Fiction Theory (fiction_theory) wrote,
Fiction Theory
fiction_theory

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No such thing as *just* fiction

Did I miss something? Has the month of March been declared International Show Your Privilege Month?

I ask because I just now saw this: "In Defense of Victorientalism". This guy just gave Norman Spinrad a run for his pantlessness.

If you want a really, really wonderful response to this, deepad has one (link takes you to dreamwidth) here, with her post One Bad Tune Deserves Another". Included is probably the best, most beautifully snarky, most petard hoisting poem ever in the history of mankind, "Pity the Orientalist".

And there's also this great post, "Countering Orientalism" which is so totally completely right. This right here, especially:

Due to the power invested in Westerners today, borne from the history of colonization, there is no way to safely recreate the Orient, without yet creating more assumptions of stereotypes, without imposition of these stereotypes on actual people.





As for the article that sparked all this, I'm not sure which parts to quote because all of it is really bad. These two stand out most for me:

This is precisely so and it is from this perspective that part of Issue #11 of the Gatehouse Gazette was written: to redeem, if only for a moment, if only in the space between our computer screens and our imagination, the inaccurate, the imperfect and the improper but the oh so romantic and beguiling fantasy that was Asia before we actually knew it.


I just don't even know. *head shakes*. There is so much wrong that I'm not sure how to pick it apart and analyze it. It's like trying to pull apart a big cluster of writhing snakes here.

I don't know if the author understands that what this entire thing amounts to is: "Is it so wrong to fantasize about a time when the privileged didn't have to care about the effects of their actions on the millions of people they oppressed, enslaved, marginalized, and otherwise harmed?"

Which amounts to: "I'd really like to stop having to think about Asia and Asian people as being worthy of respect. I'd like to go back to treating them like objects meant solely for my entertainment, thanks."

Reclaiming Orientalism is the reclaiming of privilege, and thus the reclaiming of the ability to unthinkingly oppress other people.

But this, too, puts the cherry on the privilege cake:

We blissfully reminiscence about imperial grandeur, shuffling aside the slavery, the segregation, the tyranny and the bloodshed that were also part of it. We are only too willing to recreate, in our writings and in our costuming, the tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian upper class, ignoring, very often, the misery of the poor and the desolation of the oppressed. Is it obnoxious? Probably. Is it offensive? No. Because steampunk is fiction, not research.


My immediate reactions are this:

1) Since when did the "misery of the poor and desolation of the oppressed" stop? The OP writes as though the effects of colonialism and Western oppression are not still being felt in very real, very costly ways to those who are their inheritors.

2) Without making assumptions about the authors' race, origins, or nationality, one might get the impression that one writing such a statement can do so because the negative, ongoing effects of Orientalism are largely invisible or non-existent for this person. Or to say: I'm sure it's really easy to handwave slavery and colonialism when one doesn't live with anything but the benefits of that legacy. I'm sure it's quite easy for one to set all those dirty details aside when the people and events being erased do not erase and ignore the people who are just like you.

3) It is the height of privilege waving to believe that you get to decide what is and is not offensive. And this is one of the primary mechanisms of dominance. Those belonging to dominant groups are able to decide what people do and do not have the right or reason to be upset by. Saying categorically that something is not offensive is another way of trying to shut down any dissenting discussion that might explore what's wrong with Victorientalism (and indeed the larger SF/F genre and maybe even the larger culture at work) and find ways to write and create things that are less or even not problematic. It is a way of keeping those who are offended out of the discussion and away from any productive conversation.

Let us be clear. No one person gets to decide what is or isn't offense. One can decide what is and isn't offensive for them, individually. If this author had said, "I don't find this offensive" - it would still be problematic and privilege waving, but less so. Because at least then the possibility that other people could find it offensive is left open. Of course declaring that you don't find it offensive, therefore it isn't is still one big outpouring of privilege.

There are a lot of things, even under the guise of anti-oppression conversations, that people are not going to agree on. Some people will be offended by something, some people won't. For instance, I know that there were a lot of divided opinions amongst people that I consider to be anti-racists on such movies as District 9 and Precious, concerning whether they were racially problematic, how much so, and why.

But in that conversation, what I did not hear was those people saying, "Well, I didn't have a problem with Precious, so there was no problem."

What I did hear was: "I personally did not have a problem, but I can see how other people might be bothered by or have issues with X, Y, Z - my reasons for such are A, B, and C. But other people might have different reasons that are completely valid" - or some form there of.

4) There is no goddamn thing as "just fiction". As a writer of fiction, the very phrase "just fiction" sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to go around doing property damage (and maybe grievous bodily harm to anyone silly enough to utter such a phrase in my hearing).

Mankind, all across the wide, wide world, has dedicated countless hours and words (both spoken and written) to the creation, telling, and sharing of fiction. Dollars to donuts, if one could travel back in time and hear that first tale told by the long, ago distant ancestors of humanity, it would be fiction. Non-factual tales of some sort have been the mainstay of human creativity since, well, since there was human creativity.

So saying now that it's "just fiction" when minimalizing it allows you to tell stories that please you but hurt others is disingenuous and enraging.

Fiction has very, very real consequences for readers, writers, and cultures. They are cultural transactions, either within a culture or sometimes between cultures. To say that it's "just fiction" when discussing what does and doesn't matter culturally and literarily is like saying it's "just trade" when talking about the economy.

The statement is absurd on it's face. I can't think of any other way to articulate how utterly, stupendously, profoundly wrong such a phrase is.

Just as trade can make, break, and shake an economy - so too does fiction with culture. So much of the information and ideas that we carry around with us come from the stories we're told. The attitudes that so many white folks have about people of color doesn't simply come from things we're taught in class or things we're told. It comes from fiction. From the books and movies we're handed as kids.

I can give example after example of how people have responded to movies, books, TV shows. People name their kids after favorite characters, or try something they read in a book. People take attitudes away from what they read.

The things we read, even and especially the fictional things, affect us. It leaves a mark on us. Even bad books, boring books, poorly written books, racist books. Many times, especially if we're making no effort to be aware, we aren't conscious of the impression being left on us.

Nobody gets away from a book unchanged. Nobody. You are always a slightly different person after every little bit you read. Whether you loved it, hated it, didn't care - it shifted you, rearranged some of your molecules, shifted the little pathways in your brain.

Fiction shapes the reader, the writer, and the culture. When we commit fiction, we shape and are shaped.

And when we commit fiction that is unexamined, full of the monstrous ideas that have been shaping us, and don't even know they're there, we're shaping the world for the worse. When we read fiction and do not look for the monsters even a little, we are being shaped for the worst and letting it happen.

I don't presume to say that when someone writes fiction they are writing the world they'd like to see. Most writers would probably not want to inhabit the worlds they come up with. It's not about that. Though I have my questions about someone who finds the handwaving of slavery to be an enjoyable past time. I'm sure the author of the post in question would probably be horrified to return to the world the way it was in Victorian times.

But to handwave and ignore the evil that went along with that world is to give it a door back into the world through fiction. The more doors we open, the more of it we're going to see in our reality.

Cultures do not rid themselves of their evil features by sticking their fingers in their ears and waiting until it goes away. You don't defeat racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia, bigotry and all the other societal ills by ignoring it. You do it by talking, pressing, speaking, writing, having conversations, marching, protesting, speaking up.

Whether or not we write about the world we want, what we write about is the world we make.

It is never just fiction. It's a metaphor, a cause, an idea, a language-based viral infection, a cultural transaction, a personal manifesto, a plan, a vision, a possibility - but never is it just anything. Never.
Tags: genre, links, race
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