Reflections on a National Day of Mourning and the Duties of an Artist

Notice how you don’t hear anybody saying what they were saying just a few months ago? “Give him a chance so we can unify and come together and get over it.”

Well, he had his chance, and look who he’s picked for his cabinet. Anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-education, pro-theocracy, pro-Crusade, a corrupt congressman who should be in jail for using his office to enrich himself but is getting a cabinet post instead, a Treasury secretary who “forgot” about $100,000,000 in assets because there were, you know, so many forms…

Oh yeah. And proof that Russia hacked the election. I think it’s time that the people who told me to get over it? Get over that.

I read a post that Jessica Faust, a literary agent, put up a few days ago, in which she reiterated her advice to writers that they “keep the YOU out of your brand.” Well, as soon as I hear the words “your brand,” I reach for my vomit bucket.

When an individual assembles a false front for public consumption, the primary motivation is always to make sure nobody gets “offended” by anything you do or say, because that could “damage your brand.”

It’s a philosophy that puts fear first. That dreads a single sale lost or, worse, a sale lost to someone who will find a platform to “express their outrage” at something you said and did, and cost you more sales. That tries to please everyone by offending no one, which of course always offends those of us who are most offended by censorship, especially in its stupider manifestations.

It’s why Facebook shoots first and asks questions later about any photo that anyone anywhere reports as “offensive,” even if it’s Renaissance art or, worse, a ploy by murderous human smugglers to shut down FB groups run by Syrian refugees to identify them, who probably managed to send a few refugees to their deaths by joining the group, posting a dirty picture, reporting their indignation to FB, and seeing the group shut down for days while FB investigates the “offensive image,” leaving those refugees with nowhere to go for tribal knowledge of which smugglers were legit, and which ones would cut them loose in the middle of the sea.

But! The important thing is that nobody on Facebook had to see a dick or titty, and if a few people have to die to accomplish that, well!

And as long as corporate research departments continue to decide that the Easily Offended demographic is x% larger than the Fuck Censorship demographic, they’re going to go with the shoot first policy.

Literary agent Jessica Faust quoted a reader who’d replied to her original post, and she said this reader “said it best.”

In my opinion as a reader, expressing views or complaining as an author is such a slippery business. Indeed, I unfollowed authors (you probably know by now I do reading like other people do opiates so yes, I follow a number of authors) because their personal views on controversial matters shone through and I suddenly began to see the PERSON instead of the BRAND. Now, that’s bad and very dangerous. People identify with your writing; they INHABIT your stories when they read them, they internalize them, they read them with their own inner voice and make your stories THEIRS. That’s why they buy your stories. When you, the author, become a person, then you kick the reader out of the stories and inhabit them yourself. This is how I honestly feel about it. I’m also a writer, but I’ve been a reader for much longer, and felt the need to express my view as a reader here.

First of all, let’s note the irony that the reader publicly “felt the need to express my view” about authors not expressing theirs.

Secondly, let’s note the horror of a literary agent endorsing and encouraging silence in artists.

Third, it’s not the job of the author to step out of the reader’s way. And the books in which you don’t hear a writer’s individual voice? Pringles. Same chip out of the can every time, same shape, same flavor. If you don’t want to hear a unique authorial voice, you’re probably reading Harlequins or some other factory-fabricated “novels” that guarantee you the same fulfilled expectations every time, with no suspense in your mind as to what the outcome might be.

KJ Charles said it well here. I could quote the whole article, but I think this reflects best on Literary Agent Jessica Faust and her reader who “said it best.”

I once saw a historical romance author explaining that she didn’t mention servants in her books because her aristocratic characters wouldn’t have noticed them—they were like human appliances. She wanted to convey that her books offered an idealized world that would be pure fun for readers to escape to, with no boring 21st-century social justice guilt. But here’s a funny story: my grandmother was a servant who scrubbed floors for a titled family. She married the chauffeur and they were both dismissed for it. Married servants were inconvenient to manage, you see, because they wanted personal lives. This was in the Great Depression, a time of raging unemployment and no social security, and these two hard-working people were sacked, as a matter of routine, for getting married.

Don’t tell me your book is non-political when it includes characters so privileged they can’t even see the working-class people who live in their house and suggests it’s all right to treat servants—humans—as appliances. “The working class exist only to service real people” isn’t a neutral set-up. Your politics are showing.

As for me, I’ll never read Jane Austen the same way again after having read Longbourn, written from the POV of the Bennet family’s servants.

As far as I’m concerned, this counts 10x when it comes to MM writers. You cannot write these HEA stories in a world where the whole tide that made HEA possible for two gay men is being reversed, and just ignore that reality. You can’t pretend there are magical little small towns where everyone accepts the two gays, that all that real, violent, powerful hate is “offstage” because it’s “just a romance” and you don’t want reality intruding into your fairy tale ending.

Most importantly, if you are a straight woman, as so many MM authors are, you can’t get out of your obligation to LGBT+ people to speak out about these issues, loudly, because you are profiting from our stories. You are profiting from the social gains we have worked so hard for. The gains that make your stories plausible. You do not get to stand silent at the ever-increasingly likely loss of significant numbers of our rights. You don’t get to put a NOH8 sticker on your Facebook profile picture and call that sufficient “support.” 

And as I’ve said before, you don’t get to read MM fiction and support Donald Trump. Just fucking stop right now. You don’t get to cheer for two gay men’s HEA when they “overcome all obstacles” when you’re the one who put the obstacles there. You don’t get to read about those magical little small towns where everyone accepts the two gays, if you and all the other people in that town just voted for the guy who wants to send the two gays to conversion therapy camp.

Not speaking out, not taking a side, means you’re the one who will say, later, “We didn’t know, we were not political.” If you don’t get that reference, well, you’re not much of a writer.

I’m a voracious history reader, as anyone who’s read my Vikings stories knows :). I love books that cast new light on familiar events, that see the same facts from new angles. The most astonishing thing I read in And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, was how the French dealt with collaborators after liberation.

The women who slept with the Nazis? The politicians and policemen who served them? They all received some form of punishment.

But. The heaviest sentences were reserved for the writers. The ones who’d used their talents in the service of Nazi propaganda. It was just a given in the culture that they were, of all people, the ones who should never, ever, have turned their talents to such ends. And having done so, were deserving of the worst punishment.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

7 Comments on Reflections on a National Day of Mourning and the Duties of an Artist

  1. “When you, the author, become a person, then you kick the reader out of the stories and inhabit them yourself. ” <~ Say what now? This sentence is ridiculous.

    Uh, isn't the reader already inhabiting my story by reading about my characters and their motivations? I get the not being preachy. I understand that aspect. You can educate without beating someone over the head with your viewpoint but… what is an author exactly? Because it sounds to me like authors are supposed to be machines that churn out product and are devoid of any independent thoughts and emotions.

    Oh my gosh, I can't with this nonsense.

  2. Authors need to disavow this “branding” concept foisted on us as part of a market scheme to wring yet another pint of blood from creatives. It’s part and parcel of the cult of celebrity and its primary function serves to impose censorship on the act of creativity itself. It compartmentalizes and diminishes the creative’s full range of legitimate roles in society, rendering both the person and the work into convenient aliquots of easily digested, formulaic servings to satisfy the dual demands of commercializatiion and entitlement.

    And as the saying goes… I can’t even.

  3. Well said, Brad.

  4. Reblogged this on Love's Last Refuge and commented:
    I brought up the concept of “branding” in an earlier post. Brad takes this in another direction. Good read.

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