I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself. I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us. And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one. It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining. They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction. It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.
My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale. While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind. But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it. The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t). I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea. They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.
Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged. It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons. Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.
The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”. This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles. Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations. Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).
I happen to disagree. I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story. If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.
An author needs to tell a story. It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.
Will it be perfect? No, probably not.
Does that matter? No. Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring. Nobody matters but your readers. If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).
I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem. Why? Because they’ll weed themselves out. As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.
So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything. Ignore them.
And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here. By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were. He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is. He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.