whole new worlds only to bring the most parochial and dismissive of attitudes to them? What's more, I don't think most of the people doing this even realize they're doing it. It's phenomenally difficult to locate and challenge one's own prejudices — and I wonder if one of the reasons creative types fear doing this is because they worry they'll inadvertently excise the very things that make them creative. If creativity is at least in part powered by the ability to draw distinctions, to have tastes, and to be selective — in short, to discriminate (in both positive and negative senses of the term) — it's reasonable to think we'd become that much less creative if we became that less discriminating. But it's not true.

The opposite of all this is when you find common ground between you and the other, and see as much in that as you do in the differences. And it's no surprise many people don't ever want to do that, because it requires owning up to vulnerabilities, short-sightedness, and prejudices on your part that we would just as soon pretend don't exist. I claim no mastery of this myself, only that it constitutes one of the many roadblocks I augur into just about every time I sit down to hit some keys.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop Ta-Nehisi Coates sociology writers writing