Friday, December 27, 2013

We Are The Dreamers of Dreams: How Authors Impact Readers and Society

Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think of the most influential piece of art you've been exposed to. It might be a painting, a film, a novel, or a poem. Look at the events in your life, and ask how that piece of art changed the way you look at the world. Did you let go of grudges with your family? Decide to change your career? Did you finally start going to the gym more often? Whatever you did, picture that change in your world view.

Now imagine if that change swept through an entire culture. That's the power authors, as a whole, are wielding.
Your word processor is jammed barrel-first against society's brain pan.
I hear some of you coughing "bullshit". I'd like to point out that William Gibson created the idea of "cyberspace" while writing on a typewriter, Aldous Huxley predicted a world where privacy was a dim memory, and Jules Verne showed us a future where humans traveled above the clouds and beneath the seas. Dozens, if not hundreds, of writers out there have used their stories to present possibilities, ignite imaginations, and to show their readers a world of potential.

What's Wrong With That?

What's wrong with it is that literature is a double-edged sword. It can be used to shine a spotlight on the evils of the world, and it can even motivate people to fight against those evils. "Heart of Darkness" is a prime example. On the other hand literature can also be used to strengthen cultural stereotypes and to enforce the status quo.
Want to try that one more time, real slow, and in English?
All right, let's use specific examples of negative impact here. Maria Nikolajeva, a professor of literature at Cambridge University, put together a conference to discuss how books like Twilight are affecting young adults who read them. A full report of it can be found here, but what happened was that a bunch of academics got together to discuss whether or not a blockbuster book crammed to the gills with conservative, Mormon lessons about how young women should think and act thinly disguised as a sexy, angsty vampire story was affecting how teenagers were seeing the world. The answer; basically, yeah. Take the initial impact and expand it as a thousand knock-offs try to cash in on the fame of the original, and culture has been carpet-bombed with exposure to a given idea. In this case the idea that abusive relationships are, in fact, the most romantic things out there. That's going to lead to problems sooner, rather than later.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

One story may not be able to truly shape a culture. Even runaway successes only have so much force behind them. However, think of the novel that shapes a new genre or sets a trend as the head of a spear. If enough other novels, even ones that aren't seen by many people, follow that same path then you don't have just a single smash; you have a stream from a literary power washer. That kind of thing can upset the balance, or dig in established social norms even deeper. It can also turn vampires into something unrecognizable.

Let's think about women's roles in popular fiction. How common is it for a woman to be the main focus of a story, and not a side character or a love interest who must be alternatively wooed or saved from danger? How often are female characters referred to by their physical attributes? How often are characters who don't fit a cultural standard of beauty given important roles in fiction? The answers to all of these questions are indicative of the relationship between fiction and the culture the stories are a part of.
And that is just the tip of this shit.
You can expound on these questions for all sorts of social issues. How are homosexual characters treated in a story? Are persons with a trans-identity featured in a positive way, or even featured at all? Are inter-racial pairings common in a story, or are they so radical that they must become the story? Are characters from ethnic minorities shown in strong roles, or are they simply used as lackeys? Alternatively are characters from the dominant cultural ethnicity shown as being better at activities that typically belong to an ethnic minority (swordplay, martial arts, music, etc.)? All of this, and more, can make an impact.

These stories will then go on to shape the generations that read and watch them. If all the heroes are white men, the message in that is that other genders or ethnicities simply aren't hero material. If women are pushed to the side and turned into damsels in distress, sex objects, or both, then the message to girls is that you are someone else's happy ending rather than someone in control of her own story. Even if a writer didn't mean to send that kind of message, and he or she is just going off experience and cultural cues, the story will still be broadcasting this subtext.

But I Just Want to Tell a Good Story!

You're preaching to the choir, friend of mine. Personally I'd just like to write stories about Western gun hands taking on towns full of vampires, or alien-human hybrid super soldiers uncovering government plots. But as writers we have to ask ourselves "why?" whenever we choose to make a decision with our stories. Only by doing our very best to present realistic characters in believable stories which reflect authentic worlds and cultures can we use our impacts for the greatest good. Of course it's also possible to write stories which reflect nothing more than crass stereotypes which supplant real research with appeals to the audience's basest prejudices. After all, that's part of how "50 Shades of Grey" got so damnably famous.

As always, thanks for dropping in on the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to keep us running feel free to donate on the button in the upper right hand corner, or check us out at our Patreon page. If you'd like to stay up to the minute with our updates, just follow us on Facebook or Tumblr. Lastly, if you're really curious about that hybrid super soldier thing, go check out Heart of the Myrmidon at Amazon here.

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