Of Language Ownership and the War for My Literary Soul

Recent events surrounding the on-going Hugo / SFWA / sci-fi culture war recently prompted me to suggest to some author friends that we undertake a panel on professionalism. As a result, one of them (Betsy Dornbush) linked up a rather germane article by Hugo-award-winning author “Kameron Hurley on Trigger Warnings and Neil Gaiman.”

I read it. Twice. It’s an interesting take and a viable addition to this ongoing discussion of political correctness, author responsibility, professionalism in the writing industry, and the etiquette of writers, readers, and fans.

I recommend you read Hurley’s article before reading this blog in order to put everything in context.

Now that you’ve read it, let me start by saying I found it intriguing that, particularly considering her topic and position on it, she was so readily dismissive towards the bee sting folks. I know people for whom one could easily describe bees as a PTSD trigger. There are people who live in mortal terror of bees, and the very thought of them can be crippling. By her own definition, is she not being insensitive? And having said that, should we take equal issue with her article as she suggests we take with Gaiman’s book or other works? Let me remind you that she never provided a trigger for said bees.

As she wrote, “As an author, one of the first things I learned was that I needed to take responsibility for the images I put onto the page. For the words that I used.

Now, I have to confess I am being somewhat flippant here, and for that I apologize. It is with a purpose, however, because I am also being somewhat serious. I absolutely respect her position that some fiction is not for everyone. I accept that as an axiom. And let me add that in no way am I being dismissive about the concept of triggers nor those who genuinely have them. I cohabitated with an Army veteran who lived with PTSD, so I understand (as an observer, at least) that it is a very real thing.

Having said that, I do not and cannot accept that I need to put disclaimers at the beginnings of my fiction, which is one of two primary assertions in her article. I did, indeed, put one in the last paragraph, because it was appropriate to the context of this discussion, to the audience I am likely to reach, and because I was, at least in part, flippant towards those who have challenges with Apis mellifera specifically and triggers in general. It really isn’t a laughing matter, and it has become a mine-field for writers in this day and age.

You see, I respect Hurley’s right—everyone’s right—to have an opinion on triggers and to even write about them and it. And if she feels trigger warnings are an appropriate facet of good writing, then I absolutely encourage her to include them in her own writing. I do not, however, agree with the assertion that Gaiman and therefore I somehow have a “responsibility” to include such warnings in our own work. I also do not agree with her assertion that Gaiman somehow has a “responsibility” to use the term “trigger warnings” in a manner appropriate and approved by her and others like her, whether they have triggers or not.

Words are a funny thing. They are powerful, but they also mean different things to different people, and sometimes with more than 50 shades of gray in between (pun intended, by the way). I must, therefore, respectfully disagree with her assertion that she or anyone else gets to impose interpretation upon me, and for the same reason I don’t get to impose interpretation upon her or them.

I quote Shakespeare who wrote, “To thine own self be true.”

Neither Gaiman nor the rest of us have the responsibility she asserts for the same reason none of us have a responsibility to adhere to Evangelical directives to not include exposed nipples or coitus out of wedlock in our fiction. Or Muslim directives to not include images of Muhammad. Or directives to not write about women if you’re a man or not write about men if you’re a woman or blacks if your white or whites if you’re Asian or…. That list is endless. Hence the problem.

We are writers. We write what is in our heart and soul. We explore and learn and pick apart and put back together. Sometimes we do it with the innocent delight of an infant discovering the first scent of roses. Sometimes we do it with the malice of an Inquisitor.

We write for love and money, and there is no shame to be found in either of those.

I must add here that I agree with her assessment that under no circumstances should Gaiman fans personally attack her for expressing her opinion—with one caveat. Fans are a funny lot. They can be fiercely protective of the writers (or artists) they love, blind to a fault, petty, vindictive, and even malicious. Were I to ever have fans, particularly in the numbers both Hurley and Gaiman enjoy, I would do my best to be cognizant of when my fans have personally attacked anyone in my name. I’d pretty much have to stomp on such fans because A) attacking writers is bad and B) I can pretty much take care of myself when I need to.

However, if at any point she suggested to people that they “not buy his book” because “<insert self-righteous reasoning here>,” then I would have to take issue with that. Let me emphasize that I do not know if she said any such thing in the original tweeting she refers to in the article. I’m not suggesting I think she did.

What I am saying is that there is a movement amongst writers in some circles (on both sides of this culture war) to deliberately and systematically attack the sales of another author by various means because they disagree with them. Because “cultural appropriation” or “sjw” or “liberal” or “conservative” or “gender appropriation” or “trigger appropriation” or any number of things.

There are writers amongst us on both sides of this culture war who wield their words and their fan bases like a cudgel, inflicting blunt-force trauma upon the livelihood of anyone they disagree with or anyone whom they feel have slighted their particular slice of humanity. There are witch-hunts taking place in our very midst, and as writers we should be the last people on earth to demand the censure of a writer.

This, in fact, is the reason I proposed the panel I mentioned at the beginning of this rather lengthy diatribe.

Allow me to explain.

There is an adamantine wall of difference between saying “I didn’t like this book or work because…” and “You shouldn’t buy his/her book because I disagree with….”

Does that mean Hurley (or anyone, for that matter) should be silent? No. Does it mean Gaiman’s fans should threaten her? Abso-fucking-lutely not. Does that mean Gaiman should have done anything different in his book? Having not read the work, I can’t honestly say, because I have no reference, but I suspect not. But even if I had read it, my suggestion would be as a writer, and it is not in my purview to require Gaiman or anyone else do things differently.

As to the specific assertion that Gaiman erred in his use of the title “Trigger Warnings” and its Forward, there are at least several possibilities:

  1. A) Gaiman genuinely understands the term “trigger warnings” as he indicated in his forward and was actually making an attempt to contribute in a positive way to the dialogue and those who suffer from triggers
  2. B) he wasn’t aware that the term “Trigger Warning” is defined by a specific group in a specific way and that it would offend them
  3. C) he was aware and he is using SEO to sell more books
  4. D) all of the above

There are certainly other possibilities. I’ve always found it interesting when people attempt to discern (almost completely in a vacuum) what another person’s motives were and then find it easy to express self-righteous moral outrage over those perceived motives. I suppose it’s a big piece of human nature.

We are, after all, a pretty judgy lot.

The problem with expressing moral righteousness, and that IS what we’re talking about here, is that it’s all very subjective. And when people start to say “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” regarding a work of writing, I get a bit uncomfortable. That discomfort stems from my devotion to the First Amendment. In fact, it’s my personal favorite of all the amendments.

If someone has the need to put something in writing, then so be it. If they can find a paying audience, again, so be it. Words do have power and they can be dangerous. However, some of Hurley’s (and others’) suggestions that Gaiman, or me, or anyone “has a responsibility” to write in a manner that suits their sensibilities borders on or is in actuality censorship or a flavor thereof.

A writer has every right to write whatever he, she, or s/he likes. I have every right to neither buy nor read it. And if I find some content disquieting, I have every right to put it down and in many cases get a refund, especially in these days of the Internet and on-line purchases. I also have a right to express what I didn’t like about a book, just like everyone else. Granted, I personally only post positive reviews in cases where I liked a work, taking my grandmothers’ advice of don’t say anything if you don’t have anything nice to say, but that’s a whole other dialogue.

Let me be clear. I am a white male. I’ve been accused by another author in a public forum of racism, and for the sole purpose of hurting my writing career. I’ve written about Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. I’ve put sex and violence and slavery in my stories. In an upcoming novel I intend to tackle gang rape. I will do my best to treat with these topics as faithfully to story and character as I can. Am I a racist or mysoginyst? I’m pretty sure I’m not, but there’s more than one opinion on that. I encourage you to make up your own mind by reading my stuff.

Will there be a disclaimer at the beginning of my books regarding race, gender, violence, or anything else? Probably not, although that could end up in the purview of a publisher who has paid me for my work. I suspect the keywords included with  my books will have some reference, but beyond that, nothing else is necessary in my opinion.

Will there be people who take issue with a white male including a rape scene in his novel? Absolutely. And if book reviewers say they didn’t like it because it was poorly executed, I’ll probably sit up and listen. I do endeavor to constantly improve my craft. If, however, witch-burners or “McCarthyists” as I like to call them tell readers that they shouldn’t buy my book because I’ve hijacked a topic they claim ownership of or that I’m not “qualified” to write about, well, you’ll have to forgive me if I do take issue with that.

I don’t own the language. Feminists and minorities don’t own the language. We share it, and the suggestion that any one of us should censor ourselves is counter-productive to the body of writing our species and culture should encourage. In fact, I can recall in my own lifetime those who quite rightly condemned the censorship of their own feminist and minority writings, as just two examples. My contribution to the body of work that is the annals of human literature is no more or less valuable than yours (personal taste excepting). I will fight to defend your right to put whatever words out there you feel are worth writing. I request and require that you return that fundamental respect.

Again: There is an adamantine wall of difference between saying “I didn’t like this book or work because…” and “You shouldn’t buy his/her book because I disagree with….”

If we are all writers, then I suggest that we all take the First Amendment to heart and encourage each other to write and yes, even sell, whatever we can. In doing so we expand the record of human endeavor in all its diverse beauty and ugliness. And humans are both magnificent and utterly dreadful.

We don’t have to agree on content. We don’t have to agree with each others’ perspectives on terminology or interpretation thereof. The beauty of professional and intelligent discourse is that we can both put out there the words that have meaning to us without torpedoing each other’s endeavors. And if we maintain our professionalism, we can discuss these topics, we can even express our own disappointment or dissatisfaction with another’s writing in a professional manner. At no time, however, should we attack another writer’s livelihood. We really are in this together, as writers. For when we encourage the censorship of one thing, we must, in time, accept the censorship of those things we hold most dear.

And I simply cannot accept that and will not be a party to it.

We all have a voice. Use it in a manner that best suits you, and endeavor not to silence others, even when they offend you.

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