#secondthoughts: Banned Topics

You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that Debs and I talk to each other quite a lot about writing: the main focus of this is the story that we wrote together back in April, and of course this website.  For the most part though, we don’t usually talk about specific stories or essays.

In the commentaries of one of his collections, Gary Larson mentions that every so often he used to get a phone call from an acquaintance who’d say “I really liked that cartoon today”.  At that point Larson would start to wonder if maybe he’d gone a bit too far… Every now and again I write something that I think needs writing, but I want to get a second opinion before it goes out into the world.  Debs is my second opinion.

The first version of the following essay was one that I thought needed writing, but which I thought needed some critique.  It turned out that Debs had already written last month’s #secondthoughts, which was also prompted by some WorldCon shenanigans.  We had a bit of chat about whether we needed both of these essays, but we decided that we should give you both, because they deal with two separate, albeit related issues.  We also thought you might like our joint response to this, and even if you don’t, it’s included at the end of the post.

curly cue

One of the things I struggle with as a writer is how to deal with certain topics. There are some things that I just don’t want to write about, but I know that at some stage I might have to: avoiding the subject will leave an elephant in the room that might be more than the story can bear. Luckily I’ve not reached that point yet, and I’ll just have to burn that bridge when I get to it.

One of the things that worries me about such topics is the effect that it has on a reader. For example, what if writing about a suicide encouraged a reader to go through with it? What if I did come up with the perfect, undetectable murder and someone followed through on it? What if writing about an act of terrorism begat that act in real life?

The general view, I think, is that you’d have to look at the presentation of the topic: is the writer actively inciting a particular (negative) activity, or does the event follow as a logical consequence from the preceding events? Is it a meaningful contribution to the story being laid out or is it just being included to shock? These are not always easy questions to answer. Some people will regard an entire genre as being inappropriate (some would like to remove horror from the shelves completely, others would see romantic fiction as ripe for a cull); looking more broadly, one has only to look at awards given to modern art to wonder what the judges, let alone the artists, were on.

Recently, I saw a tweet that called for a blanket ban on a particular topic across all SF literature. I’m not going to specify the topic or the person because I think that it is a question that has a broader applicability to both other topics and other genres. I also don’t have all the information regarding the context, although apparently it stemmed from events/discussion occurring at WorldCon. (Given the stuff that Debs wrote about stemming from other events occurring during WorldCon, I wonder if I’ll ever go, even if I get the opportunity).  The author of the tweet had a particular view on this, being directly affected by the implications.  Their tweet (or rather tweets, as it became a longish thread), and the response from the community, warrants scrutiny, however.

The key tweet has not gone viral, but this is someone with a reasonable number of followers, and the tweet was liked and retweeted thousands and hundreds of times respectively.  A number of people replied.  Initially there was only support; after a time, a few people responded less positively and some of these were hounded, more or less aggressively, not by the original poster, but by supporters.  What’s surprising is that this ban is being touted by someone who wants more representation of people other than white males in fiction: there was also an implication that anyone who isn’t writing more about others and less about white males is deliberately setting out to keep everyone else down.  You could argue that it’s worse than that: lots of people just haven’t woken up to the fact that there is a problem.  On the other hand, sometimes certain topics aren’t addressed in a book because it makes no sense to talk about them.  They don’t fit.  It’s not that the author is avoiding the situation, or that they’re lazy, it is just something that would disrupt the flow of the story, or it doesn’t fit right.  Adding Morgan Freeman to Robin Hood sort of works, is sort of justifiable if you spin the narrative that way, but it does feel like a diversity tickbox.

It’s something that I’ve been thinking a bit about as I’ve been working on revising the AtoZ posts from earlier in the year, that I wrote with Debs.  We have at least three different species in play, possibly four, although all of these are basically humanoid.  We have a mix of male and female characters.  In all honesty, though our diversity comes more from the fact that whilst the novel is set in the East End of London, the characters are drawn from all over the British Isles.  We probably need to take a look at that.  On the other hand, time and place provide some limitations to the levels of diversity that can be achieved and on the other, some of it comes from the prejudices of the reader – after all, if JK can declare retrospectively that Hermione is actually black, then there are a few characters that are actually black and I didn’t realise at the time…

Where do we go from here?  Writers have to do better in the diversity stakes.  It is pretty much as simple as that.  Except it isn’t quite that simple.  Yes, we do need to do better, but we also need to think about what is appropriate for the story, and the time and place that it is set.  There is a reason that Shardlake has more than a few problems going about his business. OK, if you’re writing SF and you’re having problems with diversity then that might be an issue.  You can’t, for example, claim that in the future we only use stairs as a way of foiling the daleks. On the other hand, you shouldn’t not write something because the action can only be carried out by someone who isn’t in a wheelchair.  I was going to say ‘confined to a wheelchair’, but that is the sort of change that we can make.  There are all sorts of things that were a problem – a hundred or more years ago.  Today, they really shouldn’t be.

There’s a quote that I’m quite fond of, although I have no idea who said it, and I haven’t been able to find an attribution:

“We don’t want a seat at the table. We want a new table.”

Don’t let’s ban topics: lets engage, challenge ourselves and each other to do better, and make sure that our writing is as diverse as the communities we live in.

curly cue

What can we do as writers to make things better?  Here’s a few thoughts to get us started, please do add more ideas in the comments section:

  1. When you send a story out to beta, remember to ask people to think about diversity within the story.  Do you have any?
  2. For that matter, don’t just send the story to betas that look like you, broaden your input.
  3. When you are editing, reflect on the people that you have in your story.  Do they have any Genuine Occupational Traits? You’d be surprised how few things actually warrant specifying a particular kind of person.  John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955) did a pretty good job of sorting out the bad guys, with only one good arm to work with.
  4. Don’t overdo the diversity stuff: adding a black, trans, gay woman with a lisp just to tick the boxes doesn’t help anyone, including the writer.
  5. Don’t force situations.
  6. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
  7. Do add flavour and texture – a few words here and there to describe a person in the background can make all the difference, and giving some lines to a normally invisible person isn’t going to make your word count suffer too much.  Perhaps your MC can chat to the person ahead of them in a queue, who happens to be ___[fill in the blank]____.
  8. If you have a character with a particular trait, do take the time to do research and talk to people with that trait.  Writers are going to come to something like this with all sorts of baggage: don’t be the person that ends up explaining what it’s like to be [x] when you have no life experience in that area.


© 2018, David Jesson


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