The Moral Responsibilities of the Reader

Blog, meta, writing

I previously wrote about censors and censorship, and the essential characteristics of the people who try to censor writers, be it the self proclaimed “social justice warriors” to the Evangelical parents who squawk loudly at the school board to have a book banned because it’s “inappropriate”. Today, I want to turn to the moral responsibilities of the reader.

So often responsibility is placed on the author to make a “tasteful” work, something that is somehow ennobling. Not all literature is about “ennobling” us or making us feel good. Some of it is about making us feel like crap, in point of fact. Have you ever read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? It is the most profoundly perverse and heartbreaking narrative I’ve ever encountered. It’s not supposed to be wholesome, but a sad commentary on race and gender.

While authors are constantly told to take responsibility for their work, I have never once heard someone ask a reader how they took responsibility for their reading and understanding of the piece. That is a curious, dangerous problem. We have a society of people whose tastes are catered to, who are not challenged, so that when they encounter a challenging piece, like The Bluest Eye, they are wholly unequipped to deal with beautiful, disturbing writing. They just want to feel good, not think.

But, nonetheless, readers have moral responsibilities. I say “moral” to emphasize the imperative to hold readers to a high standard of conduct — the same standard authors are often held to. If we hold our writers to high standards, it only stands to reason that we hold readers to the same rigorous standards.

An Indictment of Censors

Blog, meta

Censorship. Let’s talk about it, shall we? Or, more precisely, the people who enact censorship.

Recently a budding author, Amélie Wen Zhao, pulled her debut young adult, or YA, novel, Blood Heir, from publication after an internet ruckus decrying it as “racist”. You can read more about it here.

Kosoko Jackson, also a budding writer, also had his debut release canceled due to internet mobs. I admittedly don’t have much sympathy for him. He participated in the campaign against Zhao, and, according to his website was “a vocal champion of diversity in YA literature, the author of YA novels featuring African American queer protagonists, and a sensitivity reader for Big Five Publishers”.

sipping tea

While the author’s intentions were noble, his actions in regard to Zhou demonstrate otherwise. After what he did to her, the cancellation of his book is just karma if you ask me. The other information will be pertinent later.

Titillation (or Lack Thereof)

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I was reading Drew Nellins Smith’s “Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene” and found myself making faces at the article. It’s unimaginative, to say the least.

The first problem the author has is that they haven’t read. There is plenty of (gasp!) fanfiction which has provocative and wonderful sex scenes. The same is true with the Romance genre of fiction. Both provide sex scenes that are crucial to character development.

(If you feel the need to mock Romance, bite me. It was one of my staples growing up, right next to James Joyce.)

And that’s the second problem the author seems to have: the inability to recognize that character development and sex go hand in hand. They focus so wholly on the matter of sex in literature they never mention the characters. How are they feeling about this?

Impoverishment

Blog, meta, writing

I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white or white-passing. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.

I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.

This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.

The Pleasures of Discipline

Blog, meta, writing

In my time as a writer, one persistent myth I’ve noticed, which clings to even seasoned writers, is that one should wait for inspiration. One doesn’t need to force words out with something as tedious and dull as discipline. Just let the words come naturally, as if by magic which came from rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole.

Just like rainbows farted out of a unicorn’s asshole, the idea that most writers can get anywhere without discipline is false.

Queer, Here (?)

Blog, meta

I’ve been getting back into submitting short stories and I am struck by the number of queer* journals and magazines handwaving their, well, queer content with phrases like “we don’t just publish queer content” or “it doesn’t have to be about that”.

qaf uk -- stuart oh yeah right

Okay mate, if you want to wuss out, be my guest. Because that is exactly what these magazines are doing. If I want to read queer content, I look to queer magazines and journals. Hello. By basically “watering down” their content, they betray the very reason they are supposed to exist, and they betray their core readers. And that last thing, to me, is one of the gravest sins a publisher or writer can commit.  You do not dis the reader. Ever.

If you publish queer content, publish queer content. Gleefully rub it in people’s faces. Don’t give a shit about people who squawk, queer or no. Just be out and proud about it. Like, “yes, we just published an explicit story about rimming, and next issue we have lesbian lovers working through parenting!” People haven’t died in a myriad of ways, from murder to AIDs, so you can wuss out and publish content that “doesn’t have to be about that” or whatever.

* Queer because it is the best all inclusive term, has been reclaimed since the ’80’s, and hints at radicalism.

ETA: I wrote a much more eloquent blog post on pretty much the same topic here. I guess it’s been bugging me for awhile?

Mood

Blog, meta, novella: the weight, writing

The project I’ve spent the last six months on, The Weight of the Impossible, deals with a fifteen year old protagonist, Zach, who is a junior level competitive figure skater. As all teens do, he has a very particular lexicon. I found a graphic (on Twitter, I believe) which lists Generation Z terminology and jokingly posted it to my Facebook, saying: “Lo, the language of my protagonist. Though he says ‘fuck’ a lot more.” I decided to go through that graphic and write the Zach version. For the lolz, as Millennials might say.

zach lingo