OK, something I have long dreaded finally happened and I’m actually quite pleased, strange as it sounds.
As a writer, I worry every time I utilize anything about religion, ethnicity, or someone else’s culture in my writing; I fear I’ll offend someone and get That Letter. You know the one. Or worse, set-off a shit-storm like the infamous Twitter-fed “racefail” of a few years ago. So I was nervous when I used some Salish legends for Underground and I am nervous every time I write dialog for Mara or Phoebe and her family, and I was nervous about a negative reference to Jews in Vanished and I’m always worried that my monsters will be taken as allegories for something I didn’t intend.
So a few days ago I got a note from a fan—a real fan, not a random reader with a chip on their shoulder looking for an excuse to lambaste me—saying she found the reference to “that Jew” in Vanished painful and wondered why I’d felt the need to make a point of the character’s religion when I’d never made a similar statement about another religion. She did admit she’d have been equally uncomfortable if the statement had been about Blacks or Muslims or something similarly impolitic.
All right, I thought, here it is. Now what will you do? Because, as I said, I’d been afraid this would happen. So I wrote back to my fan and we had a pretty good conversation I think. Here is (most of) what I said:
I did worry about that passage, and I’m sorry that you felt hurt by it. But, please bear in mind that it is a character speaking, not me. (And my agent, who is Jewish, would have skinned me and told me to F-off if it were otherwise.)
The character making the statement is a man of his time—a nineteenth century Englishman from Clerkenwell which is also where Oliver Twist was set—and by social convention a thoughtless bigot, not a modern person with enlightened sensibilities about religion. It’s not a comment on Jews, but on the bigotry of historical Englishmen (and some not so-historical men, English and otherwise.)
I also hoped that the readers smart enough or educated enough to know about Rabbi Lowe’s Golem would understand all the implications of what Simeon did, how he flouted the laws of his religion and culture and used something sacred for a profane and horrible purpose. I don’t want to pretend that people aren’t bigots and idiots who do evil things for bad reasons and I’ll probably continue to put things into my books that aren’t politically correct, but I do feel badly that you took the character’s comment in a way I didn’t intend and were hurt by it.
It is kind of ironic that someone else recently asked me if I were a pagan because “all (my) characters swear by gods, not God.” So, I hope you will trust me when I say I’m neither a wild pagan, nor an anti-Semite, just a writer who tries to do her best.
I don’t know if this was the perfect response, but my fan seems to be comfortable enough with it to write back and to continue reading my books and that is the best I could hope for. I’m glad she asked; it makes me think and that makes me a better writer, I hope.
Each person sees a work through their own set of filters, influenced by their own experience of the world. Which is why one notices the anti-Semitic remark in the mouth of a character while another notices the protagonist’s attempt to avoid offending any of the myriad gods and goddesses she’s met by covering all her bases. One of my critics took a swipe at me for writing “ethnicity, instead of character” and that has some truth, but it’s also necessary to take the risk of writing poorly a character who is unlike me and to let them say and do unpleasant things than to stick with an unending parade of mouthy, middle-class white chicks like myself who (unlike me) never say or do anything politically incorrect or blazingly insensitive. Borrowing from cultures, religions, and folk legend that aren’t mine is equally risky, but I’ll do it anyway, because it makes the story better and richer than it would be if I just stuck to the safe and over-used material of my own mutt-American by way of Irish/Scots/English background. (Though there is an actual Salish woman in my maternal family tree, so I feel less bad about that borrowing.)
Yes, I do worry about these things, but I go ahead and write what I feel I have to so the story rings true to the best of my ability. That means not pulling punches or second-guessing myself about how much someone may be offended. It means doing the best research I can in the time I have and treating all the material with respect as a writer, even if my characters don’t. It means hoping that the distinction between writer and character is clear—I am not my characters, not even Harper Blaine, no matter how much we have in common. If I did cut things for fear of giving offense, my books would be boring, flaccid, and suck (a lot) and I’d be out of job pretty damned quick. And I’d deserve it.
Funnily enough, I have mentioned religion and politics before in the books and a lot of my source material treads into religion, myth and legend, but I guess the references have been subtle enough not to ring anyone’s alarm bells. But a writer can’t always be subtle and tell the story they want to tell. Once in a while I have to be bald and rude and let a character or a situation be ugly and politically incorrect. Sometimes I have to grab onto something to which someone may not think I am entitled and bend it to my need.
I know I’ll offend someone again over something, but I’d rather take that risk than write a soft, flabby story that has no spine or guts. Good writing is not only entertaining, but it sneaks the truth in on people. Sometimes those bits of truth are unsubtly done, either by design or lack of art, and I hope my fans won’t let me off those hooks too easily, because it means they are thinking and they care. I like thoughtful readers.
It’s not that I want to be called to account for every perceived unpleasantness, but I want to be better at what I do and I can’t improve without thoughtful feedback, like that given by my fan here. The fast and free-flowing nature of media now has made an opening for people like me—who used to be isolated from readers by both the gatekeeping nature of publishing and the plodding nature of paper communication—to have ongoing dialog with readers. I can’t be open to all suggestions or conversations because some things really are inappropriate or impossible, and I will be offensive and proprietary, unreasonable and presumptive, but I will think about it.
And I guarantee that at least I won’t be boring.