*In kindness, or perhaps because he wants me to be done with Noah’s Boy already (and he’s not the only one breathing down my neck while I struggle with my writing-to-contract phobia) RES sent me a post on how the artist reflects society. He’s promised me a companion piece already. And, btw, I never knew he was a Times New Roman over Ariel biggot [live and learn.]
In a different note, today I have a free short story up up Amazon — it was up here for a week, but if you missed it, head on over. Something Worse Hereafter should go free at noon Eastern, or in about two hours and change. My goal is to keep a free story on Amazon between here and the end of the year, and see if that helps goose numbers. We’ll see, right?*
In A Warped Mirror
It is said that the duty of the artist is to reflect Society. Unlike many of the things often asserted, it probably is true, although probably not in the way most artists want to believe.
It is not that the artist should hold up a mirror to Society, it is that the artist, by the nature of creating art, does hold up that mirror. In most instances it is a funhouse mirror, in rare cases it is a true mirror, but the artist cannot refrain from reflecting Society as the artist understands it.
No artist exists in the absence of Society; their values and how they see the world are shaped by Society. Their conceptions of what is good and just versus evil and unjust are a response to the society in which they swim. Even if an artist somehow supercedes Society, their art must remain of Society in order to be understood by that society. Art is a conversation and the artist either converses with Society or talks to himself.
What, then, is the duty of the artist? While many an artist thinks to hold up a true mirror, the mirror held is almost always warped because few artists have the depth of understanding necessary to offer a true reflection. An artist has preferences and values (Tolerance versus Holding to Principles, Acceptance of Outsiders versus Group Cohesion and Identity, Times Roman versus Ariel) which warp the mirror raised because they form the basis of the artist’s understanding of Society, of Good & Evil, of Proper & Improper, of Couth & Uncouth.
Removing the timber from your own eye is extremely difficult, yet it is necessary to more accurately reflect the world. One approach is to rigorously exert yourself to understand the world you are reflecting. If you write a Historical, be true to the characters in their Time and Place. Few Antebellum Southerners questioned their Peculiar Institution; few Yankees mill owners thought there was anything wrong with locking the workers into the mills during work hours. Giving modern views and opinions to historical characters should be done with extreme care; avoid the temptation to wheedle readers’ sympathies by having a character reflect contemporary sensibilities. In presenting the views of historical characters the antecedents of those views should be expressed, placing them in the context of an ongoing social debate. One era’s enlightened view is another era’s Paleolithic thinking.
People are and have been shaped by the cultures in which they were raised, with those cultures’ envisionment of the Cosmic All imbibed at their mothers’ breasts. Rare is the character able to reject the standards of measurement of their natal culture, and only extreme circumstances can bring them to do so. It requires a powerful motivation for Huck Finn to reject the premise that Jim is somebody’s property, just as it required soul-searing experiences for him to even question that idea in the first place. Had Twain not put Huck through a wringer those changed ideas would have failed to bring the reader along with him and dimmed the mirror’s reflection.
Characters should represent the zeitgeist of their era as accurately as possible, partly because the reader has chosen that genre in order to learn about that zeitgeist, partly to reflect both the society presented and the society to which that view is presented. Part of the pleasure of reading a historical novel is to crawl inside a character perspective different from my own, both to experience that perspective in order to understand that era and to contemplate the differences between that era and my own.
It is important to provide readers various touchstones to properly orient in the historical era. If reading a Western I need to know, the author needs to show me the basic premises of the culture. I have to be told, for example, that $100 was a lot of money, was four months’ wages for a working ranch-hand. I need to have explained the different concepts of Time and Distance governing people in that era, when fifty miles represented a hard day’s travel, when a month was the time for a letter to travel from sender to recipient. Most importantly, I need to see how these factors affect the way people of that era think.
The goal is to provide enough information to allow readers to understand the nature of the culture they are viewing and to allow for the way our present perspectives distort the artist’s mirror. It is vitally important for the artist to minimize projection of modern attitudes and values as a source of distortion; it is bad enough the readers bring their own values and expectations. Because Society’s rules and standards are constantly shifting, Today’s blindspot is Tomorrow’s glaring fault. Present characters and situations that are appropriate to their period.
Science Fiction and Fantasy present similar yet different challenges. In them the author too easily succumbs to the urge to write lazily, to presume the attitudes which the author desires to promote. Heinlein believed in “Free Love” and in later novels simply waved his hand, presenting characters who nobly and unselfishly enjoyed multiple partners. At least in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress he provided a back story to make such attitudes a justified response to extreme conditions, and provided historical basis for the reader to accept the meme.
Darkship Thieves handles the issue of presenting a Libertarian society by displaying it through the eyes of an outsider, dumped into the society unwillingly and unexpectedly. We are given enough background of the culture’s history to imagine we understand how they reached this social solution, and because the narrator is naive in regards to the culture she challenges and asks questions, allowing the social adjustment to be justified. Because the reader is equally naïve, the identification with and sympathy with the narrator are enhanced. Willingness to accept the character’s conclusions is greater because the author has “shown her work.”
Ayn Rand’s characters, on the other hand, are generally cardboard, acting according to authorial requirements for the philosophy she wants to present, speaking all too often in polemical oratory, too rarely as real people. The mirror she holds up to Society is a warped one, purporting to present both how Society is (conniving and corrupt bureaucrats striving to control everything) and how she wishes it would see itself (entrepreneurs acting to improve the general weal by advancing their personal interests.) Because her characters are not brought to life their experiences are less moving to the reader than they ought be. Her mirror is dulled; we do not see our own reflections therein. Even people who share Rand’s politics are distanced from the novel by the flatness of the characters.
For truly powerful and moving art, the artist must understand the world being reflected, must know the motivations and histories of all the major characters and many of the minor ones. Every character should have a personal code, a set of lenses through which they view their world, and the reader needs to know each character well enough to understand that viewpoint even if (especially if) they don’t agree with that view. Villains should not simply be given Black Hats — repellant personal traits and characteristics that the reader recognizes as signs the character is despicable — and White Hats. Their motives should be complex enough to be credible rather than something as jejune as a lost childhood sled (unless the lost sled represents a stolen childhood.)
Heroes and heroines ought be motivated by moral principles perceptible to the reader, if only through many layers of character. Sure, Li’l Abner’s Mammy could declare that “good is better than evil because it’s nicer” but that’s because she was a character in a comic strip dedicated to parodying mindless memes, the bad mirrors of the strip’s era. When a character has to struggle to make a decision the reader needs to know why this is a struggle, what values are in conflict and what their roots are. If the character makes a decision without any struggle, the reader should have seen why the character was decisive, why Value This so readily trumped Value That.
A culture is defined by its values, and those values define the culture. Subcultures exist and define themselves by the values they emphasize and de-emphasize: group loyalty over fidelity to the standards of the larger culture, recognition or non-recognition of rights of those not belonging to the group. A reader’s ability to perceive and recognize these distinctions affects the level of involvement in the tale.
While it is nearly impossible to perceive the world so thoroughly and clearly to present a true mirror, the artist should strive to polish the mirror to the best of their abilities and to make the warps in the mirror as honest as they can. Admit preferences — Human Wave or Grey Goo — so that the reader can sense the warp in the glass; trust the reader to share that warp, if only for the length of your story.