On Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

Years ago, there was a powerful writer that I liked. His stories were energetic, lyrical, evocative and imaginative, so I studied a couple dozen of them to see what I could learn from him.

The author was a songwriters and composer, which explained his poetic bent, but I found something odd when looking at the heart of his stories, trying to discover what his great message was. It seemed to me that the themes of his stories could best be summed up as “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” In short, if one of his characters met a beautiful woman, he’d have to screw her. If there was a drug mentioned in the story, someone had to take it. And if there was a song lyric in there, it was definitely rock.  Shallow stuff. This created a certain sense of predictability to some otherwise powerful stories, and I’ve always felt that as a writer, this fellow’s career became a bit of a cautionary tale.

I’ve never wanted to be the kind of writer who could so easily be summed up and dismissed.

In the past few months, I’ve been hearing numerous reports about publishers who want to limit what writers talk about—and of course thereby limit which writers get published. There are national discussions going on in entertainment—discussions about racial equality, gender identity, and women’s rights. I applaud that. Our society is messed up and has been for a long time.

I’m just not sure that big publishers know how to handle delicate social issues. Sometimes it seems that instead of being surgeons who excise a tumor with a scalpel, publishers attack social problems with machetes.

For example, a reader in Texas reported in December that he was listening to National Public Radio and an editor said that the major young adult publishing company that she worked for was not interested in books that dealt with straight romances. They were interested only in publishing stories with gay romances.

That seems odd to me. After all, more than 90 percent of people are straight. No, it’s more than odd, it’s screwed up. Couldn’t I write a romance about a straight relationship that was culturally relevant? Couldn’t I write about how to respect a young woman’s boundaries, for example, or create a Hispanic male protagonist as a love interest?  What kind of idiot publisher would suggest that only gay romances should be written about? Isn’t that overkill?

Last summer another author had a major publisher sit on his manuscript for months. When they rejected it, they did so because a top manager said, “We aren’t interested in publishing any manuscripts by white men this year.” They were more interested in talking about racial issues or sexual issues, and corporate policy is that all white men are incapable of writing authentically about such things.

To be honest, I agree that as a white male I’m at a disadvantage when writing about certain issues, but there are ways. For example, the authors for Green Book, the Academy Award-winning picture about a friendship between a bisexual black man and an Italian thug was penned by three writers who were all white males. I submit that a writer’s gender or color should not be how a publisher gauges the quality of a story.

A few weeks ago, I asked a young adult writer what she had in the pipeline and she said, “Well, I have several novels making the rounds, but as a white woman I’m not getting any interest. I’m not seen as being culturally relevant anymore.” Now, this author is a strong feminist, but apparently publishers want something more.

Culturally relevant.  How do you define culturally relevant? Do you imagine that there is only a small list of narrow agreed-upon topics that are culturally relevant? Or could there be bigger issues that corporate America and Big Brother don’t want you to discuss?

In the past few months I’ve begun to see some shifts in the types of stories being submitted to the Writers of the Future Contest. I’ve been seeing more culturally diverse protagonists and more gay romance in the short story submissions I get. I like that just fine, but it seems to me that I’m seeing what I will call “New Predictability” in stories. If a woman meets a woman, she has to screw her. If race is mentioned in a story, the dark-skinned person has to win. If a young girl is a protagonist, she has to be morally, intellectually and physically superior to every male in the story.

Sigh. This is what you get when you try to enforce cultural diversity by committee.

As authors, we need to be better than cliché ideas. Diversity is fine, but I also want to see stories that are original and profound.

Here is a couple of upcoming writing workshops to look out for:
Spikecon Wednesday, July 3, 2019, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Layton, Utah
Fyrecon June 20-22, 2019, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Weber State University. Layton, Utah

One thought on “On Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

  1. Fujimoto

    I’m a writer marginalized in several, intersectional ways, so for people like me and many of my friends, publishers who only want LGBT-themed stories (more often it’s LGBT writers they want, not necessarily stories) are essential for finding stories to relate to after having to settle so often for stories all about cishet people. Likewise publishers who only want people of color, or even particular races; I once looked into publishing for the Fiyah Magazine, then discovered it’s open solely to Black writers. I don’t begrudge them for it since there will always be spaces I can’t enter, and it’s a valuable space for Black writers.

    Publications like Anathema and podcasts like Glittership and Monsters Out of the Closet are small but invaluable resources for me , both for the stories they publish where I can characters like me and for giving me an easier opening to publish. These all tend to be small independent publishers though. Seeing any of the big ones releasing content like this would please me beyond measure since I’m hardly seeing any mainstream speculative fiction or horror novels with LGBT leads of color. And when I hear about writers of color working with big publishers I tend to see complaints how the publisher told them, “Well, we already did a book about this ethnicity this year; we don’t think we need another so soon.”

    And those Writers of the Future submissions? After decades of the man meeting and screwing the woman, the light-skinned person winning and the boy being superior to every female character in stories, of course we’re going to be writing the opposite while basing it on the stories we’ve read before. Most of us don’t see originality as the most important trait yet; we just want to see the stories we’ve liked before from our own perspectives. Once there’s more balance in storytelling perspectives then you’ll start seeing more interest in originality over identity. Besides, a meaningful change in perspective often does bring a new angle that adds creativity to something.

    This isn’t to say marginalized readers can never relate to stories about non-marginalized people; many of our favorite writers and characters aren’t at all marginalized, and that includes me. But many of us want our own spaces too because it’s not going to be truly equal for a long time.


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