People have Deals. Large ones, small ones. Some of our Deals are plain to see. Others are hidden by accident or design. A lot of us have multiple Deals. Everyone has them. Everyone. Everyone except fictional characters. Right?!?
I write fiction. I write escapism. Brain candy. I write so that I can get away and maybe just maybe someone else can get a few moments respite from their Deals. From the Deals of others. Isn’t that what writing, what art, entertainment is about? At least part of the time, anyway?
Yes and No. We want our characters to have issues. We love it when we read something and go “Yea! Went there, got the t-shirt and the tattoo!”
We have warts. Baggage. Sets of baggage. Carts of sets of baggage. Our characters should as well. We want to be entertained, yes. But we also want to grow, be enriched by the experience. Better they should skin their knees and we learn from it. Less pain involved. Sometimes.
To paraphrase writer Suzy Parish, “Words have power. Writers, responsibility.” Her debut novel ‘Flowers from Afghanistan’ touches on, among other things, post-traumatic stress disorder. Voltaire said it first: With great power comes great responsibility.
So it’s agreed. Good fictional characters should probably have issues, too. But the author, the book, we don’t want either of them to have issues.
One of my favorite books is Dune. Sexist? No! I mean, for fraks sake, Frank’s wife Beverly was also a writer. She likely served as a sounding board for much of his work. And, and besides…
No. In fact, hard stop.
This year a social media group was asked “What book would you recommend to someone just starting out in the genre?” A lively exchange ensued as people posted their favorites. Others voiced concerns with some of the suggestions. Older works, for the most part–but some recent books as well.
Two favorites I’m likely to recommend are “The Dispossessed” by Le Guin and “Mote in God’s Eye” by Niven and Pournelle. Both are problematic and, like a lot of older works, called out for sexism and/or poor treatment of women.
Take, for example, a recent Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W Campbell award winning novel. Time Magazine listed the novel as “one of the Top 10 Fiction Books of the year, regardless of genre. It succeeds in spite of bad science and an even worse handling of women.”
Yes Really. I pushed through that particular novel. I, too had difficulty with several passages. They lowered my opinion of the book. Rather a lot. Other readers said:
“I got to the first rape scene and stopped reading right there.”
“The only other major female character is an outwardly cold, unfeeling lesbian.”
Rightly or not, for a lot of readers these are:
On the new DUNE movie:
“My biggest problem with the newest film coming out came when I read that Denis Villeneuve shot most of the Arrakis scenes in the deserts of Jordan. Are you kidding me? The fact that it’s not even shot on location in Arrakis is going to ruin the film for me. How are we supposed to believe that this is an alien world when it’s filmed on Earth? This most likely means there probably won’t even be real sandworms in the film. What a joke.” – Beomilf
Thank you, Beomilf. We needed that.
Seriously, though. The John W Campbell Award was recently renamed. The 2019 winner, Jeannette Ng, said in her acceptance speech “He is responsible for setting a tone for science fiction that haunts this genre to this very day.”
Sponsor Analog Science Fiction and Fact changed the name of the award to “the Astounding Award for Best New Writer” Good on her. Good on them. Part of their response is below:
“We neither want to paper over the flaws of those who have come before us, nor reduce them to caricatures. But we have reached a point where the conversation around the award is in danger of focusing more on its namesake than the writers it was intended to recognize and elevate, and that is something nobody—even Campbell himself—would want.”
A lot of people cited Orwell and cried “Censorship!” And then this:
Thank you, George! I need to hang with you and Beomilf.
A work will stand–or fall–on its own merit. Works can and will be impacted by public perception of the author. I now re-read books before recommending them. The two I mentioned earlier? I stand by them, warts and all. I don’t justify or try to minimize the warts.
I’m also reading for better, newer recommendations. I hope the characters have Deals. Well researched, included for the right reason deals, like Ren in Emma Newman’s Planetfall. Not the author.