One of Those Days

February 10th, 2005 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

Before we begin, let us describe our day. Lots of cars, and we worried about bridges collapsing due to the weight of potholes. We arrived for our ten o’clock meeting at 9:59, only to discover racing down seven flights of stairs and into the building was wasted calories. Meeting cancelled. Oh, we didn’t tell you? Really, you should check your email while driving. Also, applying mascara at 70 MPH wouldn’t hurt.

At one point, we walked by an open office door. Inside, there were three people. The topic of conversation, as only appropriate for a day like today, was the order of ascension to the British throne. As we passed, we heard something that was clearly wrong (William still not next, though that may change). We thought, for a moment, of entering the conversation. Then we wondered how facts would affect the situation. It’s not like anyone involved had a personal stake in who or what became the next King or Queen of England.

This lead us to another thought — one we’ve had before — that reality is better addressed when it’s not in our faces. This is probably how the human brain functions best. We’ve recently discussed (and debated, thank you, Brenda Coulter!) the idea of using fiction to introduce controversial topics. It’s easier when you’re once removed from the subject matter. We still believe this, but the article linked below reminds us that sometimes reality may be too raw.

If you read romance, you know that the Civil War period doesn’t sell (we don’t know about other fiction genres, Cold Mountain being a possible, but probably not grand, example). From a reader’s perspective, this makes no sense — this is a rich period of American history, filled with real and meaningful conflict. But to write about the Civil War means opening a lot of ugly wounds. It means putting protagonists in potentially unheroic situations. This is rough going for genre fiction — it can be done, but it’s not an easy sell. Authors have to go places they don’t necessarily want to face. It is our belief that we’re not ready to address the realities of the Civil War because it means addressing the ugliest aspects of our species. Can you make a slave owner sympathetic but true to his* personal beliefs? Can you have a hero who justifies slavery? Because the option is someone who isn’t true to the world he inhabited. If you are not honest about the history, you make your character trivial**.

Do we think this is an excuse? No. Fiction makes ugliness palatable because the message comesin story form. Story is the human way of making sense of the world. This is why the stories of Iphigenia or Abraham resonate — they reveal a bigger truth while allowing us not to look to closely at how we live. And, sometimes (hopefully more than that), we take the message home.

And, to answer the question asked in the headline, if some artists don’t go too far, art is not doing its job. Pushing the boundaries is part of the job. Sometimes, the barriers don’t give, sometimes they open into rivers.

* – Gender neutrality should be assumed. Darn the English language for being so limited, while being so convoluted.
** – This is why we’ve always been repulsed by romances with Native American heroes. Sure, we buy into the idea of the Noble Savage, but let’s get real. Life isn’t pretty.

File Under: Square Pegs

2 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Feb 11, 2005 at 8:20 am

    Good post, Booksquare, even if you did make me sound like a troublemaker. 😉

    [Ridley as quoted in The Guardian] “Of course I’m upset, but it is not just an ego thing. If a publisher is saying, ‘You’ve gone too far’, what kind of message is that sending out to writers?”

    If that isnt’ an ego thing, I sure don’t know what is. I assume he expects to be paid handsomely for his writing, yet he doesn’t seem to get it that his publishers might actually be in business to (cover your eyes, children) make money.

    Apparently, those philistines-in-suits didn’t believe Ridley’s latest shocker (which includes the torture of a 10-year-old child) would bring home the bacon. Go figure.

  • booksquare // Feb 11, 2005 at 9:48 am

    Ridley does protest a bit too much, doesn’t he? If one is working in a commercial venue, one must understand that those putting up the funds expect a return on investment. Sometimes shock value is sufficient to drive sales, but sometimes shock value repels people. It’s a judgment call, and this is why sometimes artists have to follow their vision without the helpful patronage of backers.

    And there’s no shame in being a troublemaker. Some of my best friends fall into that camp…