Shipwrecks

Author Catherynne M. Valente tackles the tricky issue of diversity and how not to be a misogynist douchebag in one’s writing. Our thanks to her for helping keep the writing waters free of debris…

#

Over the wreckage, one old sea dog said to the young pup: there are two kinds of sailors, son. Those who have shipwrecked, and those who haven’t shipwrecked yet.

I’m not quite an old internet sea dog yet (I think you have to have been on Usenet to claim that) but I can tell you–it’s only a matter of time, if you sail these uncertain textual seas. You, or someone you love, or both of you at the same time, will behave like a damn fool on the internet and/or in novel form. No one is immune. I’m saying this up front so that you don’t read this essay with the certain satisfaction that I’m talking about those wicked rats over there, and not us, the virtuous mice, over here. No, we’ll all do it sooner or later. We all fuck up. When Shimmer asked me to write this post, about how not to be a douchebag in print, I thought: but most people who read this will already be on my side. No amount of creative profanity or amusing bon mots will win over the people who really are habitual internet/fictional werewolves, prone to howling and screaming and rending flesh when the moon is full–and it’s always full.

But then I thought–and yet. We will all fuck up sooner or later. I am personally convinced I have fucked up every time I finish a novel and about half the time I finish a blog post. Basically right up until I won the Tiptree I was terrified I had not created a feminist novel, but had somewhere along the way fallen into the same old misogynist traps I so love to pick apart in other people’s books. I could have done better. And the next time I sit down at the keyboard, I try to. That’s the cycle. It’s when you’re not really worried about the text you present to the world, when you’re convinced you are always and forever on the side of the good, that trouble rears its lupine head.

So really, there are two types of motley douchery to consider. Those who are knaves in print, and those who are knaves online. Knavery in print usually takes the form of unthinking–worlds where everyone is white and straight and mostly male, where men are active and women are passive, where our own societal dicta are repeated without commentary or consideration. Very few authors deliberately set out to crush women and minorities, tenting their fingers and cackling in joy as they tear apart yet another poor gay soul–and those who are certainly do not read columns by me. It’s more a kind of parroting–our top-level culture says being gay will only end in tears, and we internalize that narrative, and regurgitate it dutifully, sometimes without even noticing what it is that has been perpetuated at our hand. It takes work to conquer those cultural narratives, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Not everyone has, or wants to, do the work. Picking apart one’s own assumptions and personal narratives is uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult duty–but that’s no excuse. Just like learning where the commas go (and where they don’t), this is simply part of the work of being a writer. It is not optional. It is not an elective.

Now, many would say this is PC nonsense. What, they cry, would you have us do? Keep a spreadsheet of just so many gay characters, characters of color, female characters? Lunacy!

Of course not, say I. Though honestly, if a spreadsheet is the only way you can see through to including anyone not white, straight, and male in your book, then allow me to introduce you to my friend Excel. But it’s not, and has never been about quotas. It’s very, very simply, about writing a good book. Because if your world is so anemic, so thinly drawn and so sadly empty of the diversity that makes this world such an amazing place, then you did not write a good book. If your women exist only as rewards, you missed a chance to write a better book. If your ideal future excludes even the possibility of alternative sexualities and a myriad of cultures, then you fell down on the job.

This is actually a fairly radical thing to say, and I’m quite aware of it. Many of the great classics of SFF commit those sins, and are beloved. Am I saying they are not good books? Of course not. But there really is no excuse these days to repeat the exclusions and uncomfortable politics of the past. They were performing the assumptions of their time–but we have no such convenient shield.

So how is this avoided? How can it possibly be avoided, when there are only two kinds of sailors? I propose a simple test, applicable to any author, anthologist, editor. Look at your work and say to yourself:

Does everyone here look/act/think/fuck/live just like me and/or my friends?

If the answer is yes, then the work could probably be better. This is true, really, for all of us–even those of us who cannot escape the discussion of minorities in literature because we are minorities, and we want stories for us and our friends. We, too, could include more characters who are different, who are radical, who challenge. We, too, internalize ugly narratives and turn them out onto the page without seeing what we’ve done. There are only two kinds of sailors, son. We all fuck up. But breaking out of the creator’s comfort zone, the place where everyone agrees with them and thinks they’re the bees’ lower appendages, always makes for better literature. It’s not PC, it’s not the hounds of feminism at your heels, it’s just good writing. Good writing is diverse, it is full of all kinds of people and all kinds of experience. Good writing is not hampered and hemmed in by political discourses which say this or that group of people are not as deserving of stories or of publication.

As for how not to be a knave online, well, I suppose you could ask yourself if your opinions are predicated on hatred for groups of humans rather than individuals, groups with whom you have little contact but about whom you seem to have plenty of things to say and assumptions to make. But honestly, if that’s your bag, I doubt you make much of a habit of reading things with my byline on it.

And chances are, each and every one of us is going to plow our little wordboats into some kind of iceberg–we are none of us perfect in mind and deed. The act of writing a novel is one of making the internal external, and you know, sometimes ugly things come out when you turn yourself inside out. I’m not saying that’s admirable, but when you do fuck up, you can learn and go on to other books without the same mistakes. In a lifetime of creating worlds, there is very likely room in them for at least one disabled person, a person of color, a lesbian, a transperson, hell, go wild–throw in a woman. We exist in the real world–why not yours?

Your Turn

How do you plan to make your fiction more diverse today? Tell us in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Shipwrecks”

  1. I think about this subject a lot, and Cat has done a great job of discussing diversity not just as an “issue,” but as an element of life for us to pay attention to in our art.

    The novel I am writing right now is in a fantasy setting, but I’m trying to stay mindful of not replicating the more limiting tropes and traditions of (epic and heroic) fantasy literature. The main characters are three females (one non-human) and two males (one non-human) who all belong to marginalized sectors of society and who have staged a coup of sorts that threatens to collapse the current hierarchies. The two things I am trying to constantly keep in mind are the particular dynamics of diversity and marginality in the world I’ve created, while also making sure that the characters do not fall back onto stock behaviors (particularly one female character who in the early stages seemed more like a standard male hero). The point is not to either fulfill some quota or be different for difference’s sake, it is to write a novel with richer characters and situations in it.

  2. Your presentation and the recognition of “two types of sailors” is to the point and very well written. As the mother of two children with developmental delays, I find myself jousting with the issue of inclusion in fiction and in the real world. I appreciate that you did not make the claim that certain people/views will never shipwreck.

    Thank you for a thoughtful, well presented article.

    Sandra

  3. this: “Does everyone here look/act/think/fuck/live just like me and/or my friends? If the answer is yes, then the work could probably be better.”

    yes.

  4. I started by making a conscious effort to *read* more diversely… this past year my (fiction) reading as been almost exclusively minority authors (minority in the context of the genres I like to read). Despite being a Politically-Correct Quota-Hugger, I’ve managed to read some pretty good books…

  5. This post made me so happy I can barely think. A few things:

    “I am personally convinced I have fucked up every time I finish a novel and about half the time I finish a blog post. Basically right up until I won the Tiptree I was terrified I had not created a feminist novel, but had somewhere along the way fallen into the same old misogynist traps I so love to pick apart in other people’s books. I could have done better.”

    The fact that *Catherine Valente* of all people still feels this way gives me hope for myself when, in the wee hours, I look at my stuff and fret that I’ve let all the uglier cultural-narrative ingrown toenails I want to keep out creep in.

    “It’s not PC, it’s not the hounds of feminism at your heels, it’s just good writing. Good writing is diverse, it is full of all kinds of people and all kinds of experience.”

    THIS.

    And you’re right, everybody does fuck up, online especially but in print too, and while it’s not admirable, the important thing is to accept that you screwed up, learn from it (and no, it’s not the job of the person/people you offended to “educate” you; learn your own bloody lessons), and not make the same mistake again.

    …and this article made me get excited about my novels again. Excuse me, must run off and scribble!

  6. I started by making a conscious effort to *read* more diversely… this past year my (fiction) reading as been almost exclusively minority authors (minority in the context of the genres I like to read). Despite being a Politically-Correct Quota-Hugger, I’ve managed to read some pretty good books…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *