It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The ethical writer


There was a bit of fuss caused last week by a nitwit post claiming that epic fantasy has degenerated since the days of Robert E Howard and Tolkien (I shall not dignify the post with a link to it). Nihilism and Decadence in populist escapist literature. Oh no! We must be in the End Times! I’ll not bother responding to the article – smarter folk than I have already done that. And done a much better job. But the subject has provoked an interesting line of thought…

There are those who say a writer’s only obligation is to be entertaining. Nothing else matters, providing the text entertains the reader. The aforementioned fantasy fuss would have you believe a writer is also obliged to be morally uplifting – or rather, to reinforce a narrowly-defined moral framework belonging to the writer of the post which started off the whole thing. Which is patently bollocks. In so many ways.

Writers do indeed have obligations above and beyond making their texts entertaining. They have an obligation to get it right.

Shoddy – or indeed a total lack of – research is inexcusable, and tantamount to artistic cowardice. This could mean, in science fiction, getting the science right, for example – something media sf is notoriously bad at doing. But it’s more a repudiation of the myth that you can “make it up as you go along”. Once, perhaps; once, when genre readers were unsophisticated. Not any more. And certainly not now that we have the Internet. Anything in a story that doesn’t seem quite right, you can look it up. You can do the research the writer should have done. And then you can decide not to read anything else written by that person ever again.

Fictionalising real-world examples is no defence. Want to make your fantasyland stand out? Why not look to the caliphates for inspiration? Yes, why not misrepresent and misinterpret someone else’s history and culture just to give your novel a little colour? Those people are unlikely to read your story, so why should you care if they get upset? And anyway, it’s all “made-up”… Except it’s not. Not if its inspiration is so obvious any reader can spot the parallels. In such cases, writers have an obligation to originality in their world-building. And a concomitant obligation to be accurate when the inspirations lie close to the surface.

There are those who claim it is immoral to use real people in fiction – public people, that is, dead or alive; not people the author actually might know. It is, they claim, an “invasion of privacy”. Except, public people rely on a public persona, it is their source of revenue, it is what they “do”. And as such it could be said it no longer belongs to them. If a writer were to use such a person in their text, then they are obliged to make their portrait, when necessary, as accurate as possible. The right places at the right time (providing the point of the story is exactly not that, of course).

Writers are certainly under no obligation to reinforce the prejudices of their readers. In fact, it is the reverse: they should challenge their readers’ prejudices. A good book should make you think about the world around you. It should not make you feel more comfortable with your attitudes; it does not exist to provide a helping hand carrying your personal baggage.

So, all that about a lack of conservatism in current epic fantasy, about these heirs to Tolkien who are spitting on JRR’s grave… It seems these degenerate, nihilistic writers are meeting their obligations: they’re challenging the worldview of the writer of the original post. He may not have responded intelligently, but that’s not their fault. Is it?

9 thoughts on “The ethical writer

  1. Have to say, Ian, that I kinda disagree with you. For me the author’s obligation is to determine what kind of book they are going to write and then fulfill that personal contract by writing that book. It may be a technically accurate and plausible slice of science fiction. It may be a biographical accurate counterfactual featuring fictionalised accounts of real people, or it may just be a rollicking adventure in which outlandish escapades and edge-of-the-seat thrills are paramount (in other words, a piece of pure entertainment).

    All of those will have readers that think those qualities are what make a good reading experience. And readers who think those same qualities are a load of baws. Personally, I’d bet that the majority of F & SF readers prefer pace, neat characters and eye-ball kicks over carefully researched and skilfully interwoven accuracy.

    But the point is, for my money, as long as the writer has written the book they set out to write, they’ve successfully discharged their obligation as a writer. After that, the market gets to determine whether what they’ve created works or not.

    Saying that fantasy books don’t need to be morally uplifting, but then that they do need to be accurately researched and “not just made up”, is to me demanding the removal of one set of fluffy handcuffs only to replace them with another of a different colour.

    If you’re asking my personal preference, I also prefer good research – at least good enough so that I can finish a book having learned something new – and hate really stupid gaffes, but I also recognise that I’m not the majority of readers, who may not care so much.

    After all that, though, I agree with your final paragraph, but I took a different route to get there. 😀

    • Accuracy is a hygiene factor, tho – you don’t notice it when it’s right, but you notice it when it’s wrong. So why take the risk? Get it right in the first place.

      As for the bit about not “making up” fantasy worlds, I suppose I was trying to say that if you’re going to appropriate, at least have the decency to make a proper effort at it.

      • >Accuracy is a hygiene factor, tho – you don’t notice it when it’s right, but you notice it when it’s wrong.

        That’s a kind of weird analogy, but okay. Personally, as I say, I agree with you. I prefer people to care enough about what they’re doing to not make the kind of mistakes that draw me out of a story. And am more likely to read the kind of books that I think will be adequately accurate in those regards. But like I say, I’m not every. Millions of people still love Star Wars, and most would be really disappointed if a “technically accurate” version were released in which all of the explosions were muted.

        >As for the bit about not “making up” fantasy worlds, I suppose I was trying to say that if you’re going to appropriate, at least have the decency to make a proper effort at it.

        Yup, be rigorous and internally consistent. I agree with that too.

        • “Hygiene factor” is a well-used phrase – although it normally applies to job satisfaction.

          As for SW and other media sf… I’m in two minds about all that. Sound in space may not be “right”, but it is a convention. I suppose that I was arguing for authority through accuracy in writing – like you said of ‘Barker’. I could have finessed much of it, made it up based on half-remembered films and documentaries… but that would have been doing a disservice to both the story and its readers.

          • Yup, and it was very much one of the strengths of that story. In fact I would say it was pretty much the point of that story. However, had you chosen to send Barker off on a space adventure to battle some evil Venusians with plasma laser weapons, I’m quite sure I could have just enjoyed it on those terms, knowing that scientific accuracy was not only *not the point*, it would probably have ruined a fun yarn.

            • Now we’re getting into entirely different territory. A pulp Venus would be a conceit in and of itself, and accuracy is immaterial – unless it’s a deliberate homage or pastiche of another author’s Venus. And yes, I’m interested in those sort of meta-sf pomo tricks just as much as I am in getting historical, technical or historic details right (as required by story)…

  2. Knowing exactly which article you’re referring to, I have to say I think a lot of people are misreading exactly what his argument is: it isn’t a fear of people challenging some precious halcyon era of fantasy with their pesky grey morality messing up his happy neat tidy black-and-white view of good-and-evil, but the fact that he views the extremely amoral fantasy of certain writers as being no better than the twee fantasy lands of the various Howard and Tolkien clones. It’s no more real to him than the likes of popular soap operas with their preposterous storylines and ludicrous familial strife. Thus, when people say the likes of Martin, Erikson, Abercrombie and the like are more inherently “realistic” or even better than the likes of Howard or Tolkien, it gets his heckles up.

    Sure, he could’ve done a better job pulling back on the political elements, and he did it in a particularly provocative way, but that’s the way he works. What we’ve seen resulting from his post is fevered and vigorous discussion from all sides, and really, isn’t that the best possible result

    • Strip out the silly invective and Grin’s argument is facile. He holds up Tolkien and Howard as unmatchable paragons, and then insults all modern fantasy writers when they fail to meet criteria he has set himself based upon his own canonisation of JRR and REH. His defence is Tolkien’s response to critics of Lord of the Rings, which was essentially: “I think your book sucks, so there”. And then he uses JRR’s war record as some kind of barometer of greatness for his literary creation.

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