Monday, January 26, 2009

refuse the cliché, save the world

Okay, I've been saying this for years: cliché is bad, and not just in fiction. Go read this article in Wired Science:

After being trained to distinguish between similar black male faces, Caucasian test subjects showed greater racial tolerance on a test designed to to measure unconscious bias.

The results are still preliminary, have yet to be replicated, and the real-world effects of reducing bias in a controlled laboratory setting are not clear. But for all those caveats, the findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that science can battle racism.

"Any time you can get people to treat people as individuals, you reduce the effect of stereotypes," said Brown University cognitive scientist Michael Tarr. "It won't solve racism, but it could have profound real-world effects."

(Thanks, Cindy)

I've written about this many times. Here, for example, is an exerpt from "Living Fiction, Storybook Lives":

Every society has its own set of master stories, or cultural clichés: men are stronger, the infidel is less than human, the rich are more important. A storyteller, whether a novelist, singer or screenwriter, should be aware of these. Every time a cliche is uttered, it becomes stronger; the master narrative is reinforced. Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that a writer's job is to change the world, that all fiction should be radical, positive, motivating and so forth; I write, as I've already said, for myself. I am not saying that writers are responsible for what a reader does with the dreams and images we create with our fiction, just that we should be conscious of the fact that our work does affect others.

I receive countless letters, and talk to many people at signings, who tell me my work has changed their lives. I'm pretty sure other writers hear versions of the same thing. One woman, married and the mother of two, emailed me from another country and said that, after reading my first novel, she was finally able to understand, to label some of her feelings: she was a lesbian. After reading my second, she had the courage to do something about it. One man told me at a signing that reading about Lore's struggles in Slow River had helped keep him sane during a terrible period in his career. Another woman in Atlanta told me that after reading Ammonite she'd left her solid, corporate job to pursue a dream of being an oral storyteller.

It's partly because I know how deeply fiction can influence the lives of readers that I dislike stories which reinforce the status quo, that reiterates the old, master patterns of our culture (particularly those dealing with issues of power and prejudice). Some of these narratives reinforce consciously, some unconsciously; I prefer the former. Unconscious reinforcement is the result of bad writing, usually a combination of cliched phrasing, laziness, and lack of imagination. With conscious reinforcement I know the writer has done his or her job, and will most probably have made an attempt to explain why s/he believes the status quo is preferable to any other way of being, which at least indicates to the reader that another way is possible.

One recent trend I've noticed in science fiction (and fantasy) which seems to be a great reinforcer is what I call Sex & Servitude SF. There are two main types. The first is fiction in which the main character is or becomes a slave or bonded servant who falls in love with her (and I use the pronoun advisedly) owner. The reinforcing message here is usually that (a) love conquers all, (b) anything is better than being alone and, sometimes, (c) some of us are just born lesser beings so we deserve to have someone tell us what to do. The second type dwells lovingly on physical torture, often sexual, in which the torturer is usually (though not always) male and the victim usually (though not always) female. A more subtle variation of this second type is one in which some kind of sexual threat or constraint is present but covert. The message here, of course, is that women are victims: we have been, are, and always will be.

Not all fiction with these tropes reinforces the status quo. Generally speaking, the better the writer, the less likely they are to fall into all the old trap of stereotyping (though there are stunning exceptions). Cliché is the great reinforcer. Examine it--the person, the situation, the culture--with a clear eye and strong prose and the cliche melts, because the reader sees individuals in particular situations. We understand that this happened to them for particular reasons; that a different choice, or different circumstance would have led to a different outcome. In other words, exposing the cliché, writing it out, renders it powerless because we see alternatives.

Cliché is the enemy. It's laziness. It leads to prejudice and unhappiness. Think of all the suffering we could eliminate by refusing it. This week, as you go about your business, take the time to understand what you're looking at, to see particular people in specific situations. Refuse the shortcut. See what happens.

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