As anxious a year as this has been, 2016 has left me downright fearful about what’s waiting around the corner next year. I put together this silly two-page comic (above) not so much for my own amusement (although it’s always fun to take the Mickey out of Newsnight Review) as to articulate the jitters I felt during the run-up to the E.U. referendum. This was a time when the British media was generally encouraging the voting public to base a momentous decision on a fog of hysterical reactions, outright lies and fearmongering, and a terrifying absence of facts.
We joke about how such mania is commonplace within the vacuum of social media, but here it appeared to have spilled out into national discourse. And would do so again elsewhere, of course.
The appeal of social media lies in its powers of reduction, to condense an ocean of information into a manageable stream. But when one views the world primarily through such a lens it can reduce the most nuanced argument to a binary option: yes/no, black/white, good/evil. If you’re not 100 percent on my team, then you’re 100 percent against us.
Social media prioritises impassioned response over rational engagement. It fosters paranoia, the assumption that unless the person standing next to you is announcing their fealty to the cause at every opportunity then they’re probably batting for the Dark Side. It encourages an almost sociopathic lack of compassion. It erodes generosity of spirit, the moral imagination required to consider without endorsing – just for a moment – a view that you may not share, rather than dig a little deeper and ask why does that person think that? It encourages readers to skim information, to ignore anything below an often-inaccurate headline, to share articles out of confirmation bias, to brand ourselves as standing unequivocally in this camp or that, two sides calling each other Hitler, each getting angrier at the others’ inability to see the truth, each feeding off each other, needing each other, creating an almighty yin and yang of idiocy, extremism begetting extremism.
Creativity flourishes not on timid conformity, but on fearlessness and rebellion. Great stories thrive not on comforting notions of good guys and bad guys, but the dramatic conflict generated by moral ambiguity, compromise and paradox. But social media has taught readers to be on high-alert for anything they may deem offensive, i.e. challenging, and to punish any such perpetrators accordingly. Today anything, from making an ignorant remark to proposing new ideas, can cause a backlash that damages a working writer’s reputation and livelihood. So can writers be blamed for being tempted to retreat into orthodoxy? Never did Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, that bitter cautionary fable about the ruinous paranoia of McCarthy-era America, feel so prescient.
I’m reminded of a passage from author H.E. Bates’ critical survey The Modern Short Story, first published in 1941: “The notion that literature, and the novel especially, should teach something, that it should carry a lesson, a moral, or a message, and that its results should not give purely aesthetic, sensuous, and recreative pleasure, is one that dies very hard. This notion almost invariably springs from and is fostered by the public and not by writers, who nevertheless in Victorian times often succumbed to the weight of public demand. It seems ludicrous now to think that in its serial form (to be read by the sacred fireside) the passages in Tess where Angel Clare carried [author's italics] the girls across the stream had to be altered so that these girls were decently wheeled across in a wheelbarrow. --- It seems incredible and ludicrous to us that Tess should have been banned, and Jude burned, when to-day their actions, which once brought the thunder from the pulpits, seem only mistakes of timid triviality. The lesson there is clear for all writers: that they should never, from first to last, pay the least attention to public opinion, or to what is worse – public taste.”
However, today we have never been more aware of what we must oppose. Thanks to camera-phones we can see all manner of loathsome behaviour autoplayed on our social media feeds. It’s no wonder that appalled writers feel the need to pick up their trusty weapon – whether pen, pencil or keyboard – and fight back. But when it comes to the type of stories that I write – good old-fashioned, rip-roaring melodrama full of heroes super and otherwise – no one wants to read a bash-you-over-the-head social justice agitprop full of clunky one-note archetypes defined solely by their gender, race or sexuality, all of whom are likely preaching to a readership already converted. Besides, you don’t change the minds of bigots by screaming at them. There are subtler ways of fighting the good fight (whatever your fight may be). A precise whisper can be deadlier than the shout. How about less ‘social justice warrior’, more ‘social justice ninja’?
Progressive writing is often just a case of writing well, of engaging best practice in terms of modern storytelling. So please don’t expect a pat on the back or a bucket full of brownie points for just doing your damn job!
We avoid the default of ‘straight white middle-class male’ and seek fresh perspectives because we need to find a fresh hook, something that can spin an archetypal story off in a new direction. Consider how the Netflix show Luke Cage (despite going into a tailspin in the last few episodes) put an invigorating spin on the superhero story by telling it through the lens of the African-American experience. I also love the ‘stealth diversity’ of things like Star Wars: Rebels and Big Hero Six, which have multiracial/multigender casts and don’t make any kind of fuss about it.
As a writer it’s your responsibility to give your exposition a decent burial, to let the reader discover your theme rather than spell it out for them. (Andrew Stanton of the Pixar braintrust calls this “the unifying theory of two-plus-two”, i.e. don’t show the audience ‘four’. Give them ‘two’ then ‘two’ and let them figure out the rest for themselves.) The movie Zootropolis wouldn’t be half as brilliant if it had settled for the simple message of ‘Racism. Is. Bad.’ It assumes the audience of children – of children, dammit! – are smart enough to understand that even those with the best intentions struggle with prejudice of some kind. That’s a dramatic paradox, right there!
It’s the writer’s job to create rounded, nuanced characters, of which gender, ethnicity, sexuality, spirituality and political views are just a few aspects of the myriad that makes that character who they are. Readers want characters with whom they can relate, whose flaws are more interesting than their strengths. (By the way, we want female characters who are ‘strong’ in the sense of ‘vivid’, not ‘strong’ in the sense of how hard they can punch someone.)
Might it be argued then that good writing is inherently progressive? I dunno. But I do know that good writing and progressive writing are at their most effective when they’re drawing the least amount of attention to themselves.
“When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of heaven,” wrote Lao Tzu. Only he was lucky enough to be speaking two and a half thousand years before writers were fighting to wrest their readers’ attention away from Netflix, Twitter, and the Xbox. It’s no longer good enough to be good, today’s writer must be heard as well.
I wish I could conclude this blog with something nice and comforting, along the lines of ‘just do XYZ, readers, and everything will be fine.’ But I’m afraid December 2016 has found me all out of homilies. I’m left to venture into 2017 armed with nothing more than a handful of slogans: progress fearlessly, be better than what makes you angry, and – in the words of the late great stand-up comic Bill Hicks – “Read! Listen! Think! Shut the f*** up!”