Andrea Phillips: The High Goddamn Responsibility Of Fiction

Andrea Phillips is an awesome example of humanity, a killer creator, and a pal. Though she will probably disavow that last part, and we’ll again play our funny game where I’m like ANDREA IS MY BUDDY and Andrea is like I DON’T KNOW YOU FREAKSHOW WHY ARE YOU IN MY PANTRY. Ha ha ha, what games, what games. Anyway! Here’s a thing she wrote that you’re gonna read.

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This post was originally meant to be some thinly veiled self-promotional shilling about the serial I co-author, ReMade. (Like you do.) I was going to talk about the blurry line between YA and adult fiction, and make a knockout, completely persuasive case that fans of smart science fiction should be checking works like ReMade out, no matter how old they are.

That was October Andrea. Things have abruptly changed since then. See, November Andrea saw the world turned upside down by politics, and by all the fallout that’s come since then. November Andrea got scared and sad. November Andrea wanted to slow this merry-go-round down so we can talk a little more about love, peace, and tolerance.

Because one thing has become self-evident to me: we have to work our tails off to keep the world trending toward more tolerant, more peaceful, more loving. And one of the most powerful ways that can happen is through art—and specifically through storytelling.

When we look into the mirror of media, we see the real world reflected there (even in our fantasy). We see what heroism looks like, what love looks like, how to make difficult choices. But that reflection is hopelessly distorted, and sometimes extremely harmful.

What the mirror of media shows us is a world that is mostly white, mostly straight, mostly men, mostly coastal, mostly urban and exurban, mostly upper-middle-class, mostly educated. There aren’t so many people of color or people with disabilities in our media. Not many people with Southern accents, either. People of deeply held religious faith are seldom represented, except perhaps actual clergy.

You can find exceptions to every single one of these categories, especially in genre fiction. But by and large, this is the world that Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and book publishing tell us is the only world that matters.

This uniformity plays out in our plotting and subtext, too. We tell a lot of stories about lone mavericks acting alone and against the rules; victory often comes through violence, and not compromise or diplomacy. There are clear-cut good guys, and that means there are clear-cut bad guys, too. The important and messy nuance of the world is erased.

And because of a few strange quirks of our brains, we accept these images and ideas as if they were a valid reflection of the world. We’re monkeys, and we do what other monkeys do, and think the way other monkeys think. Even when we know those monkeys aren’t even real. That effect is so powerful that you can, say, directly trace youth smoking rates and how often smoking is shown on the big screen.

This is why advertising works. This is why propaganda works. This is why the truthfulness of our journalism matters. The things your brain is exposed to inevitably become a part of your worldview — even if you disagree when you see it.

The results play out in the real world, writ small and large, all the time. Real black women with medical degrees are dismissed in mile-high medical emergencies because they don’t look the part that we’ve been trained to expect. We drop rings in glasses of champagne and go down on one knee to propose marriage, because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We talk about a “presidential look” as if governance and casting were remotely related topics. And we cast our political opposition as “bad guys” who must be stopped at any cost—and the cost for all of us is, make no mistake, incredibly high.

That means something significant for writers who make stories that are all-white and all-straight, stories where women are subservient or silent, stories where there are objectively evil races or religions. When we tell these stories, we aren’t just quietly avoiding politics. Far from it. We are actively aiding and abetting the forces of intolerance. If we’re not questioning the status quo, we are supporting it with our silence. There’s no middle ground.

And that means artists have a high goddamn responsibility, and we need to wield it as carefully as we can. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. That’s just human. But it turns out, across cultures and countries, despite class and race, we are more alike than we are different.

So we need to show that, again and again and again. We need more stories about how different peoples can learn to coexist peacefully; stories about institutions that work to protect people; stories about overcoming corruption, about immigrants thriving, about peaceful protest working, about people learning and growing and shedding their fear of the other. We don’t just need the same stories with new faces in it. We need whole new stories.

This is the only way we can learn how to be better people: to have someone show us exactly what that looks like. It’s infinitely easier to do and be something once you’ve seen someone else show you how that trick is done, and the more you see it, the easier it gets.

Me? I’m trying to walk the walk already. And that brings us back to ReMade, where we have urban and rural kids; people of color and of faith; queer, straight, and maybe-don’t-know. It shows in the kind of story we’re choosing to tell, too. None of our characters is the special chosen one. None of them is the lone hero of our story, except in how they work together. The sum is so much greater than its parts.

All of that is America at its best, too—especially the part about there not being any lone hero. It takes all of us to make the world better, or even to keep the hard-fought ground we’ve won already. And when I say all of us, I truly mean all of us. (Well, maybe not the actual factual Nazis, because seriously fuck those guys.)

There’s a lot of scared and angry out there, but artists, writers, all of you? You know what to do. Don’t worry that it’s going to be too earnest or corny or uncool, because science backs me up on this one: Love is the answer. Show us what love looks like. Show us the better world we can grow to be.

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Andrea Phillips is an author, game designer, and semi-retired transmedia pundit. She co-writes the serials ReMade and Bookburners for Serial Box. Her other work includes the SF thriller Revision, pirate romp The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart, and the interactive children’s book Circus of Mirrors. You can find her on Twitter or at her blog, Deus Ex Machinatio.

ReMade is a serialized story from Serial Box. Told in 15 episodes, it is team-written by Matthew Cody, Carrie Harris, E. C. Myers, Andrea Phillips, Gwenda Bond, and Kiersten White. The first episode is free – read or listen to it at SerialBox.com or in the Serial Box app!

“Sharply told in a fantastic new format, ReMade should be on your radar.” 

–  James Dashner, #1 NYT Bestselling Author of The Maze Runner series

15 comments

  • Thank you, Andrea!
    And just to prove I loved it, I’ll post here a thing I wrote a day or two after the election at someone else’s blog with too few followers:

    Once upon a time someone, can’t remember who, compiled a list, can’t remember where I saw it, of ARTISTS with MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS of one kind or another. And I can’t remember if the cause/effect direction was specified. (So right off the bat I’ve identified memory failure as my own mental challenge, but to continue…)
    … Emotional distress seems rampant right now in the world I live in, some of it quite serious. People I’ve considered to be pillars of stability say they’re having a hard time sleeping through the night. When I see tight lips, red noses, vacant stares, I know some suffering is going on. According to what I’ve read (although who can believe anything they read nowadays), the phenomenon I’m describing is quantifiable in the increased incidence of visits to mental health professionals and prescriptions filled.
    … I haven’t been a model of serenity myself.
    … What I’m trying to get at, awkwardly, is a statement to the effect that those of us who have the compulsion to write or to create some other art form have a built-in weapon against despair. I’ll bet a lot of you recognize that very nicely and are busy using your artistic weapon — that bludgeon with spikes you carry with you — and are creating like mad (and mad seems the appropriate word, in both of its definitions). You just wait. Within a few months the world around us will blossom with stories, novels, poetry, drama, music, pictures, you name it, all created in a rush inspired by the same attacks on sanity that make primal screams and the fetal position so attractive at 2 a.m.
    … It helps me just to write that.
    … This is a message of positivity, in case you missed my point, which I haven’t made well due to the spikes on my bludgeon being a little blunted at the moment. Let’s celebrate the urge to do art and let’s use it to help ourselves and others. And that’s another thing. Keeping the needs of others in mind and turning loose as much solace as we can muster is another kind of weapon with mutual benefits.
    … Keep well, everyone.
    Rita

  • Natalie: I simply typed Chuck’s name in error because I was here on his blog. I knew Andrea Phillips wrote the very good essay. She is an excellent writer. Thank you for correcting my unintentional error.

  • I don’t know, objectively evil races in stories seem pretty political to me. Especially when you consider “actual, factual Nazis.”

    • The thing to remember about Nazis is that they weren’t, for the most part, committing atrocities just for grins and giggles. Some were conditioned to obey authority at all costs. Some were afraid of atrocities being committed against them if they stepped out of line. Some really thought that they were saving the world and making Germany great again. But none thought of themselves as the villain of the piece. The trick to creating good, relevant characters in my opinion is to step into each character’s shoes and treat them like the main character. Treating any character or race in a story as The Bad Guy, evil for the sake of evil, does the reader and the world a disservice. It makes it too easy to dismiss everyday atrocities committed against minorities and the poor, because the person doing the committing “means well” and loves his wife and donates to animal shelters.

  • (Chuck, the link to Andrea’s blog seems broken – the one to ” Deus Ex Machinatio”.)

    I loved what you wrote Andrea, thanks for the reminder. Its all too easy to reflect only our own image into our tales, and not the gamut of who we are as a collective.
    I’m guilty of it positively.
    Ill work on it today, though – I promise.
    Thanks.

  • This was a really excellent essay, thanks for sharing. I appreciated the gentle calling out of not just the lack of racial and sexual-orientation diversity in writing, but also the lack of religious, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity. It’s not something that’s mentioned often, and it’s something I personally hadn’t given a lot of thought to.

    As a related aside, the author of the nonfiction book Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, was recently in my town giving a lecture. She mentioned that we need more altruistic characters in our fiction, rather than these anti-heros etc. I haven’t read her book yet, but that comment has resonated with me and will certainly inform some future work…

    • It is somewhat antithetical for someone who writes YA books, yeah? It’s like you go to your 12-year old: “Here’s a great book, but don’t go to the author’s website. The language is inappropriate for someone your age.”

  • This is a great post — but I have to juxtapose it with the outrage over supposed “cultural/ethnic appropriation.” How dare someone white write about a POC or someone who is disabled? Thats the rub. I can;t imagine something more empathetic than writing a story with characters far from our own racial and cultural experience. But it’s a very fine line with hell to pay if we piss off the wrong demographic.

    • I don’t think most readers have a problem with stories told by majority writers that involve minority characters (BTW, you can be white and disabled). It’s about empathy, doing your research, talking to people in that community or group, and writing characters as “real” people. “Appropriation,” on the other hand, is wearing a headdress for Halloween, although it’s sacred to some native peoples and they’ve asked people not to do it.

      I would also say that appropriation is a white author who writes her only major black character with dementia so the white characters can drag her around on the leash… and the only other (minor) black character speaks in “poor English” and talks about wanting government handouts. Yet this author is still best-selling and has tons of book reviews in major papers. So I’d say that while maybe if you hang out on sites like this that it seems there “will be hell to pay,” that in larger society most people don’t care.

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