CW: discussion of racial slurs and other problematic topics.
I’ve been a professional writer in the public eye for not quite twenty years now. I’ve seen the publishing fads and common wQisdom shift twice now; and I’m learned—mostly through failure—a lot of dos and don’ts on how to comport myself in public.
I’ve also now lived and been published long enough to see fashions in what is socially acceptable in terms of language, characterization, plot, self-promotion, and other things authors deal with a lot surge in and out of controversy. I’ve seen a lot of brave stands by people who believed deeply that something was wrong and needed to change, and a lot of self-aggrandizing performative self-righteousness as well.
Mostly, these days, I tend toward doing my social engineering and constructiveness in the background. If I see a small problem I can fix, I fix it. if I see a signal I can boost, I boost it. I’m careful about who I consider allies in the ongoing struggle for social equality, too, as I’ve seen too many people capitalize on our community as a means to target and groom subjects for emotional and sexual abuse.
One thing I can tell anybody writing today, though, is that no matter how woke you think you are, no matter how on the edge and ethically correct you’re working with your queer characters and your diversity and your own voices… in twenty years, what you write will most likely seem pretty problematic to a next generation of readers. And often not in ways you could have anticipated.)
(For example, I just authorized a reprint of a book of mine called Whiskey and Water. There’s a character in it who goes by the name Scholar Gypsy, after the Matthew Arnold poem, and after a real Hells Angel who used that as his nom de guerre. In the fifteen years since the book was written, there’s been more and more activism, especially in the US, to have the word “Gypsy” recognized as a racial slur. This sentiment is by no means universal worldwide; there’s no telling what the next twenty years will bring as a consensus, if there ever is one.
I thought about renaming the character. What I did, instead, (the book is set in 2006, I think?) was add an author’s note explaining the backstory of the name and why I chose to keep it, rather than erasing all the guns from ET and putting in cellphones that didn’t exist in that day and age.)
We all are products of our time. We all have feet of clay, as it were. We will all look back on our body of work someday and wince, lightly.
Does that mean we shouldn’t criticize (in the literary sense) our antecedents and their shortsightedness? No, I don’t think it does. But it also doesn’t hurt to recognize where they were pushing the boundaries that they saw, and trying to make the world a better place in their own times.
In the next forty years of my career, if I am granted that long, I expect that this will only get more common. The world moves on, and books are static. I can’t read even a progressive novel from the 1980s these days without noticing all the boobs boobing boobily around. Heroic, intelligent women characters, feminist and active, full of agency… and described boobs first.
The years keep coming, and they do not cease from coming.
In the meantime, it behooves us as authors to try to keep up with social change, and acknowledge when ideals and the conventional wisdom have shifted, and try not to ossify into the radical positions of our youth as they become the reactionary positions of our dotage.