I have one novel on the back-burner that’s about life in the area I live. The story is fictitious, but a lot of the elements and themes are pulled straight from my life growing up. Which means the main character would witness a lot of racism and there would be frequent use of the N-word.
I’m a white male. And while most of my friends growing up were black, I never used the N-word. I understood from childhood the power and history of that word. But in the novel I’d be writing, it would be disingenuous if I kept it out. After all, I grew up hearing the word countless times a day from my black friends, as well as the moronic racist assholes around the area.
But here’s the thing, how can I use such a word when the current landscape in this country means I would be vilified for it? I either write the story without those racial elements (which means the story would be watered down and not really the story I’d be trying to tell) or I keep them in and risk being called out as a racist piece of shit.
I’m not the only one dealing with such a dilemma, either. Many writers now have to walk on egg shells when crafting a story. Especially if they are just trying to make a name for themselves. The risk of offending people in the social media age is too great. If you piss off a large enough group you might find yourself blackballed from the writing and publishing world.
Imagine writing a novel that hits all the points you wanted. It’s well done and even gets the attention of publishers. You sell the book and it goes into print. Then, there’s a backlash. Maybe a part of the book puts the LGBTQ community in a bad light. Or your message gets construed as racist or sexist.
The backlash grows and more people boycott your book. Then your publisher drops you due to pressure from the rabid protesters. Suddenly, no agent or publisher will touch your work. You become a leper. And all because a few people got offended and made enough of a fuss to ruin your writing life. Is that fair?
Of course, this is an extreme example of what I’m talking about. You’d really have to mess up to get that much hate. But it does happen. And I think it’s destroying creativity in the world. Whether you’re a writer or artist or whatever, it’s hard not to worry about doing or saying the wrong things. So, you end up second guessing everything you do.
This is especially problematic when trying to tell a unique story or create something out of the realm of what’s considered normal. It used to be artistic creation was one of the few things where offensive material would be at least somewhat accepted. But not anymore.
This has become apparently evident in the world of stand up comedy. Comedians used to have the freedom to say things most people wouldn’t. And as an audience, we would either laugh or ignore what they said. But now, people protest.
Most popular comedians don’t even bother to play at colleges anymore because PC culture has gotten so out of control. They can’t tell any jokes without offending someone. Even Jerry Seinfeld refuses. And when’s the last time he told an offensive joke?
I don’t want to harp on this topic too long, but I do believe political correctness has little place in the world of artistic creation. If something is overtly offensive, the majority of people will let it be known. But if something possibly controversial is just deemed offensive because people think that’s how they’re supposed to feel, well, it fucking sucks.
I shouldn’t be worried about receiving extreme backlash for something I write. And in the past I didn’t. I once wrote a viral article about why the fat acceptance movement is bullshit. It was a satirical comedy piece and it was really popular. But then it went around again a few years later—in the midst of the PC revolution—and was torn apart for the same reasons people originally loved it.
I find this very worrisome for us writers. Even I—a person who doesn’t believe in censorship—catches myself getting offended by things simply because the mindset is all around us. You ever go back and read classic literature from the 1800s? There’s a lot of open racism in those stories, and your knee-jerk reaction is to call it out for being offensive. But you can’t. It was a different time and we should all understand that.
And while we can’t go around writing racist or sexist things just because we feel like it, there are times where it’s pertinent to the story we’re trying to tell. But whose to say what happens if we don’t quite hit the mark we were aiming for? What if our message gets skewed and we get hit with one of those deadly words? RACIST! SEXIST! HOMOPHOBIC! XENOPHOBIC!
So, should we water down our work and avoid hot topics? Should we cater to the PC crowd and create work that’s completely inoffensive? I say no. I say you should tell the story you want to tell.
If someone gets offended by the end result, so be it. The pendulum will eventually swing the other way and people will once again settle down and learn how to take things with a grain of salt. Until then, just do you. Writing is one of the purest art forms out there. Don’t let people’s preconceived notions of what is offensive sully that.
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