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