04 October 2015

To Write PC or Not to Write PC?

Do you write what you preach? Are fiction authors supposed to promote their personal values? Or is the story a self-contained entity with its own political views? Must or should the author reveal personal positions on every social and political issues undergoing discussion in the public arena? Or is the story just a story and everything political is throw to the wind for the sake of the story? 
(Apologies for using a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual image.)
Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book. In this case, the writer is a "he" and the story involves a "she" as the main character. What could go wrong? one might ask. Many male authors have written female protagonists, and certainly many female authors have written male protagonists. Still, perceptions exist. "Write what you know" is an old axiom, and yet if that were to be followed religiously, a writer would only be allowed to write his (or "his or her") autobiography.

Conversely, the writer is supposedly imbued with a welter of imagination, able to leap tall plots in a single bound, about to stop dastardly antagonists with bare hands (obviously, on a keyboard). So it should go beyond the "write what you know"--shouldn't it? It is the mark of an author that he/she can make you believe he/she knows what he/she is writing about. So, if we allow for rule number 3, then anything goes. 

However, there are plenty of instances where readers get in the way. I mean that is a wholly innocent sense. If writing for a particular class of reader, the writer may shape the story in a certain way to appeal to that reader, say in genre-driven stories. Part of that may be, say, to use initials instead of a name or to use a pen name complete;y to hide the gender of the author. Because a Romance author cannot be a man...in theory. And a hardcore sci-fi author cannot be female...traditionally.

I don't intend to focus on, say, gender issues, but today we seem surrounded by issues of all kinds, political and social, which make me wonder. Do authors include their personal values and views in their fiction writing? For example, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, do you write stories in which the traditional opposite-sex marriage is the only option? Granted, the world of the story may demand such, but if the author feels strongly about the issue, might there not be some occurrence in the story of a same-sex marriage?

If an author is against, say, guns...would the story be gun-free? If the author believes in a nation having a strong military and the government protecting its citizens by militarizing city police forces, would that idea be reflected in the author's latest book? If the author is a card-carrying conservative opposed to abortion, would the character in the story who gets pregnant have an abortion or, more likely, have the baby and offer it for adoption? It starts to get complicated. Or perhaps it's very easy. Do your characters act as you would act?

I have to say here that the examples in the preceding paragraphs were cherry-picked and do not reflect my own personal positions on those issues--or perhaps they do. You can never know for sure, because we like to keep our beliefs private. Or do we? Plenty of us speak up and speak out on whatever we believe is right or should be right, and we either find those who agree speaking with us or those who disagree trying to shout us down. The third column, which I suspect is the largest one, remains mostly silent--or dabbles in subtle sarcasm just to be able to vent when necessary to maintain personal mental health. 

And then there is the marketing question. If an author writes books in which the characters act as he/she would, espouse views the author would espouse, act as the author would act with regard to a whole host of political and social issues, views, and positions, where does that leave the reader? Could that reader like a story enough to buy it even though the reader and the author may have different views on, say, immigration reform? Or do we authors censor ourselves so as to be as mild-mannered as possible and not offend anyone who just might be tempted to buy our book? Tough questions--or non-issues?

Perhaps many writers, authors, dabblers in words, whatever the label, just don't care about such matters because just writing an interesting story is hard enough and we don't have time to be concerned about things outside the story. Or are we politely disingenuous, hiding our true nature and our true beliefs and values for the sake of that interesting story, afraid to speak out about something we feel strongly about because we worry about offending fellow authors and potential readers. 

Fiction writers, as a clan, do not generally deal with pontification; we do not write a work of fiction solely to push our view of how the world should be. Or do we? Or should we? Or...why shouldn't we?

In my latest novel, still in the final tweaking stage, my protagonist uses guns. She hunts for food. Later she is a soldier. (You may notice the pronoun "she"--which may imply to some that I have a second strike against me in that a male writer shouldn't write about a female protagonist.) Two valid uses of guns. However, the recent (yet again!) mass shooting on a school campus brings the issue of guns to the forefront once again. I almost feel the need to apply a "trigger warning" to a book where there is (or may be) the shooting of a gun. Is that where we are heading as writers? 

I am quite aware of the three strikes already against me as I step up to the plate with my book in my hands, ready to swing at an outfield full of readers (personally, I am opposed to sports metaphors being used in subjects unrelated to sports, but I do so here strictly for the potential humor): 1) I'm a male writer with a female protagonist; 2) I'm not the same ethnicity/race as my protagonist; 3) I grew up in a city with two married parents and I'm writing about an orphan in a small village. 

But let me plunk down that huge weight on the other side of the scale: imagination, research, and a beta reader who is female, the same ethnicity as my protagonist, and an orphan from a small village. I hope I got the story right--and by "right" I mean authentic, no matter what social and political issues are swirling around the social media forums and bookstores of this world as I write it and offer it to readers.

Sure, the literary canon is full of writers who pushed agendas, who wrote dogmatic tales, who left strongly-worded suggestions of how we should behave, what we should think, what we should do or stop doing--woven more or less subtly through a fictional narrative that served to entertain us long enough to get the message across. Or were they simply good stories which only in hindsight do we see a message or a warning? 

And yet, in this present day world of saying the right thing, being politically correct or decidedly not, what is the author's responsibility...or compulsion?

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Replies
    1. I was provoked by social media friends. Present company excepted.

  2. You raise interesting issues regarding whether or not writer's have some kind of societal obligation. All writers bring their personal experiences and biases to the keyboard. It can't be helped, it's part of the writer's voice.

    Political correctness, whiles understandable in many ways, alarms me because it's become a means to silence dissent. I strongly believe in the concept of free political speech even if the speaker's message is offensive to me personally. A writer should have the same freedom.

    I think you named out the important point--authenticity. As Samuel Clemens said, "Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please."

    1. Many thanks for your comments! I strive to be controversial once or twice a year.