Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Doing the Right Thing

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.”


Steven Gould said...

Excellent essay, Andrea. Have to show it to Laura.

Diane Silver said...

Agreed on the need for stories, not "shoulds." Well said.

Athena Andreadis said...

All Others are routinely considered to represent their entire group, by outsiders and by the group itself.

The group, of course, is worried about being again (still) stereotyped if shown as less than perfect by one of its own. And since nobody's perfect, storytellers are faced with the dilemma of writing as mouthpieces or being condemned as quislings.

Other Bill said...

Great commentary.

I'd add that I think it's perfectly fine for the audience to play critic, but not creative consultant.

I'm surprised at the response some people give an authors work. "you shouldn't write about this, it isn't good for -us-." Who are you, and why do you think your definition of us is so self evident?

Besides I thought art generally reflects upon society, not shapes it. Just because some works later become a rallying point for societal change doesn't mean that the art didn't start out as a reflection. A reflection meant to inspire some sort of feeling, sure. But still a reflection.

A book is sort of the author saying, goodness, here's the world as I see it. Doesn't that make you feel anything? And the audience has responded. Yes, we on the Committee of Your Work Approval would like to repurpose your next work for our benefit. Welcome to us.

Ocala Wings said...

Asking artists of any kind and any background (people of color, women, queer folks, etc.) to create only art that refutes the oppression or stereotypes that they have spent their lives dealing with, is the opposite side of the same coin of oppression.

Art is the deepest expression of our passion for truth, personal or universal truth. And, as we all know, sometimes truth is not pretty. And speaking truth to power, even power that’s had to fight for its right to exist, is always dangerous. But if we can’t, or don’t, make art that speaks to an ugly, painful reality for fear of tarnishing someone’s or some group’s reputation/ego/image/status, then we are still surely oppressed. Equals need to be held equally accountable.

Art has always been a window, a mirror, or a scrying stone. But why is it that women are punished more often and more severely for opening the window or holding up the mirror or gazing into the scrying stone? I dare to think it’s because, despite all our gains, women are still not part of the power structure. In many places, maybe even most, we are still property, if only intellectual property. When we dare to step outside our still too-narrowly defined roles, we become a threat, just like the truth is always a threat to some.

Art is creation, not reaction. It is not an obligation or a responsibility. It is a challenge. If it makes somebody uncomfortable, so be it. Perhaps the complacent need less comfort. It is not an artist’s job to be nurturer, mother, or maid. It is our job to create truth, in every form possible.

So, in my opinion, we need not to just open windows, we need to break them; and maybe break a few walls as well, exposing the lies and dirty secrets that lurk in the shadows of every culture. Truth is not always pretty. Thanks to Andrea Hairston and Nnedi Okorafor for smashing windows and at least cracking a few walls!

And by the way, women throughout the ages have done laundry at rivers and wells and ponds--it has often been part of the job to do our laundry in public.

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Hi Andrea

I heard the comments of the panelists on that panel -- including me -- on the responsibility of the artist somewhat differently. Early in the panel Caitlin, for instance, said she didn't write thinking of the audience at all, but only to express herself -- whereas I said I was, at least at revision-time -- as opposed to first-draft-time -- deeply concerned with effects on the audience. Which doesn't mean I want to avoid discomfiting them, but that my attention is on the achieving of certain effects.

But both of these positions -- as I take them are really about writing process. For a lot of writers, thinking at all about the audience and their reaction may stifle and ruin their art. That doesn't mean that in the broader, social/political sense you're talking about, they're not responsible for issues of representation etc. (Note that even Cailtin, who had the most extreme "I write thinking of myself alone" position, said that with regard to gender -- as opposed to sexuality -- she sometimes wrote to get particular political ideas across, and that while she didn't write about the sexuality of children because in the US that could land you in jail, "someone should" -- that "should" can be read as implicitly seeing literature as a tool for altering the world.)

At the end of the panel, all of the panel members seemed to joyously agree to Cat's bdsm metaphor -- "when you're reading my book, I'm the top." But if you think about it, this does not actually mean that the artist should go wherever they like heedless of the audience reaction. A good top is actually keenly aware of, and profoundly responsible for, the effect they produce. It's actually a great metaphor for the depth of the artist's responsibility --not the lack of it.

The pro-mimetic bias you are talking about

Ocala Wings said...


At first I really liked the bdsm analogy. ‘It’s my ride and I’m taking you along with me,’ does require a distinct level of responsibility and awareness from the top/writer. And there’s no denying that a good writer can take us to another level of consciousness. However, that analogy quickly breaks down: the writer is never available for ‘after care.’ When I read something that profoundly disturbs me or evokes painful images or gives me nightmares, I don’t expect the writer to comfort me, or hold my hand, or stay with me until I return to an ordinary level of reality. That is not her responsibility; it was not part of the contract when I picked up the book/story/poem. The contract is: she writes the truth as she sees it, I agree to read it and if I can’t, to put it down. The responsibility for policing my limits is my own—as it is for any good bottom. Writers and readers have an agreed upon ‘safe phrase.’ It’s ‘put the story down.’

You wrote, “But if you think about it, this does not actually mean that the artist should go wherever they like heedless of the audience reaction.” But see, I think we should. I think that is exactly our responsibility: to push the envelope, to stretch the limits. If we allow audience reaction to be any kind of guide, then we begin to censor ourselves, which is a slippery slope that ends in writing to please our patrons. There is a place for that, but it is not top. And for me, it’s not art.

Andrea Hairston said...

Wow, great discussion!
@Athena great description of the dilemma. How to redefine the terrain is the question!
@Other Bill--Love the difference between critic and creative consultant.
@Ocala--wonderful image of women's public work and the need for the artist to explore and challenge. However I do think art is both creation and reaction. We create based on our life experiences--and what we create doesn't only come from "inside." However, as you say in your second post, artists determine how to shape their expression.
@Ben--I'm with Other Bill.I get to critique an artist's work as audience member but not determine it. However that doesn't mean I absolve artists of the responsibility for the impact of the images and narratives they create. Quite the contrary!
Too bad you didn't come to my paper on District 9!

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Ocala -- I think we agree -- and as evidence of this, I offer the fact that you just came up independently with exactly what I said at the panel in response to Cat -- that the reader has a safeword, and it's called shutting the book.

I guess we might disagree on "heedless". Heedless seems to me like one approach. I think there's a difference between being guided by the audience, and being heedless of them. But this may be semantics.