I was speaking with my cousin, recently, about authors I like. Terry Pratchett came up, and my cousin said, “Of course–you like the funny ones.” But with regards to Pratchett in particular, I had to take a moment’s pause and clarify. Because, yes. I do often laugh when reading Pratchett. But that isn’t all.
What charms me about Pratchett’s writing is that, for all its humor, his Discworld series comes out of a place of righteous fury. He is scathing in the face of injustice, unapologetic about the privileges of being rich and the expenses of being poor. He’s unafraid to point out the ridiculousness of misogyny, of unfortunate gendered norms. Of racism. Of xenophobia.
I like Terry Pratchett’s writing not only because it makes me laugh, but because I hear within it my own righteous indignation.
Historically, rebellion begins in the arts. The comic artists sketch out their satires; the actors perform thinly-veiled caricatures of modern-day monsters. The artists paint suffering where voices are silenced. Writers record the world as it is and dare to imagine a better one. Art is the language of people who see the world as it is, and who want to imagine better. They are the scathing critics and the hopeless dreamers.
All you have to do is look at dictatorships around the world, at authoritarian or illegitimate leaders. Count how many tear funding away from the arts. Take notice of censorship laws under their hand, and the way they try to tie an artist’s wrists.
I would go so far as to say that there is a responsibility on the part of any artist not only to create, but to see and respond to their world. It is not enough only to re-hash that which we have read before. We must reject in our art that which is wrong, and dare to dream of the next and the better thing. We must be righteously outraged, must include the excluded, and must not glorify the cruel and the powerful.
Fiction is not exempt. Fiction, if anything, has the greater responsibility, and for genre fiction, that goes double. It is in our fantasy and our science-fiction that we can perpetuate the most insidious of evils, where we can sow the most thoughtless of lies. It is where we can repeat the status quo… or, if we are thoughtful, it is where we can envision something different.
I think, sometimes, of Star Trek. The original series pushed diversity at every turn, but not just for the sake of having the diversity. They had a black woman play a character who was not a maid. They put a Russian character on the show as a sweet and kind person, smack-dab in the middle of Cold War-era America. They showed where humanity could go. Star Trek revealed a better world, one where we worked together, overcame our prejudices of each other, and could coexist without fear or hatred of one another.
My love of Star Trek is part of what drives my frustration with the books I pick up, today. Every time I find another fantasy novel with a chosen-one male protagonist–every time I pick up a novel where the central female character is a side plot, a dark but alluring queen with no greater significance than her sexuality and her wiles–every time I find a story with no trace of a person of color–every time I see a story that ignores the disabled, the mentally ill, the poor, the hurting…
The stories that we tell in our genre fiction bespeak of what our vision is for another world. We do not create in a vacuum: as such, we either repeat the ideas that have come before us, and replicate the same world we have today, where misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and ableism remains static and powerful and undefeated…
Or else, we create a new vision.
I truly believe that genre fiction is not purely escapist (though to escape from the miseries of the world, for a time, is as valid a reason to read as any other). On the contrary: I believe it is visionary. When we show the vision of another world, when we see similar circumstances to our own, but absent of the pain, the fear, the suspicion–then we must, at some point, find ourselves comparing the the fictional world against our own. And we will ask ourselves, but why can’t we have a world like that?
When written thoughtfully, I truly do believe that genre fiction can show us the way to something better.
One day, perhaps, I will hit upon the winning formula, and I will unveil a failproof, step-by-step guide on how to write better genre fiction. But I do not know that such a guide exists, or ever will. I do think that writing, at its best, comes out of a place of compassion. When Pratchett wrote his novels, and all their outrage against sexism, xenophobia, racism, and more–I believe he wrote out of a place of compassion. Why else would one be so outraged, unless they witnessed cruel injustices against something they cared very deeply about?
It is no step-by-step formula, but I do believe you must care. You will have disabled friends, women friends, friends of color, friends from far away. Friends of other religions, and friends with mental illness. Gay friends, trans friends. I do. I care deeply about them. When they tell me about their pain, I am righteously indignant. Better: I’m outraged.
I write to find a better way, and to light a path to the place where we, as humans, are kinder to each other.
There will be those, always, who try to sit peacefully upon their power, and upon the backs of your hurting friends. There will be those who censor, those who cut funding, those who try to tear the arts out of our hands. Do not let them. Write–create–write–and for all that you love. The critique of our tyrants and the resistance against their cruelties begins with us. When you write, do not give them the power. Speak to your friends, your siblings, your hurting fellow humans: give your words to them. Write, and lay the way to a future with these friends safe beside you.
My writers: write outrageously, and in doing so, write lovingly.