Touchy Subjects: When and Where To Use Them
One of the hardest parts of writing is that there will always be someone who has a problem with your work.
When I was on the Write Track Podcast back in July, one of the topics that was brought up on my episode was a growing “cancel culture” in YA literature. For those of you who don’t know what “cancel culture” is, don’t worry. Before that podcast, I had no idea either. I did a bit of research, and what I found honestly startled me. Books with controversial subjects or controversial tropes are being removed from the market often before they even have a chance to get started. While in some cases this can be due to actual bigotry in the writing or in the author’s actions themselves, I found that a decent number of books were being canceled by publishers because people were becoming offended by their subject matter.
One Chinese-American author, Amélie Zhao, had to withdraw her upcoming fantasy novel because she received backlash for the way it approached slavery. In her apology, she stated that her ideas were based on the Asian experience, not the American one. I had a problem with this. I don’t know how the book was written, and honestly, I would need to know that before making a final judgement. But using my historian voice for a second, why do we need to pull something that confronts a different element based in history? If it was well-researched and was adequately told, why should that offend others?
History is messy. We as a country did a lot of horrible things in our past; the world has done a lot of horrible things over the course of human history. Talking about our messy past does more to illuminate it and its horrors; brushing it aside has no inherent value. Absolutely, subjects such as these have to be handled with grace and care, but if we can confront them in writing historical fiction, why not confront it in fantasy as well?
Historically charged issues are not the only subjects that we have to be careful of. Writing about mental health issues, questions of sexuality, or creating a world with seriously skewed politics can spark controversy among readers. But I think as writers, we need to be willing to welcome controversy. We have to be willing to talk about these subjects in order to better understand each other’s points of view on it and grow closer to compromise. We need to be respectful in handling delicate issues, but we don’t need to pre-censor our own writing.
Here are my personal tips for writing about touchy subjects:
#1: Do your research. Writing from experience is always a great place to start. But if you don’t necessarily have applicable personal experience, do your research. Do thorough research. Talk to people. Spend some time browsing the Internet for personal stories, historical summaries, and news articles. I think you can create a main character who has OCD even if you don’t have OCD (using this as an example because I, in fact, do suffer from OCD). But do some research on what people go through with that disorder. Don’t subject your characters to offensive stereotypes. Create nuance. Is it going to take a lot of work? Yes. But you’re a writer. That’s what you’re here for.
#2: Get feedback. Share your work with people in your life who are not afraid to be completely honest and critical about your writing. Preferably people who you know have strong opinions. Opinionated people may be frustrating at times (myself included in that list), but ultimately, you’re going to get honest criticism and feedback. Listen intently to what they have to say. Listen for red flags that you hear from multiple people. Then make a decision on whether you need to adjust your book.
#3: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to explore new ideas and outlets. Even the most honest and kindest of people have their nemeses who want to see them fail. Your honest mistakes do not define you as a person and as a writer. You’ve got supporters in what you do, and you’ve got a supporter in me! Find your people, and write good things.
Happy writing, my friends.