Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

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[process] Writing hard things

Still working over "America, Such as She Is." Having strong feelings about this story, as are my first readers for the most part. There have been some vigorous discussions about word choices, structure and narrative, as well as the story's content. Two issues have surfaced which make me uncomfortable. This suggests I should blog them.

One, there are exactly two female characters in this story. One is a whore, literally, the other is a madonna-turned-whore under about one thin layer of symbolism. (For what it's worth, one of these women is a protagonist — neither is wallpaper.) Several of my readers have commented negatively on this. I was well aware of this as an issue even before my readers spoke up. My dilemma is that the story is set in war zones in the WWII era. Not a lot of women carried weapons, or were particularly empowered in any way, in the front lines of that conflict. These women don't have the social space to be Rosie the Riveter or Eleanor Roosevelt. What they are doing is surviving in harsh environments controlled by brutal men with plentiful weapons. One very classic mode for this is the camp follower, which is a slightly more polite word for whore. There aren't a lot of other classic modes for this.

While the lack of constructive female role models is historically reasonable (yes, I know there are exceptions, from Hanna Reitsch to Lyudmila M. Pavlichenko, but what percentage of American WWII front line veterans were female?), it makes a modern reader uncomfortable. It feels like I'm writing more "average white guy" fiction where the women are cardboard. I don't think my women in this story are cardboard, but they map so readily to offensive stereotypes that it's easy to see them that way.

Likewise, there is a substantial strain of anti-Semitism in this story. While no one has complained about it, this bothers me, and I wrote it. On the other hand, I'm writing about Nazis. Literally. Again, this is important to the historical and dramatic territory of the story, but I've rather squicked myself out, at a social and cultural level.

In other words, my modern progressive sensibilities are offended by my story about a time and place where male dominance and institutionalized oppression of many forms were the order of the day. If I don't like it, I guess I can write about a kinder, gentler, era. Another one of those challenges of being a writer.

How do you handle difficult eras or difficult material? That's where some of the most interesting stuff happens, but it's also very easy to be placed in an impossible position by people critical of the material. We live in a world where people want to censor Mark Twain for having a character named Nigger Jim, after all.

ETA: It occurs to me on re-reading this post that what I'm describing is a broad case of the use/mention distinction. I'm mulling that now.
Tags: personal, process, stories, writing

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