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.