Stories of Our Lives

OK, so I’m going to talk about trans issues again. But it will come back to fiction eventually, promise. Bear with me, please.

Early this week the campaign group, Trans Media Watch, scored a notable victory with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by Channel 4. Basically the TV company is promising to think about how it uses and treats trans people in its programming in future, instead of simply using them for sensationalist gawping and as figures of fun, as is usually the case. As far as trans rights goes, this is a huge step forward.

Christine Burns has an excellent podcast from the event, in which she interviews various attendees and includes keynote speeches by various dignitaries. I note with concern that there was a representative from the Scottish Parliament present, but no one from the Welsh Assembly.

It is worth listening to the podcast, if only for the speech by Lynne Featherstone, the Equality Minister. Partly I’d like you to take in what she says about the teenage girl who is bullied at school because her brother is trans. We hear a lot about how sad it is that trans people are often rejected by their families, but it is also true that coming out as trans puts your family directly at risk. It is something that every trans person has to weigh up, and something others should bear in mind when self-righteously outing trans people who are not yet ready to make that big decision for themselves.

More relevant for this post, however, is where Featherstone says very clearly that the media has far more power to advance trans equality than the government does. That, of course, is because we are story-telling, and story-consuming monkeys. Stories are important.

We tend to think that there is a difference between works of fiction and reporting of the news, and certainly there is, but that difference can be wafer thin. In particular, the way in which news is presented can make a huge difference to the story we take away from it. See, for example, the recent New York Times story that presented the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl as a tragic event for the poor, helpless rapists. There’s a reason that a news report is still called a “story”.

So the way in which we present news matters, and so does the way in which we present fiction. (See, I told you I would get back to it.)

Yesterday, in The Guardian, Damien G. Walter continued his excellent crusade on behalf of speculative fiction by pointing out that not all fantasy fiction is hopelessly escapist, or indeed escapist at all.

Today Mark Charan Newton picked up on this, opening up the question of whether there is anything wrong with escapist fiction.

Now partly this is an Internet debate, and therefore full of people taking one side or the other because one side has to be WRONG!!! so that the other side can feel vindicated. But just like most other things in life, there are multiple shades of grey. It is a bit like food. I sometimes eat things that are bad for me because they taste nice. I also refuse to eat cardboard for breakfast, no matter how many ads tell me that it will make me slim and beautiful. But at the same time many people have food that they need to avoid because those foods are poisonous to them. And there are foods that people choose to avoid because their production involves extreme cruelty to animals, or unacceptable levels of environmental destruction.

Equally some fiction can be bad for us. Too much reading about heroism can lead us to think that all of the world’s problems can be solved by sending in a small group of super-soldiers. Also, somewhat inevitably, some trans people have reacted to the Trans Media Watch MOU with cries of “sellout”, because they didn’t get a sparkly magic pony as part of the deal. Consuming too much fantasy fiction can lead us to believe that Happy Ever After is the natural state of mankind, and that the Evil Overlord will always be vanquished. Indeed, it can lead us to think that the world is made up entirely of people who are either Good Guys or The Hordes of Evil.

What we consume matters, whether it be food or stories. A little bit of comfort food can sometimes be exactly what you need. But a continual diet of nothing but comfort food will do you no good at all.

4 thoughts on “Stories of Our Lives

  1. If you want / are willing to take the food metaphor further, good food, healthy food carefully raised and prepared can be as tasty and more so than the junk comfort stuff while nurturing your body and your health. Caveat emptor: I am a member and work with my local organic farmers and food producers association.

    It seems to me that fantasy fiction written with care and attention to craft and human values often is as enjoyable as the thinner escapist stuff. I can only read so much ‘True Blood’ before my teeth start to hurt, but books by good writers too often tempt me to read on and on into the night.

    1. Oh, absolutely. And I always prefer to have good quality comfort food rather than bad-for-me comfort food. Of course the good stuff is often harder to find, and can be expensive. That’s why I have a book store specializing in helping small press publishers find a market.

  2. To put it in social-psychology terms, reading a wider variety of material increases our stock of available narratives, which is important because we’re inherently better at using narratives than plain facts to make our way through life.

  3. This time Petrea, I agree with you. Plain facts are just what is (at the moment) narratives are possibilities for dealing with the what is’s. But to comment obliquely on Cheryl’s newer post ‘It’s what fiction is for’ we as readers, writers or just plain people trying to find a way to get through the day, need to be really very selective about what kind of narratives we adopt.

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