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So then I got this idea about driving a cheesecake truck.
AJ
ann_leckie
No such thing as just a story.

I said it before, where I meant you should take your work seriously and give it the attention it deserves. But it also means something else. Or maybe, there's a corollary to that, an important one.

Remember I also said you could hack your brain with metaphors. I think this works because narrative, story, is a basic function of the way humans think. We're almost constantly making split second decisions in extremely complex situations, and one of the ways we do that--possibly the way we do that--is to access the stories we've got filed away in our memories, pull one out that looks like it might fit, and use that as a template for how we should react. So what stories we have in inventory is pretty darn important.



Think I'm full of it? Well, maybe I am--but this study suggests I'm not.

Further (or perhaps, as a result), I believe that all stories are political. All stories contain and transmit ideas about how people should or shouldn't relate to each other, how the world should be, what you are and what people who aren't you are.

Now, this doesn't mean that I think all writers should write stories that match my ideas of what's right, or that every story ought to be written with the intention of impressing one's views on others. Quite the contrary. I'm not generally a fan of overtly didactic stories.[1] If I wanted sermons I'd be in church right now, instead of in my jammies with my feet on the space heater. And I think any given writer ought to write according to her own truth.

This is where that "honesty" idea comes back. And ambition, too. Take the first story idea that comes to your head. Decorate it up pretty and put it on the page. Did you stop to think what that story really implies? If what it implies is honest and true, to you, then well and good. But chances are, if you didn't take the time to question the thing that you first reached for, you're just going to be adding glitter to a template that's been in thoughtless use for decades. And passing it on--and it's entirely possible that if you looked closer you'd prefer not to have passed that template on without a significant modification. It might not be something you want to have said.

There are tons of these templates, and they matter. They especially matter when they're popular, when they're standards. Boy wins girl as prize for completing great adventure! Mystical, close-to-nature noble savages need a white man to lead them to victory! Bleah!

Now, if you look at the template you've grabbed--because honestly, we all grab a template first--and you decide that yes, it says what you want it to say, then by all means, you write that.[2] I am not trying to tell anyone to toe my line. But I suspect that more often than not, you're going to want to handle it very carefully, to make sure that everything you say is honestly true by your lights. Whether I or any other reader ultimately agree with you or not is irrelevant. What's important is that you take pains to say what you mean to say. What you say won't be easily digested down to a single sentence. If it were, you could have written that sentence and gone on to some other project ages ago. What you're doing is not pronouncing an edict, but engaging in a conversation at the most basic level of human thought.

You don't need to lecture a reader--for Mithras' sake, don't!--or even intend for there to be any political message in your stories. It will be there, and it will get across, no matter what you do. Especially if your story is well-crafted, it will take its place with the other templates in your readers' minds.

And at some level, readers will be comparing your story to the traces left by other stories she's read. Some templates are so entrenched, so often repeated, so foundational in a given culture, that they've been absorbed unquestioned to the point that new stories that clash with them are experienced as "wrong," or perhaps just "not very good." (See, in the background, the can of worms, which I will not open just now.) The reader can't maybe tell you why she has this reaction. She could if she questioned her existing inventory of templates, but we're not in the habit of questioning them, anyone who raises the issue is admonished not to "think too hard" about things, not to be so politically correct, after all, it's just a story!

Nuh-uh. No such thing.

I'm not suggesting you seal yourself off from anything that doesn't match some list of approved moral positions, (or make sure all your fiction is morally correct somehow). I'm suggesting that if you watch or read something with gorgeous special effects and actiony action and it made you squee, and you don't stop to think about what templates the story is handing you, you're not going to have any control over the way the template is affecting your assumptions.

The way to have control over how the metaphors and stories you ingest affect your thinking is to know they're doing it and to be aware of how they're working. You have to think about them to do that, have to question them. If you're a writer, in my opinion you should be doing that as a matter of course, just to improve your abilities. If you're not a writer, well, pick your own level of analysis. If that's just "Squee!" fine. But just because you don't see the subtext doesn't mean it isn't there, and worth questioning. The people who question it aren't "just being politically correct." (And oh, how I hate that term. What it really means is "politics I don't agree with or do not want to have to confront just now." Notice, concerns urgent to oneself never receive the label, just the issues one feels one can dismiss because they're trivial to oneself. But I digress.)

The way to be sure you're not saying something to your readers that you would never in a million years want to say, if you knew you were saying it, is to question your premise, your story, examine it and think very hard about what you honestly believe, and to be sure that every word in your story is true, to the best of your beliefs. To a large extent, this will be a subconscious process. If something doesn't feel true to you, then don't write it. But I think you should also question, if you can, why something feels true or untrue. That first impulse may be your truth--or it may be the promptings of a template. Always reconsider your first impulse.

I'm not, by the way, advocating the idea of Moral Fiction, the way John Gardner did. I don't think fiction needs to be moral--I think it needs to be honest. Do you really mean to say what you've written, or does what you've written say something you actually don't want to imply? It's important to ask that question. Your answer is not going to be the same as mine. Your answer is important.

Yeah, Ann is taking her fiction way too seriously! She thinks she's making Art with a capital ART.

Well, no, I don't. My ambition is, and always has been, to interest and entertain a reader, to make her keep turning that page. I don't think I always succeed in my ambition--who of us does?

It's just that I think capital A Art as well as swashbuckling adventure fantasy with no other aim than making you turn the page--and everything in between--carries freight.

And while I have no desire to impress my beliefs on anyone else, I have even less desire to transmit beliefs and assumptions that I find offensive. There's some freight I don't want to carry. And some that, when it turns up on my platform, I want to be able to refuse delivery of.

I did not start writing seriously with this set of ideas in place. I started writing seriously because I wanted to tell stories! And have people read them! But once I started really thinking about what I was doing, what I wanted to do, how fiction worked, as far as I could see--once I started pondering all of these issues just as part of formulating my own ideas about writing and art--I found this particular issue to be inescapably connected to other ideas I had considered. From where I'm sitting, the artistic angle of "no such thing as just a story" is inseparable from this other, political angle. And in the end it's a product of my desire to put out the absolutely best work I can--for myself. Since I can't control how anyone else will take it, or whether any editor will buy it, or whether readers will enjoy it or hate it.

For the record, btw, I have written exactly one overtly political story (as in commenting on issues most people would call "politics"), and hardly anyone seems to recognize it as such. The rest are "political" to the extent that they are formed by my values and beliefs, and can not help but communicate those.

This is what I, personally, believe about the intersection of politics and writing. This is not a manifesto. SF&F is a big place. There is room for all sorts of approaches, opinions, techniques, stories, and yes, politics. Do what's working for you. Just, yanno, I'm asking you to think about it. And not to dismiss those of us who do think about it.

____
[1] When I say I'm not a fan of overtly didactic stories, I mean mostly the ones that insult the reader's intelligence by lecturing, or that present their arguments with no nuance. I can think of a number of writers who I know write deliberately political stuff whose work I like very much, but by and large they present things for me to consider, rather than slamming me over the head with orders to see things their way.

[2]Sometimes what you're writing is uncomfortable. Sometimes it comes out all messy and you're not entirely sure what to think about that. My description here makes it sound like everything is always thematically straightforward, and all issues raised are ones you have definite, well-grounded opinions about. But sometimes, well, sometimes it's messy. That's okay, IMO--I just think a writers should stay honest and aware.

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Aristotle observed long ago that metaphors -- the ability to see likenesses -- was the one essential gift of a poet (imaginative writer) and the one that can not be taught.

That's very interesting. It took me a long time--when I was a child the whole idea of metaphor was opaque to me.

I suspect some people never become able to see them, but I think more do than not. I have no evidence for this assertion, though.

I suspect all stories have messages beyond the mere plotline, it's just that in some cases the writers themselves are unaware of those messages. These would be cases in which the writer unconsciously went for the handy template, as you describe. It felt comfortable, and the writer didn't probe the assumptions.

I'd like to understand what you're meaning by political, though, because I feel like there can be some fairly profound stories that aren't necessarily political--and I'm not limiting political to meaning elections and candidates and things; I understand it more broadly to include societal issues and so on... but aren't there still other topics that aren't quite political? For example, stories about growing in empathy, or widening your perceptions. If your story was about growing in empathy with someone disenfranchised (or, for that matter, about growing in empathy with an oppressor), then I can see the political overtones, but what about if the story dealt with growing in empathy with a parent or a sibling, for example?

I suppose the question is kind of tangential, really. I bring it up mainly because there have been (and continue to be) societies that sought (seek) to regulate writers' output based on the notion that all writing is political. It seems like it might be a restrictive way of reading...

I'd like to understand what you're meaning by political, though, because I feel like there can be some fairly profound stories that aren't necessarily political--and I'm not limiting political to meaning elections and candidates and things; I understand it more broadly to include societal issues and so on... but aren't there still other topics that aren't quite political? For example, stories about growing in empathy, or widening your perceptions.

I think then you'd have to ask, what does widening perceptions mean? What is a valid widening and what isn't? What is empathy and what isn't? And are either of those--widening perceptions or growing in empathy--necessarily good?

They are by my lights, but imagine someone who believes that any perceptions that might contradict a set worldview are bad, because holding to the one worldview is the only way to be "good"? To such a reader, any story that communicates the value of widening perceptions is going to carry a message--one they're opposed to. And the question of whether widening perceptions is good or bad is a societal issue--just look at the attempts to suppress actual science in science class in favor of one group's religious beliefs.

Same for empathy. The stories about growing in empathy for someone disenfranchised or an oppressor are not different in kind from stories about growing in empathy for someone your culture already says you should empathize with--it's just a matter of that story underlining and reinforcing the already-approved list of people one should empathize with, instead of arguing for something that isn't immediately and obviously approved by one's society. Or arguing against some value the society holds. Agreeing and approving and underlining are just as political as contradicting or arguing or undermining. They just don't feel so confrontational, so they go unquestioned.

In short, I think that often stories that conform very much with already held values are not perceived as political--but they are.

I bring it up mainly because there have been (and continue to be) societies that sought (seek) to regulate writers' output based on the notion that all writing is political. It seems like it might be a restrictive way of reading...

Yeah, I'd be against regulating any writer's output, myself. And I hesitated posting this, because of the danger of coming across as though I was saying that all writers should regulate their output so as to be politically acceptable. Which isn't what I'm saying, really.

The observation that all writing is political doesn't lead necessarily to the conclusion that all output should be regulated. And claiming that some writing isn't won't, IMO, change the minds of the folks who think all writing should be regulated. Our putative "widening perceptions are harmful" person (not an abstract construct, actually, I know a few in real life) might grant that your widening perceptions story was not political, but still consider it actively harmful, since it valorized something they found harmful, and might (and often does!) seek to regulate it on that basis alone. Or else will make that very common division--"Not all stories are political, of course--see these stories here that are merely wholesome, and moral. These stories here, however, are immoral. They are pushing a political message that is harmful. Therefore, we must regulate writers' output for the good of society, so that we have only non-political, moral fiction, and none of that immoral stuff."

The folks trying to control society will take the steps their value systems mark as appropriate, and their stated reasons often don't really have any causal connections to those steps. IMO.


*nods*

I didn't think you were arguing that writers should self-regulate what they write--and I do completely agree with you about the attitude you describe in the second-to-last paragraph.

What I find most interesting, in that light, is when people's imperatives come into contradiction (e.g., freedom of speech v. shouting fire in a crowded theater, etc. etc.). Societies do develop ways for dealing with those contradictions, but at an individual level you often still see people tying themselves in knots over it. ... Which is maybe (probably?) appropriate--I mean, those things deserve some time and thought; we **should** think about how to reconcile contradictions.

And I also agree that people will make their own judgments about politics or morality or significance in writing regardless of what the author claims for his or her work.


What I find most interesting, in that light, is when people's imperatives come into contradiction (e.g., freedom of speech v. shouting fire in a crowded theater, etc. etc.). Societies do develop ways for dealing with those contradictions, but at an individual level you often still see people tying themselves in knots over it. ... Which is maybe (probably?) appropriate--I mean, those things deserve some time and thought; we **should** think about how to reconcile contradictions.

Agree! And that particular kind of contradiction can make excellent stories, not co-incidentally! Imagine Hamlet without conflicting moral and/or social imperatives. It would be a very short play.

I really like this, and will be linking to it in the next Aswiebe's Market List, unless you'd rather I didn't.

Thanks! And link away, by all means!

Fascinating. Here via rachel_swirsky, and if you don't mind, I'll be linking from my blog tomorrow.

I think I largely agree with you. I'll point out that for my own part I've written fiction, both at short lengths and novels, where I've deliberately adopted a template and an underlying world view contrary to my own perspectives. This allows me to both explore the world of the story, and the views that I hold. My first Tor novel, Mainspring was reviewed in some quarters as Christian apologia, and in others as profoundly anti-Christian, depending on the level at which the reader approached the book.

From my perspective it was neither. Full disclosure, I am a strong but nonmilitant atheist, though the novel was in no wise written from an atheist point of view nor intended to promote such. But by (among many other things) examining the effects of religion on the world, I opened those doors for my readers.

My ultimate rubric is that the story belongs to the reader. I am currently, at first examination, perceiving you to be saying the writers is responsible for the templates they deploy, the politics and cultural assumptions they embed in the text. To my view, you're saying, "be aware of what doors you open", where I tend to focus on the fact that reader chooses the doors opened in the text.

Best,

Jay

My ultimate rubric is that the story belongs to the reader. I am currently, at first examination, perceiving you to be saying the writers is responsible for the templates they deploy, the politics and cultural assumptions they embed in the text. To my view, you're saying, "be aware of what doors you open", where I tend to focus on the fact that reader chooses the doors opened in the text.

Yeah. I guess if I were to state my premise from that angle, I'd say, the writer can't control how any reader is going to take the text, what the reader is going to do with it. Rather like the way a writer can't control how an editor will take a story. That being the case, the best thing to do is to make it the best example of whatever it is that you can possibly make. To communicate as honestly as you can. Because there's a difference, it seems to me, between a lazy or sloppy communication being taken badly, and a careful, honest communication being taken badly.

If you've done your best to be honest, and done the best work you can, and the reader takes something else away, well, that was never in your control anyway. But if you've been sloppy and careless, and the reader takes something away you didn't intend--well, sure, the story belongs to the reader, but at that point it's too easy a dodge to say "well, it's not my fault cause that's not what I meant." Yes, the reader takes what the reader will take--but that doesn't absolve the writer of the responsibility to take her work seriously. If that makes sense.

I've written fiction, both at short lengths and novels, where I've deliberately adopted a template and an underlying world view contrary to my own perspectives. This allows me to both explore the world of the story, and the views that I hold.

Yeah, this is the sort of thing I described as "messy" in that footnote, and I think that sort of work can be really "honest" as in, honestly trying to clarify your understanding, really trying to consider an issue from more than your accustomed, assumed side. It's also, of course, the sort of thing a reader can take an odd (to you) read on--but if you've done your work carefully and honestly, IMO, well, you've done your part and the rest is up to the reader.

I guess I'm thinking of this in a sort of Gita-ish way--act according to your dharma, but don't be attached to the results. "You are entitled to your work, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your work." And I guess under that model, I consider taking one's writing seriously--never saying "It's just a story"--to be part of a writer's dharma. Cause without the dharma part, without the "I did my best to be honest and take my work seriously" bit, it's just "shoot 'em all and let God sort 'em out." (I'm an atheist myself, actually, but as a construct for thinking about ways to act, that bit from the Gita sprang to mind and is kind of interesting.)

Oh, and link away, by all means!

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