Writing -Isms

How do we write fiction that addresses problems in society without sounding too didactic or moralistic?

Bertolt Brecht said “screw it” to the second half of that sentence, and wrote plays in which the characters shouted their ideologies at the audience. His “theatre of alienation” was a conscious choice and one way to approach the question of how to make socially-engaged art, but many people were turned off by his approach. Which was okay with him, because, see, “alienation.”

There is always, of course, the choice to write stories from the point of view of the victims of social or cultural inequity. This requires asking your audience to empathize with someone in what is often a very different situation than they are. Good writing and compelling storytelling is meant to encourage the audience to identify with someone who is discriminated against in whatever way–the inner city child hoping to become a chemist who struggles for access to education, or the young person with spina bifida who deals with ingrained assumptions that she will not be able to perform the job she is applying for. The ability to provoke this empathy is one of the most beautiful things about storytelling.

Sometimes, though, we want to sneak our social analysis into the picture. Sometimes we’re not sure that the people who need to be seeing these depictions of the basic humanity of others who are not superficially like them will actually show up. Sometimes we fear that we’re just preaching to the choir. There is something to be said for telling the story from the perspective you find most problematic.

I read a great article along those lines today from The Atlantic, entitled “How Junot Diaz Wrote a Sexist Character, But Not a Sexist Book.”

For the record, I think we need both stories from the points of view of the people encountering prejudice and discrimination and from the points of view of those perpetrating it. It’s vital that people in a tough situation have stories that represent them; it’s also important to take an unflinching look at things as they are and ask, “How did we get here?” Maybe–but not necessarily–to suggest, “How can we get somewhere better, or more fair?”

I don’t really like to read blatantly moralistic books or to see didactic plays. Sometimes they’re done well, but I prefer to come to conclusions for myself. I like a nicely nuanced portrayal of the world, because I see the world as a ridiculously complicated place with layers upon layers determining all that we see and do. I also like a good story, and when an agenda is too clear, it can be hard to get lost in a good story.

I’m thinking about “pr0ne” right now. In writing it, we were adamant that we did not want to make any statement on the grand, sweeping question, “Is pornography good or bad?” We wanted to hold up a flashlight to some parts of our culture and to make people take a good look at them, but ultimately, we wanted those people to take from it what they would.

We chose to do this by creating characters who had definite opinions of their own. We didn’t intend for any one character to speak as “the voice of the writers,” although you could make the argument that in numbers like the finale, the ensemble was doing just that. Still, we wanted to err on the side of pointing out, not of pointing fingers. Of drawing sketches and not conclusions.

Once a piece of art is out there, however, it’s no longer a matter (in my book) of what the writers intended. The reader or the audience member or the viewer gets to make of it what they will. Some people came out of “pr0ne” thinking it was horribly misogynistic and supportive of rape culture. This threw me personally, because I am, I would like to think, a pretty outspoken critic of rape culture. Some people hated certain characters for how they treated women, while others loved them despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they were pretty terrible to everyone, and pretty obviously not intended as role models. Some people absolutely loved it and thought our depiction of pornography’s role in modern America as spot-on.

As you’ll see if you read the Diaz article, “This Is How You Lose Her” got similar mixed reviews. At a certain level, as a creator, you figure you’re doing something right if your work garners controversy. At least it made people feel something, or think something. At least people are talking about it.

I don’t want to imply, however, that writing characters (or even narrators, or even protagonists) who are complicit in some kind of discrimination is easy. Or that you can’t get it wrong. You certainly risk alienating some audience members, even without shouting some message at them from a soapbox. I remember the first time I read “Lolita,” I couldn’t get past the fact that the narrator was a pedophile. My margin notes were all, “BUT YOU’RE MANIPULATING HER” and “SHE’S A CHILD, YOU MONSTER.” Do I think Vladimir Nabokov was sanctioning child sexual abuse? No I do not. Humbert Humbert is a monster, a peculiar, a fascinating, a rationalizing monster, and I now think that is is not merely worthwhile but important to read from his twisted point of view. Like it is that we read from Dexter’s point of view, or that of Hannibal Lecter. It’s not until we see how close we might be to being monsters ourselves that we fully understand the importance of maintaining our humanity. I also think it’s important to understand where we ourselves are on hurting people in perhaps less or perhaps more monstrous ways. Sometimes you figure that out by seeing from the perspective of someone like you…and then seeing the effect of their actions, which might be pretty darn similar to yours.

There’s a line to walk here. I think part of it is that you have to show the effect of the actions of the discriminating party on the discriminated. Diaz does this by including one story from the point of view of a woman, and by having Yunior realize in his last story that his mistreatment of women has resulted from, and perpetuated, problems within himself. In “pr0ne,” we told the story of a young woman who found herself exposed against her will, showed you how the people in her life reacted, and then showed what we as a society do every day with people in her situation. It may work for you or it may not, but I think it’s worth the effort.

What do you think? Does this method of storytelling work for you?

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