[GUEST POST] Bradley P. Beaulieu on Writing in Discomfort: One Writer’s Thoughts on Political Correctness


Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo, the first of three planned books in The Lays of Anuskaya series. In addition to being an L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award winner, Brad’s stories have appeared in various other publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat,” was voted a Notable Story of 2006 in the Million Writers Award.

Writing in Discomfort: One Writer’s Thoughts on Political Correctness

Years ago I had a discussion with a group of writers about writing beyond the boundaries of politeness. It wasn’t couched in quite this way at the time, but I think that’s what it boiled down to, at least for me. The subject came up because someone in the group, a young white man, had written a story about an underprivileged black man from the D.C. Metro ghettos. I remember how uncomfortable I was when reading the story, not because the language wasn’t on the money–it captured the slang and cadence quite well–but because I knew it had been written by a white guy.


Now, this says more about me than it does the author who wrote it. I was born and raised in Southeastern Wisconsin in mostly white bread areas. I never saw anything like drugs or gang violence. The neighborhoods we lived in never had trouble. I don’t even remember interfacing with blacks until I’d entered junior high. In some ways this made me a blank slate. I had no bias toward blacks, though as I went through junior high and entered high school, I started to become more aware of the lay of the land in America when it came to political correctness. I largely felt that speaking for blacks, or even about blacks, was not my place. I didn’t know enough about it; I didn’t come from that culture; and so I should probably just keep my mouth shut.

That was before I started writing. Anyone who writes long enough, especially a writer of science fiction and fantasy, where in some ways it’s easier to manufacture a situation where cultural or religious or racial or sexual tabboos can be explored, will come across this sooner or later. For me, it was during that conversation about story of the black man from D.C. When that group of writers–all of us white–had this conversation about writing outside of your comfort zone, it struck me hard. It challenged me and my preconceptions of what I should be writing about. Why can’t I write about Black America? Why can’t I write about things that are taboo from my current, somewhat-limited point-of-view?

The lesson I learned that day was this: writing takes courage. We can and should write about things that are uncomfortable for us. It will not only expand our own boundaries, but those of others as well, and if there’s some chance of stepping on toes, of embarrassing yourself, then so be it. That’s the risk we take, and it’s a risk we should take, because only by examining ourselves as a people–be it through writing or otherwise–will we rise above the issues of the day.

Determined to challenge myself, I later wrote a story about a black woman in Harlem with a child who’s taken by the ghost of a young man who committed suicide decades ago. It was called “Good Morning Heartache,” and it was eventually printed in Spells of the City, a DAW anthology. Even now I’m rather self-conscious of the story, wondering if a black woman from Harlem would be offended if she read it. I hope not. I tried hard to do the characters justice.

When I started writing The Winds of Khalakovo, I didn’t know what it would be about. I only knew I wanted a big epic fantasy that included a major culture clash as part of its primary, driving thread. I remember during college, after Operation Desert Storm began, sitting in front of the TV, watching intently as forces were deployed, as we clashed with the Iraqis. Tanks and troops and laser-guided bombs. It was the first war I hadn’t experienced through the lens of a history book. I was seeing it (or the newsroom-filtered equivalent of it) right before me through news footage and war reports and news articles and so on. The conflict expanded, and I grew more and more despondent. I felt terrible for all those caught in the middle, and it continued with 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without getting into the politics, my heart cried for those killed–regardless of nationality–because they happen to be in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

I couldn’t help but think: what if this was happening here in the U.S.? What if someone invaded Wisconsin? On the surface, this seems a ridiculous notion, the American military machine being what it is, but reality has nothing to do with empathy. So when I began writing Winds, I didn’t try to make these feelings and thoughts surface, but surface they did. From all of these pent-up feelings were born the Aramahn, a peace-loving people, and the Maharraht, a fringe group of the Aramahn who want to push the Landed (who amount to white colonialists in the story) from the shores of the islands throughout which they once enjoyed complete freedom. I modeled the culture of these people off of ancient Persia, but one need not look too hard to see parallels with what happened in the Middle East.

I became conscious at times that these parallels existed, but I was careful to stay tight to the story. Just as Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was no allegory for war, so is Winds no allegory for racial conflict. In this respect I’m a Tim Powers disciple–I’m not out to make my work say anything–but by the same token, if issues come up in the story, I’m fully prepared to explore them and see what comes of it. In fact, I embrace it; I just don’t try to force it.

I suppose any writer will eventually face this crossroads. Do you tackle tough issues or do you not? I think we have to, and though my inner critic is still uncomfortable with doing so, I think it’s a terribly important thing to do.

62 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Bradley P. Beaulieu on Writing in Discomfort: One Writer’s Thoughts on Political Correctness”

  1. The SF/Fantasy genre is so wrapped up in being PC it is scary, just say something that is outside of the what faildom thinks is appropriate and watch the backlash come. Even if what was done was caused by simple clumsiness.

    I wish luck to those who have the courage to ignore the PC police…

     

  2. Brad, I think you are asking a very good question, and I applaud you for tackling a subject that is difficult to discuss. I think you are right–if we want to write about modern America, white writers must address race. And yes, writing about marginalized people from a position of privilege poses risks.

    I have written about race in most of my books in one fashion or another, and I’ve fallen down rather badly a couple of times. For instance, in PROXIES, I wrote about a group of disabled kids, primarily children of color, whose goal is to escape their exploitation by stealing a starship… but ultimately they need the help of a kindly maternal white woman to rescue them. For all that my intentions were good, the white-woman-rescues-the-colored-kids-from-bondage stereotype is pernicious, because it is more about assuaging white liberal guilt than it is about the POC having agency and being protagonists in their own story.

    On many levels, I love that book and I think I did some good things with it. I had the best of intentions. And I can’t go back now and erase its flaws. But at least I can acknowledge that I fell into a trap by using a plot twist that reinforced an unfortunate racial stereotype, thereby reducing my POC readers to props in the white woman’s story.

    And since then, I’ve also been saved from falling down by kindly beta readers who shall remain nameless but who have gently pointed out that in my ignorance I was about to step in a pile of poo (…let me just take this moment to say, thank you, Anonymous Beta Readers! You know who you are!)

    I think the key to being successful is to educate ourselves about the ways of privilege blinds us to racial stereotypes that we’ve absorbed, in order to avoid perpetuating them. We can’t rely solely on our storyteller instincts when writing about race, gender, disability, or other topics in which we might have privilege, due to the phenomenon of intrinsic bias. And I think we have to be willing to own up to it when we mess up. The same way I would, if I screwed up an engineering or science detail, and someone knowledgeable about that subject pointed it out,

    In my experience it’s a lot harder than it first seems, to avoid falling into stereotyping. But there are some good web resources that have helped me understand some of the issues people of color deal with.

    Here’s a good primer on racism and white privilege:

    http://resistracism.wordpress.com/racism-101/

    I follow a handful of POC bloggers, to better understand various aspects of American POC culture, and what it’s like on a day-to-day basis not to be white. Here are a couple… I’m using the wrong computer to be able to call up my full list,

    http://www.racialicious.com/

    http://www.womanist-musings.com/

    Shakesville also often features guest posts from POC bloggers.

    http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/

    Harvard has done extensive research on intrinsic bias of different kinds, and they have some really interesting tests here, where you can test the areas of your own unconscious biases, vis a vis race, gender, and a whole host of others.

    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/

    OK, I’ll stop now. Anyway, thanks for putting this out there. I’ll be interested to see where the discussion goes.

     

     

  3. Laura, thanks for these great links. I’ll definitely delve into them in the days and weeks to come. You know, one of the things that came very apparent to me when I first started writing was just how many blind spots I had. Another one was sexual biases. This started when I attended Viable Paradise VII with you and Steve, but it continued until it came front and center at Clarion in 2006. I would read stories and think: wow, that was a pretty good story, and then women readers would step in, quite rightly, and point out some sort of clear bias the author had in their story.

    Now, the thing to remember is that it’s one thing to write about some sort of bias consciously, where you’re exploring it and its eventual personal and social ramifications. It’s quite another to do so blindly. There’s nothing worse than bumbling through something like that and to have it shown to you point-blank once the story’s been wrapped up and possibly even published. So in this respect I’m glad I attended as many writing workshops as I have, and even now, I actively search out female alpha/beta readers to help guide me through these rough spots.

    It sounds like you bumped your knee pretty good, but learned from it. I’m still worried that I’ll do the same. In fact, I’m sure I will. I’m nervous about it, but by the same token, that’s part of what this post was about, trying to be brave and write about difficult things even if you’re, I don’t know, not “in the thick of it,” if you know what I mean.

  4. Thanks, Brad.

     

    I think lots of writers struggle with writing anything that isn’t precisely them. Especially when you tread into what might be considered tough issue territory.

     

    I recall an interview with Lauren Beukes, who was terrified her novel Zoo City wouldn’t work because the protagonist is a Black South African.  But she did it, and the novel has been a breakout success for her.  People feel the authenticity and her efforts to make it so.

     

     

  5. I just met Lauren at WorldCon in Reno. She was delightful. I’m glad her risk is paying dividends for her. I’ve heard great things about Zoo City, so much so that it’s steadily creeping up on my “to buy” list.

  6. More random thoughts on a related note…

    Steve and Carita (our younger daughter) and I are watching “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” HBO series. I find myself enchanted by it, for its great characters and writing. I avoided both the books and the TV series, because I was uncomfortable. I wondered how I would feel, if I were a woman of color, and/or an African, about a story set in Africa written by a white European man. How authentic could it be?

    I must say, though, that I really like it. Great characters and storytelling values, and it brings back very fond memories for me of the time I spent in Kenya in a similar time period to the series (it was a different country to be sure, and yet there are similarities).

     

    -l.

  7. Sorry if I offended, Nick. My point was that, for good or ill, I lived a sheltered childhood, at least with respect to dealing with people outside of my racial make-up. (And frankly, I didn’t write the post with selling books in mind. Sure, this was a chance to talk about my work, but I could have done so from a much safer place.)

  8. I appreciate where you are coming from Brad — writing about people whose subculture you know may little about first-hand can be a daunting task and certainly one that requires care. That said, I think it is also important to note that writing about race (or about people who are different from yourself) is a responsibility shared by all writers, regardless of their own backgrounds.

    NK Jemisin recently wrote on her blog that it cannot only be up to POC to write POC. If white writers ignore or shy away from creating characters of different racial backgrounds, then the trend of exclusionary writing (and fandom) culture will continue. As Laura has pointed out, do your research, write to the best of your ability – and then get other people to read and respond, calling out any unintentional areas of racism/priviledge that might be present. 

  9. I really dislike Political Correctness. It’s like expected censorship to me, which is different than politeness. I think in the context of art, the expectation of politeness is different than what you’d expect in a social event or dinner table conversation. And so it always bothers me when people impose their expectations of what’s allowed and not allowed on me as a writer or on my characters. How can one write honestly with such limitations? Being artistic always involves an element of risk and putting yourself out there. At the same time, you should know your subject. Don’t write something in total ignorance. You have no business writing about a situation you haven’t experienced or researched if it’s so tied to real life and might offend people because then you are just setting yourself and others up for conflict and you are setting yourself up to misrepresent a situation. To me, that’s about being smart and dedicated to quality. But at the same time, I refuse to be pigeonholed by others’ expectations about politeness in addressing things head on through fiction. As long as I do the research and write with honesty and integrity, I think it should be treated like any other art–a matter of taste. And that’s always subjective, not based on rules like PC demands.

  10. Bryan, it’s not about whether something is PC or not PC. I believe it’s about good writing versus bad writing. It’s about avoiding cliches.

    Here’s an analogy. I write on the hard-SF end of the spectrum. If I write about a branch of science or engineering, or say, about a military venture, and I don’t do my homework — say I indulge in cliches and stereotypes of the scientist, engineer, or military professional — or I use bad science/ dumb tech — I would fully expect to annoy people more knowledgeable about that subject; and I would fully expect to be called on stereotypes like the nerd with bad hygiene and poor social skills, say; or the cartoonishly villainous mad scientist. People don’t like to see poorly done stories that don’t reflect their reality.

    And there is also a deeper dimension, when dealing with race and economic status, and disability. People from marginalized backgrounds (whether because they are poor, whether they are non-white, or disabled, or queer, etc.) have to contend with being treated differently, simply because people more in the mainstream have an expectation that they will behave a certain way, based on that group’s difference from the “norm”–instead of seeing them as individuals.

    XKCD does a really good job of illustrating the phenomenon, here:

    http://xkcd.com/385/

    These stereotypes often get propagated in entertainment, which are not done out of any deliberate attempt to harm them, necessarily, but nevertheless, they ultimately do end up harming people in that group, because that becomes how everyone expects them to be/ behave. People are more likely to be pulled over, the darker their skin is; people are less likely to be hired for a job if their name is identifiably ethnic, because the people making those decisions for how to treat them have this cookie-cutter (and typically negative or constraining) expectation about them.

     

    -l.

     

  11. I think everyone made good points here, but I want to point out an important difference on the risk equation when tackling the other vs. tackling science (Laura’s comparison).  Get the science wrong, and a very few readers will get annoyed and might not buy your next book.  I might write a blog post and try to use the mistake as a teachable moment.  I’ve written blog posts about *my own* mistakes with the science, and felt like that was a good thing overall, to have that integrity, and it wouldn’t hurt me as a writer or scientist.  Get something “wrong” on the PC scale, however, and significant numbers of people pop up on the internet, apply various labels to the writer that don’t just suggest that the writer was lazy or ignorant but that they are in fact a horrible person, usually refuse to educate the writer about what exactly they thought was wrong, and add them to a boycott list.  Unfortunately a lot of us tend to learn by trial and error, and really do want to write the best books with the best and most realistic characters we can, but writing the other has become dangerous.  I think that’s really unfortunate.  Asimov censored himself because he didn’t think he wrote good female characters — now he’d probably be attacked for not writing female characters, or for writing them badly, and his work marginalized either way.  There’s a constructive middle ground: you point the mistakes out and respond constructively about how they could be fixed without making it personal.  (I’m not always perfect about this when it comes to science errors, but I try to hold my scorn for the willfully ignorant or fundamentally biased who don’t care to get things right, e.g. Michael Chricton writing STATE OF FEAR.)

  12. Can anyone actually name a novelist whose career has been hurt by “people [who] pop up on the internet, apply various labels to the writer that don’t just suggest that the writer was lazy or ignorant but that they are in fact a horrible person…”? You know, some evidence that the “boycott lists” are actually cutting into anyone’s bottom line any more than the population annoyed with bad science does?

     

    I’ll wait here, dying of old age while the evidence is collected.

  13. Laura,

    I see your points and I stand by mine. It is about PC v. not PC to some degree. And the scale can be arbitrary–anything which offends a lot of people is not PC and anything which doesn’t, isn’t. I’ve experienced and witnessed it in the past. Of course quality stories are important, I addressed that as well. I addressed research. It almost feels like you’re arguing points I already made. Yes, trying to be PC can lead to using cliches or stereotypes, falling back on tropes in an effort to avoid offense. Yes, that’s boring. Although I could point out genres where that is actually the norm and quite satisfying to readers. But that’s for another time. Whatever the case, I don’t attempt to be PC. I attempt to write well and with integrity and honesty and let it stand. That includes my post.

  14. Sheesh.  It isn’t that complicated a point.

    There are no boycott lists for writers who get their science wrong.

    There are boycott lists of writers who have made the mistake of writing stereotypes, and dredging up the names of any specific writers is not constructive or fair to them.  Nick seems to understand bullying tactics and is likely smart enough to understand that even if actual sales are not hurt (something hard to prove and easy to pick on for the casual offensive skeptic), insults and blacklists will have a chilling effect on some writers who will be less willing to write diverse characters.  Anything controversial about that?  I think it’s unfortunate.

    Writers I know who make science gaffes and acknowledge it tend to get encouragement to get it right the next time around, not insults and threats

    Because I have a life and I’m not getting any younger, I’m not going to wait around here for Nick to say something that isn’t condescending or dickish.

  15. Brad, I liked this article.  I think you took a conscientious approach to what can be for some a very contentious topic.

    Because you (ubiquitous ‘you’) will never be “authentic” in the eyes of certain critics, when you write outside of your own cultural perspective.  Ergo, no white man can ever write about what it’s like to be not-white, or not-male.  Or not-monied, or not-straight.  Et cetera.  Name me a disadvantaged group, and I’ll find you a scold determined to tell you that you’re not allowed to write about that group, or from that group’s perspective.

    I think for me the important factor with fiction is that our job is to tell an entertaining and engaging story first.  Our job is not to lecture, however pious we might feel about a certain point we want to make.  Our job is to spend the reader’s time such that the reader can come out of the story and say, “I liked that, it was worthwhile.”  We can’t do this for all readers, but we can (possibly?) pay attention to what we ourselves enjoy in a story, and replicate that when we sit down to write.  I know for me whatever “message” happens to come up in anything I write, is usually leaking around the edges.

    Now, because of my background and who I am married to, that “leakage” can have a certain predictable flavor to it.  I think maybe I’ve got a bit more cred when writing about non-caucasian America if only because I live with non-caucasian America.  But I don’t use it as a license to ill.  And on those occasions when I am doing it “wrong” I hope the reader will be charitable and realize that in science fiction and fantasy in particular, all is imagination and all is open to question, interpretation, re-definition, and so forth.  As long as you’ve created a bold tale, told boldly, I think you “win” and whatever faults there are can be easily forgiven or forgotten.

  16. Mike Brotherton wrote: Writers I know who make science gaffes and acknowledge it tend to get encouragement to get it right the next time around, not insults and threats

    If a writer acknowledges a cultural mistake, readers do encourage them to do better next time. The issue is that a lot of writers don’t acknowledge it when it’s cultural stuff. Their first reaction is to say their book is perfect and the reader is too stupid to understand it, and other such insults. Shortly followed up by a demand to be educated, and a refusal to read any articles written on the subject already… they want personal tuition from anyone on the internet who happens to be in that cultural group.

    If writers did that for a science mistake, you’d also see a negative reader reaction. But writers who make science mistakes usually admit to the error. They’ll read articles and books to improve their knowledge, rather than expecting every scientist on the internet to be their personal tutor.

    Writers making cultural mistakes could learn a lot from those making science mistakes, in terms of how to handle making a mistake.

  17. Mike Brotherton – Could you point to one of these boycott lists? I’ve been following these discussions in sf&f, and I’ve never seen one. And if there’s some evidence out there for how these boycotts work and what their economic effect is on the authors in question, that would be great. Has anyone been driven out of print for this reason, and no other?

     

    Brad R. Torgerson – I assume that  I live with non-caucasian America means that you live with one specific non-caucasian American, and not with all of them. It seems like there may be more than one point of view involved, though. And when you say this:

    when I am doing it “wrong” I hope the reader will be charitable and realize that in science fiction and fantasy in particular, all is imagination and all is open to question

    It sounds like you’re saying “it doesn’t matter how accurate I am, because I can just use ‘imagination’ as an excuse for a lack of rigor.” When my students try this, I am unconvinced. Either you’ve done the research, or you haven’t.

  18. Glad you acknowledge that the “boycott lists” don’t actually represent lists of people whose works are being boycotted, Mike. Perhaps, for the sake of fairness, which you seem otherwise interested in, you could have actually made that clear in your first comment.

    Or, shorter: you’re not actually interested in being fair to how readers react to books—you just don’t like the RaceFail brigade, and want to paint them like big bad bullies who are intimidating poor writers. Oh, and despite this brave stand, you instantly paint yourself as a victim for being asked for evidence of your claims.

    Btw, it’s pretty easy to point to people on the Internet who mock folks who get science wrong endlessly, and who bring up these errors time and again without encouraging anyone to improve (which is hardly a reader’s job anyway). I’d direct interested parties to James Nicoll’s blog and its local commentariat, for example. I’d also point to the blog of Athena Andreadis, who calls such errors “scienciness.”

    A link: http://scienceinmyfiction.com/2011/03/25/to-the-hard-members-of-the-truthy-sf-club/

     

     

    Brad: “Name me a disadvantaged group, and I’ll find you a scold determined to tell you that you’re not allowed to write about that group, or from that group’s perspective.”

     

    Okay, presuming you mean inside SF/F circles:

    blacks

    lesbians

    Roma/Sinti

     

    Go!

     

    If, btw, you don’t mean inside SF/F circles, I’m sure it’ll be easier to find such scolds. They’re not altogether uncommon in the academic world, or in mental hospitals.

  19. Seth: here’s someone’s “shitlist”:

    http://bridgetmkennitt.insanejournal.com/196132.html

    Though, like many so-called boycotts, it’s a boycott of one person. Who didn’t sound like she was buying any of those books in the first place. And if anyone’s bottom line was actually harmed by someone on the Internet listing a bunch of people she didn’t like, I’ll print out Brad B’s OP and eat it.

  20. Mike, I agree with you; there is a world of difference between getting the science wrong, and lazy writing resulting in the propagation of harmful stereotypes. That was the whole point in the second half of my post.

    Look, no one wants this to be a constructive discussion more than I do. But for Christ’s sake! If people yell ouch when you do action X, maybe it’s because action X is causing them pain. Maybe action X is what you should be focusing on, instead of defending yourself from some invisible yet omnipotent police force who might scold you for being wrong on the internet (or in your fiction).

    People of color walk beside white folks in this country, every day, but they live in a completely different world than we do, in some very important ways. Surely you know that. Surely you are aware that racial bias exists. Not just out there somewhere, but in here, in our heads. Yours and mine. I could point you to study after study. (In fact I did point to one, up there, the Harvard intrinsic bias test.)

    It’s not a matter of blame. It’s just a reality. And you aren’t going to find that people aware of that fact will give you the benefit of the doubt until you lower the blast shields and acknowledge that possibility also.

    That’s really all I was trying to say.

     

    -l.

  21. Laura: “But for Christ’s sake! If people yell ouch when you do action X, maybe it’s because action X is causing them pain. Maybe action X is what you should be focusing on, instead of defending yourself from some invisible yet omnipotent police force who might scold you for being wrong on the internet (or in your fiction).”

    This necessary and bleeding obvious point comes up in every discussion. Somehow, the person it’s directed at never seems to listen. Perhaps this time will be different. In any case, I salute you for trying!

  22. Nick Mamatas – Right, I’ve seen some individual consumer choices, but nothing like organized action.

    They’re not altogether uncommon in the academic world, or in mental hospitals.

    Hey now! Harldy any academics are crazy scolds on the Internet these days.

     

    Laura J. Mixon – That was very well said, especially the part nliu quoted.

  23. So Nick here is trying to call down the hordes of RaceFail on you. This post actually looks so perfectly crafted to do so that I suspect it is in truth a troll, trying to attract those same hordes.

    In the first place, the hordes are busy self-immolating, as radical organizations (especially those composed of idiots) are wont to from time to time, so good luck to both Nick and Bradley on that front. In the second place, if this is in fact a troll, you know this, nontheless: If the RaceFail idiots do show up, ignore them. They’re idiots. They’re not wrong about everything, they’re right about quite a lot, but they’re idiots and they’re simultaneously vicious and impotent.

    It sounds to me like you might be a bit of a doofus, Bradley, but that’s not a crime. You seem to be genuinely trying to do the right thing, and that’s great. Keep it up. If someone kindly and quietly tells you you’ve fucked up, listen, learn, and grow. If someone yells the same thing at you, with a side of bile, you may freely ignore them, because if you really HAVE fucked up, someone will take the time to tell you quietly and gently (possibly one time only, so pay attention).

    But you know this stuff, right?

     

  24. Well said, Laura. It’s interesting how quickly these things can devolved into name-calling rants. I used to run a BBS which graduated into an internet service provider, and for a while I would participate in the local chats and forums and such. There were flare-ups all the time, and a few of them spilled over into face-to-face meetings. We actually got involved in a few of them as the owners of the board, and it was always interesting seeing how (generally) polite people were when talking face-to-face where only hours before they were screaming some seriously vile stuff at one another. It’s always important to check yourself and remember that we’re dealing with a medium where there’s no body language to read, no verbal cues to pick up on. And it’s also important to remember that other people forget this stuff (or choose to ignore it) all the time. They probably have few social filters in person, and essentially none online.

  25. The boycott thing just bugs me. There are writers I don’t read for various reasons. I don’t feel guilty about this because there are a 100,000,000 books I want to read, and I have to filter them somehow. So I’ve stopped at the approximately 25 Orscon Scott Card books I’ve read, and I’m unlikely to pick up more, and there’s a political component to that, although there’s also the fact that the last 3 of them I read bored the shit out of me. If I have a choice between reading one of two books by new, shiny authors, both of which sound equally interesting, but one of which has written online that he thinks fat women are stupid, then I’m probably going to be inclined toward the other book. That’s not a boycott. It’s also not a boycott if I’m presented with the two shiny books and I pick the one about dragons over the one about baseball because I can’t get into baseball. I’m also not boycotting Stephen Crane when I say that I would rather read just about anything else on the face of the planet than pick up his work again because the bored to tears, it is literal. You can argue that one of the bases for those choices is more legitimate than others (and people do argue over that), but none of the individual consumer actions is a boycott.

    If boycotts aren’t organized, but just individual consumer choices, then I could argue that I’m being boycotted all the time. 

     

     

  26. BTW, when we’re talking about people being ruined by boycotting over race issues, is this essentially meant to indicate Will Shetterly?

    I am not convinced that there’s a proven link between his online issues and his recent career troubles. Too many other explanations for his career problems seem probable. That doesn’t mean the one *couldn’t* be causative, I suppose, but it’s not exactly proven.

     

    (Even if it were–is there an organized boycott? Or just a lot of individual people saying “I’d rather not buy Shetterly’s work?” I’ve never signed anything or been approached to campaign. I also wouldn’t characterize myself as boycotting him–I don’t avoid anthologies he’s part of or anything. I haven’t read any of his novels, but I might at some point in the future. If individuals saying “I choose not to pick this up” constitutes a boycott then are those of us who consider the plot and reputation of Twilight unappealing boycotting Stephanie Myers?)

  27. Actually, I was just trolling Andrew this entire time! (And by entire time, I mean the last 22 years of me being active on the Internet.)

  28. Oops, hit send too soon.

    Thanks, Brad. And thanks, too, NLiu and Seth.

    Mike, if you are still reading, I need to add that I have a deep gratitude for the ways in which you have benefited me personally (and the science fiction community in general) with LaunchPad. 

    Racial bias at its heart isn’t about scolding and blaming. It’s about naming.

    But that’s enough from me for now.

     

    -l.

  29. I recognize Mr. Beaulieu’s transparently good intentions, which of course brings up their hell-paving aspects.  There are some interesting assumptions in his post.  A partial list:

    “I remember how uncomfortable I was when reading the story, not because the language wasn’t on the money–it captured the slang and cadence quite well–“

    How does Mr. Beaulieu know that it did so, if his knowledge of that group is as scant as he describes?

    “I was born and raised in Southeastern Wisconsin in mostly white bread areas. I never saw anything like drugs or gang violence. The neighborhoods we lived in never had trouble. I don’t even remember interfacing with blacks until I’d entered junior high.”

    Setting aside the fact that “interface” is used for inanimate objects, unless you are a Wall Street Master of the Universe “power talker”, does Mr. Beaulieu imply that drugs and gang violence are exclusively non-white social phenomena?

    “I felt terrible for all those caught in the middle, and it continued with 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without getting into the politics, my heart cried for those killed–regardless of nationality–because they happen to be in the wrong place at the worst possible time.”

    Invading another country versus defending one’s own country are not equal activities culturally or morally.  There’s a very good reason the Hellenes had a separate god for each activity — Ares for the former, Athena for the latter.  Invasions of other countries, burning girls’ schools and faces and blowing up art works are acts of choice and active implementation; being a civilian casualty is not.

    “I modeled the culture of these people off of ancient Persia, but one need not look too hard to see parallels with what happened in the Middle East.”

    Being the Kurious Kat (this will kill me yet) I went over to Amazon and read the portion of Mr. Beaulieu’s novel that’s available — about half a chapter.  I must give him props for treading less-flattened cultural paths, but Persians are not that poorly defined foggy group, “Middle Easterners”.  Also, when people speak to each other entirely in Russian, adding Nyet and Da is a callow ploy.  The names should be clue enough.

    I wrote a post about safe exoticism, an expansion of my Readercon talk.  Bottom line:  “Write (only) what you know” is death for fiction.  But if you write what you don’t know, also take the trouble to ask those who do know (which should include “native” sources, not just Western white men’s take on the topic).  Of course individuals are not blanket representatives of their culture/gender/etc.  Deeper research won’t make all errors magically disappear, nor will everyone agree on your portrayal.  But it beats writing stories about steampunk Bedouins while never having ventured outside the continental US.

  30. GASP!

    I KNEW IT!

    Damn you, Mamatas. I knew I had a nemesis, but I never imagined it was YOU. Now we need to grind through 20-30 minutes of increasingly pointless footage before our big fight scene, in which I kill you. OR DO I?!!!!!!

  31. Seth,

    Actually, it’s the individuality of the disadvantaged perspective(s) that is precisely why “you’re doing it wrong” is something of a red herring.  If I’ve learned anything in the past 20 years, it’s that there is no “spokesperson” and there is no such thing as The (insert disadvantaged group label here) Perspective.  Just individual perspectives which may or may not have a lot of commonality between them.

    Which does not stop a certain vocal activist personality type from appointing itself as spokesperson; especially among well-meaning (dominant group) people who aren’t experienced enough (with a given disadvantaged group) to know better.

    Now, as to the question of research, if I am writing a historical fiction novel then I agree, I’ve either done the research or I haven’t.  A historical novel comes with an expectation of at least a degree of accuracy.  But if I am writing science fiction or fantasy, I have a vastly great amount of latitude on such matters.  I can “get it right/wrong” as much or as little as I prefer.  I can extrapolate or appropriate where I see fit and there’s really no such thing as “incorrect.”

    Which does not stop a certain pedantic personality type from picking things apart, hunting for any excuse to ding a book or story for inaccuracy.

    My personal rule is that the story’s the thing.  A well-told story with emotionally-gripping drama and well-done characters can “win” despite serial inaccuracies, while a highly accurate tale with flat characters, shallow or nonexistent drama, or which has a poor plot, fails every time.  Regardless of how much research has been done.

  32. Brad R. Torgersen – I’ve seen Mamatas use this term on his blog, and coincidentally I just introduced it to my sophomore students last week. It must be that time of year: welcome to intersubjectivity.

    It’s just as much an oversimplification to talk about “the individuality of the disadvantaged perspective” as it is to suppose a singular, nationwide disadvantaged experience. It’s perfectly possible to identify trends in the experiences of disadvantaged peoples–the suppression of indigenous languages, for instance–and to realize that these cultural experiences tend to manifest in certain ways in individual subcultures. Privileging your own special imagination, as you do, just means you’re using it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, which it isn’t. 

    As for the research thing, well, compare what you say about “well-done” characters versus “flat” ones. What makes that difference in quality? Couldn’t that same difference apply to the setting, or to the depiction of characters’ cultural experience? Secondary worlds may not represent the real world, but they were written in the real world, and they bear the same relationship to it as fictional characters; we judge them by the way they echo and are informed by what we know of our own world. “Accurate” is a misleading word; “convincing” or “compelling” might be better. If I set my fantasy novel in the majestic cloud cities of Hergdibble, in which every household has a coteries of slaves who are happy and fulfilled in their slavery, you would be right to call me on that, because we know from real-world experience that that’s not how slavery works. And you would be justified in wondering whether I had some real-world reason for writing such a story.

    I’m sorry, but I still don’t see your arguments as anything but criticism deflectors. Teaching undergraduate art students, I get that kind of “but it’s all subjective!” thing quite a lot. But most of them already know better.

  33. << How does Mr. Beaulieu know that it did so, if his knowledge of that group is as scant as he describes? >>

    I didn’t mean to imply that I’ve led a sheltered existence *my entire life*, only that my childhood was so, at least in this respect. I’ve been a software consultant for two decades now, and most of my working career has incorporated travel. So I’ve been all across the US for work, and, well, I don’t know, you develop an ear for these things, don’t you? I think you do, and though I haven’t studied language and accents, it seemed genuine enough to me.

    << Setting aside the fact that “interface” is used for inanimate objects, >>

    As mentioned above, please forgive the inelegant language. I come from a software/programming background, and we use interfacing all the time with respect to people, groups, etc. I can see how someone would read it differently, but nothing was meant by it beyond finding a word that encapsulated all the things one can do with another person or group: talk, play, love, fight, what have you.

    << unless you are a Wall Street Master of the Universe “power talker”, does Mr. Beaulieu imply that drugs and gang violence are exclusively non-white social phenomena? >>

    I thought about this after posting, and I can only say that this was a byproduct of me trying to keep the word count low. Drugs and violence were a part of the story I mentioned, at least obliquely, and so it was in my head as I was writing the post. I didn’t mean to imply that either are limited to any one social or racial group.

    << Invading another country versus defending one’s own country are not equal activities culturally or morally.  There’s a very good reason the Hellenes had a separate god for each activity — Ares for the former, Athena for the latter.  Invasions of other countries, burning girls’ schools and faces and blowing up art works are acts of choice and active implementation; being a civilian casualty is not. >>

    I understand what you’re saying here, but not how it relates to my post. Did you assume that I was equating the two by expressing grief over those killed, regardless of nationality? If so, I was really referring more to civilian bystanders than I was the military. Setting aside the morality of those wars, which is another subject entirely, I was expressing the confusion and rage and impotence I felt when watching the children and mothers and fathers who were killed in the conflicts, whether they were villagers in Afghanistan, city dwellers in Iraq, or businesswomen in the World Trade Centers. And when I mentioned an invasion of the U.S., I was simply relating my thoughts at the time, wondering what it would be like to be in their shoes. I know, I can’t truly relate without having the same cultural background and touchstones and flare points, but that doesn’t stop the mind from trying.

    << Also, when people speak to each other entirely in Russian, adding Nyet and Da is a callow ploy. >>

    Though I’m loath to defend my work (really I am), I’ll digress for the sake of exploring writing technique. There are two languages used in the first book and three in the second. A fourth is added in the third book. Sure, I understand that the characters are speaking the same language and so there’s no need to translate yes and no when nearly all the other words are being translated to modern English, but I did so in each of the languages as a visual cue for the reader to keep them planted more firmly in one cultural mode vs. another. I’ve no idea if for most readers it worked or was more of a distraction than it was worth, but that was the idea.

    << I wrote a post about safe exoticism, an expansion of my Readercon talk. >>

    Thanks for the link. I’ll definitely give it a read.

  34. Seth, your point about convincing versus accurate is right on the nose and conflating the two is a common strategy to continue as before.  Worn-down excuses are just that.  Partial list thereof:

    When someone has either not done the research or wants to have happy slaves/Gor-style dancing girls in their novel –

    “This is fantasy, I can mix and match at will!” (these are often the same people who abhor “shoehorned diversity” as non-believable in genres that postulate magic and unicorns)

    “It’s all subjective!” (which makes strange bedfellows when used by people who are otherwise bastions of the status quo)

    “My wife/mistress/concubine is a feminist/non-white/non-American and she liked the story!” (which of course elevates/burdens the person to being the sole representative of their group)

    When neither content nor style pass muster –

    “My work is being boycotted.” (even when it’s available free on the Internet)

    “You’re pedantic/humorless/mean to meeeeee!” (often ab/using the term ad hominem as bonus)

    “It’s a novel of IDEAS!” (to use po-mo terms: it sucks intersectionally)

    Funny, if it weren’t sad…

  35. Mr. Beaulieu –

    indeed we all bring our cultural and personal backgrounds to a discussion; the trouble comes when one of those becomes the default setting of an entire genre.  It’s equally true that it’s hard to convey nuances in the sound bites favored by the Internet.

    My recommendation is that you have a few Others read the rest of the novels in your series before they’re finalized, with a non-American at the top of the list.  As I said in my original comment, it looks like you’re attempting to write something off the trodden path; input from a less homogeneous reading group might make it unique.

  36. The issue with representing other cultures is often complicated by the influence of external media. I mean movies, TV shows and the like. We are bombarded with popular entertainment that contains a number of stereotypes. We digest it. We internalize. Sometimes we spit it out without realizing it. So, for example, without intending harm, we base our ideas about Latin American culture on the multiple episodes of CSI and produce well… a caricature.

    When I was growing up in Mexico I watched lots of shows and stuff set in the USA. Based on those shows I concluded young people from the USA were all Caucasian, heavy drinking, drug using, McDonalds eating, ST bearing, violent creatures. Of course, when I went to college in the USA I discovered this was not the case. Why, there were African Americans in my class and vegetarians and not everyone pulled out a gun while driving in traffic.

    Had I remained with only my slim concepts of what people in the USA were, any characters from there would look mighty weird nowadays.

    We can all make mistakes when tackling different cultures because we don’t check the baggage we carry from constant media exposure.

  37. Looks to me like there are a few people anxious to “educate” Brad, dragging out their Whatever 101 lectures, with the assumption that this is stuff Brad doesn’t know. It’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that Brad can and does use google, and has been studying up. I dunno. A guy says “interfacing” and everyone assumes he’s some ignorant cracker.

     

  38. Gosh Andrew, Brad in his first response thanks Laura for the links she provided and says that he’ll delve into them. Clearly, he didn’t mean it! Now I have to go dip my interface in disinfectant…

  39. I know what you mean about soaking in media images and spitting out caricatures, Sylvia. I did that once with an African character in one of my works — nothing particularly pernicious, I don’t think; I just borrowed images from media rather than thinking through what those different physical signifiers (hair, clothing, accent) would really mean about the character. Didn’t do my research because the character was only on stage for one scene. The character came across as a jumbled mess. Not a real person. I was hugely embarrassed when I realized it. *back to the drawing board!*

  40. Seth: well, I guess I just have to “fail” your litmus.  Bummer for me.  Though I would say that it could be a fascinating (and controversial) SFnal project, examining what technological and sociological circumstances could theoretically lead to a “happy slave” society.  We might consider such a concept morally repugnant, but then SF has often tried to take that which is considered morally repugnant and turn it on its ear.

    Andrew: I see this happen a lot with the “ally” culture, because nobody is in a bigger hurry to “educate” the supposed ignorant than those who are desperate to prove they’re the Good Guys in the “ally” equation.

    Athena: I think you and Seth may be drilling down on this far, far past the point most readers are willing to drill down on it.  Granted, in SF&F circles there is a subset of “wonkish” fans and professionals who make a point of focusing on this topic.  But I am not sure the “conversation” has much traction with a majority of consumers.  Because it is, unfortunately, a highly academic conversation that uses a lot of words and concepts that either don’t exist in the mind of the lay reader, or have different definitions for the lay reader.

    Which leads me to wondering if all of this isn’t just sailing the proverbial ship in the bottle?

  41. Gee, looks like I’m not going to get that list of scolds Brad T. promised he could povide, given a list of marginalized populations.

     

    Well, no surprise there.

  42. Well, Nick, you’re perfectly correct!

    I don’t want to go peeing in any specific bowls of cornflakes, but let’s just say that the quality of advice has, to my eye, not really gone UP much from that initial posting with the links.

     

  43. Silvia, great points. Growing up as one of the MTV generation, I readily admit that my perceptions were colored largely by media. I like to think I’ve grown up a bit since then, but it’s certainly an issue, and I’m sure a lot of my gut reactions to news and events and interactions are still colored by that upbringing.

    I wonder how the YouTube generation will be biased. Certainly not in the same ways. I imagine they’ll have access to more widely available material, and so in some ways they *could* become more accepting. Then again, what we’re seeing now in politics (and it’s leaking over into our moral structure here in the US) is the advent of these “islands” of morality and social leadership. Those that wish to steep themselves in a particular point of view can do so, more so than they could a decade ago simply because there are now these self-feeding sources of ideology. On the one hand, there are some that preach acceptance and understanding, but these seem to be outweighed by those that preach isolationism and protectionism, which can very quickly lead to a widening of social, economical, and racial lines, not only in America but across the globe.

  44. Nick, in case I’ve not made it obvious elsewhere, I consider you to be a dishonest prankster in these kinds of conversations.  A self-important yuk-yuk man with his fingers crossed behind his back.  You may or may not realize it, but you’ve earned yourself a shabby reputation among many SF writers for your internet antics.  As one SF&F pro I know and esteem told me last year, “You do realize he’s doing it all for attention, don’t you?”  So I elect to respond to you as seldom as possible.  I’d not have responded to this thread at all if it didn’t seem obvious to me that you were linking to it in a deliberate attempt to stir up trouble via your cult-of-personality troupe.  Which is what you almost always do.  Again, shabby.

  45. Also, when people speak to each other entirely in Russian, adding Nyet and Da is a callow ploy. 

    I disagree, Athena.  I think it helps keep the reader in the frame that this is a Slavic culture. 

     

    Should a translation, of, say, Dostoevsky eschew all Russian words on the basis that its a translation?

     

     

  46. Understood, Brad T. You don’t actually have the names you said you had.  Yes yes, it’s all about me and you just decided to respond here to save the day from me because I’m so awful you don’t want to respond to me. (Huh? Exactly!) The Crazy Orc Horde of Omarosas certainly isn’t one of your perennial hobbyhorses.  And it’s not that you’ve been asked for evidence and object to the very notion of such a thing in other venues (say Scalzi’s joint) on other topics (say, federal budgets).

     

    I’m also amused by your concern with my reputation. Christ, it’s not even “Lurkers support me in email!” it’s “Some unnamed person I was venting at gave me a blow-off and I don’t even know it!”

     

     

  47. Brad R. T.: I think you and Seth may be drilling down on this far, far past the point most readers are willing to drill down on it.

    Well, sure. That’s our point, or at least it’s mine. In fact, I think it’s Brad B’s original point, and the point of Laura Mixon’s comments. Many people would rather not think about this stuff too deeply; that’s why many people keep getting this stuff wrong. If I use academic terminology, it’s because I’m familiar with those terms, and they’re useful and accurate. I don’t think intersubjectivity is a tough one to grasp.

    I’d also point out that the O.P. was specifically about a writer’s perspective, not that of “most readers,” whoever they are. Whatever readers are or aren’t willing to think about, professional authors ought to take care to do their job well, which, again, is Brad B’s point. They ought to want to do their job well. That means accurately representing different kinds of people.

  48. Hey Paul,

    Specific words that can not be easily translated, maybe. Like if I’m talking in Spanish I wouldn’t translate “atole” as “mush” because it’s a specific drink. But you should be able to understand that my characters are Mexican without me having to add a gratitious “Si” y “Andale” like they do in the movies where the characters are speaking in English (while supposedly they are speaking Spanish) and then for colour they throw a random word like “por favor”.

  49. Paul:

    It’s one thing if you want to denote something that doesn’t exist outside that particular culture or can only be named/described with a long string of words.  For example, if you want to say borscht, izba, troika, etc.  That will give you plenty of cultural framing, whether it’s an original or a translation.  Yes and no… ixnay.

     

     

  50. Nick, I’m not sure if I should be flattered or creeped out that you pay that much attention to what I write on other spaces.  And yes, the Omarosa factor is a hobbyhorse of mine because finger-pointing of the sort you’re adept at is poisonous in my opinion.  Brad B. wrote a conscientious and thoughtful article about what is for many a potentially explosive topic, and your first action was to insult him for it.  I realize that a writer like me is low-hanging fruit in your ideological game of whack-a-mole.  But what has Brad B. done to earn your scorn?  Nothing, so far as I can tell.  And this is almost always the case with genre people whom you choose to target.  Shabby is the most generous way I can describe it.  And now I have reached my quota for talking to you for the year.

  51. Yes, who on Earth reads Scalzi’s blog except for…everyone. What can I say; you make a spectacle of yourself, Brad T., so your hinjinks are easy to remember.

    Brad B’s article has some thoughtful elements, though it actually isn’t about what it says on the tin—it’s not about “poltiical correctness” for example. I know that term actually has very little meaning, but I think most people understand the term as having a negative connotation: it’s the social phenomenon of language policing and euphemism. He doesn’t discuss the actually existing phenomenon of “PC” at all.

    Then there’s “interface”, which isn’t offensive (no need to apologize for it on that ground Brad B.) but also manages to be at right angles with how English is actually used.  He’s a writer, right? This piece is being written to discuss his book—the cover leads right to amazon!—so, yeah, as a regular reader of this site if I see some content that isn’t well-thought out I’m going to mention it here. I also objected to the SFSignal review of Transformers 3 that gave the film 3.5 stars. (Out of five that is, not 3.5 out of  “all the stars in the sky.”) Yet no right-wing white-knighting emerged from that!

    And when the usual crowd of wannabe He-Men who are just! so! victimized! by…well, by whom, who knows because they’re universally too cowardly to name any names or have a real discussion, show up, I’m going to point that out too. To his credit, Brad B. didn’t engage with any of the usual He-Man hobbyhorses, but when one subtitles one piece “One Writer’s Thoughts on Political Correctness” one is making an open invitation to all sorts of semiliterates to show up and complain about their work being criticized. And hey, you showed up!

    But anyone who only wants positive feedback should share their writing only with their mamas. No writer you hold in esteem ever tell you that? They should have.

     

  52. @Paul,

    I disagree, Athena.  I think it helps keep the reader in the frame that this is a Slavic culture. 

    What is a Slavic culture? Cultures of Slavic countries vary widely.

    Not every Slavic language uses net and da for no and yes. I once corrected a friend who used da to indicate that his character was Czech, while yes in Czech is actually ano. (it matters; perhaps not to everyone, but it matters, just as it matters to get the science right, although many readers may skip the science).

    Thee are many ways to describe a culture by talking about the culture’s language(s), but indicating how basic words (such as yes and no) sound in that language tells us very little, if anything, about the actual culture.

     

    Should a translation, of, say, Dostoevsky eschew all Russian words on the basis that its a translation?

     

    Have you ever looked at a translation of Dostoyevsky? There are quite a few of them floating around, by various translators, but to my knowledge not a single one of them has an instance of da or net, or any other common word, floating in a sea of English.  

  53. Paul, the words “nyet” and “da” do not appear in English translations of Dostoyevsky’s works – at least none that I have ever read. As far as I’m aware it’s a primarily filmic technique, usually accompanying a comedy Russian accent, and subsequently copied by writers too lazy to develop an actual character. Much easier to use familiar stereotypes that are already embedded in readers’ minds – why should the writer put the effort in when s/he can make the reader recall something, eh? 

    As Athena subsequently pointed out, a word with a unique meaning within a culture is fair game. FWIW, I checked the Gutenberg editions of various works by D, and did find three instances of “da” in The Brothers Karamazov – in the phrase “auto da fe”, which is a Spanish phrase and a fine example of the sort of usage Athena is talking about! 

  54. In the words of Fat Poppa, “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit.  You wanna get sumthin, gotta work hard for it!”

  55. Tough issues seem to surface in stories from time to time. Race, religion, politics, and beliefs are controversial, often. But, the writer’s beliefs often are expressed in his or her writings.

    I agree with the author of the article. We, as writers, should be willing to include controversial subjects in our writings, as opposed to not mentioning them at all. However, one must not go overboard on including controversial topics. We need to tread carefully.

    I like Bradley’s insight on this topic. It was an interesting article.

Comments are closed.