Writing Right with Dmitri: Beyond Opinion (New Year's Edition)
If you waited until Monday to read this, it's a new year: 2018. That means we have 17 years behind us in this millennium, and children, we are in trouble.
There are two main reasons we're in trouble from a writer's point of view1. One is that the proliferation of fake news has contributed to a general lack of ability on the part of the reading public to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In other words, they insist on your spelling out the difference between fact and fiction, very explicitly, because they don't know who or what to trust any longer. I don't know how the late EL Doctorow would have coped with that. The other reason we're in trouble is human mental processes in the 21st Century: they've become superstitious, reluctant to deal with nuance, and prone to snap judgements. They're opinionated, with nothing to back up their opinions. All of this plays merry hell with your writing.
In the last week, I've heard the following opinions expressed by people I actually like:
I refuse to watch any more NFL football2 games…
Okay, with you so far. World's biggest time-waster. No, second-biggest time waster. I sat through a football3 match once.
…until those players agree to stand for the national anthem. I was in the military, and I won't put up with that kind of 'protest'.
I could discuss this issue. But you know what? This issue is not worth discussing. I will not discuss it.
All Americans are stupid.
Okay, that's not what my friend said. But the tirade that followed a (to me, at least I intended it as such) innocent remark had that as subtext. Again, this is beyond the realm of discussion. I strongly suspect that each and every one of our countries has exactly the same quantum of intelligence and stupidity, creativity and unimaginativeness, ethical and unethical behaviour, etc. So please stop judging people when you're tired and cross. What was really meant was, 'That's a nuanced question. And frankly, I'm too worn out right now to bother pretending that I care that much about what goes on in other people's countries.'
Now, me, I absolutely never get tired of what goes on in other countries besides the one I happen to be residing in at the moment. But that's probably why I don't care whether (US) football players stand up for the national anthem. In fact, I wish they'd quit acting like playing national anthems at sporting events was a Thing. It shouldn't be a Thing. What does Ingeld have to do with Christ? As the bishop said to the nerdy monks who kept copying Old English epic poems in the margins of their gospels. (Be glad they did: otherwise, you wouldn't have any online games to play.) But what does it mean for writers that people are so touchy, so quick to judge, so – dare I say it? I dare, indeed – bleedin' intolerant?
It's exhaustion, people. They're tired. They're tired of democracy, with all its responsibilities. They're weary of trying to sift the truth out of all those tabloid lies. They're suffering from Information Overload. They're tired of thinking, dammit.
Who knew self-government was going to be so hard?
This reminds me of my dad. One Christmas, we gave him a harmonica, complete with instruction book. In a family of musicians, we thought he might like to participate in the jam sessions. Dad listened to the teaching tape for half an hour, and messed about with the instrument for a bit. Then he concluded, disappointed (wait for it)…'This is no good. You have to practice this thing!'
Three siblings, who had kept the home piano in almost constant use for several decades, cracked up. And learned our lesson. The next musical instrument we bought as a Christmas gift went to the younger generation.
Yes, it's hard to think. No, life's issues are never simple. I think I can state, categorically (though with the dead assurance of contradiction at the bottom of this page), that whatever snap judgement or potted opinion you have in your head – about anything at all – will turn out to be completely wrong. Or at least wrong most of the time. There is a word: nuance. That's it, the world is nuanced.
How horribly unfair of it.
Writers know this. If writers didn't know this, they would do something else with themselves, like becoming 'news' commentators on those cable shows. Or posting lots of lies on social media. Writers know this because to tell a story, you have to reach some understanding of the story. And going off half-cocked isn't just a bad idea for a musketeer.
Beware, though: until the 21st Century gets hold of itself, you're going to take a lot of flak for being nuanced in your writing. Some of your readers will skip most of the content, jump to their favourite conclusion, and complete the exercise by jumping down your throat.
'How could you say that? Blah, blah, blah.'
'But I didn't say that.'
'Don't try to weasel out of it! Blah, blah, blah.' (They'll get even madder at you if you change your mind because you learned something new today. How dare you?)
Don't give up. Don't give up when they do that. Just ignore the comments and soldier on. Some readers want you to give up. Anybody who does that is acting like a troll, even when they don't mean to. They have problems you aren't obliged to tackle. Just like the national anthem situation. Don't let people sucker you into expressing snap opinions, whether or not those opinions have the seal of 'good person' approval. Real writers don't write to express simplistic opinions – they write to learn. To understand.
I read a long, earnest article last night by a journalist who is also an occasional writer of Young Adult (YA) fantasy novels. It appears the YA field is plagued by criticisms on social media. In fact, one book received 20,000 posts of outrage about its allegedly 'incorrect' view of ethnic tensions – in a fantasy novel that hadn't been published yet. Another author was harangued about her allegedly retrograde gender attitudes while she was still writing the novel.
However, there was light at the end of this particularly bewildering tunnel. It turns out the people complaining on Twitter and elsewhere were mostly adults. The teenagers, who constitute the intended audience of YA novels – who are, in fact, the YA part – stopped participating in the online forums because they didn't enjoy them. Instead, they bought and read the books. I suspect they discovered more nuance in that first novel I read about than their overtired parents did. It's now #1 on the Amazon list.
Cheer up: a lot more years left in the millennium. We might get it right one of these days.