The World We Write About

My colleague Fonda Lee (author of Zero Boxer and Jade City, which I recommend) brought up the question on twitter of feeling conflicted about dealing with book release issues (readings, signings, &c) when, well, the world is going to Hell.  I mean, you hear about another mass shooting, and then you’re expected to go to a bookstore and talk about your fantasy novel? How can that not be weird and uncomfortable?  The thread is worth reading, if you’re interested

She got some excellent answers from various people that I can’t improve on, but it set me off in a different direction.

I’m going to repeat something I said a few years ago, in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site:  “No matter how much one tells stories of magical beasts or impossible worlds, in the end, it is always the world of here and now one is writing about. The better one understands that world, the more powerful the stories will be.”

I still agree with this, and, in fact, as the pressure-cooker of our society intensifies, I think it becomes more true. One might, of course, “inject” political and world views into one’s fiction, but that almost invariably comes across as clumsy, artificial, and gratingly didactic. The point I want to stress is that these stories we tell, whether we want them to or not, are powerfully influenced by our experience and our interpretations of that experience, and that means by the society in which we live our day-to-day lives. To be sure, the influence is often disguised and can appear in contradictory ways: sometimes an outraged rebellion against the status quo can turn out deeply normative; sometimes the cry for a return to an imaginary simpler time, reactionary in feel, can be subversive or even revolutionary in essence.

We, as writers, are observers who turn those observations from vague feelings into precise words, which, in turn, form images and make connections to the experience of the reader.  I know some writers who can capture taste, smell, touch, and express them in words that make me cry. I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. Others are skilled at noticing, deducing, and illuminating the motives behind seemingly inexplicable actions.  Other are able to reveal and explain hidden social contradictions.  And so on.  And all the while they delight us with the thrills and fights and narrow escapes and wit and striking phrases for which we read adventure fiction.

What I’m getting at is this: The things that infuriate, sadden, or terrify us in our world are already there in our work. The degree to which we wish to bring them to the surface is up to us, but they are there whether we are consciously aware of them or not. When, as we write, we remind ourselves not to cheat, what we are really reminding ourselves of is that our job is to tell the truth, and the more we manage to do that the more successful (and moving) is the story.  And when we go into a bookstore to do a reading of our tale of elves and dragons and unicorns three hours after a mass shooting or Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war, it will feel strange and uncomfortable, and to some degree it should—being aware of that contradiction simply means one is a decent human being.  But it is worth remembering that our stories do not come out of nowhere, that the same world that has produced these horrors, has also produced our story, and that, dialectically, our story can have an effect on that world.

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9 thoughts on “The World We Write About”

  1. I’m glad you wrote this. A lot of people feel like their interests and passions are superfluous in a world like ours.

  2. “I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. ”

    Many of the interactions that take place in your books have permitted me to view things in my own life from a different perspective. Thank you for that. And subsequent readings years (decades in some cases) later offer an entirely different view.

    My son asked me the other day why I like reading fantasy and sci-fi. I told him that I actually read authors that I like because of the stories they tell and the characters in them and how they relate to the world they are in. I like books (series) that describe the development of characters and how they overcome (or fail) the obstacles in front of them. You can learn a lot from a good author who writes well about human interactions. I just happen to like alternative worlds.

    And yes, I can taste those red mushrooms on the back of my tongue… ;)

  3. Your last sentence is why I want to be a writer. Part of me would like to print it out and hang it over my desk, and part of me fears doing so would seem naively pretentious until others have actually read words I’ve written.

  4. I read sci fi/fantasy almost exclusively. I love escaping to a place where no one has been and thinking about how the issues we all face would play out there. Good can win! In this world, all too often, it seems good will never win. It also de-politicizes issues. If I can explore a world where there is not gender bias, for example, it could totally change my thinking about gender without the additional worry of political alignment getting in the way. It offers a safe space to explore ideas that make us better or worse, and then take a stand in the real world. For me, as a person with a lot of empathy for others, it also doesn’t pack the same punch as a real world example. If you were not moved by the destruction of the giants in the Thomas Covenant books, you have no heart. (I sobbed!) However, compared to reading about the destruction of the Jews or any earthly genocide, it is not nearly as hard. I read before I go to sleep at night to help me escape from the thoughts in my brain about my life – even just the grocery list type thoughts – and fall peacefully asleep. Fantasy novels have truly been a gift in my life.

  5. I should certainly add a thank you to skzb. The added pleasure of the Magyar pronunciations is also a delight! I so wish my grandmother had chosen to pass down her heritage but she believed you should embrace your new country and let go of the old. Hungary was not kind to her. I respect her choice, but I also lament it just a little.

  6. Hey Steve, do you believe that art has a class character? That’s something I’ve heard some fellow Marxists say before and it seems kind of cultish to me.

  7. Good question. Let me see if I can express this.

    First of all, well, sure it does. I mean, it emerges from class society, how can it not? The trouble is with simplistic explanations that explain nothing. For example, making a big deal about the supposed whitewashing of feudalism in The Lord of the Rings. I mean, sure, it’s there, but that’s not the point. No one reads that book and says, “Gosh, I guess feudalism wasn’t so bad after all.” That isn’t what we take away from that book; what we take away are images: Gandalf standing up to the Balrog, Frodo and Sam lying in the ashes, the four hobbits watching the ship sail off. What do we take from those images, how do they effect us? That’s the real question. As Trotsky said, “A work of art must be judged first of all as a work of art.”

    The class character of a work of art is both more broad and more nuanced. For example, to continue with LOTR, while various formalist “Marxists” were talking about the monarchism and so on when the movie came out, the World Socialist Web Site was talking about the actual class issues: to wit, what was happening to the people of New Zealand who were involved in the movie, where the money was going, who was and was not getting it, and what effect it was having on their lives.

    Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand, for example, Rembrandt, without understanding that he was working at the period of the rise of the small proprietor, the middle class: that many of his paintings (as well as Hals, etc) were created to be displayed, not on the walls of a Cathedral, but in the private home of a merchant, and this need, in turn, led to discoveries that tremendously advanced the art of painting. Similarly, how can we understand the development of rock n roll apart from the post-war boom, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war protests? Or romantic literature apart from the rise of capitalism that focused on the normal individual, rather than the nobility, or the god of myth?

    It may be most clear in film, where, because there is so very much money involved, the effects of the commercial side are so often banging heads with the most creative far-seeing filmmakers, while other filmmakers give in to the pressure and produce deeply dishonest or normative work that serves the interests of the ruling class. Pointing out these influences, where they damage a work, where a work is able to, in some measure, overcome these limitations and present us with something genuine, human, and insightful, is what the best critics do, and awareness of the role of the class struggle in human society can only help in this task.

    Here are a couple of links, if you’re interested:

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