Essentially, many Christian authors and publishers feel that: <!--more--> 1. their books have a responsibility to promote morality in their readers, and authors are somewhat responsible for the moral fiber of their readers 2. there has to be a strong delineation between “moral” and “immoral” behavior in books 3. many topics either can’t be addressed at all or must be very clearly pointed out as “bad” if they are 4. certain topics and ideas ought to be brought up in a book and pointed out as good as part of the purpose or meaning of the book The conclusion I came to was that these ideas were resulting in flat, one-dimensional characters and dull plots. The responsibility of promoting moral integrity, and having to make absolutely sure that nothing you write could condone or promote immoral behavior, was of paramount importance. And what that caused was preachiness, one-dimensionality, a lack of compelling moral conflict, flat characters, and intellectually numbing stories. Why am I talking about this? Because a lot of the ideas I’ve been seeing spread around in writeblr and in the online writing and reading communities as a whole are identical. A lot of the posts I see online now about writing are almost exact echoes of the ideas I wrote about in my paper. Nowadays, I see posts constantly urging people to think about why they want to write their stories, and whether they are good or helpful or edifying. I see authors being slammed for not condemning characters with disgusting beliefs hard enough. I see people being dragged for liking characters that are not morally and ideologically pure. I see posts telling people to approach any difficult topic with extreme caution and crisp, unmistakable condemnation. Media is widely vilified when its fandom becomes toxic or nasty, assumed to be at fault for the moral fiber of its fans. I see authors and publishers advertising their books as “feminist”, as if that makes any sense at all (is the author feminist? Does it just handle female characters well? Are the characters feminist? Is it focused on women’s issues?). I open a book and see poorly-integrated lines of dialogue dropping ideas about prejudice or gender that seem like a Tumblr post or part from a nonfiction book on racism inserted directly into a character’s mouth. I don’t think feminism is bad. I think feminism is great. And I don’t think talking about prejudice or gender is bad. I think these things need to be talked about. I definitely don’t think these ideas can’t be expressed in fiction. On the contrary; I think fiction is one of the best ways of expressing important ideas. But, I see some kind of preoccupation with the ideas your writing promotes, prominently including the idea that you must promote and you must condemn certain ideas, and that everything you write makes a statement about morality, and you’re responsible for edifying your audience and making them better people. And it’s really, really familiar. The conclusion that my paper came to is that you can’t clean up the reality of humanity. You can’t make the messiness of existence crisp and clear so you can feed your readers the ideas you want them to absorb bite by bite. You can’t have light without darkness, and you can’t have either without shades of gray. In life, racist people will not always be obviously horrible. (Even though sometimes they are…) Sometimes they will be people who love their spouses and kids and are generally “nice” and adopt dogs and love kittens, and they will still be racist. Sometimes even “good” people will say or do racist things and have to realize their mistakes and then make mistakes again and have to realize THOSE mistakes. Sometimes getting out of ideas you grew up hearing is long and difficult and you have to catch your brain repeating them even years after you tried to change. Racism can be passive, subtle, it can exist in people who are “good” in some ways. Sometimes people make progress toward changing but still have problems. How do we show this in books? Is it an author’s responsibility to solve all this and sort out everything? Is it racist for a racist character who is seeking redemption to not have entirely overcome their prejudices by the end of a book? Is it the author’s responsibility to make sure racist behavior in the book is clearly labeled? Is it a reflection of the author’s views if a character says something racist? Note that I’m asking these questions. I’m definitely open to and would like perspectives from other people on this, people of color foremost and especially. The idea I am exploring is, does giving an author the responsibility of making sure their book clearly and unequivocally promotes certain ideas and condemns others impair them? Could it make it more difficult to address the ideas they want to? When I analyzed Christian literature, the conclusion I had to reach was that it does. I found christian lit as a whole to be excessively black-and-white, simplistic, shy of tackling anything with complexity, and almost dishonest about human nature. Is there an analogy in this situation? In life, relationships aren’t always pure and unproblematic. People don’t fall neatly into “people who have never done anything to hurt their partner” and abusers. People can sometimes have problems in their relationships and have to change their behaviors to preserve their relationships. Relationships have difficulties and arguments. Sometimes a person needs to change or become better in order to have a healthy relationship. Sometimes a relationship can be unhealthy without being abusive, and sometimes relationships are abusive. Must the author draw lines about “toxicity” and “problematicness” in super clear neon spray paint so people know the difference? These arguments come up about all sorts of morality-related things in books. And on some level I agree, you shouldn’t promote racism, and you should be careful and sensitive about portraying some things, but I am also extremely apprehensive about certain aspects of this culture that has sprung up. It’s really almost totally identical to what I noticed about Christian literature, and imo there it has done a lot of damage. I don’t really believe that authors are totally past being responsible for damage their ideas do, quite the opposite. But there is this expectation of dictating what’s bad and what’s good on a very clear level. That was part of the problem i noticed in Christian literature, the teaching of ideas rather than forcing readers to consider them. I’m not trying to talk over anybody at all, esp with things about racism, I’m white after all. And I really urge and ask my white followers and people-who-see-this-post to listen to the opinions, ideas and feelings of people of color who reply on the topic of racism. What I really want is everybody to consider this: is it an author’s job to make sure all “bad” and “good” things in their book are clearly delineated? If not, what is the best practice for an author? If not, might this cause problems? The culture I am seeing in the writeblr community seems to hold that it is, and rejection of redemption for villains, morally ambiguous situations and characters, addressing of complicated topics, and portraying anything “bad” without making absolutely certain that it’s clearly wrong is growing. Personally, I have a bad feeling about it. Thoughts? When I analyzed Christian literature, the conclusion I had to reach was that it does. I found christian lit as a whole to be excessively black-and-white, simplistic, shy of tackling anything with complexity, and almost dishonest about human nature. That’s what I find, although my primary lens isn’t race; I come from the domestic violence prevention world, and have been watching frothing about “unhealthy” and “abusive” ships with alternating bemusement and dismay. I do care, deeply, about preventing intimate partner violence; but I think the current mania for pure, unproblematic relationships is honestly getting in the way of honest conversations about abuse. Part of this is because, if you can only show good things as good, you cannot talk about the appeal of an abusive relationship, about why people stay in it. You have to deny the power and magnetism of loving a flawed person, and can’t talk about the profound yearning to be loved despite our flaws. If you don’t understand why people repeatedly return to an abusive partner–if you can’t empathize with their feelings and reasoning, and acknowledge their motivations as often being deeply compassionate and altruistic–then you cannot help them ever decide to walk away for good. The other part is that, if people decide they know what is Good and what is Bad and They Are Against Abuse, they will justify anything they like as Good and Pure, even if the thing they like is harassing and abusing other fans, or a contentious ship that argues all the time but hits their id buttons. Anything that threatens their fervently-held self-image as being Against Abuse, any acknowledgement of their own complicity in anything resembling the thing they profess to hate, is strictly guarded against–never admitted to or corrected. I will add an element to this, which I think has been touched on above but which I want to expand. Which is that people will, in general, find their level. There’s a wonderful thread which I have seen going around about Julia, the autistic Sesame Street character written by an adult, autistic parent, who said that they’d found her very irritating initially for being so stereotyped and shallow, but found that for the neurotypical preschoolers the show is aimed at, she turned out to be a great tool for teaching them about what it meant to be autistic. This is the general case of that. If you’re writing a picture book for little children, then simple, black and white, didactic story telling is probably ideal. Adults are unlikely to get much out of them. If you’re a young teen and romantic relationships are new and scary, then you honestly might not be able to handle a nuanced examination of a magnetic, abusive partner, you might just find it confusing and upsetting, a more straightforward story might really help you wrap your head around things. But a romantically experienced adult will find that boring. But that aforementioned romantically experienced adult probably gets the most out of that complex, nuanced book where you really understand how the heroine ends up with the abuser because he’s just so interesting. And at the same time, no one sees themselves as a cartoon villain. A protagonist who makes a terrible mistake is usually going to be more effective at making people stop and ask “could I also be doing that bad/racist/biased/thoughtless thing”, but you have to be willing to write someone good and interesting and relatable who does a terrible thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can have those simpler stories, they’re a valuable part of the ecosystem. The problem happens when people get mad that books they find to complex exist for other people. Or when they blame authors for people who misunderstand complex books. Mm, I disagree with this, honestly. There is a lot of art for people of the age groups you name that break all your rules here. For young children, a picture book that absolutely revolutionized children’s fiction, and has been beloved for years, is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Its young protagonist wears a wolf costume and rampages around the house, so he’s sent to bed with no dinner–but instead of receiving his punishment meekly, he escapes into a magically-appearing jungle, rampages with other Wild Things, impresses them all, is proclaimed their King… and eventually realizes he’s lonely and he wants his mom. So he says goodbye to his new friends and goes back to his room, where his mom is waiting for him with dinner. This is a fabulous book to use with children who have behaviour problems. It acknowledges: Yeah! Breaking the rules is really fun! Following adult orders sucks sometimes! I bet if you broke ALL the rules you would be the WILDEST THING OF ALL! Go you! …But maybe, when you’ve had your fun and then calmed down again, you might want to consider the benefits of working with adults, too? Which reflects what we know about the brains of a lot of young kids who act out; a well-regulated brain can self-regulate its physical and emotional centers to allow energy to be sent to areas of impulse control, language, and abstract thought. But many kids who act out have brains that don’t work that way; they have way too much energy going to physical and emotional centres, and it’s only after listening to the needs of those parts of the brain–movement! self-expression! imagination! self-mastery!–that it can settle down and say, okay, I can sit with my mom and talk about maybe not wearing the wolf costume all the time. This is an area where, quite frankly, the traditionalist Christian view of only strict discipline and good examples loses, hands down. I can cite you any number of research studies that say: Strict discipline and good examples will not produce well-behaved children nearly so much as adults that treat all of their emotions with attention and respect and teach children how to feel and express all of them in an appropriate way. For teens, one of the most amazing examples I’ve seen lately is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a webseries based on a Jane Austen novel. (Spoilers for TLBD and Pride and Prejudice). The main character’s younger sister Lydia is a brash, overconfident 16-year-old who breaks into her sister’s vlogs and steals the show; she’s always being told by her family to quiet down and stop being so annoying. But someone who doesn’t tell her that–who listens to her and seems to treat her well–is George Wickham, a twentysomething who was originally the main character’s love interest. He puts up with her acting like a brat, and eventually begins telling her: She’s funny. She’s special. Her family just doesn’t understand her. Nobody else sees her like he sees her. And in no time Lydia is keeping secrets from her family, letting George pressure her into greater intimacy, and basically defeated, alone, self-blaming and powerless when they all discover just what a predatory creep he is. He’s only revealed, in the end, because of the intervention of another girl he victimized in the past, and her supportive family. This is the reality teenagers live with all the time. And TLBD was honestly revolutionary to its audience, because no one, me included, had ever seen an abusive relationship depicted that realistically before. At no time was he sinister or moustache-twirling, but when you went back and rewatched the videos, you could see him violate her boundaries, condition her into never telling him no, slowly turn her against her family one by one, and guilt trip her into “trusting” him. It was so pitch-perfect it gave me chills. He wasn’t some beefy beer-drinking middle-aged man who shouted at his wife; he never hit her. He was a sweet, sensitive guy who held her hand and looked lovingly into her eyes and told her she was special. Lydia didn’t want to give up her sense of agency, of having been always in control, so she blamed herself for what happened to her, and a 1950s courtroom would absolutely have agreed it was her fault. And it was revolutionary mostly because teenage girls recognized their older boyfriends in him. It cut through a lot of rationalizing because “My boyfriend isn’t like THAT”–the uber-moralistic depictions that depict abusers through a deeply negative, slightly parodic lens–because it was so nuanced and so accurate. And it also cut through a lot of rationalizing about “Well I’M no angel EITHER”–neither was Lydia. She was annoying and brash and stupid and lied to her parents and broke the rules and had sex and was SCANDALOUS–but at the same time, when her relationship goes sour and she physically deflates in on herself, they somehow manage to depict the physical damage done to her soul. It made people go, “If she wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t okay what happened to her, maybe it isn’t okay what happened to me.” It was a depiction that made real, actual teenagers realize they’d been treated badly and demand healthier relationships. (I wonder if it any made any of those teenagers realize they needed to be less like him. But I digress) Kids are ready for way deeper and more nuanced depictions than you think they are. And the problem with a lot of the current discussions of what’s “appropriate for children” is that they aim to take away the very depictions that let them realistically understand what evil looks like.
Some time around when they were about three years old, I started asking my children “what was the thesis statement of that story?” when they finished telling me some detailed account of a complex, possibly inappropriate movie or TV show or book that they had taken in. They hated it. They also learned to ask themselves about themes and theses in the art they were consuming, to respond to it, to separate different elements and choose which parts to use for their own decision-making and which parts to discredit.
I currently work tutoring high-school students. At the start of the year they did the deer-in-the-headlights look when I asked them the same question. They guessed wildly at what was the “right” answer I was looking for. But gradually they start coming up with actual analyses and even – even! – argue with an author’s thesis. Watching them learn to dig out the complexities is sheer delight.
When themes are simplistic and the moral of the story obvious, children learn to consume published ideas uncritically; leaving them ill-prepared to discern truth and falsehood ,and vulnerable to propoganda and deception. Why do we do that to them?