The world as it is or as it should be?

stairs leading into the sunset

Since finishing The Bone Dragon, I’ve been mulling over a big issue about fiction writing that boils down to one problem sentence: a single line of dialogue. Here it is in context. Have a read.

‘What on earth is going on here?’ someone asks.

I squat down and palm the cigarette, transferring it smoothly to my pocket as I stand.

‘Just a difference of opinion about a movie,’ I tell Mrs Poole. ‘Fred and Sonny Rawlins fancy the werewolf-boy in it, but Phee thinks the vampire-boy is cuter.’

‘That is not an issue that requires violence or swearing,’ Mrs Poole says, glaring between Phee and the boys.

‘Well, you know how it is. Boys our age, with their hormones running wild,’ Lynne adds airily. ‘I don’t suppose they can help it, poor dears.’

Mrs Poole, who has said as much before, gives Lynne a hard look, trying to work out if we’re mocking her or Fred and Sonny Rawlins. Lynne, Phee and I assume bland expressions. Mrs Poole sighs. ‘Off you go, girls. I think Mr Rawlins, Mr James and I need to have a few words.’

We hurry towards the girls’ loos, making sure to get out of earshot before we break into giggles.

‘They’re so going to get you for that, Evie!’ Lynne gasps.

‘Me? Why me?’

‘I just backed you up. You’re the one they’re going to want to get even with.’


Phee grins and tucks her arm through mine. ‘But it was so worth it.’

‘Depends how they get even.’ Lynne links arms with me on the other side.

‘Still worth it.’

This little scene-segment, and one line in particular, has been bugging me for months. I still can’t decide what to do about it. Have you spotted why?

No? Have another look.

Still not sure what the problem is?

It’s the ‘accusation’ that the boys are gay. It’s the idea that this is, naturally and without question, is an insult. Now, obviously, this is just the view of one of the characters… but it’s accepted without question by the others in the scene. It goes unchallenged. The assumption – and all the bigotry and prejudice behind it – are treated as normal and natural.

Beyond a personal worry that my readers will think that I share this view (which I most certainly do not), I see a much bigger ethical issue at stake. Am I feeding into all the material out there that goes along with these assumptions, reproducing them and, thus, legitimising prejudices I want to see eradicated?

There’s a particular danger in nasty, insidious assumptions like this that go unchallenged and I don’t want to be contributing to it.

So why doesn’t one of the characters offer a challenge? I would. But they wouldn’t. That’s not who they are as characters. If asked directly about homosexuality (or any other type of sexual orientation for that matter), all three girls would probably say they didn’t have any issues with people being happy so long as they’re not hurting anyone. They wouldn’t see the bigotry in their own actions and words because although we live in a society where more and more people are starting to profess liberal views (which is a wonderful start) fewer are rooting out any hypocrisy in the detail of what they say and do – and, sometimes more importantly, in what they don’t say and don’t do when confronted with less overt forms of prejudice.

For me, the characterisation rings true: these young teenagers (they’re about 13) haven’t really given the issue any thought. It’s not surprising (though certainly not laudable) since most adults haven’t either. They don’t see that they’re being bigoted. They’re just, unthinkingly, part of a culture with prejudice embedded in so different ways that it very often goes unnoticed.

But is that the world I should be portraying? Or, to put the question slightly differently, is that the type of world I should choose to portray?

Because it is a choice. This is my book. Everything in it is there because of my choosing, so do I have an ethical responsibility to show the world as it should be as opposed to how it is? Or is it OK for me to simply ‘represent’ what I see, as if that is somehow value-neutral, without moral implications?

Now, I would like to think my readers will look at this scene and see it as reflecting huge flaws in my characters’ personalities (and their ability to think), but will they if I don’t flag up the fact that there’s a moral problem?

As I said above, it doesn’t make sense in terms of the Phee and Lynne’s personalities that they’d challenge the narrator’s comment. Phee and Lynne are pretty naïve. They’re certainly not great thinkers. They might tackle overt prejudice head on… but they wouldn’t see prejudice here to challenge.

The teacher might… but what she hears could be value-neutral. It’s only when the girls are out of sight that the reader is clued into how the characters are interpreting what Evie (the narrator) has said: as an insult. It’s their reactions that turn something entirely innocuous into an ‘accusation’.

As for Evie, this is a subtle but significant revelation about her character. Evie is naïve in only a very few ways. She does think deeply about things. So why doesn’t she think about this? It’s part of a bigger picture: in many ways, she’s exceptionally mature for her age, but in a couple, she’s rather backwards. It’s significant that this is one of them.

So the scene points up an important inconsistency in Evie’s character… and some of the big flaws in Phee and Lynne (who are otherwise pretty likeable). Only is it too subtle?

I’d like to think all my readers will immediately think ‘What a horrid thing to say! Wow, I really didn’t think they’d be so prejudiced.’ But will they all?

So what’s the solution?

My characters are a product of a world they live in: a world that I am trying to represent ‘warts and all’ in the book (and this is certainly not the only type of wart shown). The scene says a lot about the characters’ flaws, particularly the main character’s flaws. So it’s not a ‘throw away’ piece of dialogue: it speaks to a lot of other things that are going on. But it does so in a very subtle way, and I don’t like the dangers inherent in that subtlety. In writing about the world ‘warts and all’ I don’t want to part of sustaining any of the warts.

So what did I decide about the scene?

Well, one of the things I decided is that the draft has given me a great opportunity to talk about something I think is very important: the need for fiction writers to think about whether there are ethical issues inherent in what we do. It’s not enough to say ‘This is art’ and leave it at that.

And so I’m challenging what my characters aren’t. I’m questioning the assumptions I hate behind this seemingly innocuous scene. I’m saying that if anyone doesn’t see a huge problem in the scene from the get-go, then that says something truly shocking about the society we live in. If I were writing about and representing the sort of world I’d like to live in, this scene wouldn’t make any sense.

I could just take it out. I could just put something else in that doesn’t come with all this ‘baggage’. But does that really help to represent the world I want to live in? By keeping entirely mum, I’m not in any danger of hurting… but neither have I much chance of helping.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for keeping the scene. And then talking about. And talking about it some more. The scene is allowing me to ask a great big question: ‘What do we need to do to create a society where this scene doesn’t make sense because not only are we not overtly bigoted but we’ve moved beyond all those dangerous, insidious prejudices still boiling below the politically correct surface’.

It’s not enough for us to be politically correct and challenge prejudice when it’s as clear as day. That’s hugely important, don’t get me wrong… but it’s the other sort of prejudice we need to be really worried about: the prejudice that’s so deeply woven into our culture that we don’t even see it. Because if we don’t see it, it’s bound to go unquestioned and unchallenged.

I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but I have a couple of thoughts about what an ethical code of fiction writing might look like in relation to these issues:

  • If you do choose to represent the world ‘as is’ in your work, make sure you challenge any non-overt prejudices or morally dubious behaviours outside the book. We all have a responsibility for not letting things pass unquestioned, so if you’re characters won’t or can’t offer a challenge, make sure that you do.
  • Make sure that prejudice is never treated as a ‘throw away’ issue. If your characters are going to be prejudiced, especially ‘covertly’ prejudiced, make sure it’s for a good reason: make sure it speaks to other issues in the book, even if it’s in a low-key sort of way.

Not convinced?

How about if the issue at stake weren’t prejudice but the use of torture. I’m regularly upset by how common it is for the ‘heroes’ of popular American TV series to trample over other characters’ most fundamental rights. Torture is shockingly common. Even more horrifying, it’s rarely questioned by the characters or the people behind these series. Instead, it’s often a ‘throw away’ issue. And it should never be that.

So what’s the bottom-line?

Whatever you write, think it through. Don’t assume there are no ethics at stake: don’t assume that the label ‘fiction’ absolves you of any and all responsibility.

… Which is not to suggest that we should impose a form of politically correct censorship under the banner of ethics. I’m just suggesting that we, as writers, need to think about what we’re doing and, ideally, talk about it. After all, we love writing and we love books, so it’s not exactly a hardship, is it? And perhaps it might just help us to bridge the gap between the world as it is and as it should be.

So, opening up the floor, does anyone have any advance on my thoughts about what an ethical code for fiction writers might look like?


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