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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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.