Business Musings: Controlling The Creatives
Right now, a visible group of people in the field of science fiction are engaged in a protracted battle about the genre’s future. Both sides are practicing a nasty, destructive campaign against the other, and not worrying about the collateral damage they’re causing on the sidelines.
Those of us who’ve been in the field a long time have pretty much abstained from the arguments. Not because we lack opinions. We have opinions and have discussed them with each other privately, but we remain quiet because we’ve seen such protracted battles before.
When I came into the field in the 1980s, I watched the remnants of two such protracted battles. The first was about the legitimacy of Star Wars and Star Trek and whether or not Trek and SW fans even belonged in the genre, let alone any writers who admitted they enjoyed those things.
That first argument spilled into a sillier side argument about whether or not tie-in writers tainted their writing skills by writing novels in someone else’s universe. Hugo Award winner Timothy Zahn pretty much destroyed the naysayers by writing excellent sf novels under the Star Wars label and making a small fortune doing so.
The second argument was about whether fantasy was a legitimate genre. The writer-critics agreed that slipstream fantasy—the kind that where you can’t tell if the fantasy is something that really happened to the character or something that he misinterpreted—was legitimate. But the rest of it? That could’ve been crap, as judged by the terms the writer-critics used, like “fat fantasy novels,” as if they were all the same or “elfy-welfy” novels that obviously weren’t up to any kind of quality whatsoever.
When I published my first novel, a not-quite-fat fantasy novel set in a magical kingdom, a writer-friend told me that I had just ruined the career I was building because I was writing crap fantasy, not real literature. He didn’t receive a new asshole, but only because I was little more circumspect in those days. Now, I’d simply tell him in no uncertain terms to mind his own damn business and to let the readers decide.
If you think these kinds of arguments only occur in the sf genre, think again. In the past few years, I participated in a few group projects in the romance genre. In two cases, one of the participants was a male romance writer, and I’ll be honest: until this sf argument started, I had never before seen such naked bigotry between writers.
Some of the female romance writers hated that a man was involved, wouldn’t admit that he could contribute anything of value, and essentially treated him (if they spoke to him at all) as if he was an imbecile. These women, all of a certain age, had had the same experience themselves in reverse in their real-world careers, so I was stunned that they would turn on a fellow human being like that, but turn they did.
The mystery field has its issues as well. Some of the issues also concern gender: there’s a well-known editor in the field who has said that both women and cats have no place in mystery. I’m convinced he does this to provoke, since he’s supported women in many ways (including in my own career). I have no idea what he’s done for cats.
But there’s also another division in mystery that runs really deep: there are mystery writers who consider those who write cozies (y’know, like the stuff Agatha Christie wrote) to be an inferior part of the genre, if part of the genre at all. On the other side, there are cozy writers who believe that the hard-boiled writers (like Raymond Chandler) destroyed a decorous genre with unnecessary violence.
While these distinctions might sound silly to the casual reader, they’re extremely destructive to writers inside the various genres. I know of writers who stopped producing in the genres they loved because of the vicious attacks from one side or another. I also know of writers whose outspoken nastiness destroyed their careers with the very editors (and readers) they wanted to sell books to.
Since the advent of indie publishing, it’s not as easy to destroy a career as it was in the past. An editor might not want to take a toxic writer into the fold, but the writer can self-publish. You’d think that would solve the issues of divisiveness—if writers want to write something, they can—but it hasn’t. If anything, the problem has grown more pervasive, louder, and uglier.
Personally, I believe that a writer’s politics and religious beliefs (including beliefs about a favorite genre) should remain off-social media if at all possible, and that arguments in favor of one thing or another should be made in person, if at all.
I think it’s more important to incorporate your worldview into what you write and let the readers decide whether or not they want to read your work than it is to win an argument that will seem quaint fifteen years from now. Of course, I also believe that we should all look at the way people live their lives rather than focusing on the words they use or the color of their skin.
Yeah, idealist here. One whose perfect world matches the one Dr. Martin Luther King outlined in 1963, when he said that human beings should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of the skin (or their gender or their sexual preference or—you know, all of that).
If you want to change the world, work to affect change politically or economically or through a charity. Volunteer, vote, run for office, do something active rather than try to destroy people who disagree with you. If nothing else, write fiction with the passion that you’re currently investing in online flame wars and trolling.
Screaming at an enemy, with a side dish of name-calling, only leads to trench warfare. It also has an impact on some readers. I know of readers who stopped reading favorite writers because of the Hachette-Amazon dispute last summer, and I’m sure this major fight in sf is causing readers to quietly drop writers from their reading lists.
My tenure in the publishing industry has shown me that these bitter disputes are really about change. One side resists the change while the other side advocates for it, and they remain locked at each other’s throats, calling each other names. The thing is, as they’re screaming at each other, other writers are quietly effecting change by doing what they do best—writing fiction.
The problem for writers, particularly beginning writers, is that they hear these arguments and get indoctrinated with “shoulds.” If I had listened to that writer-friend twenty-four years ago, I would never have written The Fey series, my Kristine Grayson novels would not exist, and I would have essentially cut off a huge part of my creativity.
If I had not withstood the tie-in arguments, I would never have written some Star Trek novels that I’m very proud of or got to play in the Star Wars universe—something I had dreamed about since I was sixteen years old.
I would have let other people’s opinions destroy things I love.
The problem with all of these arguments, from the cozy versus the hard-boiled, the fantasy versus science fiction, the women versus men, the white folks versus people of color, is that they prescribe how a story should be written.
What’s wrong with writing a story from your own heritage? If the story’s from a perspective that hasn’t seen a lot of print, then write it. If the story’s been done before (as is the case with so much white American-European fiction), write it anyway.
Write it. Because it comes from your personality, your knowledge, and your heritage. That story will contain your passion. Write it and let it find its audience.
I know that a lot of curated fiction—stuff that came out of traditional publishing—closed and barricaded the door to people of color (in almost all genres), to women (in most genres), and to men (in the romance genre). I know that these issues still need resolution.
I also know that indie publishing has allowed these voices to finally be heard.
That’s change, and so many people are so terrified of change that they react with startling bigotry and language or behavior that they would never use in polite company. Social media has allowed a lot of horrid things to slip through the cracks—racist, discriminatory, biased and just plain ugly stuff.
And because of it, so many newer writers are backing away from topics that they could easily write about now that the gatekeepers have lost their hold on the entry points into various fields. These newer writers are letting the opinions of others—others who, in the scheme of things really don’t matter much—shut down the creative process.
What these newer writers don’t realize is that a lot of these arguments are a last-ditch effort to control the conversation—and more importantly, to control the creatives.
In the past, traditional publishing controlled the creatives by keeping the doors locked to anything other than Our Kind’s point of view. It didn’t always succeed. Women have always had a major influence on science fiction and fantasy, even though many people deny it, and women essentially invented the modern mystery genre (dang that Agatha Christie!). Writers of color had a tougher time, but as a determined few elbowed their way into Our Kind’s gatherings, Our Kind realized they at least needed to publish a few of these books (hence the African-American section of U.S. bookstores was formed, ghettoizing the books that should’ve been on the shelf next to all the other books).
Indie publishing is allowing the creatives to break out of the artificial boxes formed by Our Kind. Women can write strong military sf. African-American writers can write about middle-class lives and middle-class values in the black community instead of being forced to write about the ghetto or voodoo magic (which they might be as unfamiliar with as Our Kind is).
And yet, writers are hearing these arguments that prescribing who should write what, and worse, many writers are believing it.
The gatekeepers are going away, so the loud voices in all the genres are trying to step up as gatekeepers.
It makes me shake my head.
So, for example…
An award seems biased toward a certain kind of writing. So what? Awards are always biased, because they’re given by a particular group, and every group—I don’t care who runs it—has a particular perspective.
If you don’t believe me, watch the Grammys or the Academy Awards every year, and read the analysis about the nominees. I’ve made a private study of the Oscars since I was a teenager, and what I learned was that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would rather it chose the film of the year than let the filmgoers do so.
Not that it matters much. Marvel Comics movies might never win Best Picture, but they always win at the box office.
Recognition is nice, but the best recognition in the world is from the readers themselves. (Which is why I always value Readers’ Choice Awards more than some juried award. The readers chose, not five selected gatekeepers taking a vote behind a closed door.)
Writers get so caught up in the “shoulds” and “should nots” that they twist themselves into a pretzel in the worst place possible—their own creativity.
I can remember mentally shouting down that writer-friend who told me I shouldn’t write fat fantasy novels. Every time I started a new fantasy novel, I had to silence his voice.
It wasn’t until I realized that I wasn’t writing to please him or the other gatekeepers that I was finally able to silence his voice entirely.
Because being creative is about flying in the face of accepted wisdom. It’s about writing what you want to write, in the way that only you can write it. It’s about taking risks and facing down the critics. It’s about using forbidden words and writing about topics that, judging by your appearance, you should know nothing about. It’s about facing down the bigots who say you’ve only attracted readers because your last name implies a certain ethnicity.
These people who are screaming at each other on forums and in the media? Those folks? They’re not your readers. They’re not the people who act as gatekeepers any longer. They have nothing to do with what you write.
What you write is between you and your keyboard.
When that writing is published, it’s done. You should move onto another project, and let the published one take care of itself.
You will always be a representative of your time. We all currently hold opinions that future generations will see as quaint (at best) or horribly bigoted (at worst). It might not be possible for you, in the position you’re in right now, to know if you even hold such opinions.
If you’re one of the screamers, back away from social media. You’re only alienating your friends and your readers. If you want to change minds, work on writing better fiction. You can explore all the different points of view in your stories and—oh, yeah—maybe you can learn to write from a point of view not your own.
I love what Ian Rankin has to say about writing from the point of view of his most famous character, John Rebus:
When I start writing a book, I know I am about to enter a debate with the creature I am bringing to life. My attitudes will not necessarily be his…It’s fortunate I’ll never meet him: I have the feeling we wouldn’t get along…(Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey by Ian Rankin, Orion 2005)
I don’t get along with a lot of my characters. I write from the point of view of mass murderers and psycho criminals, from the point of view of bigoted cops and men who hate women.
I also write from the points of view of African-Americans in the 1970s, Native Americans in 1908 (upcoming), FBI agents from the 1960s, Vietnam veterans and anti-war protestors.
I am none of these people.
I am the writer. And as the writer, I get to choose whose viewpoint I write from. Because my last name is Germanic doesn’t mean I always use a German point of view or even a German-American point of view. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean all my female characters are sympathetic or, indeed, anything like me. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that I agree with all of the white characters in my books.
I write what the story demands. I admit, I’m often using my experiences, my politics, and my opinions as starting points. But they’re only starting points. I’m often startled where these writing journeys take me. I learn about myself, and in order to write from a point of view not my own, I also have to learn about others.
The best trait good writers have is empathy. When writers are trying to shout each other down and demanded that one side write like the other side, they’re destroying the empathy—as well as their own creativity.
If you’ve been watching these fights, and taking in the “shoulds” from these arguers, let me tell you something: the loudest voices here will have to stop arguing at some point or the owners of those loud voices will stop having a career.
The people who didn’t like tie-in novels? They’re mostly gone. Those who remain have written a few tie-ins themselves.
The fat fantasy haters? The survivors have written fantasy novels. The rest are gone, including my writer-friend, who hasn’t published anything (not even a short story) in decades.
Go ahead, read the history of your favorite genre. You’ll often see these fights, and they’re often led by people you’ve never heard of. Do some investigating about those people and you’ll learn that they had a great start to a career, and something embittered them, and made them try to control others.
Indie publishing has made writing from different points of view easier, but different points of view have always found their way into print. Take a look at the way the voices of the Harlem Renaissance got published, and remained published. Often we’ve heard new voices not because they were “discovered” by the gatekeepers, but because these voices self-published or found a small press willing to take a risk with them.
If you as a writer are not willing to take risks, if you’re not willing to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, if you’re not willing to write what you want—screamers be damned—then why are you writing?
To please others? There are better ways to do that.
Yes, sometimes tackling subjects that others have labeled forbidden is hard. Emotionally and physically hard. But if those subjects interest you, write about them. Embrace the fear, and write.
Writing isn’t about doing what everyone else tells you to do.
Writing is about doing what your creative voice wants to do.
Learning to tell the difference is sometimes hard. But I can tell you from experience that learning to tell the difference is what good writing is all about.
Don’t blog about writing. I’ve heard that one a million times. Don’t write blog posts longer than 500 words. Don’t write about controversial topics. Don’t, don’t, don’t….
Yeah, if I’d listened to all that, I wouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of words of nonfiction all for free on this site. I wouldn’t have interacted with all of you and, most importantly to me, I wouldn’t have learned from you.
It is because I have learned so much from all of you that I am, with great trepidation, leaving the comments turned on this week. If you’re a screamer here to just defend your point of view, your comment won’t get posted. If I get bombarded with too many screamers, I’ll shut off the comments. Life’s too short, people, and this is my website. Go scream somewhere else.
As for everyone else—all of you who come week after week—thank you for your time and your attention. I greatly value it, and I greatly value you.
Leave a Tip Through PayPal. (Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Controlling The Creatives,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.