I attended an intriguing panel on Sexuality and Gender in Contemporary F&SF at Readercon this past weekend. Caitlin R. Kiernan, K.A. Laity, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and Catherynne M. Valente had a lively discussion about taboos, artists and their responsibility to their audiences, and consensual artistic exchange.
The panelists spoke eloquently against “shoulds,” against telling artists what they should or should not do in their art. From the panel’s perspective, the artist is not obliged to offer role models, accepted norms, or ideas, characters, situations, actions, dialogue that the audience is comfortable with.
A few people in the audience insisted (in question form) that artists had some sort of responsibility toward the “audience” that would read/experience their work. Artists should not violate or damage that audience. Caitlin R. Kiernan claimed to have no audience in mind when creating her stories. She writes to get paid and to express the truth that comes to her. Other panelists noted that the audience doesn’t have to read a book that offends them. The audience is not forced to take in an artist’s work. Works of art can be labeled, tagged, or come with warnings to aid readers in finding what they want or avoiding what they aren’t up for.
I think people talking about the artists’ responsibility to the audience were trying to figure out how to undo the damage and violence of patriarchal and colonialist narratives. How do we transform the harsh past/present of negative representation, discrimination, and exploitation based on figments of our collective imagination such as gender and race? Popular mainstream culture has not done justice by all of us. On-going anxiety over how to deal with this results in calls for artists to Do The Right Thing and save us all!
Along those lines—
As I revised my paper critiquing District 9, Nnedi Okorafor, Nigerian author of Who Fears Death, was being chastised and badgered, live and on online, to cease and desist her speculative engagement with African narratives. See Nnedi's Blog.
The logic of this and similar attacks goes like this. Given all the savage imagery, disinformation, and stereotypical refuse clogging up our minds and spirits, Nnedi and other African (or Indigenous, Asian, African American, et. al.) writers should stick to mimetic realism to set the record straight and “uplift the race.” They should also hold off critiquing woman-hating practices, such as female genital cutting/mutilation in Africa, least they contribute to the savage imagery that oppresses colored people.
Women writers are policed for doing dirty laundry in public—an interestingly domestic metaphor for exposing women hating traditions. Colored people are not yet ready for SF&F meta-literature. Look at say District 9! What good does SF&F do us? To the frequent challenge, “What good is science fiction to Black people?” which implicitly demanded a justification for abandoning realism and the honorable labor of racial uplift, Octavia Butler replied: What good is any form of literature to Black people?
Despite apparent similarity, critiquing the stereotypical representations of Nigerians in D-9 is not the same as demanding narrative maid service in the form of mimetic realism. Nigerian writers need not spend their time, their creativity simply reacting to colonial narratives, setting the record straight, cleaning up the mess that has been done to their image. No artists need to be doing maid service. Nnedi certainly doesn't need to be in a constant reactive state to deal with the representational juggernauts trying to wipe her. However, offering complex aesthetic experiences that transform the narrative landscape as Nnedi does, is invaluable.
To Do The Right Thing--we need more stories, not more “shoulds.”