Business Musings: Tough Topics
To survive the first few weeks of 2021, I have read a lot. I have also watched a lot of television. And I’m writing on a project just for me, something I haven’t done for a long time. The project just for me does some things that long-time friends might not approve of. The project just for me discusses a few things that people in my world probably would prefer me not to discuss. The project just for me is a tiny and somewhat joyous rebellion in the middle of the clusterfuck that has been our lives in the past year.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoy that little bit of freedom. I know quite well that the project just for me will eventually get published. In the past, I would have lied to myself and said I wasn’t going to publish that project at all.
But now, I know it will and, honestly, with all the horrors of this last year, I no longer care about the opinions of the minions that are quick to condemn or even about the opinions of the friends who, with a gasp, will wonder if I really should go there.
Fuck it. I’m going there.
And it’s not really rebellion. It is a return to the writer I was before I became known. I have tried other ways of handling that return in the past. I’ve written under secret pen names. I’ve written in other genres. I have, as I mentioned above, written things I promised myself would never see the light of day.
None had that overall sense of freedom that this past year have given me.
It took a bit of analysis to figure out why. Right now, I have bigger things to worry about than my reputation. Will I survive an elevator ride because an asshole pulls off his mask between floors four and five? Will said asshole give me COVID? Even if I survive, will Dean? Will our country survive this mess? Will our friends make it through the economic hard times? Will our business?
And so on and so forth. Much more important things than a ding to my writerly purity, if I ever had such a thing.
And no, I don’t normally allow critics’ voices in my head. But, no matter how hard I try to fight it, there is a construct of who I’m expected to be as a writer. Sometimes I like breaking that construct. Sometimes I like creating a new construct. But whenever I think about the construct, it takes energy. I either have to embrace it or push it aside.
For some reason, since things have gotten worse worldwide, the construct has crumbled. All of the constructs have crumbled. At least in my head.
I also find that I’m exceptionally impatient with the pushback against discomfort in entertainment. This thing in that story, it makes a reader uncomfortable, and for that reason, that story is suddenly questionable.
Some of the points are real good ones. I’m tired of books in the canon of whatever genre that are filled with racist and sexist stereotypes. I think those books should be removed from what passes as canon. I think the books should not go away; I think that they should be studied as part of the historical past.
We can even build on them. Here: this racist story is the basis for that marvelous piece of modern fiction. Or: let’s read this original story filled with hate, and see how it was answered by this no-longer-marginalized writer. I think there’s a place for fiction that holds discredited notions, but that belief comes from my background as a historian and my love of the way things evolve.
But I don’t think anyone should feel required to read that shit, except in a class or in a study of how we got to where we are. That’s why, for example, I recently recommended in my monthly recommended reading list a lot of stories from an anthology that includes stories from the past 100 years, but did not recommend the anthology.
The anthologist and I disagree about something: he is willing to put his name on a book that contains racist epithets in the title of a story, as well as making those epithets and their stereotypes the basis of that particular story.
When I edit an anthology, I figure there’s a better story that deserves my readers’ attention. I don’t need to be the person to keep something deeply offensive visible in the world. If someone wants to find that crap, well then, they can search the old anthologies and original publications for it. I don’t need to bring it into 2021.
That said, there are things that currently being published that contain challenging material. A lot of the challenging material these days makes white people uncomfortable. We’re not used to being put in the villain role in entertainment because of how we look or the terrible attitudes so many whites hold.
I’m hearing a lot of pushback from white folks—oh, hell, let’s call it what it is. Whining. How come we have to be the bad guys in everything from people of color? Um, have you looked at history? Have you looked at what’s going on now? Maybe you should take a deep breath and figure out that you’re perceived differently outside of your bubble. Maybe you should strive for understanding.
There was the same initial pushback from some men as #metoo took shape. Not all men treat women badly, they would say—and that’s true. But enough men do that women must cope daily with bullshit that white men of privilege never experience.
Writing from other points of view is difficult for some writers. And they should probably not even try. They should write from their point of view and accept that’s who they are. Others who have the compassion, empathy, and respect should use those tools in their toolbox.
But I worry that because of the extraordinary pushback of the last few years that writers are going to shy away from some truly difficult topics. Not just topics of race and gender, but things that make the reader stop and think about their own lives.
Difficult things have arisen in two different entertainments for me recently. The first I decided to put on my recommended reading list from December. As part of the anthology I mentioned, I ended up reading for the umpteenth time Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”
The story was first published about 100 years ago, and it has a lot of problems that come from that time period. Racist language, some stereotyped portraits, and other difficult things. Yet in the Connell story, the lack of compassion for people who aren’t white is part of what makes both the antagonist and the protagonist in the story so deeply unlikeable. Connell is commenting on things that we dislike now, and doing so in a way that makes the modern reader even more uncomfortable than those things made his contemporaries. And believe me, the story made his contemporaries uncomfortable too.
Sadly, I hadn’t noticed any of those things the first three times I read the story—all when I was in my teens and twenties. I registered that I didn’t like it but I couldn’t put it down. Now, as an older and more jaded reader, I saw what he was doing—and I still couldn’t put the story down. It’s an example of an early thriller and it’s very well done.
I thought about the story for days, trying to decide if I wanted to recommend it or not, and finally decided that I did. Because the discomfort is part of the tale he’s telling.
Also, I find value in fiction that makes me think, fiction (and nonfiction) that challenges me, or makes me see the world in a slightly different way. Since that story challenged me and still confounds me as to how Connell managed to pull it off, I decided to recommend it.
Another uncomfortable entertainment experience that has had me thinking this past month has been the Netflix show Cobra Kai. Before 2020, I had never see the Karate Kid movies. When they came out, they didn’t interest me. And the only reason I watched the first two movies this past month or so was because a dear friend had recommended Cobra Kai, and I decided what the hell.
The movies are dated and have problems, but they are very much of their time. The TV show itself is also problematic, and I’m not sure what I think of it—except that I appreciate the shades of gray throughout.
The title comes from the “bad” karate dojo of the first movie, revived by a character thirty-some years later. The character makes bad decisions. He’s an alcoholic who is insensitive and has had a terrible life, based on his terrible upbringing. But nothing is simplistic here, and even the villains get a sympathetic retelling of their own histories so that we understand how they got to where they are.
One of the fascinating aspects of the show is that the original actors are playing the same characters they portrayed when they were young. So actors who were in their late teens and early 20s are now playing characters in their fifties—dealing with very adult things: loss of dreams, failed relationships, broken trust, and the strange way that success changes everything.
Season three is about redemption—who should be redeemed, if anyone. Just when you think you have a handle on someone, that someone surprises. In one episode toward the middle of the season, a past bully reveals how his bullying nearly destroyed him. The episode was sensitive and heartbreaking in its own way, and filled with nuance.
I found myself thinking about that for a day or two afterwards. The show has been dealing with bullying. There are at least two past bullies whom we are supposed to…if not like, then understand. And there’s a lot of violence, some of it approved-of by the show’s creators.
More than one episode has left me feeling deeply uncomfortable, but also aware of the bullies in my life. It also made me question some experiences I had in high school and junior high school. Was I bullied? Oh, yeah. Badly in my seventh grade year. My response? Verbal, nasty, and abusive. I never got bullied again. But did I overreact? Did I end up verbally bullying a few people? I’m not sure.
These questions came to my mind after watching the show, which is, I think a good thing.
I don’t talk about the kinds of questions these things raise much on social media or in my blogs. I hardly mention them to friends. I’m tired of the quick-to-judge reactions, the you watch that? comments. I don’t really want to defend my entertainment. I want to read it or watch it or think about it.
Those reactions bother me as a writing instructor and as a reader. I worry that other writers will avoid certain topics near and dear to them because they’ve got all these voices in their heads—voices that tell them: You can’t write this topic because the topic is taboo; or Don’t write that genre because that genre is less worthy.
Or these writers belong to a writing group that wants everything vanilla. I’ve written about this before in The Pursuit of Perfection. Workshops and workshoppers don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and they believe discomfort is something to be avoided in most types of fiction.
They’re wrong. Fiction should make the reader feel all kinds of things. The reader can decide what’s right for them or not right for them. Writers should simply write.
Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s easier said than done. We all have voices in our heads, and even when we’re good at getting rid of the critics, it finds new ways back in.
I hadn’t realized how deeply my inner critic had invested in the construct of my reputation until the reasons for that reputation vanished. The old world of traditional publishing is gone. The old measures have vanished. The old gatekeepers are mostly dead.
If I’m trying to impress, who am I trying to impress? If I’m trying to offend, who am I trying to offend?
For a while, I was worried about upsetting my family, but that’s not an issue anymore. The members of my family who used to read my work are dead now, or unable to read due to health issues. The remaining members are already pissed at me for things I don’t entirely understand (success, maybe?) and make it a point to let me know that they’ll never read what I write.
This frees me up to be even more outspoken about family issues than I’ve ever been. But freedom feels a bit weird. I used to write things to push at people. Now those people are gone. I need a new reason to write those stories…or maybe I move on to new things.
The other thing I’ve noticed in the decades I’ve been writing is this: The tough topics from my youth are no longer considered tough. They’re mainstream. They’re the way that fiction has gone. And some of the things “everyone” wrote about are considered passé now or uncouth or completely unimportant.
It’s not quite the same as following trends, but there are similarities. Trends are creations of the moment—vampire detectives or billionaire boyfriends. The topics I’m discussing are what’s being dealt with in the culture, and culture changes. The things that held our attention in 1980 are different than the things that hold our attention now. And that’s good.
What’s a writer to do? The same thing I always recommend. Ignore what’s going on. Write your own stuff. Figure out how to publish it and get it to readers. Let readers decide what they think of it…and move on to the next project.
For god’s sake, don’t read reviews.
I will tell you something fun, though. I have written a lot of short stories. Hundreds, actually. (I’m not exaggerating.) I have always found a way to publish them, usually in publications owned by someone else. A lot of the published stories got many rejections. Some got trashed to my face in the bad old days of conventions.
I still put those stories up for Free Fiction Monday. Those stories, the ones I got real pushback on, are usually the ones the readers of Free Fiction Monday like the most.
It surprises me every single time. Every. Single. Time. Because part of me internalized those criticisms and thought the stories weren’t worth much. My personal rule has always been to get the stories off my desk, so they went out even though they were flawed (or I thought they were). But if I had to say which ones were my best as judged by others, I never would have picked the stories that are getting such a response now.
What’s the difference? Some of it is the time period. The stories are now emerging in a different world to a different generation of readers.
Some of it is expectation. A story about a dog in a cat anthology is going to get a lot of pushback. A standalone story about a dog isn’t going to get the same kind of pushback.
Some of it is that the readers who come to my Free Fiction Monday stories are readers who expect a story by me, not a reader who is unfamiliar with what I do. That predisposes the reader to like the story, and judge it by the standards of my other fiction, not by the standards of other people’s fiction.
This feeling of freedom, though, that’s new. And really, it’s caused by world events. There’s a lot more important things in the world right now besides some literary transgression by a writer touching the third rail of fiction (whatever some reader deems that third rail to be).
I suspect this feeling will last for me. The old world is really gone. We’re rebuilding out of the ashes and a lot of new will come from it.
I’m also a lot older. If I don’t write certain things now, they’ll never get written. And I’m not in charge of what happens to them after I die. I am—in that I better have an estate that can handle the fiction after I’m gone. But other than that, I’m not the person who choses which stories of mine survive and which ones get consigned to the dust-heap of history.
In reading that anthology, I’m encountering names from my childhood. Big name writers with massive careers, writers whom most people have never heard of now. And then there are the writers who didn’t really make a dent in their lifetime, but had champions after they died.
There’s a lot to enjoy in all of them. Many things to think about in others. And some things that are just—well, for me—eye-crossing. And that’s the point. The eye-crossing stuff is personal. I can skip over things that might offend you, just like you can skip over things that might offend me. But our life experiences make us have different reactions to different kinds of fiction.
As writers, we just need to write and publish. That’s it. Move from one project to the next, not worrying about the reaction to something done in the past.
Think of it the way you think about conversation. I sometimes screw up. I’m so damn blunt. I say things I later regret. Can I change it? Naw. I can do “better” in the future. I think. But I rarely do. That bluntness wins every time. It’s a feature, not a bug.
If you think of stories as conversation—gone after the words are uttered—you won’t be as tempted to go back and tweak. Just let the words represent that past moment. Move forward. Move on.
Realize that there are lot more important things in the world right now than some perceived literary transgression.
And because we’re all stressed and terrified and grieving, we need fiction. A lot of it. Some people want entertainment that they call mindless. (I don’t think any entertainment is mindless.) Others want an incredible challenge. And still others want to have their buttons pushed in fiction, so their buttons don’t get pushed in real life.
Our job is to provide all of that. Write. Write a lot. Give the stressed and grieving a different world, something else to think about, a different preoccupation, if only for a few hours.
There’s value in that. A lot more value than we writers usually give credence to.
So write the tough topics. Write the easy topics.
Because that’s what we do.
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“Business Musings: Tough Topics,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / studiostoks.
Don’t know how I missed this one, Kris. It’s a good one. Thanks.
For years, in one of my other communities, folks would be fighting over seemingly nothing, and I would always say to a good friend: “People are dying in the streets right now.” In other words, what’s really important? I’ve always spoken up in public. It’s my nature. And my writing is filled with my opinions and world view. How could it not be?
These days, I’m writing bonkers paranormal cozy mysteries, partially because of the times, and partially because of the TBI I’ve had since a bike crash in August. It’s all I can write. It’s fun. It’s weird. In the back of my head, I do wonder what my readers will think—though still written through my lens and with my voice, this series is the opposite of much of my other work, except for some short stories— and I really need to let that concern go. It’s also what I’m calling “cozy mysteries for freaks and geeks” and includes some stuff “traditional cozy readers” might balk at. Funnily, that doesn’t bother me as much.
So yeah, thanks again for writing this post.
But here’s the pushback I have every time the topic of ‘what are we allowed to write’ circles around again.
Too many writers will say “Nyah Nyah, Nyah, I write what I want! And look, Kris Rusch agrees with me!” And they’ll do so to continue writing racist, misogynist, homophobic, hurtful, bullshit. Stuff they haven’t researched using primary sources. Using “history” they’ve learned only through biased fiction and television that tell them cowboys were white (historically, way untrue) and there were no Black people in Medieval Europe, or Chinese people in Regency England. Or gay or trans people didn’t exist until the 1980s. Uh…nope.
And they don’t listen to the current lived experiences of people not like them, either.
And then these authors say “X group is being mean to me and trying to silence me! I write what I want!” Well, go ahead and write what you want, but don’t expect to not get flack for it.
Kris, you put in the work to educate yourself. You do research. Then you write what you want. That’s the difference. And that research is also part of the craft.
I’m not saying you’re responsible for these bad actors. You aren’t. But “write what you want” isn’t the whole story, either. Sometimes the critics are trying to tell us we’re missing something important and it’s damaging our craft (along with putting more damaging art out into the world, just like that sexist, racist, stuff in the old canon).
We all have to figure out what the balance, is, I guess. Maybe the key is to continue to educate ourselves as much as possible, and then write what we want. That’s what I’m trying.
Excellent points, all, Thorn, thank you. Very important.
I find it fascinating that people assume the book I was writing during the time I wrote this blog was about racism/sexism or some other kind of “ism” and that it scared me. Um, no. People, have you read my work? (Clearly not, if you’re thinking that.)
The piece I was writing goes after something else, something that would have angered people who would (rightly or wrongly) see themselves in the characters. People who once told me not to write fantasy because it will “hurt my career” or to stay away from science fiction because I’m not a scientist.
I love that you said this: “But “write what you want” isn’t the whole story, either. Sometimes the critics are trying to tell us we’re missing something important and it’s damaging our craft (along with putting more damaging art out into the world, just like that sexist, racist, stuff in the old canon).”
Spot on. Exactly so.
The problem is that writers are humans. And some humans are terrible people, sexist, bigoted, disgusting people. And some of them write really good books that disguise their racism, sexism, bigotry inside the story. Readers think/hope that the author is going one way when really, it’s coming from a different place. (I’m thinking of Doby [sp?] who really bothered me when I got to that part of Harry Potter years before the J.K. Rowling controversy. Once the controversy happened, Doby became a much clearer character. Sadly.)
I’ve been struggling for years with the idea that some writers are terrible people and amazing writers. How do we deal with that? It’s not a question I can answer. Nor do I know whether or not some ideas in my books will become shunned years from now. I think of Leigh Brackett, who wrote amazingly powerful stories about racism, that I couldn’t comfortably reprint, because of all the racist language which was perfectly acceptable for its time.
So I guess all of this is to say that the best we can do is write what we want, and then as a separate act, we decide what to do with it. Readers will react, and they will be right—for their time, their place, and their tastes.
I’ve always written whatever catches my fancy, and to hell with anyone who thinks I’m not qualified or can’t do it justice. But I’ve also encountered a moment in time where I’ve had to weigh a question no writer in any genre should ever have to ask, but especially not in romance.
Do I want to risk my life to publish a novel? It’s a historical piece that flies in the face of the current narrative about the time period. The current narrative doesn’t allow for what life was actually like in my state in this time period. I had an agent rip me up one side and down the other because it was so farfetched and completely impossible and could never ever ever ever ever happen. It’s the one and only time I’ve cried over something said about my writing. Not only could the novel happen, it DID happen! Over and over and over.
The novel is 100% plausible, inspired by real events, and fleshed out with the law and social mores of the time in my state of Louisiana. Which is vastly different from the rest of the South and the rest of the country. It’s the height of hubris, IMO, to judge a book set in Louisiana by the laws and social mores of Georgia or Alabama, because our historical cultures have absolutely nothing in common except growing cotton and everything that went with that.
For now, I’ve decided a romance novel isn’t worth my physical safety, my sanity, and my emotional wellbeing. If I try to put it out there right now, I’ll be bullied within an inch of my life, doxxed, and God only knows what else. High probability of being physically assaulted if I were ever to show my face at a conference. All of this would be perpetrated against me by fellow romance authors. Not readers. Authors. I’ve already been attacked and bullied for DNFing a book by a woman of color because it wasn’t my cup of my tea. I wasn’t allowed to not like a book written by a woman of color, no matter the reason, and I got slammed for it. I locked myself down online and deleted some stuff because I knew what would happen if I didn’t. I’d seen these fellow romance authors do it to other people. Many, many, many times.
I wish to God nobody had to ask questions like this. That nobody had to think about whether or not publishing a piece would put their life in danger. Unfortunately it’s very real. But should the climate change and the narrative become more accepting, I’ll publish it.
Funny how people are “shocked” by the blatant racism, stereotypes, etc. etc. of stories from the last 100+ years or so. While it may be shocking to the senses today (as well as it should be to a very large degree), people keep missing the major point that what people were writing were based on the social mores and the world that they were living in at the time. While it isn’t certainly acceptable today, it was then, and people need to accept that uncomfortable fact. You simply can’t apply your values of today, whatever they may be, to stuff that was written back then. Otherwise you come off like the dolts who complained about that recent WWI movie called “Dunkirk”, in which people complained about no people of color being involved with the battle itself, thus the movie was somehow “racist”.
I’ve always thought that’s the very thing that makes those old stories shocking–the fact that those values were common and accepted at the time. One prejudiced author is just one prejudiced author; windows into the unpalatable parts of our shared past are a lot more chilling.
Those who complained about “Dunkirk” did so because the people of color who WERE at the Battle of Dunkirk, which by the way was in World War II not WWI, were whitewashed out of the movie as they have been whitewashed out of history. That is what made the movie racist — it ignored the 1,000+ Indian soldiers who fought in that battle.
I tell it like it is about aspects of disability and chronic illness – they are NOT the main story, but what the character deals with and how it affects the main story. Marketing is hard.
Kris, I’m very happy I read every word of this blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the writing the tough topics, and also reading them from a historical perspective.
I’ve always thought you were fearless in your writing. Now I’m intrigued about this personal project of yours. I hope you do publish, and I hope it’s soon because if /we/ don’t speak up now, then when?
Something that hasn’t percolated into my writing [yet], is a simmering rage at all the selfish bastards who have helped to spread this damn virus. I know many are young Immortals who just don’t /think/, but there are others who value their ‘rights’ above all else. They want all the perks that society can offer without any of the responsibilities. 🙁
Fascinating! I love hearing how writers’ motivations can change over the decades, with shifts in maturity, culture, and death.
I’ve always written what I want. I just sold a short story yesterday, and the editor asked us to give content warnings. I didn’t know where to begin.
And yet, during the pandemic, I, for one, have been writing gentler stories. My most recent thriller, Scorpion Scheme, had no on-page violence and 100% more eating of shawarma. Why? Because I needed it.
I’ve just decided to set the next Hope Sze mystery at a speakeasy. Why? So people can drink and be merry before the bloodshed begins.
I’m not sure what third rail you’re reaching for now, but I look forward to reading it. The Protectors was great.
I’ll have to reread The Most Dangerous Game, though. It was my favourite story in grade 11. Sad to think the racism I must’ve missed … although I was shocked by the racism in several Agatha Christies I picked up recently.
Finally, one less obvious part of white people whining was when someone told me not to mention race. I checked the manuscript and they’d [obscuring gender here] deleted every time I’d said someone was white, but not any other race. Forget about not wanting to be the villains. They didn’t even want race mentioned, unless it was to delineate an Other. I’m pleased to say that tale was critically acclaimed by much bigger fish who didn’t have the same blind spots. 😉
A vague comment, for reasons best not gone into here.
As a child I ended up going to three different schools from age 5 to 11. Then my parents moved again and I ended up going to the roughest school of the three available in the new town, again for reasons.
There, for the first four years I was the fat kid who didn’t fit in. Bullied was how I felt, and I hated school.
When I was 17, when I got my first job I met the mother of one of the kids who bullied me constantly. His mother knew my name, and said it was nice to meet me. Her child was now doing hippy stuff in a cave somewhere in Cornwall, and used to talk about me.
I was shocked. The difference in perspective in our relationship boggled me. It was a moment to step outside of my perspective of the events, and realise that what I felt was bullying was to them just being friends.
BTW: JIC people think I some sort of vulnerable wall-flower… when they left school, a person from the year below me tried to assert their power over me. I flipped, and as a result I’ve never allowed people to bully me since. This has led to me being called brusque and blunt.
Now whether that’s a good or a bad outcome depends on one’s perspective. Just saying.
There’s a lot of freedom in writing what WE want. Not the readers, not the critics, not our families. Just what we enjoy and/or want to say. What we need to say. Enjoy this freedom and celebrate! We all need to celebrate when we can.