The last of my panels in NerdCon: Stories was "But It's Just a Story: The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller". As aforementioned, I didn't intend to attend, but I'm glad I did. It brought up a lot of issues that I hadn't considered.
Patrick Rothfuss started the panel with an anecdote about reading The Hobbit to his son. It starts quite dully with Gandalf and Bilbo having a conversation. Then the dwarves arrive, one by one, and more discussions and negotiations ensue. Nothing magical happens -- except for one thing, Bilbo and Gandalf sit outside blowing smoke rings, competing with each other. And so, as impressionable young ones are want to do, Rothfuss's little one starts walking around the house with a stick in his mouth. And he says "it's my smoker".
Now, IMHO, I think this is a bad case study. First, I think five is too young to read The Hobbit. Frankly, I'm not even sure I could get through it now. But this was written in 1937. Smoking was considered healthy back then. Doctors recommended smoking for your "T-zone" -- that's T for taste and T for throat. Fred and Barney smoked, Joe Camel -- coolest guy in the room -- smoked. So you can hardly blame Tolkien -- he was a product of his time.
Surely, like me, you've noticed more kerfuffles on the Internet related to representation or anti-SJWs -- cyberbullying, Go Set a Watchman racism, "Stargate: Universe" disability/sexuality switching, Sad Puppies, various RaceFails, GamerGate, and so on. This is because we are in a state of change. The generation that grew up with women in the kitchen are dying off and scared (hence the big political polarization as well) and kids whose best friends growing up became gay are gaining power.
But that doesn't mean we aren't out of the woods. Rothfuss mentioned a book he'd read that involved a setting where women were criminalized for practicing magic. If this was a plot point it wouldn't be so bad. But it wasn't -- it was just part of the environment. And the obvious implication is that women are second-class citizens. They are disallowed from something purely because of their sex. And this was a current book, which surprised me. How did this sort of antiquated idea get past the editors? Why would they think this would fly?
So based on the impressionability of kids and the fact that there's still a big chunk of evil out there, do authors have a moral responsibility to their audience? Well, I'd be the last person to prevent someone from writing what they want. If you want to write a story where KKK members rule the world and it's five hundred pages of beating black men, fine. Write your wish fulfillment. But good luck selling it.
And then there's the self-published erotica writing. Everyone has a fetish and these new avenues are allowing people to find outlets for them. I think that's a good thing. Anything that makes people feel less alone is good. Now these works contain very objectionable material -- lots of rape, incest, bestiality, and other things medieval and Roman people did. But it's the "Fade to Black" effect. When Metallica released "Fade to Black" as a single, radio stations didn't want to play it, afraid it would drive kids to suicide. But it had the opposite effect. People contemplating suicide said how the song made them feel better, like it expressed the feelings they couldn't.
But there are also those works that are "culturally poisonous", like the aforementioned "women can't do magic because they're women" book. Not even Troma films are that bad. I think it comes from standards and norms that are in the midst of change, like feminism. Not everyone agrees what is "culturally poisonous" (obviously). Perhaps that's why things get past the radar. And no one is invulnerable either, even minorities. Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican, said she had written most of a novel before she realized her setting was an island of "magical negroes".
It's inevitable that we're going to write about fringe people or horrific events or triggers. For one, it makes for damn exciting stuff. For another, it's the suffering that makes characters. But I think, if you're going to write about that stuff, you better make damn sure it fits the characters. That they act plausibly both before and after. That it's not for titillation or shock. Too often characters rise from one-dimensional backstories like abusive parents, attempted rape/rape as drama, boarding school of horrors, domestic abuse, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, bullies, police oppression... basically anything you see in a soap opera or teen drama.
But someone in the panel said "An author's responsibility is how many types of experience I can show, not which ones I shouldn't." John Green says the purpose of books is to help us "imagine people complexly". Because, true as some stereotypes may be, there is always more than that. And damn if books haven't shown me that truth. Especially YA books.
I know this is one of my concerns when writing, especially regarding women and gender. They typically get the short end of the stick in representation (see The Bechdel Test) and the three most important people in my life are them. I've been guilty of giving them the short shrift in my own early writing, used them as rewards or the goal to be obtained.
Of course, I think in some stories, representation is just not on the table. I'm writing a Disney-esque fairy tale in a Germany/Norway/Denmark setting in the 18th century. That is the whitest place on Earth. Transgender has no place there. You got executed for that kind of thing. If you're writing historical, you can misrepresent the setting if you include races and genders that simply weren't there. Otherwise you get Black Vikings.
The final word: It's the job of the story to create empathy. Stories are our building blocks. We are made of stories and culture is made of us. Use bombs wisely.
Labels: ethics, John Green, morality, nerdcon, Patrick Rothfuss, responsibility, writing