Dear Writers,

Dear Writers,

A truth that I’ve come across many times over the years and passed on to me by writers much more experienced and intelligent than I and that I feel is apropos in these times:

Just because you wrote a piece of fiction doesn’t mean you own the only true way of reading/interpreting/understanding that piece of fiction.  It is, in fact, one of the most wonderful and frightening things about being a writer that we do not.

We may own the copyright on the words we strung together in that particular way, but we do not own reader reactions to that, be they good or bad.  We may get a real thrill from positive reactions, and we may learn new things from honest criticism, discussion, and dissection of our work.  But we may not privilege those reactions above the ones that hurt us most: the negative, the violently opposed, and the ones that result in OUR hurting someone else.

You cannot distance yourself from the culpability you have in hurting others with your fiction if you are not willing to distance yourself from the good feelings that come with giving joy and understanding.  You can talk about intent all you like — and don’t misunderstand me, intent is important, it is just not primarily important — but in the end your intent is worth nothing if you cannot own all of the results of your efforts.

That doesn’t mean you need to take it all in to yourself, beat yourself up, or label yourself as bad, bigoted, evil, or wrong.  What it does mean is that you need to ask: How did I fuck up?  Is there some way I could have avoided fucking up?  Will you give me a chance to prove I will not fuck up in exactly this way again, and will do my best to not fuck up in other, related ways?  Will you accept that I am a work in progress even if I do?

If you ask these questions in all sincerity, the answer will probably be: Yes.

More love than you probably understand I’m giving you,
Tempest

Comments

  1. Roz Kaveney says

    I do agree with everything you say about writers needing to cope with this one caveat – readers do have a responsibility too.

    There are deliberately perverse readings that set out not only to hurt the writer but to hurt the text, and to morally mandate enjoyment of that text out of existence. I would cite Tolstoy and Voltaire on Shakespeare, and more recently and bathetically, Sheila Jeffreys on Nabokov, or Nabokov on almost everybody.

    Some post-colonial readings have at least skirted the edge of that – any reading of Conrad that ignores his status as a silenced Pole treated as an inferior within the Russian empire and forced into exile by political persecution of his family for asserting Polish rights to respect as an equal and autonomous culture is missing important aspects of the situation no matter how entirely correct they are in reading individual scenes of his work as clearly problematic at best.

    But overall, yes, what you said.

  2. says

    You can talk about intent all you like — and don’t misunderstand me, intent is important, it is just not primarily important — but in the end your intent is worth nothing if you cannot own all of the results of your efforts.

    What’s troubled me in the discussions that have been going around is an unwillingness to just have a discussion about a book. The main breakdown that distresses me happens as follows:

    Person A: this book negatively portrays a PoC and that hurts me.
    Person B: I don’t think that book is negatively portraying a PoC.
    Person A: you can’t see through your privilege.

    Which — no. I think people can have a discussion about the themes and issues and portrayals in a book, their reactions to those themes and issues and portrayals, and have differing opinions on the matter, without there being any privilege-blinkers involved. I don’t think the expressed intent of the author needs to enter into it; that certainly makes it easier for me to read Ender’s Game.

    Although that said — I’m also a little troubled by the idea of “owning all the results of your efforts.” I completely understand that in this context, because equality and diversity are deeply important to me, but I can’t help but turn the coin and wonder if J.K. Rowling needs to “own” the book-burnings and vilifications from people who say her books are Satanist propaganda and so on. Does she need to ask the fundamentalists how she fucked up? Or would it be more worthwhile to point out that neither God, Christ, nor Satan are ever mentioned in her books, that she’s portraying an alternate world, and not explicitly or implicitly encouraging children to deny their faith, etc.?

    I’m not AT ALL equating a discussion about diversity with book-burning. Just, when you say “own all of the results of your effots,” it came to mind.

  3. says

    in cases like J K Rowling, I think she could have said “How did I fuck up?” and they would have said, “By not writing a book that expresses our specific values” and she would have been perfectly valid in saying “I didn’t intend to and don’t think I have to.” The fundamentalists are then free to judge her on that.

    She can still own their reactions to the book and still consider them wrong.

  4. says

    She can still own their reactions to the book and still consider them wrong.

    Cool. I’m only posting this reply because I lust after avatar privileges. ; )

  5. says

    “Just because you wrote a piece of fiction doesn’t mean you own the only true way of reading/interpreting/understanding that piece of fiction. It is, in fact, one of the most wonderful and frightening things about being a writer that we do not.”

    Truer words were never spoken.

    “We may get a real thrill from positive reactions, and we may learn new things from honest criticism, discussion, and dissection of our work. But we may not privilege those reactions above the ones that hurt us most: the negative, the violently opposed, and the ones that result in OUR hurting someone else.”

    … but this is where I take a slightly different route. I (wearing my writer’s hat, and speaking for myself and for no other person, group, tribe, kindred or species) do not “privilege” the “good” reactions or reviews of my own work over the “bad” ones. You yourself just said that the writer does not own any one true way of reading/understanding/responding to any given piece of that writer’s fiction, and that the reader’s reaction, WHATEVER IT IS, is that reader’s reaction. It is valid, whatever it is. It is no more or less valid than the next reader’s interpretation. The difference is that when a writer, any writer, responds to a nice reaction to their work there is little left to say except “thank you” – and when the reaction is NOT a “well done”, not a “good work”, not a “I enjoyed this”, but instead something along the lines of “I disagree with you”, “I disagree with you violently”, or “you HURT me” the range of reactions tends to get a little wider. A simple “Thank you” does not hack it. Responding to somebody who tells you “You HURT me” with “Thank you for letting me know” seems calculated to deepen that hurt rather than heal it. “I’m sorry” is also inadequate – because although there may indeed be a genuine regret at the act of hurting another soul, you, as the writer, have already written that piece of work, it’s out there, and it’s owned by its readers now and not by the writer. And the readers will interpret it differently. And some people may be hurt by the same piece of writing in different ways. And if the writer spends the rest of their lives saying “I’m sorry” whenever anyone speaks of that hurt, the words become no more than a reflex, a platitude, and they are (oh, believe me, they are) interpreted in exactly that way – you’re just saying that now, you’re not sorry at all. But if you respond with “I’m sorry this particular thing hurt you, but here’s where I was coming from when I wrote it” – well, that is interpreted as wilfully defensive, and the writer may get hit with the kind of backlash (handled with great grace under the circumstances, I might add) that whipped back at Elizabeth Bear recently.

    The crux of it is, individual words, by themselves, have easily defined meanings – but string those words together and subtext appears as if by magic, whether it was originally consciously put there by the writer or whether individual readers found their own, coloured by their own values, ideas, and life experience.

    I think we are creatures of subtext – our languages have evolved to be subtle and dangerous things, if we let them, and the old adage of sticks and stones hurting you but words never being able to – that is no longer true, if it ever was. Words can have the kind of venom that puts a cobra to shame. Words are dangerous things.

    You go on to say,

    “in the end your intent is worth nothing if you cannot own all of the results of your efforts.”

    But you yourself just said that it’s partly the readers who are responsible for the end results of those efforts. ALl that the writer can do is put the words together. How they are read, how they are received, is utterly beyond the author’s control.

    And I think that your commenter Amal raises a very good point with J K Rowling. What her readers did with those books probably astonished her profoundly. It is possible for an author, faced with a certain kind of reaction, to go back and second-guess themselves by reading their works from hte point of view of a person whose own personal views and agenda produced an interpretation of those works such that the response was “Burn that book, it’s the spawn of Satan”. But *only a certain subset of readers* had that response to Harry Potter, and that subset came to the books with pre-conceived ideas already in place. They could not see the forest of the very British boarding school tale for the tree of seeing the word “witch” on a printed page. In a book. For children. Oh. My. God. Burn burn! And in the end, that was the OPEN subtext. The shitstorm from outraged parents who suddenly turned on the Potter books because Rowling revealed her own secret subtext – Dumbledore was GAY!!! – made a whole other kind of history. So you might argue this from a two-pronged angle. One, there was a subtext read into the books which WASN’T THERE – the subtext of evil witches and of devil worship. Two, there WAS a subtext there that wasn’t seen at all until the author pulled back the curtain – the subtext of a major character with a MAJOR impact on the protagonist’s life being gay. Which of these subtexts, if either, should the author own…?

    Going on to your questions,

    “What it does mean is that you need to ask: How did I fuck up? Is there some way I could have avoided fucking up? Will you give me a chance to prove I will not fuck up in exactly this way again, and will do my best to not fuck up in other, related ways? Will you accept that I am a work in progress even if I do?”

    …the answers to them would be, in order:

    “How did I fuck up” can also be asked as “DID I fuck up?” in the light of the fact, as you yourself said, that there are multiple reader interpretations of the same text.

    “Is there some way that I could have avoided fucking up” is indeed a valid question, and deserves sincere reflection.

    “Will you give me a chance to prove I will not fuck up in exactly this way again, and will do my best to not fuck up in other, related ways?” is not really doable. A writer writes. A reader interprets. I can promise that I will do my best not to fuck up in other, related ways – but I don’t get to define those ways, and when other people define them that means that I cannot possibly know all the permutations, all the definitions, and I certainly cannot promise that in the future I will be all things to all people. Human beings make mistakes. They may own them, or not – that’s a different issue. But saying “I promise I will never make a mistake again (in this or any other related way)” is an impossible promise to make, or to keep, when others are in charge of the parameters.

    “Will you accept that I am a work in progress even if I do?” I will ask this one. Freely. I know that what I do, what I write, is in no way shape or form intended to be hurtful, demeaning or dismissive for any particular KIND of reader. I am happy to hear back from readers, be it bouquets or brickbats, and all I can honestly promise to do is to do what I can for my work not to be interpretable in a hurtful or dismissive way.

    But I am not, in the end, responsible if people find things in my text which I know I did not put there. That might be my mistake – I might have been too ignorant on some point (although God knows I do a metric ton of research for everything I write) and I am willing, by all means, to be educated; I might have been less than clear on some point, and I am more than willing to have the way my words might have been (mis)interpreted pointed out to me; I am, in other words, willing to learn from the mistakes that part of my soul which went into creating a story might have made. But I cannot take the responsibility for the soul of the reader, and those things that another human mind may find burrowed in the heart of my words without my ever having put it there.

    Can we meet in the middle and actually acknowledge that it is possible for BOTH sides of an argument to be, to some extent, wrong? Do we have it in us to actually believe that it is possible to cross the enemy lines… and find, beyond them, people whose hurts and whose pain may have very different roots from our own but discover that we both, when stabbed, DO actually bleed…?

    If you ask these questions in all sincerity, the answer will probably be: Yes.

  6. says

    Just because you wrote a piece of fiction doesn’t mean you own the only true way of reading/interpreting/understanding that piece of fiction. It is, in fact, one of the most wonderful and frightening things about being a writer that we do not.

    I try to go further, following the maxim that’s been expressed by linguists and philosophers (I was introduced to it by the writings of linguist and SF writer Suzette Haden-Elgin) that an utterance has no meaning other than what the hearer understands it to mean. That is, everything you just said, applied not just to our fiction and writing but to all of our communication. It’s a scary prospect for many people, especially since many of us now communicate in fora much larger than we were used to just a decade ago, but it’s still the truth.

  7. says

    Mmm. Definite food for thought. Thank you.

    Now I just have to learn how to take criticism without ending up in therapy … :P

  8. says

    I was about 12 when a writer who was a family friend taught me this. Roger Zelazny re-taught it to me in my early 20s. And I re-learn it again and again.

    Thank you for saying it so clearly and openly.

  9. says

    Good points. Though I shoudl say that the questions of how did I fuck up, etc, are predicated on the author agreeing that they did fuck up without intent. With J K Rowling, she never meant to write a book that would appeal to or be representative of fundie christian notions of the world. Had she set out to do so and fucked up, her response to them may have been quite different.

    The difference between that and the sitch with eBear is that Ms. Elizabeth started the conversation by positioning herself as a person who did not intend to inject sketchy race stuff into her work. That she did so anyway and by accident and even if only interpreted thusly by a segment of her readership means that she did not succeed in her stated goals. It’s perfectly okay to fail as long as you don’t keep doing it.

    I don;t understand, though, why you think “trying my best not to fuck up” is not doable. Or perhaps you meant “I will not fuck p in exactly this way again” is not doable — but I don’t see why. If I stab a puppy and then promise not to stab puppies anymore, how hard should it be for me to not stab puppies? Am I going to get confused and go for a kitty and accidentally stab a puppy? Not if I have half a brain.

    No one is asking writers to be psychic or perfect But I don’t see how it’s unreasonable to ask them to learn from their mistakes and move forward in life without having those lessons drop out of their brains. I don’t see how that’s so impossible. Not easy, surely, but impossible? Hardly. Even if others are in charge of the parameters.

    Actually, I will pause and say that notion is silly. It implies that people — POC in specific — are apt to change the goalposts. But really what happens is people — usually white people — don’t wan to take the time to explore the depth of racial issues, and thus may fix one tiny thing, go on to make other, related mistakes they WOULD NOT MAKE had they been paying one iota of attention, and then get upset because they have no cookies from the last time.

    I’m not asking you to take rsponsibility for the reader, I’m asking you to take responsibility for yourself. Yes, as you say, things may be read into what you write that you did not intend. If those things are hurtful and completely against your own morals, values, or views, then you certainly say “Oh shit, not what I intended, let me do my best to understand how this happened and not have it happen again.”

    If those things are hurtful and yet in line with your morals, values, and views — for instance, if something I wrote pissed off or hurt a fundie christian because it revealed my view that I don’t think that Jesus was God/God’s son, which is indeed deeply hurtful for true believers — you can say that it wasn’t your intention to hurt people, but those are your views, in the end. If applied to this current situation, that would be like eBear saying “I didn’t intend to hurt POC, but I do hold these racist views and won’t apologize for it.” (Note: she did not say this, I am being example-y)

    And though we writers make our living being all intentional about what we put on the page, saying there are things in your text that you KNOW you did not put there? I don’t believe you. Why? Because I am too aware of human nature. I am too aware that people can be incredibly blind to how their society, culture, upbringing, race, class and gender infuses them with unexamined notions of what is normal, right and neutral. And that comes out in writing just as it comes out in the way you talk and carry yourself through the world. So you can’t tell me that you absolutely have not put things in your writing you didn’t intend or know about, because you put yourself there, and nothing about you says to me that you’ve done so much deep examination and dissection that you’ve been able to observe all of your assumptions. This is not to say that I do not like you or that you’re a bad person — I have rarely met anyone who HAS reached this level. And I certainly have not. And nor d I think it’s ultimately necessary to be a fiction writer.

    Any side of an argument that includes people telling POC they are being oversensitive, too dumb to understand white people and their lofty academics, and too stupid to admit that they are not the great enlightened beings of hope they pretend to be has a right side and a wrong side. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

  10. says

    “I’m not asking you to take responsibility for the reader, I’m asking you to take responsibility for yourself. Yes, as you say, things may be read into what you write that you did not intend. If those things are hurtful and completely against your own morals, values, or views, then you certainly say “Oh shit, not what I intended, let me do my best to understand how this happened and not have it happen again.”

    Done, and done – and constantly attempted to re-do.

    “And though we writers make our living being all intentional about what we put on the page, saying there are things in your text that you KNOW you did not put there? I don’t believe you. Why? Because I am too aware of human nature. I am too aware that people can be incredibly blind to how their society, culture, upbringing, race, class and gender infuses them with unexamined notions of what is normal, right and neutral. And that comes out in writing just as it comes out in the way you talk and carry yourself through the world. So you can’t tell me that you absolutely have not put things in your writing you didn’t intend or know about, because you put yourself there, and nothing about you says to me that you’ve done so much deep examination and dissection that you’ve been able to observe all of your assumptions.”

    Ah, but this is now taking into the realm of deep-level psychology. If I say that I consciously and conscientiously (gawd it just took me three tries to spell that word I need more coffee) did NOT put something into a piece that I wrote, then I can stand by those words absolutely, because this is something that was done with thought and planning. But what you are talking about is the subtext that may be present in my text for someone who responds to any number of trigger words in a different way than I do – and while I can conclusively say that I did not mean to hurt, insult, exploit or demean anybody that does NOT automatically mean that there isn’t someone out there who will find their reactions to something that I (or, hell, anybody else) wrote fall into those categories. But here’s the thing – I cannot second-guess ALL of any potential readership ALL of the time and everyone has the right and the privilege of their own interpretation of the thing that I wrote. I (the writer) can be responsible for choosing words carefully but you (the reader) are a different human being than I am because no two of us are exactly the same and you will inevitably receive those words through your own set of filters.

    I think this isn’t the problem, not by itself – but the problem arises when two separate sets of filters applied to the same piece of work show two radically different interpretations of that work. And when THAT happens we can go around in circles for ever more because at this point it completely ceases to be conscious and conscientious or even intellectual in the sense that it’s centered in the mind and the brain and it becomes more and more driven by feeling and sensibility and intuition and personal touchstones, hot buttons, and values – and things become more and more visceral until we get to the point of raw emotion and both sides start lashing out. All of which is not to say that emotional reaction is a bad thing – heck, you’re talking to someone who leads with her heart all of her life, ALL of my decisions have been to a greater or lesser extent based on FEEL rather than the pragmatic THINK – but in the context of a deeply felt argument poking and poking and poking at something that’s already hurt and bleeding only makes the situation worse.

    You say, “…nothing about you says to me that you’ve done so much deep examination and dissection that you’ve been able to observe all of your assumptions.”

    This is probably true. Quite possibly because I carry quite a different set of personal “assumptions” than a large number of my peers who have not shared my gypsy existence as a child, being dragged hither and yon over two very different continents before I was a teenager, three before I was thirty, four before I was forty. You might legitimately accuse me of never having lived anywhere long enough to put REALLY deep roots down there, but on the flip side of that I’ve been putting down roots, albeit of necessity shallower ones than those who have lived in one spot for two generations or more, in a much wider diversity of places. I could, of course, be wrong, but I think that my life so far has constantly and consistently challenged and changed any “assumptions” – I am now an American citizen, for instance, but I simply do not carry the same kind of background and baggage that native-born Americans do. I have always been the outsider looking in. I don’t know, really, if that helps me or hinders me in living up only to my higher impulses. I suspect doing that is beyond any human who is not in line for some sort of sainthood (there – is that an assumption? that a saint is someone who only lives according to his or her higher impulses?).

    All I can do is tell you this. I will continue, as I have always done so far, to do my best to do what I see as my best; this may not be what you or anybody else might see as my best, though, and if our behaviour patterns are to be judged by an outside standard which is beyond our own control then I don’t really know how any one given human being can live up to that potential. If I err, I wish to be corrected, but not accused of motives which I did not and do not own; if I misunderstand I wish to be enlightened, but not indoctrinated; if I trip up on something I didn’t see and fall down in a heap, it would make me far more likely to see such obstacles in the future if someone showed me how to spot them rather than berating me fiercely for being an unseeing fool.

    But while I accept the right of others to perform these things upon my own person, I also want to retain the right to do the same in return if I see the necessity. I do not want to be the incarnation of Guilt, sitting alone in the corner wringing her hands in her lap and staring unseeing at the world through huge eyes empty of anything except that guilt, bereft of all speech except “mea culpa”. Neither do I want to be the silent ghost drifting through the world unseen and unheard because I keep a deep and unbreachable silence lest any stray word I allow to escape turns out to be an arrow aimed straight for somebody’s heart. I deeply respect the right of everyone to step up and make their own views heard, with whatever degree of passion seems to be necessary for the message to be properly conveyed – but I also deeply feel that it then behooves that person to listen when someone else speaks. New ideas planted in the soil of those assumptions of which you speak might well prove to change the nature of the soil, in the long term – but a scorched-earth policy only calcifies the assumptions into rock…

    Eh. I’ll quit now.

    I just thought it needed to be said.