I just deleted what I wrote a few hours ago. I had gotten all fired up about an idea and was burning to write it down. I started the first few paragraphs but then I had to scribble some notes with the intention of finishing it later, as I had to attend an event at my youngest son’s school. By the time I got back to the keyboard, the thrill, as they say, was gone. I eked out a couple of hundred words and realized I couldn’t do it anymore. Sometimes you have to sit down in the white heat of inspiration or it is gone forever.
Let me see if I can recreate the gist of it. There was an article I reacted to that spoke of the paucity of major female characters in fiction, especially road fiction. My first impulse was to mention my own two recent novels, “The Misadventure of Mama Kitchen” and Sunflower“, both of which are road stories with female lead characters. But then I started thinking of past examples of strong female leads in speculative fiction, and wondering why she had never heard of or didn’t mention them. I actually wrote a list of such works in a short Facebook reaction to the article. I remember in particular mentioning the warrior/poet of Asian background in Samuel Delaney’s “Babel 17”. But that’s not the point. We are not trying to engage in the nitpicking of past literature. The writer of the article, besides obviously exaggerating to tout her own book, which is road fiction with a female lead character, was speaking of the present, and how now at this very time in the history of literature, there is a paucity of books with heroes who are women or people of color. What happened in the past doesn’t matter. What matters is what is happening now and in times to come.
She is speaking, of course, from the very limited perspective of traditional publishing, as the article first appeared in The Atlantic, a bastion of the traditional. Even from that perspective I think she is erroneous. I think she wrote with blinders on, as I can find examples of many dynamic modern woman authors and fine female characters.
But as I thought about it more and more I realized that in this new world of publishing there was no reason that she or anyone else of any gender or color should feel any constraint on what they write or who they write about. Any writer can use the tools of self-publishing easily available and create their own book from start to finish. If you do all the layout and design work yourself, which takes a learning curve but is possible, it doesn’t cost anything either, even to produce POD paper copies. This option, therefore, is open even to the financially challenged like myself. Anyone can write anything and publish it. You don’t have to be dependent on the suits in their multi-million dollar office rentals in New York to tell you what you can and can’t say. Say what you want. Have your main character be anyone you want.
In the so-called New Wave of science fiction and fantasy that erupted back in the 1960s and 1970s, writers struggled to break free of conservative white middle class literary conventions. And many succeeded in doing so. Think how much more we are free to do it now.
I notice that many self-publishing writers go for the cheap shot, the easy money, the formula stories in hopes of making a few bucks. Nothing wrong with making a few bucks, say I. Even the writers who formed the core of the New Wave back then did hack work in their formative years to pay the bills. But there comes a time when you have to stand up and be counted as a writer. What do you really have to say? What is the book burning inside you that you have always wanted to write? What are the triumphs and tragedies at the core of your being?
Self-publishing is making great strides, but I think it is still cringing in timidity. I think many of us do not realize the powerful force we have at our disposal. We can write anything. Let’s burn the bridges. Let’s smash the idols. While we’re at it, let’s burn the rulebooks too. I want to see good stories, sure, but I also want to see great works of art. I know they are out there, and I think that if a few of those doing hackwork right now wake up and realized what freedom they really have, what they can really do, that we will see another new wave not just in science fiction and fantasy but in all of literature. I think it was C.S. Lewis who made the analogy of the ghetto kid who keeps playing with mud pies after getting invited to the beach because he cannot imagine such a place as a beach. We are free, fellow writers, truly free. We can write whatever we want. Reach way down inside there and pull out the best you have from your heart and your guts and spill it all out for us. In this era, it’s the readers who decide. Not the suits. And not, I hope, conventions and restrictions and rules implanted within us by English teachers and books on writing and past misguided editors.