As boring as I want to be

So. Last time I said I had been particularly moved by that post at Seeking Avalon. I’d already read Elizabeth Bear’s “Writing the Other” post, and I’d read meta-posts about the whole RaceFail scenario, so I thought I knew what to expect from Avalon’s Willow. I expected strong words and anger; I expected to see Bear taken to task for being smug and patronizing.

I didn’t expect to see Willow’s broken heart laid out so clearly.

Her list is just relentless. Time and again, a Character of Colour is set up and knocked down, is subordinate to a white character, is furniture to decorate a scene with, is an exotic sideshow. I’m not familiar with all the examples she gave – there are big gaps in my SF/F knowledge – but I am a diehard Trekkie, so I knew this one:

It’s about Geordi being blind. It’s about Worf being, time and time again, a tragic mulatto. It’s about holding on to Benjamin & Jake Sisko with finger nails and eye teeth.

This made me think. About The Worf Effect. About Worf Is Always Wrong (not a TV Trope, just something I’d noticed: any time there’s a brainstorming session, Worf’s suggested solution is rejected). About Geordi Never Gets Any (again, just something I noticed: as a fellow nerd, I felt for him). And I thought about the number of times Troi is nothing but Cleavage On the Bridge (love me, love my invented trope names), or The Empath (most ineffectual power evar!), and how much it sucks when all the characters who are ostensibly like you are set dressing or ineffectual noodle people.

Extrapolate from there how much more it sucks to see this around you in all media all the time.

But the thing that REALLY struck me was her mention of Ben and Jake Sisko. I have a deep fondness for those two (for all of DS9, really, which is head and shoulders above any other Trek, IMO). What a realistic and moving relationship they had! I confess that they made me cry more than once. Now that I’m a parent myself it strikes me as even more poignant: Ben’s transparent affection for (and occasional exasperation with) his son, Jake pushing him away and clinging to him by turns, the whole dance of learning to differentiate yourselves and yet still stay friends. They’re the best father-son pair I’ve ever seen depicted on TV. (I qualify this by saying I’ve watched less TV than most people, but STILL. They were just lovely.)

As I was thinking about Ben and Jake Sisko, my subconscious mind (which is sometimes smarter than I am) suddenly dredged up a story a friend had told me. When Canada first legalized same-sex marriage, my friend and her partner came up from Seattle to get married here. They approached the marriage licence clerk with a certain amount of trepidation, bracing themselves for the funny look or the intrusive question or the exaggerated show of support, but none of that materialized.

The clerk yawned; he thought they were boring. And my friend was struck by how wonderful it was to bore someone.

My subconscious is like a cat, leaving things like this on my doorstep without explaining why. In this case, I think I know why. Ben and Jake Sisko are, in many ways, a very ordinary father and son. The fact that such an ordinary pair should be so extraordinary among the characters in Willow’s list is… well, it’s heartbreaking. Not being exotic, not being stared at, not being an ambassador for “your people” all the time, being as boring as you want to be — these are luxuries.

Hold that thought a moment, because there’s one more strand I have to tease out before I braid everything back together. I turn back to Avalon’s Willow:

It’s about the fact that you and writers like you don’t have to think about this stuff. That you have the ready made excuse that it all‘serves the story’ and that said character was written intelligently and as a well rounded individual with wants and needs of his own; with plots even.

This got me thinking, too, and not just “about this stuff” (and my privileged ability to stop thinking about it, if I wanted to). It was the phrase “serves the story” that got my attention.

(I have written and rewritten this part about twenty times now, trying to counterbalance feeling with tact, and I’m having a devil of a time. I’m just going to have to say it as plainly as possible and ask everyone’s forgiveness after.)

I believe that there are as many ways to make art as there are artists, that there is no one right way to do it. As much as I may dislike certain books (I throw out Twilight as my standard example), I will defend them as art.

That said, I think the claim that something – anything – had to be present in a book because it “serves the story” is kind of a bullshit excuse. First of all, everything in a finished story serves the story; that’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying. What’s not obvious, however, is that until the story is finished – and by finished, I mean out in print, where it can no longer be tinkered with – anything can still be changed. Especially plot.

The unhealthy relationship in the published novel Twilight serves the story, sure. If it weren’t there, Twilight wouldn’t be Twilight. Twilight’ would be some other story. Maybe a better story, maybe not, but different.

To defend a problematic part of a novel by saying it “serves the story” is to imply that there was only one story that could have been told, and it’s this one, Twilight as-is, not Twilight’. It implies inevitability.

Nothing is inevitable. Plot is not some juggernaut, chugging along, running people over, unsteerable and unstoppable. That is a bossy, bullying plot, to my mind. It turns characters into pawns, civilizations into stage-dressing, emotions into devices. It says things can only happen one way. It is a knee-jerk reactive plot.

I say again: it can be reactive and still be art. Clearly (hi, Twilight!) it can sell well too. For my own part, I’m not a big fan of my own jerking knee. I’ve seen the harm it can do. I believe I can do better than that.

The key, I think, is to keep asking questions (I know I have the privilege to stop, but I like asking questions. If I’m not asking these specific questions, I’m asking other questions. It’s what I do). The inevitable will insist that it can’t be questioned; it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. Asking questions is the way to poke it in the eye.

Nothing is inevitable in fiction. Everything can be questioned, everything changed.

It’s all well and good to have imaginary fist-fights in my head where I hash out my own theories of art and inevitability, but theories are no good to me if I don’t put them to work. I’m an experimentalist at heart, not a theorist (which is why I’m worried that I’ve laid this all out inadequately). “Ask questions of your plots!” I announce, ex cathedra, but the point really is that I have begun asking questions of my work-in-progress. Different questions than usual, I mean. Questions pertaining to privilege and fairness and – because we’ve been in Porphyry for about 90 pages now – race.

The very first question was: who gets to be boring?

OK! *gasp!* That’s more than plenty for today! Tune in next time (or the time after; I think I have to catch my breath, here) when I actively apply all this thinking to what I’m doing! I’ll probably talk about art some more! Consider yourself warned.

2 thoughts on “As boring as I want to be

  1. Pingback: Listening to my inner Abdo « Rachel Hartman

  2. I love this! And also, I can’t believe that you love DS9! And everything you say here is so vital and important! Thank you for writing reflective pieces like this! They make my week!

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