PC and Writing

Last year, KD Sarge made a post on "political correctness". I wrote a comment for the post and it turned into a blog post, which I am now finally sorting out and posting.

After consideration, I agree: "political correctness" is not about respect, it is about not offending The Man. I'm of the opinion that anyone with an ounce of sense and self-preservation would know better than to use the n-word (and other assorted derogatory names) in today's society (which is a sad thing in itself), but… why do I have to use a specific different word?

As KD suggests, isn't it up to the individual in question to determine how they would like to be referred to? To quote her: If I say someone is "African American" and he/she says "Actually, I prefer (Somali/Ethiopian/Nigerian/black/et cetera," I will correct myself. I know that doesn't help when referring to a group as a whole…

I admit I don't know. Maybe someone who does know can contribute. I'm definitely open to learning; how else will we all understand each other?

But… KD's post got me thinking about PC from a writing perspective and then about how books get changed.

Should we change books just because they contain racist/sexist/-ist things? Should we write books that contain nothing offensive?

I kind of think not, because -isms have been a long part of society, and we still haven't grown past them. I hope we will, but I often think it doesn't seem likely to happen whilst I'm alive. From that perspective, it doesn't seem as if any world that is created would be free of -isms; to take them out would destroy the world. I have one stalled novel where a group of people are shunned for who they are, and because of that, the group is given purpose to seek a better world. Take that out and the story has no movement. There would be no need.

I… am not sure that I agree with the concept of changing books or other media. I guess… I can see why it would happen, and perhaps would agree with some specific cases, but as a general rule for everything? That seems wrong to me.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, back in 2010 were apparently being reissued (or were going to be) with updated language—though the plot remained unchanged otherwise. Supposedly this would make them timeless. Apparently they had also been edited over the years to remove racist language and storylines.

(As a semi-related aside, The Famous Five books, in and of themselves, are what I would call 'semi-timeless'; I can't ever recall being aware of a specific year they were set in. However, the things they did are so clearly not things that would happen today. Julian is nominally in charge, as it were… and he's twelve at the start of the series. When I was twelve my mother barely let me cross the street by myself. No way I would have been allowed to go gallivanting around the country, in charge of three other people. And I also don't know anyone else who would have been allowed the same.)

To move onto how books are changed, as a writer… I'd like to know that if I write something, it will stay that way.

I wish I could find it again, but I recently saw a post on… tumblr? that said something to the effect of "when I say I want a movie of this book, I mean I want a seventeen hour series with every last detail added in exactly how it was in the book".

That's how I feel about the adaptions of my books. How I feel about most adaptions of anything, really. I understand that things can get left out, and whatnot… but still. If a book says that something happened a certain way, have it happen that way in the movie. If you're adapting a book about this ring that must be destroyed, and this character in the book speaks about how he would not pick it up if he saw it in the road… don't have the movie!character decide to take this ring and its bearer and the bearer's gardener to his city because he wants the ring.

If an author's book is about female doctors fighting a virus and has no males in it, we don't need a male added in for the movie.

In addition, I take a view that books especially are a product of their time and offer glimpses of the world in which they were written. If the book is changed, however slight, I feel we lose a chance to see a world that we can no longer access any other way.

I welcome dialogue.


2 Responses to “PC and Writing”

  1. Anna says:

    IMHO, we should strive to keep our stories free of lazy, racist/sexist stereotypes – don't ascribe qualities to a character based entirely on their racial heritage, but strive instead to describe them as a fully developed person, etc.

    But that's not to say that -isms are to be avoided entirely. If the plot itself hinges on discrimination based on race/sex/religion, etc., then that is a valid conflict and you should be able to tell it. In fact, NOT telling it – pretending that such things don't happen, that we live in a "colourblind" society – would be more offensive, because that would be a pack of lies. People ARE discriminated against on a daily basis, due to factors beyond their control (skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, and so on). To pretend that doesn't happen is to dismiss the struggles of a good chunk of the human race. THAT would be offensive.

    So, in summary – writing about -isms is fine, even something I'd encourage. But putting racist/sexist/whatever-ist stereotypes in your story just because you're too lazy to build an actual character rather than an offensive caricature should be frowned upon. Explain and problematize offensive stereotypes, don't propagate them.

    Ah yes, the old debate on whether to edit racism/sexism out of older published works.

    We've actually had this come up recently in Sweden, regarding old Tintin albums – especially Tintin in Congo. That particular album, more than any other Tintin-story, is rife with seriously offensive racist stereotypes of African people – they're drawn as what is barely a step up from a pickaninny, and act offensively stupid, depending on the white man (Tintin) to save them. It's pretty terrible, and has always been one of my least liked Tintin stories.

    There was talk of banning the book altogether, and also a milder ban, consisting of only removing it from the children's section of libraries – which is understandable, as IMHO, non-white children should not have to be constantly reminded that there are people out there who consider them less than human. I personally was not in favour of banning it altogether, since I see value in keeping this kind of material around – not for the sake of reminding non-white people of what complete shits us white people have been to them in the past, but for white people; to remind US of what complete shits we've been, and how much work we still have to do to make up for it. This is our heritage – colonialism and racism and a whole bunch of terrible things we've done, and are in some cases still doing, to people who are not white.

    We need to remember that this is who we have been. Tintin in Congo needs to be held up as an example of what not to do.

    A compromised was reached eventually, AFAIK – and Tintin in Congo got a warning-text on the frontispiece which explained that the book contained racist stereotypes, and that those racist stereotypes were offensive and bad.

    …. And that's not even getting into the whole can of worms that is movie-adaptions of books. Sheesh. I was furious with the Game of Thrones adaption, and still am in many ways. The first season managed to adapt the first book as well as it possibly could – a few minor things were skimmed over to save time, and there was one speech from my favourite character that got trunctuated and given to someone else, but aside from that, it was pretty faithful. I was overjoyed! This was what I wanted from my GoT-adaption! Tonally and atmospherically on point!

    … And then the second season began. And they started changing things. Not just a little – not just skipping details to save time, or condensing scenes – but in significant and seriously character-damaging ways. And the third season was even worse in this regard. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for season four – because when they get it right, it is excellent – but I'm not getting my hopes up too high. :T

    I understand that when adapting a work, some things will need to be changed – novels and film are two different mediums, with different strengths and weaknesses, and the adaptions need to work within their limits – but one should take care to always respect the spirit of the original work; if a character in the original novel is an honourable man struggling with feelings of inadequacy due to his birth and upbringing, the adaption should not change him into a flighty, disloyal, petulant man, whose significant, character-building moments of choice are all removed and stuff just sort of happens to him because he's re-active instead of pro-active (I am bitter about TV!Jon Snow, can you tell?).

    As for changing the writing in the original books – no. Just no. I don't care what offensive stereotypes are in it, I do not condone editing the writing just to "fix" them. Not only does this try to hide the fact that they were offensive to begin with – which is thin ice to be treading on – but it also intrudes upon the original creator's artistic vision and work, which would make me furious. You wouldn't dream of "fixing" the Mona Lisa, would you?

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