“As an author, I should be able to write about I want! Nothing is off-limits to art and creativity.”
I see this refrain again and again in conversations about everything from cultural appropriation in storytelling (and elsewhere) to writing characters of another race/gender/culture/orientation to writing about rape. It comes up in other contexts as well. “Why can’t I as a white person paint my face brown for cosplay?” or “Telling me I can’t use the n-word is suppressing my free speech!” But I want to focus on the writing aspect for now.
The thing is, you can write about anything you want. Nobody is going to come to your home and take away your computer because you wrote another so-called romance between a Nazi and a Jew. Nobody will revoke your Author’s License for adding another gratuitous rape scene because you wanted “historical accuracy” in your fantasy story about dragons and elves and talking swords. Nobody will drag you to jail for perpetuating stereotypes of magical negroes or mystical Indians. Yay, freedom!
“But no matter what I write, someone will choose to be offended!”
Y’all can see the underlying assumption here, right? That people are simply choosing to be offended — running around looking for reasons to be angry. The implication being that these criticisms aren’t things that any “reasonable” or “normal” person would get upset about. It’s generally just an excuse to ignore criticism and attack the critics.
It’s true that if you write and publish, odds are you’ll eventually produce something people take offense to. Not because there are hordes of people searching for reasons to be offended, but because none of us are perfect. As authors, we grew up in a world full of conflict and prejudice and stereotypes. We make mistakes. We step on other people’s toes.
We’re allowed to write what we want. And people are allowed to be offended. They’re allowed to be angry. Free speech works both ways. We get to write our stories, and others get to offer criticism.
“Well, art should be offensive!”
Being offensive doesn’t make something art. Being offensive doesn’t make you right. (See, for example, the KKK.)
One of the things that makes stories so powerful is their ability to challenge readers. Ask yourself, who are you challenging? Who are you offending?
I’ve seen people hold themselves up as the epitome of courage for daring to write “dangerous” stories. “Look at me, daring to be offensive!” And it’s weird, because most of the time if I read their stories, they aren’t challenging people in power. They’re attacking people who are already marginalized and oppressed. They’re going after those with less power.
That’s not daring and dangerous; it’s old-fashioned bullying.
“What if I didn’t intend to be offensive? Why are people still getting mad?”
I didn’t intend to step on my cat’s paw earlier tonight when he snuck up behind me in the kitchen. It still hurt him when I did. (He forgave me a few minutes later, and went right back to crouching behind my legs in case I dropped food. He’s not the brightest beast.)
The point is, whatever your intention, people are telling you they’re hurt/angry/offended/upset/dismayed by something you wrote. Maybe it’s a science fictional future that omits any people of color or anyone who isn’t straight. If you tell me you didn’t intentionally try to eliminate those people from your universe, I’ll probably believe you.
But intentional or not, you still erased large groups of people from your story. Believe me, you’re not the first. Authors have been writing that kind of exclusionary fiction pretty much forever. Which is part of the problem…
As authors, we’re supposed to be able to empathize and connect with different kinds of characters. Imagine being on the receiving end of this stuff. Of reading yet another book where it’s a few hundred years in the future, and apparently there was some unwritten genocide that wiped out all the black people. It gets really tiresome.
Here’s the kicker. Generally, people aren’t saying you’re a horrible human being who should be banished to the tenth circle of hell to have your giblets chewed apart by rusty robot parrots for all eternity. They’re saying, “Hey, I’ve got a problem with this thing you wrote.”
What you do with that criticism is on you. You can listen to it, and maybe learn something. You can take it personally and unleash your wrath in a Very Pointed Blog Post.
But if you’re so upset about someone criticizing your work, do you really want to double-down and escalate things?
“But we have Black Panther and a female Doctor and women are winning Hugo awards now and why are people holding on to inequity from the past when everything’s better?”
You realize a few victories doesn’t magically erase centuries of inequity and oppression, right? That the effects of institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination last for generations? For example, here are some stats on racial inequality in America. Shockingly, things like a black actress playing Hermione Granger didn’t instantly fix it all.
In some ways, things are better than they used to be. Interracial marriage has been legal in the U.S. for a whole 50 years. Same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide two years ago. Women have been allowed to vote for almost a hundred years. (Of course, they couldn’t get their own credit card until the 1970s, and marital rape wasn’t outlawed nationwide until 1993…)
We’ve taken some steps forward. For every one, we’ve had people pushing back hard.
A lot of those dates are a hell of a lot more recent than I would have thought. These are things from my grandparents’ lifetimes. From my parents’ lifetimes. Some of them are within my lifetime. Inequity from the past continues to impact the present. So does inequity in the present.
“You’ve gone on for 900 words, Hines. Get to the point.”
You can write about ________. What you can’t do is prevent others from challenging or criticizing what you write.
Stories are powerful, and with great power comes great responsibility. And lots of rebooted movie franchises.
The point is, you’re responsible for your writing. You’re responsible for the stories you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create. You’re responsible for the assumptions you bring into the story. You’re responsible for choosing whether or not to educate yourself on the subjects and the people you write about.
You own your stories. When they’re brilliant, you own that. When they’re hurtful or offensive? You own that too.
It’s part of being an author.