Editorial July 1993

On Writing

Well…this essay isn’t really dated. When I search for the Dated Essay of the Month and I’m in a hurry, like this month, I just go back to an F&SF editorial from the same month, only years (and years! Ack!) ago. I clicked on this one, and was a bit stunned at how fresh it is.

What’s dated? The usual: I don’t edit any more, haven’t since 1997. And, I think that whole “exercise” thing went out the window. But political correctness is still with us in horrible ways. And I think we’re just starting to see the results of coddling an entire nation, trying to keep them from “disturbing” emotions. As a nation, we no longer cope with bad things well any more.

But that’s another essay. Here’s this month’s old essay, from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July, 1993.


I keep looking for the hidden camera. Someday Allen Funt will jump out of the shadows and shout, “Candid Camera!” The rest of us will grin, reassuring ourselves that we knew it was a hoax after all.

It has to be. I mean, how can anyone say these things with a straight face. Did you know that we no longer exercise? We now participate in physical activity. The word “exercise” is pejorative, according to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “Physical activity” makes us feel better about…well, exercising.

And at the time of this writing, in California, the Board of Education has decided to ban an Alice Walker story from a 1994 state-wide English test. The story, “Am I Blue,” is “anti-meat eating.” These are the same folks who pulled an excerpt from “An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard because a description of a snowball fight was too violent.

The test is given to 10th graders to assess their writing and reading comprehension skills. Marion McDowell, president of the Board, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Walker story “could be rather disturbing to some students who would then be expected to write a good essay while they were upset.”

Huh? Excuse me? Many people write good essays when they are upset. It gives them something to write about.

But Ms. McDowell’s attitude upsets me for a more basic reason. Good fiction draws an emotional response from the reader. Devaluing a story because it upsets someone — in any circumstance — devalues literature.

Literature must run the gamut of human emotion from whimsy to terror. Cool intellectual thought should be represented alongside raw animal emotion. I have this fear that we will soon be reading only what I have termed “happy fic” — bland, emotionless fiction about superficial events — because happy fic upsets no one. And in this country, we suddenly have a phobia of upsetting anyone.

When I put an issue of this magazine together, I try to pick stories that will run through as many human emotions as possible. I try to balance humor with horror, upbeat science fiction with downbeat fantasy (or vice versa). I figure an issue is a success if it makes one person understand a new viewpoint or feel an emotion rarely felt. Sometimes I fail — an issue will be one-note (such as the issue I thought was light until someone pointed out that every story (even the funny one) was about death) — and sometimes I succeed. The successful issues get the most letters. For each angry letter, we receive one letter of praise.

But we aren’t careless. I believe that each word, each event, each character, in a short story should be essential to that short story. Writers have revised material as many as four and five times before the work has seen print. We strive for the best fiction we can publish — fiction that should make us laugh, cry, and think.

Some of the stories we publish disturb me. Sometimes I finish reading a manuscript and find that I am done reading for the evening because the experience in the story was so powerful that I cannot go to something different. I must think about the story or let the emotions it aroused in me fade before I move on. And contrary to what Ms. McDowell thinks, such a reaction is good. If I were required to write an essay at that point, the essay would be top-notch because I had an emotional response, not in spite of it.

We are so afraid of upsetting other people that we are afraid to think. We are afraid to express opinions. We are afraid to be ourselves. I don’t expect anyone but me to like every story in this magazine. But I do hope that our subscribers, and science fiction and fantasy readers in general approach literature with an open mind. We are, after all, the literature of the future, the literature of change. If we can’t accept stories that present a plethora of viewpoints, then how can we accept our funny-looking neighbors down the street? How can we march with confidence into the next century if we are afraid of every word we speak?

I am still searching for Allen Funt. I still want this fear and political correctness to be a joke. Because if it isn’t, then I can no longer exercise at the local rec center. I can’t publish powerful stories because they might upset someone.

Is that something glinting in the corner? Please excuse me while I go investigate. I am hoping to find a hidden camera.

Copyright 1993 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch