A word is pejorative. A phrase is non-PC. Similes and metaphors prepare a trap – ‘trap’ because language is so ingrained that it is dangerously easy to be caught out and offend people, albeit unintentionally. That’s exactly what I thought I might be doing in this sentence from Polyamory on Trial, the second of my novels about Mike, Ross, Raith and Phil, a fictional gay quad:
Raith could look at a landscape and see colours in it that were hardly known to man, yet his personal view of the world was so black and white, so simply divided into right and wrong and good and evil, that for all his fame and fortune and wonderful skill with a brush and clay, he had a naivety which, at times, rendered him almost childlike. ©Jude Tresswell
I re-read the sentence and thought “Oh hell! Have I just been unwittingly racist?” Black…white…good…evil… An unconscious reinforcement of stereotypes? (By then, a conscious one.) I looked long and hard at what I wrote and, with misgivings, I decided to let the sentence stand. I felt that, from the point of view of character, those were precisely the right words to use. Raith, one of my polyamorous foursome, views the physical world through a splendid spectrum of colours. He’s a tetrachromat – someone who is able to distinguish a paint-card-ful of shades. However, he views the world of morality much more narrowly. Not even shades of grey. Just the two extremes. So, contextually, the words were correct. I still feel a little uneasy though. I’m not entirely certain that I’ve squared the content with my conscience.
Writing ethically isn’t a case of being PC. PC reflects the zeitgeist and the zeitgeist changes.
I’ve mentioned the late Reginald Hill, creator of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, on the blog before. For forty years, from 1970, he published some of the best police procedurals ever. That isn’t just the opinion of a little blogger like me. He won the British Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger, the Diamond Dagger (a Lifetime Achievement Award) and a heap of other accolades, and famous crime writers like Val McDermid speak of his influence and inspiration. And yet, if he were to write a D and P story now, I doubt if it would see the light of day without some major revisions. That’s because of Edgar Wield – for Wield, the superficially imperturbable sergeant who is the series’ most important secondary character, is exceedingly ugly and, almost invariably, his ugliness results in jokes and insults. Responses to his features range from disbelief to horror. Perhaps the least cruel reaction is that of Pascoe’s daughter, Rosie. She finds Wield’s face funny.
If the verbal abuse stemmed entirely from the very non-PC mouth of Superintendent Andy Dalziel, then all would be fine. It’s permissible for a fictional character to voice an opinion which is crude and disrespectful. There are ways of making disapproval clear. In the D and P series, for example, it’s obvious that Pascoe regards his boss’s rudeness with embarrassment and distaste. However, Wield has to put up with abusive comments from so many mouths — from main characters, secondary characters, incidental characters… there are many, many references to his lack of loveliness. Even Pascoe is guilty of making them occasionally. (Thinking them, anyway.) Wield, in contrast, only refers to his ugliness once — in Child’s Play — and he isn’t laughing when he does so.
A person’s ugliness, even a fictional person’s ugliness, doesn’t seem, to me, to be a suitable topic for fun. Laughing at ugliness rides roughshod over the feelings of real people. It reinforces the idea that it’s OK to poke fun at people who are in some way different from what’s considered normal. It makes assumptions about normality, about what beauty is and isn’t.
There’s no criticism of Reginald Hill intended there! (Who am I to even dare to criticise such a writer?) Perhaps it was acceptable in the 80s and 90s to poke fun at people’s looks. A different zeitgeist and so on. But I would like to know what Reginald Hill was thinking. Was he laughing at Wield too? Or were the insults actually a clever ploy to make Wield a much-loved character? It seems obvious to me that Reginald Hill had enormous affection for his imaginary sergeant. (As, actually, did both Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe.) Whatever Hill’s intention, I maintain that he would have to tone the content down if he were still alive and creating his wonderful tales today.
And yet, how can I even begin to moralise about the ethics of writing fiction? That reference above to Raith isn’t the only bit of Polyamory on Trial that tugged at my conscience. All 240 pages did! The story is set entirely in County Durham but, as the jacket blurb below indicates, its background is the Syrian war. There are references to specific, actual events – the fighting in Kobane, for example, when 16,000 people died – and to the plight of the thousands of people who have fled from the conflict.
I recall reading, some time ago, an admission by an author who had included a reworking of events in Northern Ireland in his story. He felt so uneasy about the morality of doing so that, to ease his conscience, he wrote to all the families who had lost relatives in the tragedy. I can hardly contact thousands of Syrians. Oh, I know that war is dramatised all the time – in books, films, on the stage, on TV – and for a host of different reasons: to tell of people’s suffering, or of their bravery and courage and, sometimes, for patriotic glorification….but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was trivialising war by using it in a fictional tale about polyamory and four imaginary men. On the contrary. Events in Syria were at the forefront of my mind when I was writing. What does a person do when faced with such horrors? I wrote a story. My way of dealing with the helplessness and anger that I felt. (Still feel.) My protest march. My letter to my MP. My admission of complicity for, when such dreadfulness happens, perhaps we all must share some guilt.
A happier subject next time!
Polyamory on Trial will be published by Rowanvale Books in August 2018. Back cover synopsis below. See these previous posts for info and photos about the setting, the cover art and the inspiration behind the stories:
Inspirational Colombian Throuple
County Durham Photos and Fiction
Book Covers Tell Polyamorous Tales