I’ve been thinking a lot lately of books that I loved growing up — The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, or The Lord of the Rings — and the problematic elements they contained that I didn’t notice at the time. And yet I don’t care to reject those books, partly because I loved them so much growing up, and partly because I can still see what’s good about them. And, I think in some part, because I hate the censorship and judgment of books in general. I grew up thinking that some books were Just Bad because they had Bad Things in them: sex, or drug use, or gay characters, or whatever. If a book was Bad you couldn’t possibly encourage anyone to read it.
I think more expansively now; a book can be good and bad in different ways and still be worth reading. And besides, art is a reflection of reality, which encompasses all things. If people have sex, if they use drugs, then fictional people will do the same. There’s a whole Flannery O’Connor quote that inspired me when I was still religious but coming out of my hardline phase; I can’t find it now. But it said something like, you can write about anything provided you tell the truth about it. That the real sin isn’t in dealing with a certain subject, but in contorting that subject to make it not reflect reality.
At the time I thought it meant things like “if you’re going to write about premarital sex, make sure it winds up an utter disaster,” and possibly to her, that was exactly what it meant. But I still think she was right on principle: if we are holding the mirror up to nature, we should reflect it as it really is. Someone who is trying to teach a moral often tries to shove the story in a way stories don’t go: making sure the baddies get their comeuppance, making good characters universally admired by everyone, making a tidy moral solution appear at just the last minute, so we can save everyone at no cost.
So, when the superhero’s morals keep him from murdering the villain who obviously needs to die, but the villain conveniently tumbles to his death all by himself, that feels untrue. A moral dilemma about capital punishment and vigilante justice is conveniently dodged, so that we can continue to believe that, if we only hold to our moral code, nothing bad will ever happen.
Of course we all end up with little untruths like this, because fiction isn’t life; it has to end at some point and we prefer to stop at a place where everyone we like is happy. Not every dilemma gets full play, and sometimes, everybody lives — even in real life.
But in some people’s writing, it happens again, and again, and again. People act badly and remain the hero; hereditary monarchs with absolute power turn out to be wonderful and do no wrong while democratic governments are an abyss of meaningless paperwork; women living in patriarchal societies just love supporting the men in their lives and doing nothing else despite their obvious talent; gay relationships always crash and burn and the people in them discover they were actually straight the whole time. And I can believe that these things might happen, by chance, once or twice. But I can’t believe that they would always happen that way.
When you make things always turn out a certain way, you’re making a statement about the world, about the laws the universe runs on. Your own world stops being a reflection of the real one, and ends up being more of a reflection of how you think the world ought to be.
Which is fair in science fiction, right? That’s what we’re writing, the way the world ought to be. But it’s also fair for me to look at the way you think the world is or ought to be, and simply say–nope. Not for me. I don’t want to live in your world; I don’t want to spend five minutes in it.
There is one other thing that doesn’t belong in books, and that’s sneering. This is when the author creates a character that is obviously an avatar of everything they hate. Eustace Scrubb is a good example of this: he’s just loaded down with everything Lewis liked. How can the poor kid both be a vegetarian and into pinning dead animals on a card? How can he read so much nonfiction and yet never have any useful knowledge? He winds up just being an avatar of Progressivism, and How Much Lewis Hated It. But a reader might well read it and feel (I know I did, at points) like the sneering is directed at them. “Oh, you go to a co-ed school and like books with grain elevators in them? It’s important that you know that I, the author, hate you and expect my readers to hate you also. My characters will be rude to you and I’ll say they’re actually being really patient because you deserve much worse.” That’s the message that comes across.
This is extra true when the character is part of a minority of some kind. When a reader has been bullied for being fat or gay or autistic or brown, pulling up a similar character and then loading them with all the exact traits the reader has been mocked for is bullying. The author is merely continuing and reinforcing the hateful stuff the culture has already been slinging. I can’t think of any time when this would be okay. Sure, have evil characters, and make them hateable. But make them hateable because of things they do. Throwing in random things that you hope people will feel negatively about, by making them ugly or gay-coded or disabled, in the hopes of adding to the hateability rating of your villain, is just gross and it causes harm. It reinforces that this trait is hateable, both in people who have that trait and in people who have prejudices against it.
While I’m against censorship, I think it’s fair to say some books are just bad books. Some books are not worth reading. And some, while worth reading, need to come with some thought, especially when giving them to kids. Kids don’t know enough about the world to know when a book isn’t reflecting it accurately.
When writing, two rules help keep you from writing a bad book: first, try to reflect the world as it really is or as you hope it could be, with all the complexity that real worlds must have. And second, avoid all authorly sneering. Treat marginalized characters with respect, and don’t exempt them from the good treatment both the narrator and the characters give everyone else. This helps your work avoid harm and rise above the level of boring preaching and worldview reinforcement, into real reflections of the world as it is.