I was going to write something the other day, and paused. The words were not flowing as freely as they used to. Was I getting too old for this gig? When I figured it out, I realized I was editing as I wrote, that’s what was wrong. This was something I had never done before. My advice to other writers has always been: never write and edit at the same time. In fact, “Write on Day One, edit on Day Two, and repeat until the book, short story or essay is complete,” has been my mantra. After all these years, why was I breaking my own operating principle now? The answer was simple: I didn’t know what were the currently acceptable words, terms and themes anymore. A new political correctness had descended upon the literary establishment, strangling the incumbents, and I was suddenly out of step and out of date. Add this phenomenon to the reader’s growing attention deficit and we have a deadly tsunami for the writer to swim through.
I think it started when the #MeToo movement began to hound men for misdeeds committed decades ago. No man was safe, for we had all behaved according to a different moral and social code in those “good old days.” Males pursued females and females liked the chase as long as it was not dangerous. But that behaviour was now being filtered through a narrower lens. Suddenly misogynistic male characters are verboten. But I had found the foibles of these misguided and lost guys to be the stuff of great literature, and learning posts for the future. They are the “do not practice this at home” labels that create a dangerous attraction to lethal toys. I have created a few characters like them myself in my novels and stories. What we going to do with the Portnoys and the Rabbits and the Sal Paradises, and the myriad of hard drinking, hard living men that Hemingway created? Should we just kill off Agent 007, although his franchise is still making millions? Are these “men” to be excised from the annals of literature in the interest of the new political correctness? Should I re-label my own books, notably In the Shadow of the Conquistador, as “no longer suitable for adult consumption”?
It got worse. A careless editor wrote a snide comment insulting indigenous people in a Canadian literary magazine last year and started a firestorm of protest and a slide towards apologism and sycophancy that I have never seen before. I know that Canadians are polite and apologetic, but this? Suddenly you could only write about what you knew, which, to be safe, was about one’s self only (and even that is suspect for those lacking self-awareness). Writing about other cultures, genders (there are now more than two, New York has 31), and races fell under an evil banner called “cultural appropriation”. Since I had already written the novels and stories about me, what was I to write about now?
And then we had the election of Donald Trump and the emergence of the “us vs. them” paradigm. If you are not on our side then you are on the Other’s – and a pox be upon you – period! There was no need to understand the Other, only the need to persecute and shitshame (yes, I also discovered some new words including slutshame, fat-shame, and mansplain while all this was going down).So, what was in vogue were one-sided attack tomes that put the Other side down and vice versa, even if the bases for the accusations were lies, lies and more damned lies. Books that exposed both sides’ foibles were not going to hack it anymore because neither side would read them. More of my novels that suggested a Middle Way, notably, After the Flood, were headed for the scrap heap.
And then the drift towards photos and video on smart devices began to convey the point in a flash or a clip, rendering prose irrelevant. I mean, who the heck would read this article if I could instead post a picture of a writer at his laptop with his thumbs frozen in mid-stroke? The picture would convey the point of this article faster, better, cheaper, no? And if I animated it with a video and threw it on social media, I might get some laughs to boot. In the past, illustrations supplemented text. Now we can dispense with the text and publish only the illustration.
I am not pessimistic. As a perennial immigrant, who has had to create his opportunities, I try to find a way out or around an obstacle, even though sometimes it quite “o’er-crows my spirit”. But this current climate is daunting. The way forward, I believe, is to push harder and not retreat into the cave. Create even more larger-than-life characters, explore that which we know not of, expose as many human foibles in the current environment as in the past, and let the reader decide, not those self-appointed guardians of culture, gender and political ideology. Nobel prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru not only wrote about the Americas and the Caribbean, he wrote about the Irish rebellion in 1916 – go figure!
This atmosphere of political correctness has not made us better, it is has made us weaker as a society. If writers are to follow their calling then they should keep their fingers on the pulse of humanity, baring the weaknesses, showing possibilities for greatness, and providing hope, while all about them others are losing hope and blaming it on the writer.