Thoughts on Writing: Hot-Button Topics
I hate feeling that I need a disclaimer on these sorts of posts, but alas, I do, so here goes...
Requisite Disclaimer to Henceforth Be Applied to All Present and Future Thoughts-on-Writing Posts:
What follows are some of my observations and opinions based on what I am learning about the craft of writing. I do not claim to have the answers nor do I claim to be an arbiter of quality in writing. Actually, I don't even believe in such a thing as "quality" in an art form, least of all writing. I am on the same road on the same journey as any other writer. What follows are observations of what works for me. Maybe not you...me. We can be different. You are welcome to disagree with me: that is why I have called this series of topics "Booda Bones" because we're all supposed to chew them into an unrecognizable pulp. I always welcome discussion of all sorts in my LJ. But if you find your feelings hurt or feel offended by this post, I think that you are reading it wrongly. Revisit disclaimer. Rinse. Repeat. Thank you. ;)
Sharon and I joke sometimes about banning certain topics for poetry, namely death, suicide, and obsessive love. It seems that we get scads of these sorts of poems; at least, according to Sharon we do. (I don't read the poetry. My mind refuses to comprehend poetry, so unless I'm forced, I leave it for the better-informed.) Fiction topics tend to be more varied and rarely have I found a story where the premise alone contributes to its acceptance or decline.
But I noticed something about the last batch of stories that I think goes along with Sharon's aversion to most poetry pertaining to death, suicide, and obsessive love: hot-button topics. There were a few of these mixed in with the last batch of fiction, so obviously "hot-button" (and little else) that I got to thinking about stories based on these sorts of ideas, how they can be done well, and how a complete mess can be made of them.
I have always joked about Characters in a Can (tm), those characters that crop up in stories with a set of ready-made traits and dilemmas, kind of like TV dinners of the writing world. Heat and serve: that's all you have to do. Hot-button topics--to me--are rather along the same lines; sort of Plotlines in a Can (tm), only they are a very specific brand of Plotlines in a Can (tm), those that are designed to incite emotion with little effort on the part of the writer. In other words, in a story about rape, for example, we know that we are supposed to sympathize with the victim and hate the perpetrator. In fact, if we feel differently--if we find the victim weak, sniveling, and annoying--then it is easy to almost feel bad about that, kind of like hearing that one's worst enemy has been badly injured in a car crash. As though by disliking the person, we have advocated her misfortune. Or felt that somehow--with her inferior personality--that she deserved it.
I found myself with a pair of stories this quarter about abusive relationships. Now I know: I am supposed to be heartbroken for the abused woman and despise her tormenter. Alas...I was not. In one of the stories, I almost wanted to slap around the brainless, spineless woman a little myself. And I really don't think this was the author's intent.
So do I think that hot-button topics--rape, abuse, suicide, depression, abortion et al--should not be written? Of course not! There are wonderful stories dealing with these subjects! But I suspect at times that writers choose these subjects because they are easy subjects, in a way. In fact, I think that these stories are the most difficult to write--or should be.
It sounds counterintuitive to say that a story about a topic as emotional as rape or abortion would be easy to write...but the reason that I say "easy" is because of the automatic emotional trigger that these sorts of stories touch, which is why I call them "hot-button" stories. The mere mention of such a topic automatically triggers a mixed-bag of strong emotions in many readers: horror, empathy, disgust, discomfort, anger. There is little else that the writer has to do except say the magic words: Rape victim. Domestic violence. Suicide. Drunk driving.
Unfortunately, like most writing devices that come in a can, this only works for so long with readers. The first few times, in my days of university writing workshops, that I read a hot-button story--regardless of its quality--I applauded the writer for her bravery in opening such a difficult topic for discussion. It felt almost as though she was doing a service for humanity by writing a mediocre tale about how No Means No or how Abuse Is Never Okay. The subsequent comments that I gave such stories often focused more on the issue than the writing, and I think that this is indicative of something. After a while, though, I began to realize that lots of people write about such topics. What I once regarded as very personal--suicide, miscarriage, abortion--began to pile up. Everyone had such a tale to tell. My automatic reaction of shock and horror, in turn, began to diminish. Soon, such stories did indeed make me queasy to ponder, if only at the idea of encountering another set of black-and-white, warmed-over characters from a can, plot devices from humanity's Cro-Magnon campfire days, and the idea that if I didn't love this story and its message and its beaten and bloodied cast of pie-eyed, wobbly-lipped women (or men), then I was some sort of heartless monster.
A few years ago, I had the realization that--for me--a story didn't have to be particularly exciting in order to be good. Our high school writing competition was judged by the author Anne Tyler, and a few years into university, I figured that since she did me the favor of reading two of my stories, I might as well read a few of hers. Her novels don't have monsters in the sewers or frantic car chases to expose double agents, but I loved them and I credit her work as my first plunge into character-based fiction. Her characters were ordinary and slightly pathetic, and when they cried over a bag of groceries broken upon the sidewalk, I cried too.
I realized that a reader's--or at least my--reaction to a story depended less on an exciting plot than a sympathetic character or characters. While I loved exciting stories with plots based on investigation, science, and technology, I found that the story had faded within a few days to where I couldn't even summarize it anymore, much less recall the protagonist's name. It was the stories with people in whom I believed that I hungered to read again and again--and have.
The way I see it, if an author can make me wubble with pity or grit my teeth in frustration when a character knocks a glass of wine onto her favorite dress, if an ordinary event can stir my sympathy, then an event like spousal abuse or discovering one's best friend has committed suicide or learning that one's sister has been killed by a drunk driver...those stories should more than stir my sympathy. The emotional response created in the reader, I think, should be in proportion to the event. A glass of spilled red wine should not be equivalent to a date rape in terms of response.
Unfortunately, I think that too many writers--lacking the skill or tenacity to create sympathy for the most ordinary of characters in the most ordinary of situations--turn to something that they know will get a reaction: hot-button topics.
As I said, hot-button topics are not necessarily bad. I am a horror aficionado and one of the scariest stories that I have ever read counts as what I would call a hot-button topic: a short story by Joyce Carol Oates about a young woman going for an illegal abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. There is no blood or gruesomeness; the story ends before the procedure even begins. But it was one of the most horrifying stories that I have ever read because the woman's terror was conveyed to where I literally cringed to turn the page. I have a strong stomach for anything put into writing, but I doubted whether I would make it through that story. I did, but it haunts me to this day.
That would be a plotline easy to gloss and still gain a reaction from some--maybe most--readers. "Abortion" carries with it strong connotations even to those who do not have strong opinions on the subject; stirring people with such a story really doesn't take much skill. But again, I feel that people should be more than merely stirred.
In the Oates' version of the classic hot-button tale, a character in whom I believed and some time taken to develop the psychological elements of the story--horror, fear, doubt, desperation--resulted in a story so real that it was hard to remember, hey, I can close the book and this will all go away!
Sharon and I generally spend about half of our infrequent conversations these days prattling about writing. She admitted that certain subjects in poetry have to be exceptional in order to get a nod from her...and I find the same increasingly of myself.
So it's not necessarily--when choosing a topic for a story--that I think that the hot-button shouldn't be touched. But like pushing any button with the power to elicit an automatic and somewhat dangerous response, a degree of discretion should be observed. If you expect your readers to need a degree of fortitude to deal with your topic, then maybe you should do them the favor of likewise treating the topic with some consideration that extends beyond merely provoking a reflexive reaction.
Nor can I put the blame solely upon beginning writers, I have realized, after giving this some consideration. True, I think that a lot of beginning writers do jump into such topics with both feet, often without the skill or subtlety to generate an appropriate reader response. Is this bad? No! How else to practice writing than to...well, practice. And part of practice, of course, involves making mistakes. I have been "practicing" for most of my life now, and in some stories, I feel that my mistakes overwhelm what I do well. Still, I practice...so who am I to frown upon those who do the same, in whatever fashion befits them, churning out, as I do, what an editor--what I, even, in my editor's shoes--is likely to dismiss as crap?
There are plenty of "practiced" writers out there, though, making the same mistakes. Browse some of the featured fiction on display at Barnes & Noble or watch a set of previews of upcoming Hollywood movies. (That started as what? Written screenplays.) So this is hardly a critique of a beginning novelist too naive to understand that writing a "rape story" must go beyond the issue of rape--which the majority of folks will certainly agree is a Bad Thing--to bringing to life a personal experience...all constructed of fiction.
The more and more that I consider what works and doesn't work for me in fiction, the more that I am led back to the characters. I know that some writers would protest, and certainly, I've heard people sniff at "character-based artsy-fartsy-types" like me. I suppose it comes down to what you look for in a story. Interestingly, one "hot-button" story that I reviewed this quarter that I really liked took the topic--sexual child abuse--outside of any dramatic events: the abuse the protagonist had endured or that which he'd in turn inflicted upon another child. As a result, I was forced to focus on the boy and the very-real tension that evolved: Would he be discovered? As an abuser? Or as one who has been abused? Which was worse?
A story focused entirely on a child's bike-ride home from school: no shadows looming from the closets, no dramatic scenes involving the slow eking of life from a prostrate heroine. Boring, huh? But I loved it.