Today's post was inspired by a conversation on that other website we all use, in which a friend expressed unconcern about a certain controversial novel with the phrase "it's just fiction".
I don't think there's any such thing as "just fiction".
Terry Pratchett has been on my mind an awful lot since his passing last month. His books were a very positive influence on my teenage years, with their witty and incisive observations of the follies to which we all cling. Mort was my first Pratchett experience, aged 16, when two of my classmates convinced our Drama teacher to let us perform it as our class play. I've been an avid reader of his books ever since, and I owe a lot of my familiarity with science concepts to his co-authorship of the "Science of Discworld" series. In these, he gave Homo sapiens a new scientific name: Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.
|Aren't you a little ... short ... for a Bursar? Photo: NR 1997|
The name fits. The only way we humans can deal with the complex world in which we live is to tell ourselves stories about it. The harder something is to understand, the more we try to turn it into a simplified narrative. We often fall foul of our own narratives too...believing the story we've told ourselves and being surprised when the universe doesn't seem to have rehearsed its lines as we have. This isn't how this scene is supposed to play out...
The fiction narratives we encounter as children, teenagers and young adults definitely shape the way we see ourselves and relate to the world around us. Whether it's realistic fiction or fantastic fantasy, we internalise the messages of gender, sexuality, relationships, how to be an adult, what success looks like, and what makes things right or wrong based on these stories. Narratives that teach us less than safe ways of relating, in particular, can really mess us up when we're older.
|"You wouldn't actually have liked the Victorian|
period, Christine. It was dirty and smelly and full
of disease, you'd have had half a dozen siblings by now
and opportunities for women were really limited."
Photo: NR circa 1990.
This is not to say that no one should write these kinds of relationships. The dark heroes (male or female), have their place. But it serves us well to cast a critical eye over them, and ensure that the young people reading them have the opportunity to hear those narratives challenged. It's important that adults in all parts of their life share that understanding that some narratives aren't meant to be followed, that some narratives are cautionary tales even if the tale itself pretends to have been about a successful relationship.
I remember the thrill of the fear-lust-romance-danger brought on by a dark hero. I still get it, sometimes (*cough*AlexVause*cough*). And there's nothing wrong with that. But there's also no excuse for letting that go unchallenged because it's "just fiction". There's nothing wrong with saying "Jareth is extremely sexy but also a giant jerkface" or "actually Angel's kind of a selfish idiot a lot of the time even when he DOES have a soul" or "Alex is broken, do not engage until and unless she sorts her shit out, seriously". Because these messages are important, and fiction is powerful. Dangerous stories are fine as long as we know they're dangerous. It's when we think that Lessa and F'lar have a healthy relationship because the book says so, despite providing plenty of evidence to the contrary, that we have a problem. When we internalise those faulty messages, we live out those problems in our own stories.
"It's just fiction" does fiction an injustice. Stories are the most powerful social tool we have. Everything we do relates back to the narrative we believe in about who were are meant to be. We can shape our society, for better or worse, with the narratives we approve and the narratives we criticise. Challenging a negative narrative is not being too sensitive, it's not interrogating it from the wrong perspective, it's understanding and valuing its power.
I can't promise I'll always write powerfully positive narratives, chock-full of characters who own their behaviour and treat each other well. But I hope, if I ever write a dark hero with a happy ending, that people will call me out on it. Life's too short to believe that old story.