Saturday, December 1, 2012

Is Your Writing too Vanilla?



A couple of posts ago, I mentioned recent political comments regarding rape and abortion and wondered if breaching such topics in a blog aimed at promoting a forthcoming YA novel was going too far.

I received no comments on that post, which is not unusual, yet November was my most successful month ever in terms of page views (835!), so I must not have offended too many readers.

So, here I go again.

My intention is never to directly offend anyone; however, writing, if it is to matter, must occasionally risk offending some. Writing that does not stick its literary neck out can become bland and boring—vanilla, to borrow a term from a work-in-progress belonging to a member of my writer’s group (thanks, Rachel).

What’s wrong with vanilla?

Nothing, really.  I like vanilla, but I also like chocolate, orange, lemon, and other flavors. A strict diet of vanilla—in either ice cream or writing—is safe and predictable. Writers who create a vanilla world in which their protagonists never face controversy or risk offending segments of their audience do their readers—particularly young readers—a disservice. Readers (whether you want them to or not) will look to your characters as models for how they are supposed to be in the “real” world.  

Characters who never have to deal with difficult problems give the impression that the reader shouldn’t have to, either.

What prompted this line of thinking was spending last night on Facebook. Far from being an addictive waste of time, as some claim, FB has become a valuable sociological experiment. People from diverse backgrounds all across the globe “friend” each other and interact. Most of the interactions are silly or conversational, but occasionally real discussions take place.

And any time a real discussion takes place, disagreements are bound to ensue.

The other day, I posted a link to a petition that’s been making its way around the Internet. The petition seeks to urge the government of Uganda not to proceed with legislation that would criminalize homosexuality. Regardless of whether you believe homosexuality is natural or not, a sin or not, no one should condone imprisoning or executing people because of their sexual orientation.

Yet the FB friend of an FB friend responded, “not our country . . . not our problem.”

In our discussion which followed, the poster claimed he was not apathetic. He just didn’t care about what went on in countries other than the U.S.

I resisted the urge to post a link to Merriam-Webster’s definition of “apathy” and let the conversation drop. After all, he makes a valid point. It’s certainly his right (and anyone else’s) to care or not care about a particular issue. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing his attention on battling intolerance in this country (which he claimed he would do).

But his attitude represents, I think, a rather narrow definition of “us” and “them.”  “I only care about us,” this attitude proclaims. “Us” can be defined in terms of national borders, as in his case, but it can also be defined in terms of race, sexual orientation, politics, gender, social cliques, and any other distinction one cares to identify with.

In other words, the “us and them” attitude promotes a vanilla world in which all of “us” are the same.  

But in a world which is becoming increasingly connected through technology, trade, and travel, there is no “them.”  There is only “us.”

I differ with my new FB acquaintance in that, where he sees division, I see connections. Our signatures on the petition may have no effect on a government half the world away. Yet hope and a desire for a better world (not just a better country) compelled me to try. Assuming the government of Uganda wasn’t prompted “merely” by hatred of homosexuals but rather by a desire to protect its society from something it perceives (wrongly) as a threat, then making our opinions known may educate others who have more influence.

There are also connections between “the real world” and writing.

So, you want to write escapist fiction or fantasy? Great. So do I. But even escapism is a product of the real world and reflects that real world back upon the reader.

It all boils down to this: Do you want to immerse your reader in a vanilla world, or do you want to open her palate to other flavors?

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