Kicking the Hornet’s Nest and Standing Up for Myself: PC and Worthwhile Stories

[This post has been saved for a while. For a “rainy day,” you might say. I didn’t exactly expect this topic to come back around again. I would rather keep my head down. I don’t want to pick a fight. But after Damien Walter falsely accused me of some vile things at the end of this talk on Twitter, it’s time to finally stand up for myself. I have taken a fair amount of hurtful and false accusation from unscrupulous people in the last few years, and it’s about time I start holding them accountable. I will only be a doormat for so long.]

If the thing I’m aiming to one day accomplish and make a living with — telling worthwhile stories — is threatened, then I will speak up. And when someone misconstrues my stance, then receive comments like, “Well, I won’t read that guy’s fiction, that’s for sure,” I consider that a threat to my future living.

I took a “creative” writing course at UCCS in 2008 (I put quotes around creative because the teacher stated that she wanted us to write literary fiction, as opposed to “low,” “crass” genre fiction; that’s another rant, though). One of the stories I wrote for that course got a compliment from a classmate which was roughly as follows: “I really appreciate [character’s name] being a strong female, and not a helpless milkmaid needing to be rescued by the hero. Us feminists really need characters like that.”

I appreciated the compliment, but my inner reaction to the last sentence would best be described as Uh, sure. I guess that’s all right. It was nice to hear, but I just wanted the character to be well-rounded and able to take care of herself.

I do love strong female characters…indeed, strong characters of either sex are good to have. They’re vital to a worthwhile story. I just wasn’t trying to serve The Cause, as it were. Just telling a story.

How does it help diversity if we demand that certain types of characters and themes must occupy your story? Telling worthwhile stories gets unnecessarily harder when the definition of “worthwhile” is changed to placate the ranks of the perpetually offended. If a sci-fi or fantasy book doesn’t have a perfect balance between male and female characters and all skin colors (except for white people; they’re “annoying,” “generic,” and more or less dispensable), the story is no longer considered “worthy” of time, honor, celebration, or being taken seriously.

I don’t think that stories are terrible if their characters are more diverse. Far from it. I’m just saying diversity is not the point. An important phrase to keep in mind for what makes a worthwhile story: Quality before message.

The perpetually offended and propagandists seem to be the only people on this Earth who value fiction for its message above everything else, and shame anyone who doesn’t look at stories from their viewpoint. They lack the versatility or the maturity to put aside a cherished cause; even when “escaping” into fiction that takes place in another world, their heart is still firmly planted in whatever they’ve decided is a Big Deal in our world.

They’re choosing to not escape. Fiction is treated like an essay or editorial or biography, which are entirely about the world we live in and primarily relate to issues we can face now.

Fiction by nature is supposed to be about going somewhere else. “Escaping,” if you like. Even if/when it can be used to deal with real-life issues, that’s not the point of writing a fictional story.

Last time I kicked this nest of fire ants, I got a comment whose author unintentionally illustrated my point:

No really. I used to say the same thing. “Who cares what color/gender if the story is good?”

Look, the reason people call it out, make noise about it, and generally say “hey, this isn’t ok.” is because the story should be good regardless of skin color. That the story is good should be a GIVEN. If the story isn’t good, you shouldn’t be writing it (exception:beginning writers). Period.

The rest of the comment is a rant on how the option of learning about other cultures/peoples is now suddenly an obligation for writers, because apparently a human being cannot connect to a character unless they share skin color, cultural background, sexual orientation, etc.

Did you notice that the quality of the story was a “given”? As if a story being “good” is akin to a gear in a pocket watch, a step to the really important work: spreading the Message. That’s the problem I have with modern Political Correctness tracts disguised as “fiction.” The quality of the storytelling is taken for granted. It’s treated like a support for the really important thing: the all-important Message.

As a lover of great stories, I’m calling this out for the destructive foolishness that it is. When the book becomes all about the issues going on in our society right now, what’s the point of writing science fiction or fantasy?

I’d like to keep my head down. I’d like to be popular, approved of, and respected. But if being those things means I have to soapbox about the social justice cause of the week, I’ll break apart the soapbox and use it as firewood, that I may comfortably write and read good books by the hearth.

And I’m not apologizing for it.

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Shared Thoughts on Privilege and Political Correctness

I’m still using this blog. Sorry I haven’t posted lately. I’ve also been writing a few things for Bubblews. A hard-to-pronounce name, I know. So lately, I’ve been blowing off some steam (and still trying to be nice about it) regarding the political correctness-style bullying I was subjected to a short while back. Wanted to rant here, but I’d just be repeating the things I’ve already written. I’ll just offer the links, if you’re interested. On Privilege, the Racebending Incident, and the fact that “sensitivity” has nothing over manners.

Hope you had a very Merry Christmas, and happy New Year!

And if Foz Meadows and/or anyone at Racebending actually reads this: I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, too. May your next year be full of joy, wisdom, and many more smiles than frowns.

A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

A lot of authors have been taking a stance against bigotry among authors, especially against misogyny. Chuck Wendig is the only one I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are others. More power to them! And yet, I have to wonder, out of honest curiosity (here I’m responding to item 19 in Wendig’s article): When it comes to diversifying in our writing, are we going to let writers play to their strengths, or insist that they have to crawl up and join the cool kids at the cutting edge of “social progress” (which is of course infallible and never overdoes anything)? If they stay where they are, does that afford us the right to kick sand in their faces?

Here’s one example. I love it when books and stories have strong female protagonists. In fact, that’s one reason I have no objections to Tauriel, the new female Elf character who’s going to be in the next Hobbit movie. And why the heck should I object? Strong female characters are awesome. It’s true, men get the spotlight too often. Women ought to make more decisions as characters, be more fleshed-out like the human beings (or elves/fairies/aliens…you get the idea) they are, fight in more battles, and affect the plot more than just being a prize for a man to win. When a book includes a female character who is, you know, a person, I celebrate. Break out the Guinness and firecrackers!

However, that doesn’t mean I’m only going to read stories with strong women, nor does it mean I “have to” only encourage authors who include them. An author may indeed be the “god” controlling everything on the page. And sometimes a god should be allowed to focus on male characters, not only female ones. You won’t get me to throw out my copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World because only men get to climb the prehistoric plateau and shoot at Pterodactyls, while the women are manipulative, liable to scream, barely figure into the story, and stay in England.

Wendig and others seem to regard authors as the deities who control pages, yet these are strange deities if they must keep up with what bloggers insist they must do. What if the author (male or female) doesn’t write a strong female protagonist into their work because they feel utterly unqualified to develop that sort of character? Does that make them misogynist, or behind the times? Does their inability to develop a take-charge female character indicate a weakness in their writing? If it is indeed a problem, do they have to fix it right freaking now, lest they be branded a bigot?

Does it make someone a homophobe if they don’t/won’t write about gay characters? Is an author racist if all of their protagonists are white? Do they hate Irishmen if there’s nary a brogue to flavor the dialogue?

The answer that should be obvious is “not necessarily.” The decisions a writer makes rarely — if ever — betray a person’s opinion. (And deconstructionism should be locked deep in the ice of Hell’s ninth circle for saying otherwise) Even when they do state their personal opinions, readers keep using said opinions to write them off. I’ve seen people declare with straight faces that they will not read any of Orson Scott Card’s fiction because they hate his stance on gay marriage.

Really? You’re choosing to care that deeply about what one writer thinks? Whatever. I’m still going to read his books, and love them.

Aren’t you supposed to let yourself get sucked into the story? Suspend your disbelief, and as long as the author has done a good job, the story should be all that matters to you. If you’re mainly worried that the author’s not checking off little boxes for what “must” be in today’s fiction, or you disregard their work because of differing personal opinions, you’ve already failed as a reader.

I’d rather someone roll up their sleeves and tell a great story, regardless of their stance on the controversial subject du jour, and regardless of the genders/races/creeds of their characters. Even when the bigotry is real and overt (e.g. the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales), there is still potential for great fiction. I consider it a deep injustice whenever a good storyteller is vilified because their opinions aren’t PC enough for the popular crowd.

Mini-Rant: Manners Before Sensitivity

I recently noticed something about sensitivity training and political correctness. While the intent behind them is noble and good, they give us more of an excuse than ever to let our own lives be influenced by the opinions of others.

What does sensitivity training set out to do that good manners haven’t been telling us already? Manners are not only older, they’re better and healthier, because they encourage maturity. They encourage both sides of a dispute to act like grown-ups. Manners are based on mutual respect. And don’t tell me “Well, people hardly ever have manners anymore” as if that ends the conversation. Manners are all the more important when few people follow them.

The newer laws of so-called etiquette are based on suspicion, and must inflate hurt feelings until they look like a social disaster. They cheer someone on for being hypersensitive. The offended is rewarded for not being mature enough to let go of a slur or insult. They are told they should always be worried what other people think and say about them.

Yeah. People have opinions about you, and about others who are like you. Not all of those opinions are positive. Some of them are extremely hateful. What is that to you? Keep on going. Keep living your life. If they aren’t telling you anything healthy, don’t listen to them or take their words to heart. Don’t stop, point and scream at the “bigot” or “monster” who bruised your self-esteem. You’re capable of much better things than that.

The longer you let a leech stick to your skin, the more it drains you. Don’t let it. Tear off the leech any way you can. Words can obviously hurt, but they only become landmines that ruin your life and traumatize you when you let them.

Long Live Chivalry

Long Live Chivalry. This is one of the best, most powerful articles I have read in a long time. It deserves to be read, because it tears away many of the half-truths, dismissals, sneers, and contradictory objections that have been leveled against even the idea of chivalry (when it comes to how men should treat women).

Whether it’s the historical instances of knights falling short of their calling, or the insistence that special respect toward women somehow amounts to talking down to them, I have never understood why so many people have said chivalry should die and stay dead.

The women I know are wonderful human beings, and fully capable of taking care of themselves. More power to them! And they absolutely should keep fighting for equality under the law, equal wages, and everything else that puts them on equal footing with men. But I want to be a man who holds the door open anyway, because I respect and value them. And I’m not going to stop reaching for that ideal just because a few women think it’s somehow chauvinistic and patronizing that some men act like they have a duty to treat them with special dignity.

Even if I can’t be an ideal knight, I can at least try to emulate a proper knight’s manners and sense of responsibility for how they should treat ladies.

Thanks for your time.

Was J.R.R. Tolkien A Racist?

…Or “The Coincidental Christmas.” Coincidental, since I was working on another blog post, detailing the races of my own fantasy world, when this little chestnut slithered back into the light: “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a racist?”

Um…no. No, he decidedly was not. In fact, he wrote an eloquent letter to the Nazi party calling the race doctrine “pernicious and unscientific.”

He certainly had races which thought themselves above the others, like Elves and the men of Numenor. Problem is, as soon as they started forcing themselves on the other races, calamitous consequences were not far behind. This little nuance is often lost on those who consider Tolkien a bigot.

Some will never give up on tarnishing one of the 20th century’s greatest storytellers with racist accusations. Today, on this blessed and sacred holiday, I tripped across one rather shrill blogger, who has decided ahead of time that Tolkien’s racism can be recognized by any rational human being, and that the writer’s defenders are immature, angry little white supremacists. Normally for the sake of objectivity and letting the reader reach their own conclusion, I link to pieces I disagree with. In this case, I will neither do this nor mention him by name. This man is getting no more views or attention on my account.

But I’d like to offer my refutation to his all-too-common accusation in the form of someone else’s words. They put it better than I ever could, and you’ll find the whole excellent piece by Michael Martinez here. This paragraph was especially neat:

“Unfortunately, though many people rise quickly to defend J.R.R. Tolkien against the absurd arguments that his critics raise against him, they fall quickly into the trap of replying to silly provocations — a trap that is designed only to control the conversation. Trust me, I have walked that treadmill more than I want to recall. You cannot win an argument with someone who declares blindly that J.R.R. Tolkien was a racist. At best you can write your own thoughtful explanation of what Tolkien was doing and not respond directly to these sensationalists. That is, after all, what they crave: a passionate response from you and as many other people as they can provoke.”

The accusation will always be around, no matter how ridiculous it is. Never quite goes away. Maybe I’m dropping right into the aforementioned trap by replying at all. But since the accusation is finding more ears in the wake of the Hobbit movie, I thought someone’s insights might be offered against it.

Thanks for your time. And Merry Christmas!