“So much for Objective Literature. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” – (apologies to) Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ‘72
I attended a panel at the Wheeler Centre recently, Climate Change and Dystopias. In it appeared the authors of three dystopian climate-change novels: Jane Rawson (A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists), James Bradley (Clade) and Alice Robinson (Anchor Point).
(as an aside, you can read Jane’s take on the event here)
The discussion was interesting, crossing a lot of territory: personal responses to climate change, altered physical landscapes, forging a personal connection between the reader and mass climate events, avoiding anthropocentrism and obstructions to mitigation. Although the setting demanded a degree of political discussion on climate change, the evening did not derail into doomsaying or sloganeering.
One of the questions at the end fascinated me, however. A lady near me asked the panel whether or not they felt a responsibility as authors with a platform to advocate for change, in order to prevent the dystopias they presented. All three authors reacted negatively, protesting that they were primarily about writing stories about what interested them, and that none of them were writing campaigning or didactic novels.
This was despite the fact that all three had passionately argued during the discussion that preceded questions about the urgency and importance of slowing the onset and mitigating the impact of Climate Change.
This dichotomy fascinates me. Putting aside lazy accusations of hypocrisy, deeper and more interesting questions beckon.
To what extent does our writing contain our philosophical viewpoint, even if we deliberately try to separate it out?
Patently, people do write campaigning fiction or crusading fiction or works which aren’t just telling a nice little story to brighten up the long nights. And that fiction can be compelling, popular and widely influential. In those cases, however, there is a form of self-awareness that the personal, the political and the creative working in concert. I’m more interested here, however, about the unconscious “bleed” when how you write isn’t explicitly caused by the why you’re writing it.
The collected works of H.P. Lovecraft are rightly famed for being foundational for modern horror writing. Intense, visceral description and vividly imagined worlds beyond our ken has sparked a massive industry of pastiche and tribute. It also has some pretty objectionable racism, with “degenerate” races being grist to his mill of horror (as effectively “perpetrated” against otherwise upstanding Anglo-Americans).
To be clear, this is rarely “the point” of his stories. If racial politics were embedded as their core purpose, it is unlikely they would have survived as works of influence. They do, however, function as an integral part of the way in which Lovecraft’s mythos operates.
Similarly, when you turn to China Mieville, his political pedigree as a Revolutionary Marxist is always present, with his characters striving for agency and solidarity in a world overflowing with oppression and injustice. Although on occasion this is explicit (Iron Council springs immediately to mind), it more often expresses itself in the actions of tis characters, lone individuals up against implacable forces of wealth and power.
Similarly, if Mieville’s stories were nothing but agit-prop, they’d be unreadable (for some people, more unreadable).
These are perhaps somewhat gross examples, however. To make it a bit more fine grained, you can look at things like how an author positions their protagonist, their antagonist, their supporting characters and how they craft their setting.
- Is your hero square-jawed and rugged(“ly handsome” being an optional extra).Is your heroine plucky and resourceful?
- Are your characters socially confident members or misanthropic outsiders?
- Do they hail from aristocratic palaces or ramshackle farmhouses?
- Are they deeply embedded in a setting-spanning conflict, providing pivotal actions in the face of massive forces colliding?
- Is your setting personal, with your protagonists striving to right a wrong, or to expiate a past sin?
- Does the plot buffet your characters or do they sail unerringly across the sea of narrative?
- Are your characters morally good and evil?
- Do they reflect on their own actions?
- Does your narrative use the traditional three-act arc?
- Do all the unattached and sexually available characters have to end up partnered up at the end?
- Is there cake?
- Is everything introduced at the start of the story concluded by the end?
- Is the world they are in in an uncaring place of casual cruelty or a benevolent place of compassion and opportunity?
All of these features of style, narrative and detail are influenced by our own experience, taste and worldview. This is neither good nor bad, but simply a function of how we create things. We take situations, concepts and characters that interest us and manipulate them according to a frame within which we understand the world. This includes other writers’ works, which we ingest, digest and then express through our own work.
Even if we deliberately set out to prevent ourselves from (boringly) writing out our own worldview in 100K instalments, we replicate it in our construction of character, setting and plot. The choices in what we include or exclude are a product of our personal identity and beliefs. It takes strong-minded writers to entirely derail their own inner stream of thought, narrative and morality in order to write in a voice outside themselves, becoming a true recording angel drifting over the landscape of the world.
The quote at the top of this post very much encapsulates my views of such attempts at taking the self out of the work.
In terms of my own work, I can definitely see my own fingerprints baked into the clay. My love of nuance, of differing motivations, of human beings adapting to their environments my naïve belief in human empathy and at the inevitability of all undulate through my work. As does my occasional weakness for a “filmic” scene or tableau that looks when I imagine it playing out with all the sensory and emotional bells and whistles whilst remaining out of place in a written work of fiction. These biases are not a problem, per se, but is instead a warning that the camera of my writer’s eye is embedded in a writer’s skull which is attached to a writer’s body.
After I started working on this blogpost, the award nominations for the Hugos came out. The Hugos are one of the top two awards in speculative fiction (the Nebulas being the other). The (public) nominations this year were strongly dominated by the “Sad Puppy” slate, an organised conservative voting bloc which strongly subscribes to the idea that novels are strongly inflected by their author’s politics. This rather long post (by a Sad Puppy-nominated author) outlines the views of the group and his own rebuttals.
The short version is that Sad Puppy supporters feel that awards, and the “gatekeepers” of speculative fiction, have been dominated by social worthiness, literary obscurity, and diversity for diversity’s sake, and that this opens a gap between “consumers” and the critical elites. Therefore, their slate represents what they feel is a “purer” form of spec fic, not diluted by the social concerns of its authors, or the establishment. One which is “truer” to fans of mass-appeal spec fic. In the words of one of its proponents, the simple pleasures of “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
The sting in the tail, of course, is that the concept of “pure” spec fic in itself contains assumptions about what this pure state contains, how its narrative progresses and the choice of subject matter and character. That any presumed golden age includes the personal experiences of its authors, and the concerns that dominated their lives, political and philosophical outlooks. The framing of this as a natural state is far more about the assumptions of its proponents than any intrinsic value to “pure” spec fic.
In the end, it’s probably worth considering there is no such thing as a sterile product in writing. Writing is a very intense, long-term labour that inherently germinates from the ecology of the author’s mind, life and moral preoccupations. To what extent this is consciously cultivated in the work is debatable, but I think it’s worth taking an author’s intentions at face value, regardless of how knowledge of their history and character illuminate aspects of their work.