Okay, I’ve been saying this for years: cliché is bad, and not just in fiction. Go read this article in Wired Science:
After being trained to distinguish between similar black male faces, Caucasian test subjects showed greater racial tolerance on a test designed to to measure unconscious bias.
The results are still preliminary, have yet to be replicated, and the real-world effects of reducing bias in a controlled laboratory setting are not clear. But for all those caveats, the findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that science can battle racism.
“Any time you can get people to treat people as individuals, you reduce the effect of stereotypes,” said Brown University cognitive scientist Michael Tarr. “It won’t solve racism, but it could have profound real-world effects.”
I’ve written about this many times. Here, for example, is an exerpt from “Living Fiction, Storybook Lives“:
Every society has its own set of master stories, or cultural clichés: men are stronger, the infidel is less than human, the rich are more important. A storyteller, whether a novelist, singer or screenwriter, should be aware of these. Every time a cliche is uttered, it becomes stronger; the master narrative is reinforced. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that a writer’s job is to change the world, that all fiction should be radical, positive, motivating and so forth; I write, as I’ve already said, for myself. I am not saying that writers are responsible for what a reader does with the dreams and images we create with our fiction, just that we should be conscious of the fact that our work does affect others.
I receive countless letters, and talk to many people at signings, who tell me my work has changed their lives. I’m pretty sure other writers hear versions of the same thing. One woman, married and the mother of two, emailed me from another country and said that, after reading my first novel, she was finally able to understand, to label some of her feelings: she was a lesbian. After reading my second, she had the courage to do something about it. One man told me at a signing that reading about Lore’s struggles in Slow River had helped keep him sane during a terrible period in his career. Another woman in Atlanta told me that after reading Ammonite she’d left her solid, corporate job to pursue a dream of being an oral storyteller.
It’s partly because I know how deeply fiction can influence the lives of readers that I dislike stories which reinforce the status quo, that reiterates the old, master patterns of our culture (particularly those dealing with issues of power and prejudice). Some of these narratives reinforce consciously, some unconsciously; I prefer the former. Unconscious reinforcement is the result of bad writing, usually a combination of cliched phrasing, laziness, and lack of imagination. With conscious reinforcement I know the writer has done his or her job, and will most probably have made an attempt to explain why s/he believes the status quo is preferable to any other way of being, which at least indicates to the reader that another way is possible.
One recent trend I’ve noticed in science fiction (and fantasy) which seems to be a great reinforcer is what I call Sex & Servitude SF. There are two main types. The first is fiction in which the main character is or becomes a slave or bonded servant who falls in love with her (and I use the pronoun advisedly) owner. The reinforcing message here is usually that (a) love conquers all, (b) anything is better than being alone and, sometimes, (c) some of us are just born lesser beings so we deserve to have someone tell us what to do. The second type dwells lovingly on physical torture, often sexual, in which the torturer is usually (though not always) male and the victim usually (though not always) female. A more subtle variation of this second type is one in which some kind of sexual threat or constraint is present but covert. The message here, of course, is that women are victims: we have been, are, and always will be.
Not all fiction with these tropes reinforces the status quo. Generally speaking, the better the writer, the less likely they are to fall into all the old trap of stereotyping (though there are stunning exceptions). Cliché is the great reinforcer. Examine it–the person, the situation, the culture–with a clear eye and strong prose and the cliche melts, because the reader sees individuals in particular situations. We understand that this happened to them for particular reasons; that a different choice, or different circumstance would have led to a different outcome. In other words, exposing the cliché, writing it out, renders it powerless because we see alternatives.
Cliché is the enemy. It’s laziness. It leads to prejudice and unhappiness. Think of all the suffering we could eliminate by refusing it. This week, as you go about your business, take the time to understand what you’re looking at, to see particular people in specific situations. Refuse the shortcut. See what happens.
8 thoughts on “refuse the cliché, save the world”
Beautifully and truthfully spoken Nicola. A HUGE theme I try to exemplify in my own memoir.
Each time I read “Living Fiction and Storybook Lives” I find something that speaks to me in new ways. I guess that means that your essay is awesome, true, multilayered, etc. And that I’m changing and learning constantly. >>As a writer, I haven’t even come out of the diaper phase. Your reflections on writing are very helpful, they make me think about the direction I’ll choose to take with my stories. I’ve been going around these issues of race and culture for a while, and Kelley’s last VP made me focus on them again. >>I get–or I think I get–what you’re saying when you write: ><>Cliché is the enemy. It’s laziness. It leads to prejudice and unhappiness.<> I do, however, believe stereotypes have a place in literature, at least at some stage in the healing process. They can be especially helpful to those writing from inside the racial or cultural group being oppressed by the status quo. When cliché is used as satire, it serves as a big, red marker to show exactly what we’re doing wrong while sparing the reader the feelings of resentment–which we certainly can do without–and replacing them with amusement. >>An aboriginal author I heard speak last week was saying he chose humour because he got tired of reading about native women being raped over and over in our literature. He said, “It was necessary at some point to write those stories of abuse. To heal a wound, first you must expose the poison. Those rape stories did that, they brought out the pain and frustration and helplessness of our people. But we are entering a different stage, now we can heal by laughing at the stereotypes.” So he writes stories where a native reserve is turned into a Disneyland-type park called Ojibwayland, and every aboriginal there behaves according to current stereotypes. It is completely hilarious and, yes, healing. >>Of course, we also need literature that models positive alternatives: <>“[…] you might believe in that god yourself simply because you don’t know it’s possible to not believe […]”<> We need the stories that tell us about possibility and change and hope. Watching how people drive in Canada enabled me to think, “Wow, you can stay in one lane, and give people the right-of-way, and be patient and courteous on the road, and stop at the stop lights instead of stepping on the gas pedal.” When I was in Guadalajara or Mexico City, where people drive so aggressively, it would have been hard for me to figure out there was an option. When I go back, I drive with courtesy, because it feels better, and I also hope some other Mexican will pick up the tip and pass it along. >>I’m not sure if the study in that <>Wired Science<> article will have a huge impact, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. I think you land your dart closer to the bullseye in your essay, though, when you write: <>“One of the stories our culture constantly tells itself is that Different equals Bad, or at least Less.”<> >>I’ve observed that the Canadian school system celebrates difference since kindergarten, and it may be the key to how well cultures and races seem to get along here–in comparison to other countries that also have high immigration. One of my caucasian, Canadian-born friends told me she felt so lame during Multicultural Day, because most of her classmates had tasty dishes to share, and exciting stories to tell about distant lands, and they were all so unique and different—she yearned to be beautiful and interesting, like them. She has spent her life learning about other cultures, about the impact of social and economical layers, and so on. Those early school days made her curious about The Other, and she is not afraid to point out how she is different from me or how we are different from her husband. To us, difference is interesting and exciting and something that invites to be explored, not something we shove under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist.
<>realmcover<>, thanks.>><>karina<>, blogs are relatively superficial things. In my essay (I think, I haven’t read it through for a while) I talk about conscious and unconscious use of tropes, cliché, stereotype etc. If I didn’t, I should have because I agree, it’s important to be able to laugh (making sure to use the big red warning arrow) at the things that have caused us so much pain. A community’s everyday humour is usually ahead of the art curve on this one.>>I’m pretty sure the WS article won’t have a huge international impact, but wouldn’t it be lovely if half a dozen people who read it thought about it long enough to start changing their behaviour, and set the ripples of change loose in their nook of the world?
nicola, you do talk about the function of stereotypes and their conscious use in your essay: >><>[…] “I suspect that Russ deliberately used cliche to shock the reader awake” […]<>>>And in other parts I won’t quote here, because there is so much in “Living Fiction and Storybook Lives” I’d monopolize the microphone talking about it. >>I know, for example, that the reason I don’t feel bitter when I take the bus or the Mexico City metro, or didn’t feel hopeless and angry when I lived on the streets or could only afford a room in a shabby house without hot water in Guadalajara, goes something like this: >><>“Lore had been born to privilege. Her sense of self, her experience, both practical and cultural, her view of the world as a generally tameable place was at odds with Spanner’s. She could hope and Spanner could not.”<>>>Your essay is rich and wise, and what you express in it is something I can look up to.
I think my “Writing with an Aboriginal Focus” class would benefit from reading your essay. Is it okay if I print it out and make copies to hand out today? I’ve tried spamming with links to blogs and websites, but there’s so much of that going around these days that most people won’t read unless they have it in their hands and can smell the paper.
I read the MS article and it gave me hope that we might actually be on the road to evolving. It’s a beautiful thang. Keep up the good work. >>When a read a book, I’ll usually put it down when I read heaped on stereotypes. I have a particular author that I like. She has one black, female character who is humorous but chock full of particular stereotypes. The reason it works is because the white female character is a big mess as well. I usually laugh whenever I read her book with these two characters. Imagine my surprise when I read another one of her books, and the black character (male) was also cliche and stereotype. It wasn’t funny. The problem was, since there was no white character equally as ridiculous – it turned into laughing at the black guy’s expense. Now, I won’t buy any of her books that aren’t about the two characters that make me laugh.
<>karina<>, absolutely, print it, give it away. I hope it helps.>><>steadycat<>, it’s weird when we find our assumptions might be wrong. The first time I read Heinlein’s <>Starship Troopers<> I thought it was satire. I couldn’t believe anyone would try sell those notions with a straight face. But then I read another Heinlein book (I think it was <>I Will Fear No Evil<> but I don’t really remember) and realised, uh-oh, no, he really meant it.
I realized today that my futuristic WIP is mostly about blowing up the characters’ stereotypes and prejudices. One of the characters, in a time of crisis, recites the Nicene Creed. Another character questions him about it–he’s never heard it before. >>And one of my critiquers said that didn’t ring true–that even though the character is a lifelong devout Witch, he’d know about the Nicene Creed. >>And I thought, “Would he?”>>Another stereotype bites the dust… (Sorry couldn’t help it.)
Comments are closed.