Justifying yourself

Dear reader, please note that the following man is a BAD MAN, no matter what he might think of himself.  Lest you be confused, remember, he is BAD.  Kicks puppies bad.  Now let us begin…

That’s how I feel like I should start a few of my stories.  Just to, you know, let everyone know that I’m not an evil, creepy person, I just like to write about evil, creepy people.  Or societies.  Or future states of the world.

(I swear, I may just self-publish my first handful of stories so I can talk about them on this blog!  It would make life so much easier…But not yet.)

Anyway, this has been on my mind for a few days since I (finally!) received the professional edits on my first novel.  (As you may recall, I decided to send it off and get feedback from someone with lots of experience in the industry who writes in SFF whose general grammar opinions I respect because I just wanted that level setting that I couldn’t get from my betas.)

Actually, this issue was already on my mind due to a certain short story I have making the rounds that prompted a personal rejection noting that it would generate many anonymous letters to the editor.  And another one I’m working on now about potentially withholding socialized healthcare under certain circumstances.  And the novel, of course.

So, this was part of the feedback I received on the novel:

“In [this] society, we have the killing of undesirables, including children; we have the sterilization-without-permission of the unfit; we have the removal of children from their parents…. All of these things have real-world analogues which are generally regarded as having been very bad things indeed.  But none of the [characters] who are involved in these practices appear to have any moral qualms about them; they may regard particular instances as matters for regret, but nobody appears to have any doubts about them as a general principle….

The question you need to answer is this:  What is the overall attitude of the book itself toward these practices?  Does the book regard them in the same way that the characters do — as things that are sometimes regrettable, but still necessary to maintain what’s generally seen as a good society?  Or are these practices going to be part of what the book struggles with?

If the former, the book is espousing a philosophical position that’s going to take some heavy-duty defense.  And if the latter, the book needs to start wrestling with it harder and sooner.”

Which leads me to the question of how much I need to justify myself in writing a story.  Yes, the world I wrote about is a world where very bad things happen.  It’s a world I would never endorse in reality.  But it’s a world that operates as it does for a purpose.  The few pay a very heavy cost so the majority can be fat and happy.  Most people have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes and those that do know exactly why what they’re doing is considered necessary (hence the lack of regret).  They’re also isolated, so they have no other example of ways to live.

So, to what extent do I need to write the book and insert my present day sensibilities into the narrative when those are not sensibilities that would naturally exist in the world of the novel?  Do I have to take extra steps to show that I am not some inhuman, evil advocate of sterilization and murder?  (I’m not.)

Does writing about something like this automatically trigger people to think I believe it unless I come out against it somehow? (Hence the dear reader intro…)

Of course, I mentioned this to a friend and his response was that Hitler wrote a book, too, so maybe people do have certain sensitivities to any suggestions about cleansing or managing a population.  Touché.

I think the way a lot of authors may deal with this is by having a character who lives within this awful society, but fights against it.  But part of the “horror” of this world I created was that people don’t know they have something to fight against.  (Thank you Lao Tzu.)  They don’t understand the truth.  And those who do know the truth have been indoctrinated into it in such a way that they can’t see that it’s wrong.

If you haven’t read it and you’re interested in the psychology of how normal people can be indoctrinated into doing very evil things, then I’d highly recommend The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zimbardo.  (He of the Stanford Prison Experiment.)

Ultimately, my goal was to have one of the characters in the books go through various stages of development.  In the first book he’s innocent, unaware of the truth of his world.  In the next one he’s indoctrinated into this skewed worldview.  (I was going to use the Milgram experiment findings as a sort of checklist for how he gets indoctrinated…)  In the third one he doubts his training when he has to put it into effect and then something happens to make him even more rigid in his beliefs.  And then he finally breaks.

Originally, it was all going to be one novel.  But, that first bit is 90,000 words.  So…I have a problem.  Maybe.  Assuming I agree that this needs justification.  Or assuming every agent or editor agrees.  (So far, none have actually read it.  I sent a handful of queries and then decided I needed to think more about how to “sell” it.)

It does me no good to have this plan if I’m vilified after releasing the first book.  (Of course, I’m probably flattering myself that it would even reach that point, because the most likely outcome is indifference and ennui.  I didn’t have to look far for fat, happy, and oblivious…)  (Myself likely included in all honesty.  Resisting the status quo is HARD, so why do it unless life is really, really awful?)

So, I don’t know the answer to this.  Looks like I have some reading to do.  I’m thinking Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, and some book called Necessary Ill that’s about to come out and seems to have a similar issue to wrestle with.  Any other reading suggestions  or general thoughts would be welcome…

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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3 Responses to Justifying yourself

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    To be cynical for a moment: if you are vilified then it will be good for your sales.

    On the subject of espousing evil, I read a review of 1984 that said the characterisation was terrible and the plot and obvious polemic because real human beings would never allow such a society to exist let alone continue. So I suspect there will always be people who feel a book that contains “inhumanity” is espousing a lie.

    Maybe you can keep the characters and universe as they are by altering the narration; omniscient narration of the (to us) horrors, combined with flawed narrator for the comfortable unthinking characters.

    If you are looking for a universe of crushing horror with the heroes working to continue the oppression, I suggest trying 40K novels by Black Library: thousands sacrificed each day to maintain a deified Emperor, being born different as heresy. Some of them are the war porn you might expect but others (Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn and Ravenor for example) are well written dystopias.

    • mhleewriter says:

      True. As long as no one decides that I need to be confronted or harrassed in real life, I guess I really don’t care as long as they keep buying my books.

      And good point on the 1984 bit. And on the POV change. I guess my frustration is that I chose my approach for a reason and it just annoys me that I might somehow have to write in such a way that people don’t judge me the person vs. me the author.

      Then again, Stephen King writes far creepier stuff than I do and he seems to be doing just fine, so I might just decide I don’t care and go my own way. (Tends to be my pattern anyway…)

      I’d never heard of those books, so will definitely check them out as well. Thanks for the recommendations! (And the continued blog support as I ramble on about my writing…)

      • Dave Higgins says:

        I understand your frustration about compromising your vision: it must be something about art that makes me annoyed about changing to make the consumer happy when I have radically altered software and legal cases without blinking.

        Glad my ramblings on your ramblings are appreciated.

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