Tag Archives: issues in literature

Human Nature

This evening, I had the house to myself. I don’t like being at home alone, so I took my mind off the fact that my husband was away by watching a couple of movies we’d recorded over the past few weeks. One was ‘Moon’, which I’d seen before and really enjoyed, and one was a golden oldie, ‘The Running Man’, which (somehow!) I’d managed to miss until now. If you haven’t seen these movies, you might want to be aware that there are some spoilers below.

I knew I'd find a reason to put an Arnie picture on the blog eventually

I knew I’d find a reason to put an Arnie picture on the blog eventually!

Another reason I took some time out to watch these movies was because I had a bit of a fraught day yesterday, WiP-wise. I was doing some research into submissions to agents and publishers, writing query letters, and so forth, when it struck me that my book is long. Really long. Too long, in point of fact. I had an idea that I was running a little towards the long end of the ‘accepted’ word count, but figured that most of my favourite books in the YA-fantasy genre are about the same length as the work I’ve produced. However, it would appear not. If I’m to believe what I’ve discovered during the course of my research, my book is about 50,000 words too long. I’ve been thinking about what I can do to fix this ever since, and my brain is on a loop, trying to suggest solutions to itself.

Hence, the movies.

As well as being short, both movies are tightly packed with action (‘Running Man’) and tension (‘Moon’). They both tell a good story in a small space, without wasting time on irrelevance. Perhaps I only noticed this because my mind is twisting itself in knots about this very issue at present, but it doesn’t make it any less true! Also, they both had lots to say about human nature, and what it means to be human, I thought – something that’s important to me, but also to anyone who wants to write a book. Thinking about people, and why they do the things they do, is intrinsic to creating characters.

‘The Running Man’ – at least, the movie version, as I haven’t read the book yet – is (we have to face it) very similar in message and tone to ‘The Hunger Games’. I’m not complaining about this. I found ‘The Hunger Games’ profound, at times, in its message about humanity and what it means to be a human being, too. If the world really did descend into a dystopian hell, and if we really were living through the fallout of a horrible war, or a devastating economic crisis (hang on…!), would we take out our frustrations and horrors at our own daily lives on watching others suffer and die? What would it take to push humanity over that particular precipice? As I watched ‘The Running Man’, I asked myself the question: ‘If this was real, would I be a rabid viewer and consumer of the TV show, and would I be cheering as the stalkers chased down the contestants, or would I be a ‘conscientious objector’, refusing to take part in something so inhuman?’

Of course, I’m glad that there’s no way for me to answer that question, because such a TV show doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least. I wondered why people would take such extreme enjoyment in watching a show like that, and why they’d idolise the show’s host and crave the logos, merchandise, and other accoutrements, and concluded it had to be because of their own feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. They’d crave the branded clothing and the memorabilia in order to prove to everyone that they were part of the ‘in’ crowd, not to be hunted; they were of the powerful class, and not the oppressed. But maybe it’s not even as deep as that. Maybe people, as a whole, just enjoy watching other people (or beings, maybe) suffer. I really hope that’s not the reason, though. Maybe it’s because they’re thinking ‘if those people over there are suffering, then the focus is not on me. If they’re the ones being chased and hunted and killed, then there’s nobody chasing me.’ I’d love to think I’d be the one standing outside the system, and I’d be the one running the underground resistance, but it’s hard to know. I think I have more compassion for my fellow human than the people in ‘The Running Man’ seemed to have, but even I know it’s difficult to be the dissenting voice when you’re living under a frightening regime; a regime where, to stand out and live a different message, could spell death. Sadly, we don’t have to look to fiction for those sorts of situations – those kinds of oppressive regimes are in place all over the world. Perhaps ghoulish game-shows are the next step in the process.

moon‘Moon’ is an entirely different film, but it takes on a similar question: what constitutes a human? If, in ‘The Running Man’, we were faced with a two-tier version of humanity – a tier in which people are hunted to death, and a tier that sits back and watches it happen – ‘Moon’ uses the concept of cloning to explore the same idea. We’re faced with two, and then three copies of the same person, all of which look identical and are ‘programmed’ with the same memories, loves, hates, and fears – but which, despite all that, are still seen as individuals. Even if we didn’t have the visual cues to help us distinguish one version of ‘Sam’ from the other (one has a facial wound, and quickly begins to display symptoms of illness, while the other remains healthy throughout), it would still be clear. They are very different men, despite technically being exactly the same. So, what makes them different? Is a clone merely a copy of a ‘real’ person, or is the clone a person in his/her own right? What does it take to make a living, breathing, sentient body a ‘human being’? One of the clones in this movie even offers to die to help another clone to live – an act of nobility that few ‘proper’ human beings would be able to match. Again, though this film is SF and not intended to be ‘realistic’, it has a message for our world. Who judges the fitness of others to call themselves ‘human’, and who have we placed on the pedestal, and to whom have we given the power, to make calls on others’ right to live, or exist, as they please? We live in a world in which regimes exist which attempt to argue that certain individuals are lesser than others, that whole groups of people are unimportant because of gender, race, orientation, gender identity, or whatever the case may be. Why have we done this, and who has the power to make these calls?

Well. Those are my thoughts for today. Perhaps I should just learn to watch a movie, and not take every second of footage apart for meaning. That’s what trying to write a book does to you, though – it makes you analyse everything for structure, meaning, motivation, and symbolism. It’s also hard to stop doing it once you’ve started!

So, after all my procrastinating, I still have some big book-related decisions to make. Wish me luck! Hopefully I’ll be able to take some of my analytical skills to my own book, and whittle it away to its essentials. Here’s hoping.

Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:

http://www.wordforteens.com/2012/10/the-whiteness-of-ya-books-and-book.html

The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!