This article over at Tor on Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories Trigger Warning asks a really excellent question. The article reviews some of the stories and talks about Gaiman’s works but for me, the payoff comes at the very end, from a quote from Gaiman:
‘We build stories in our heads’, writes Gaiman. ‘We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?’
So simple yet so profound. Are works of fiction safe – and should they be? I am going to take the side of “no,” works of fiction are not obligated to be safe places for the reader. At the same time, the author is under no obligation to challenge the reader. But wait, how can that dichotomy be? Well, let me try to explain.
In my experience, the best lessons in life come not from the classroom or the laboratory, but from the world. Someone can be told about love, terror, despair, joy, and triumph. Someone can have their assertions and biases challenged in an academic setting. Someone can watch a slideshow the best way to drive a car. None of those are as effective as actually driving. Or interacting with someone that knocks their preconceived notions off a pedestal. Or loving, fearing, despairing, being overjoyed, or winning over an obstacle. And I think that is what successful stories do. They draw the reader inside and tap into those deep emotions seated in the back of our lizard brains. We experience the wins and losses of the protagonist. We anguish alongside them at their heartbreaks, and feel that delightful schadenfreude at their revenges.
But here’s the thing: change is hard. Change is scary. We’re creatures of habit. We resist change. At some level, if we knew before reading a book or watching a movie that we’d experience such intense emotions, on some level we shy away. It’s a danger to our states of mind and we do move away from danger. But fiction should be allowed to challenge us, to make us look inward, make us reflect and feel. After all, it is only through change that we grow.
Then one might ask the question, “Should fiction be obligated to challenge the reader? Should fiction always be an unsafe place?” Well, no. That is entirely in the hands of the author. For all the intensity and haunting imagery felt by the reader, it is felt by the writer first. A quote about peering into the abyss seems appropriate here. I’ve written some pretty dark and disturbing stuff, to the point where even good friends and family members have asked, “What is wrong with you?” (Good question, guys.) So, if on the chance I want to write something cliched and traditional, where not only will I not make the reader unsafe, I will not make it unsafe for myself, why can I not do that? Can I tell a story where there is no great moral imperative or raging torrent of emotional energy? Yes, it might make the story a little – for lack of a better word – boring. Maybe. But is that my right as the author? I like to read stories that challenge my assumptions, as long as I don’t feel lectured. I also like reading something predictable and safe. And I should be able to. It’s comfort food for the mind and sometimes, you just have to do something kind for yourself. Otherwise, why do anything?
So anyway, rambling thoughts for early on a Wednesday morning. As always, comments, dissenting thoughts, and insults are always welcome.