Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Political Correctness and New Pulp Fiction

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Take your seats, boys and girls. Today we’re going to talk about political correctness in genre fiction, particularly stories set in our less than culturally sensitive past.

But let’s back up first and walk before we try to run, as the cliché goes. When we talk about political correctness, we’re not really talking about politics at all. We’re talking about cultural exclusivity/inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, and most commonly we’re talking about culture clashes (and that’s where politics gets involved). In particular, we usually are talking about the “good ol’ days” bumping heads with the new-fangled days of integration and acceptance of things like interracial relationships, homosexuality, transgender issues, counterculture (pierces, tattoos, and the like), etc.

There are several points of view when it comes to these clashes.

One says don’t sweat it because the good ol’ days were good, and even things like racism and sexism and homophobia can be overlooked because it was a different time and that makes it all right.

Another says history is filled with bad things like racism and sexism and homophobia, and those memories must be purged and hidden so future generations don’t know they ever existed.

Still another says sure, those things were there, and we can learn from them, but let’s cut our elders some slack. They just didn’t know any better.

Yet another says reparations. The sons and daughters of those former generations owe something special because of the actions of their grandparents and forebears, whether in the form of public apologies or in political and economic changes.

Still others say that when we revisit that racist and sexist past, we must use our creativity to recreate that past with culturally sensitive stories in our art, even to the point of rewriting the past so that characters in the 30s are as culturally sensitive with blacks and women voters as we oft believe ourselves to be today.

Others beyond even those have views that combine some of these already mentioned, often in personally confusing ways that don't always line up logically in their worldviews. Hence the struggle, as they say, is real.

Where does all this leave us as writers of new pulp and genre fiction? Do we have a responsibility to the truth of the past, the values of the past, the values of the new culture, the dictates of the market, or somehow to all of these things and more?

A few days ago, a fellow writer of new pulp put forth the following on one of the pulp groups I'm a member of:

At [a con] two weeks ago, I participated in a panel on “Cops and Crime in New Pulp Fiction.” An audience member raised a question concerning political correctness and its impact on NPF. I commented at the time that writing period fiction entails bringing along the baggage of the era, including attitudes and epithets. I also suggested that a part of the nostalgia that fuels the re-emerging pulp fiction market is the joy of reading fiction free from the iron bands of PC.

I recommend reading the new novel by Christopher Moore (Love Bites, Fluke, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, etc.) titled Noir (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), a tongue-in-cheek take on the old the pulp detective genre.

Moore's Author's Note at the beginning of the book reads thus: This story is set in 1947 America. The language and attitudes of the narrators and characters regarding race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time and may be disturbing to some. Characters and events are fictional.

Well said, Moore.

Frankly, gang, we as pulp writers are not the United Nations, and we need not be all inclusive, nor do we need to be sensitive toward giving offense to any given mainstream reader or special interest group. We write for a niche market, not some public library reading circle or the Weekly Reader Book Club. Write what is genuine.

End of Sermon.

I agree... to a point.

What are our priorities as modern writers of old-style stories? What are our responsibilities as contemporary authors writing about older times and character of previous generations?

We have a responsibility to research and to history to portray our settings (place, time, etc.) as accurately as is needed for our stories. That’s the often hard work (but still fun for those who enjoy it) of writing—research. We do that because we value accuracy. We want out fiction to be as real as we need it to be from story to story.

For example, a cop thriller needs to get its setting—and particularly the police work of its time—right. But, if you're writing an urban fantasy set in the 1920s, then it's far less important to be as accurate—unless you really want to stress the dichotomy between the two worlds. If not, the accuracy of the Valentine’s Day Massacre or police procedure isn’t as important to a world where a wizard and vampire operate as founders of the FBI.

The same could be said for cultural issues. If you’re dealing with an alternate take on historical reality, your 1920s Chicago or New York can be a super-happy world where everyone loved everyone else and no man ever slapped a woman for hysterics. It’s about the story context.

For this topic though, let’s assume a more real world example and story. A cops and robbers thriller (or even a private detective mystery) or a wartime pilot adventure needs to be fairly accurate to the time period. Racism was rampant. Sexism too, and being gay could get you killed if people found out—among other things.

As a writer, you don't have the luxury to pretend these things didn't happen. However, you also don't have the luxury of reshaping them in to harmless tidbits of history. You have to face them for what they were and are.

A caveat… Some among us are writing what equates to a “benevolent” form of propaganda, such as in the religious publishing world. For example, your audience demands that you don’t use “bad” language or (let’s just say) uncomfortable situations. That’s not my calling, and for most of my readers here, that’s not the case either. But if it is yours, you have rules for your market and you must follow them. But even that doesn’t necessarily prevent you from hitting some of these more heavy ideas in a more tactful way.

Along those same lines, some among are writing a less religious but equally "benevolent" propagandized fiction in which the writer caters specifically to his or her cultural worldviews. These can include revisionist histories that "nice" up the world for "safer" reading or doing what can come across as a sort of “reverse racism” that often comes with a “let’s see how they like it” tone induced to elicit social change. Just like religious fiction, these have their place and thir markets, but let’s not confuse them for truth in setting.

Don't read so much negativity into the word "propaganda" at this point. I mean it purely in the sense that the writing is intentionally out to influence or indoctrinate.

Others (hopefully not among us) are writing a less benevolent form of propaganda, literally trying to rewrite the world to our POV or our ideals. For example, I know of some who are writing historical stories that makes slaves and owners commonly out to be good friends from opposite sides of the cotton field. And yeah, maybe that was true for some (maybe), but that wasn’t the general truth of the world and portraying it as such is simply trying to rewrite the truth of the historical record. Even if your hero lives such a life, you have a responsibility as a writer to make sure the readers knows that his or her life makes him or her different from the rest of the world.

Outside of those caveats, we contemporary writers have a responsibility to modern readers to be sure that things we understand are bad now, like racism, homophobia, and sexism, while accepted at the time, are in fact bad things.

So, how do you write them?

For me, it gets down to character. The characters who occupy my stories are always on a sliding scale—starting somewhere between pure good and pure bad, and constantly sliding back and forth toward one or the other.

Those bad things from history are great ways to build my non-heroic characters. Your villains can be filled up with these things. That’s fair game. If your villain is a racist bastard who beats women and sees them as less important than a man, that's one thing, but if your hero has the same ideas and the same nature, then you may have a problem when it comes to modern readers.

Your heroes can also be struggling with some of these issues, but usually will be more enlightened in the others. Or at the very least, your hero, if he believes these ideas, must be struggling to better himself against them or to begin to learn the wrongness of them.

Let’s say your hero is on a case that involves a man killed because his rich uncle found out he was gay and it would bring shame on the family name. Let’s say your hero can totally understand that reasoning but is learning throughout the case that maybe that kind of violence is never the answer in such a situation. It may not be a full enlightenment, but it is a step toward the light, so to speak. And that works for a modern reader, particularly if the character’s further adventures continue his progression toward being a better human being.

Be careful though, because the further your hero is from full enlightenment in terms of today’s standards, the harder the sell will be for a contemporary audience. That said, readers have always been and continue to be suckers for a good change-of-heart or redemptive story.

It’s important to mention that these issues also involve questions about marketing. As a writer you may have the ability to write whatever the hell you want, but as a marketer who wants to sell books, you have a responsibility to write what will appeal to your market. And most modern readers don't want an abusive hero.

Now, these are all issues that are near and dear to my fiction writing career. After all, my first published story was about the legacy of an African-American boy who was rescued from a hanging by a still somewhat racist Southern sheriff. These kind of inclusive characters who still struggle are very important to me because they ring true. I don’t know anyone who is pure Lawful Good or pure Chaotic Evil (to use the gaming terms). And I love to write the gradations between those two points.

I think that's one of the reasons people respond so well to the Rick Ruby stories (The Ruby Files Volume 1 and Volume 2). Rick is a man of his time (the 1930s), but he's also a man in a mostly black world. He sees and lives with all the stuff that Belle and Broomstick and Evelyn put up with, and all that he has seen has changed him into a better man of his time. It's there, and the writers in the series don't shy away from it. But, Rick's world feels the pressure from it, and he has to watch out to keep his damn mouth shut when he wanders out into the rich white world of his clients.

Also, Rick is a philanderer (a bad thing), but his reasons are based in those same pressures. He's in love with Evelyn, a black woman who sings at Belle’s club, but they both understand their relationship won't work in that world, in that time. Therefore, he struggles because he can't commit to the one woman he really wants to, no matter what, and it sends him out to other women to try to get around that loss.

The truths of his world make a good man do bad things, and I think that's the difference, that's the important story Rick is telling in his adventures.

And I think that’s a good way to wrap this up. The standards and truths of the time must influence your stories if you choose to set them there. You ignore them at your peril as a writer, and you risk missing out on the really important stories that might be waiting to come out.