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Escapism Is for Readers; Writers Stay

Image - iStockphoto: Stacey Newman
Image – iStockphoto: Stacey Newman

Nobody blames you if recently you’ve felt like getting the hell out of Dodge.

To be really clear about this, I’m not going to tell you whether you should love or hate the results of the US general election. That’s for you to decide.

But everyone is feeling the pressure.

If the vote went the way you hoped, you might find yourself as wide-eyed as the transition team at Trump Tower these days, parsing the flying news reports about this potential cabinet appointment or that suddenly unclear stance on one or another platform position.

If the vote went south for you, you may be wondering what the DC-wide shift is going to mean to your own interests and how you and your political soulmates will navigate the next four years that used to look a lot clearer than they do now.

From whichever side of the aisle you’re watching, you may be dismayed to find citizens in confrontations, sometimes violent ones—there’s video of Trump supporters being bashed and many minority members being accosted. This is wrong. All of it. No one should be hurt, period.

And it’s at times like these that you hear your readers talk about wanting to “escape into fiction.”

From a reader? This is good news. Even if good heads remind us that the best fiction leads us back to ourselves.

But when your writer-friends (or was that you?) start talking about escaping into your fiction? That’s when Killjoy Porter is going to swoop in for a big chat.

Here’s my provocation for you today: As lovely, dark, and deep as the woods of your writing may seem right now, Mr. or Ms. Frost, I want you to “keep your soul in the room,” as transcendentalists used to say, and your eyes wide open.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
For the good of your readers
Image - iStockphoto: Demaerre
Image – iStockphoto: Demaerre

Whatever  your readers think is “good escapist entertainment” (and I fear it may involve Jennifer Anniston), the farther it takes them from the world in which we need their best minds and hearts, the less a favor we do them.

Not only do your readers meet themselves in the best fiction (let alone nonfiction) on the market, but they also learn more, grow more, deepen more when we, as artists, lead them—compassionately, of course—back to the tones and currents of their lives.

No, please do not set whole chapters on the campus of the electoral college. But staying attuned to the tensions of the times will resonate in your work in myriad, subtle ways that build authenticity into what you’re doing, even in some of the farther-flung genres.

It’s a bit like playing the ball where it lies (not “lays,” thank you). I want you to play your readers where they lie. And that, at the moment, is in none too comfortable a culture.

For the good of your own head
Image - iStockphoto: Mark Piovesan
Image – iStockphoto: Mark Piovesan

You remember your own head, don’t you? Me, either.  I still love Mac Wellman’s lovely line from his play, The Bad Infinity: “I was in my right mind once. It seems so long ago.”

And never has the road to Canada looked so scenic, eh? When the colleagues you feel closest to started wearing pants suits, you knew things were getting weird. And what about the ones dyeing their hair yellow and donning those towering ties?

Twenty-four-hour news is watched 24 hours per day only by journalists like me who’ve worked for those companies. Our need to know the incremental progress of stories is comical, etched into us by space shuttle explosions and royal car crashes and sieges of Mosul and inadequate exit polling. Don’t be like us.

But if literature of any genre means anything of contemporary value to its readers, it does need its writers to be aware of the contours and collisions of life around them. This beats nipping off to some Maxfield Parish fairyland facsimile of a dream. Our culture is too given to entertainment, as it is. Too much getting away from it all, too much fantasy, too much insistence that “life is so hard” when we really have very little idea what a hard life is about, here in the first world.

All I’d suggest, in the service of keeping one foot in your world as  you work, is thinking of your characters reading the headlines you are as they head off to work or come home from school. Remind your characters of what’s going on. Don’t change their lives or arcs because of it. But make them aware, as you are. They’ll be richer, clearer, smarter, worthier of sales in a marketplace already choking on mindless comedy.

For the good of your society
Image - iStockphoto: Jim Doberman
Image – iStockphoto: Jim Doberman

Yep, you’re responsible for your society. So am I. None of us is excused.

And from either side of this dramatic political divide in Western culture, one thing looks the same: we should have seen it coming. Hiding from it is how we got here.

The obvious surprise on the Trump team’s faces was no more pronounced than the obvious shock in the Clinton campaigners’ eyes. We’ve managed to scare the pants off both sides, in one way or another.

Earlier in these provocations, we’ve talked of how the writers of a society are the ones who bear the burden of expressing something for everyone else. There’s a responsibility there, like it or not. And rarely has there been so much that needs expressing, exploring, explicating, exchanging. It’s a time when the ability to turn a phrase can be so helpful—a time of fear, of lessons that needed to be learned, of mistakes that shouldn’t have been made, of the exhausted realization that the plot wasn’t going where most folks on either side thought it was.

I urge you to watch the news, a bit. Keep up. Stay engaged. Writer Unboxeders are plenty good at making things up, nobody’s going to take your fictional aplomb away from you. But let it be infused with the troubles of the times. Again, the word “vote” need be nowhere near your work, I’m talking only in terms of emotional context and a shaken society. We need  your citizenship, not just your storytelling.

Starting November 8, your readers have become different. In whichever direction they may lean politically, they’re reading you as somewhat changed people. Everywhere in the world, too, not just in the States. A shift has occurred.

Please don’t ignore that. Escape helps neither you nor them. Nor us. Share the tremors with your characters and your consumers. Simply by staying awake. We’ll all be better for it.

(Scorched) Earth to Writer Unboxed: If you’re not already off into some fictional feint, what do you think? Can you embrace this worldwide strain into which we’ve wandered and keep writing?

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About Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) [4]

@Porter_Anderson [5] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [6], the international publishing industry news magazine of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman produce @The Hot Sheet [7], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller’s Associate Editor for The FutureBook [8] in London. He is also a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [9] series, often in association with PorterAndersonMedia.com [10] | Google+ [11]