To Push All The Right Buttons Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-04-05 14:00:00 No comments

I sometimes think the hardest thing about writing is how easily that falls into a routine of telling people what they want to hear about things. As soon as you find you have a captive audience that likes being flattered about something, and you're rewarded for such flattery with success — it doesn't have to be monetary, just social — congratulations! You're now stuck in your own echo chamber. Hope you brought your own lunch and dinner.

This kind of flattery doesn't have to be very sophisticated. It just has to be about what the audience believes to be true, whatever the audiece is not going to be all that motivated to examine critically. This could be anything: their ideas about the relationships between men and women (and both men and women can be flattered for having ideas in that regard that range from reactionary to downright atavistic), notions about human perfectibility or social progress, whether or not the Cubs are ever going to win the pennant again — anything.

Fine. Now, let's complicate the picture further, shall we?

Let's make the writing in question SF&F, and let's make the flattery that takes place revolve around the audience's assumptions about both the past and the future. Tell them that things are going to be terrible, just terrible — or, conversely, that they're going to be great, just great — and things run the risk of no longer being about specific people in a specific situation, and become more about stumping for a specific scenario as a way to garner succor with compatriots. Or about bludgeoning people with a viewpoint, instead of using that viewpoint as a way to develop a better and more clear-eyed understanding of what people are.

None of this behavior is limited to SF&F, of course; one quick stroll through the library will turn up countless examples of this in just about every other kind of fiction and non-fiction imaginable. The human capacity to turn anything into an argument for or against anything else is staggering; I'm reminded of the time I saw a glowing review of The Seven Samurai on, of all places, a neo-Nazi website, where it was twisted around into a protect-the-white-breed screed. I needed several doses of Kaopectate to flush that out of my system.

But the flattery doesn't have to be this, well, over-the-top to be a problem. It can be fairly subtle, and therefore insidious. Whenever we tell a story in which we make war look like a rousing romp; whenever we tell a story that only allows men and women to see each other and be seen as one-dimensional sex objects good only for seducing or being seduced; whenever we use the future as a secret rehash of the past, or use the past as a sop to our prejudices about the present ... that's when it gets harder to fight, because all of those things can be palmed off as "entertainment", and therefore considered harmless.

But I'm not sure anymore that anything is "just" entertainment — not from the creator's point of view, anyway. I grow closer each day to the feeling that everything we writers do is art, whether we like it or not, whether we call it that or not — and if we don't hold ourselves to a higher standard than others might hold us to, we're going to be short-changing all and sundry. Starting with ourselves.

Tags: art creativity entertainment writing