WRITERS – DO YOU SELF-CENSOR?
Writers, do you self-censor? I’ll bet you do. I do it too, but should we?
The whole issue of political correctness is troubling. I was reminded of it again when a comment from a blog-reader came in on Marcus Sakey’s recent post. Marcus had called two very good-looking women “hotties” in his report on the Love Is Murder conference and was taken to task by a reader who said the word was not respectful of women.
I think of myself as pretty much of a first amendment absolutist. But there are limits. Certainly I don’t think people should be permitted to write racist, sexists, anti-gay, anti-ethnic, or even lookist graffiti on students’ dorm doors, for example. But the idea of limits on free speech is distasteful too.
Remember Don Rickles’ attack humor. Was it funny? Or was it only funny until your ox was gored?
Remember Jerry Lewis’s make-fun-of-the-handicapped movies? He is rumored to be ashamed of them now.
What about all of us as writers?
Suppose you’re writing a crime novel [and why else are we talking?] You want to characterize someone as potentially a villain. Do you make him unattractive? And bear in mind even the word “unattractive” implies there is beauty out there and some people just don’t have it. Okay. Does he have buck teeth? Is he bandy-legged? Does he have bad skin? People can’t help these things and they aren’t bad just because they’re unattractive by current standards, are they? Well, unattractive habits, then? Doesn’t bathe? Picks his nose? They’re okay. No p.c. offense there.
I don’t know what to think about all this. I don’t know what to do about it when I’m writing and I suspect if I worry too much about it, I’ll be like the centipede who was asked how he knew which leg to move and wound up confused in a ditch.
I don’t know the answer, but I do have some questions:
Shall I include a bigot as a character? It depends on the story, you’ll say. And we can claim that including them and showing what asses they are is a Good Thing. For myself, though, it takes me about a year to write a book, and it’s distasteful to spend all that time with a disgusting personr. Kill him off early? Cop-out.
How about epithets? Can I use the n-word? The f-word? The other f-word? The c-word? They are out there in the real world. Most of us use them mainly in dialogue.
Is it okay to use stereotypes? If I’m writing a mobster, do I give him an Italian name, a big nose and a cigar? I probably can, because I have an Italian last name, but should I?
I find myself sometimes making evildoers tall, good-looking white folks, partly to work against expectations, but that expectation is a form of bias, too, isn’t it? Partly, I’m afraid, it’s cowardice. When we do it, we can claim we’re “casting against type” to surprise or fool the reader. Certainly Agatha Christie did this to great effect. She said she was intentionally using readers’ biases against them when she set up a child as the killer or an elderly man. But in many cases, it’s p.c. caution.
If I really look into myself, I do self-censor, and I’ll bet you do, too.
Is that good or bad?