I'm going to voice an unholy, unpopular opinion...
I didn't like the Joss Whedon "Much Ado About Nothing".
There. I said it.
Look, I love Joss Whedon's other works. I find his writing to be impeccable, sharp and entertaining. His direction and filmmaking abilities are some of the best in the current crop of Hollywood. In short, I dig Joss Whedon. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed his take on this particular Shakespeare play. I much prefer the Catherine Tate/David Tennant stage production directed by Josie Rourke. I could write an entire blog post about my issues with the Whedon version, but, in the end it comes down to four words: It's not for me.
Along those same lines, I don't like lima beans, country music, reality television or skinny jeans. I'm not into Clown Dominant BDSM porn. These things and the people who dig them are not inherently bad (though I ask for a slight dram of understanding when I look at you funny for the clown thing). They are, however, not for me.
In general I am a "live and let live" person. If you eat lima beans while listening to your Keith Urban, I'm not going to rage at you or call you names. I'll be over here with my chai, watching the Tate/Tennant version of "Much Ado" for the tenth time in as many days.
But I realized recently that there is one avenue where I have an extreme prejudice. And that arena is BOOKS. I posted on Twitter quite happily that if your book is poorly written (ie riddled with spelling and grammar errors, rife with poor characterization and otherwise chock full of suck) I will rip it apart. I can, when it comes to the written word, be a judgmental bitch.
Now, my personal Facebook account is set to "friends only" for various reasons, the most pressing of which is that I like to have some semblance of space that is for myself, friends, family and close colleagues. Otherwise, I've got a fan page or my Twitter feed or this blog or conventions et al for everyone else. Anyway, I used my personal Facebook account to ridicule a self-published novella for its horrible cover and the atrocious writing quality. I started off being vague about it, not naming names or using the copy/paste function. After a while, however, I posted a link to the book on Amazon to share with others so they would see, "This is why I'm gagging here!"
I have amazing friends. Not only will they laugh with me, they will take me aside and say, "This time, I think you need to check yourself." One such friend sent me a private message offering a different point of view that I had, admittedly, been ignorant of. He suggested that this book was written that way specifically because it was aimed at a particular audience. The book used a cultural language and plays to the values of a specific kind of person.
In short, this book was not for me.
It wasn't written for me. It was written for another woman with a different life experience.
I think what we've seen recently in the news with Ferguson and the like has highlighted that while many of us are trying to live colorblind, we are instead blinded to other experiences. It's not out of anger, hatred or racism, but it is a flaw. In trying to see only people and treat everyone equally, we forget that everyone lives different experiences. Women walk to their cars holding their keys like a weapon. Black men are stopped for carrying a can of tea and Skittles. These are details of every day life for some people that the rest of us do not necessarily understand. A man doesn't know what it is to grow up in rape culture from a woman's perspective any more than I--a middle-class, cis white woman--can truly understand what it must be like to live the life of a black teen in middle America. Or a Latina immigrant. Or a transgender male. I can--and do--have sympathy. I can imagine or put myself in his/her shoes. But I can never truly know what that person's life is with cultural heritage and social conditioning.
That being the case, this particular book was not for me.
And I know that some of you are sitting there shaking your heads wondering how this can possibly be an epiphany for me. Well, I know that there are divisions. I know there are sects, schisms and denominations in the world. I know well that there are cultural/racial divides. But the one place I forget these things exist is in a library. It may be my naivete showing, but I think of libraries as huge, open areas where anyone can peruse any section at length and read any volume they choose. There isn't a room set aside for this class or this color or this creed. Books are accessible to all, in my mind, and I try to make my own writing equally open.
But, yeah... guess what, Jamie. This book isn't for you.
Coming to this conclusion throws the issue of diversity-in-fiction into even sharper relief, and adds new questions to the mix:
When writing The Other (be it People of Color, other genders or sexual preferences etc), where is the line between writing people--fully-generated characters--and ignoring their differences? For example, we don't want our strong female characters to be "men with tits" any more than we want to whitewash PoC. I think we can agree that white-cis-heteronormative male is not the default human setting (regardless of what popular media would show). However, we don't want to have token black characters or Sassy Gay Friends just for the sake of them being there, either. Personally, I write people. Some of my characters are black, some are white. Some are satyrs and gods. Some are bi, some are cis, some are Pan. To me, though, these are things that inform who they are without defining who they are. My characters have fears and desires that resonate on a human level.
However, is this also a problem? Does being colorblind turn into erasure? I'm thinking here of a discussion way back in high school about how shows like Cosby and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air didn't depict "blackness" but black people in white roles. The idea of "the Carlton" being the equivalent of a house slave. (Not my personal feeling or argument, but one I've heard often and take into consideration when developing characters.) That argument stuck with me, though, and it does play in the back of my head sometimes when I'm working on character development. Am I writing a fleshed out character who is black, or am I writing a Carlton?
Where is the line between writing a dialect and poor writing? It's been pointed out to me that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is considered to have its own rules. If that's the case, and we say that AAVE has its own set of standards, where is the line between "poor writing" and "following a different set of rules"? And along this same line, by deciding that AAVE is acceptable, are we allowing writers to "write down" to people? And to that point, is that good for anyone? It almost sounds like--in some cases--we would lower standards and turn out poorer product for certain audiences. I find that as insulting to both creator and audience as I do seeing men portrayed as having dull minds and uncontrollable libidos, or women used as plot devices.
Now, in my own writing, I look at dialect as something that individual characters have. If writing in first person, I will allow slang and dialect to a point, but not over do. In third person, the prose I keep in standard American English with all the grammatical trappings and spellings of MLA and Chicago Style manuals. If a character is Cajun, or African American, or has a thick Geordie accent, I let that come through in dialogue. Spellings and grammar be damned, if it's what that character would say, so be it. However, I don't let it leak into the prose. (I will admit that my lead character speaks in Internet English sometimes in her prose, but that's who she is.) So don't misunderstand; something like the works of Twain written in Southern American English is not going to be held to the same yardstick as Shakespeare.
Furthermore, if we posit that there are not only books that are "not for everyone" but entire genres written with one subset of humanity in mind, is this in some way segregating? Is it just as limiting as omission? We have black publishers, women's publishers, LGBTQ publishers...groups set aside to make sure all voices are heard. But at what point does that swing the pendulum to separate but equal?
These are more philosophical points, perhaps, and I know that they only scratch the surface of issues. These questions are not going to be answered in a day or Twitter post. But I'm keen to open a dialogue with you about them. I don't pretend to have The Answers to this. I have ideas, but I also will admit that in some matters I'm ignorant.
PS: And no, "Much Ado" is not up for debate. Tate/Tennat FOREVAH!!!