Monday, November 29, 2010

Worldview and subtext

Worldview is so integral to who we are and how we interact with reality that we can't always distinguish between what we believe and what might make sense to others. This is a good thing, because it gives us a place to stand, and a unique viewpoint.

However, I think worldview can also create unconscious subtext, and it's worth examining your own work for that.

Subtext can be conscious (like you want the reader to sense that this character is lying, or you want the reader to realize-- without your ever spelling it out-- that humans are afraid of death and that's maybe why they create religion), or unconscious (usually the subtle revelation of some issue you're dealing with personally, like death or feeling trapped in your life). Sometimes unconscious subtext can reflect a societal issue that might not even really affect you all that much personally but shows up in your writing just because this is pervasive in your culture.

What is pervasive in our culture, alas, is often hard to recognize from within. And what is a subconscious issue for us will also be hard to acknowledge (that's why it's still "sub"). When these two unconscious subtext coincide, whoa, Nelly! It might come out in our writing, and there we are, accidentally offending or alienating readers.

Worldview, as it's sort of our own personal subtext (the values or approach we don't consciously recognize), like cultural subtext, can be hard to notice from the inside. I grew up in the 60s, and what now is clearly the culture's attempt to put women down and make them feel like children was so pervasive, only the most discerning noticed it, like Betty Friedan. We actually accepted being told that we couldn't play "real basketball" in gym class because it would disrupt our ability to bear children. (I still remember we played something called "four corners," and the guards had to stay under the defensive basket, and the forwards under the offensive basket, and the center's role was to stay at half court and throw the ball from one to another-- because, you see, the uterus can manage repeated childbirth, but not running all the way down the court.)

Nowadays, tell that to Tamika Catchings and she'll laugh at you. But back then, we were surrounded by loud and subtle messages that told us we were put on earth for two related purposes, to please men sexually and to bear and raise children. It takes someone able to stand back and consider this reasonably to say, "Wait a minute." (And for that reason, I'd like to recognize Blacksburg High School's very own Jacqueline Robinson, Diane Frederick, who just wanted to play basketball, and kept bugging the school administration until they finally gave in and let her build and coach a team that could use the gym, only for a half hour at 7 am on a couple days a week, but at least it was something. And the next time someone fulminates against Title 9, remind them of that. Hey, Diane, wherever you are, hats off to you!)

Anyway, point is, we have to -- after we draft-- remind ourselves to look for subtext that we don't really mean but are perhaps the effect of our having a particular worldview. For example, that deeply person-focused worldview of some of the authors of the "collapse of 2008" books indicates that the most important element of anything is the people involved. Okay. But an aspect of that is blame. That is, there's a tendency (nothing wrong with this) to feature one person as "the villain," the one to blame. After all, if you subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, that major events are caused by important people, then bad major events will also be caused by someone-- the villain.

No problem there. Where the unconscious subtext might come in is if you have unwittingly absorbed your culture's prejudices and identify that culture's "outsider group" as the villain. (I'm not saying that the outsider isn't sometimes the villain-- but notice and determine consciously if that's so, or if you are just unconsciously reflecting your culture's prejudices.) Even if you think you can justify it, examine it as someone from the outside would. For example, I might have written a book about the 2008 crash, focusing on the investment bankers. Now if I profile 20 such managers, and single out three of them for scathing commentary on the bad things they did (trading short after they recommended long to their customers, using the corporate jet for personal purposes, engaged in risky trades with OPM -- other people's money, took big unearned bonuses), I might think, Hmm. Did all or most of the investment bankers do similar things? Yeah. So why did I focus on these three? I might even think that they're not all alike. After all, one is an African-American in New York, and this one is Pakistani and he's in London, and the third one is a Turkish Muslim and he's living in Singapore! See? They're all different!

Now imagine being someone from the outside, someone maybe from Mars who hasn't grown up in cultures permeated with human racism. (I say "human" because the Martians probably have their own form of racism. :) The Martian might say, "But they're all dark." Bingo. Somehow, unconsciously, I have profiled 20 investment bankers whose business practices are similar and "villainized" the three dark-skinned ones. (I am actually modeling this example on something in one of these books.)

But... but... I sputter. But I am not racist! I contribute to the United Negro College Fund! I send my kids to an integrated school! I love Kanye!

Well, if I'm not actually racist, I should be able to understand why others might wonder if I am. That is, I should move beyond the limitations of my own ego and my own worldview and regard this more objectively. And if I don't want readers -- just some readers; subtext is never picked up by all readers, but that doesn't mean it's not there-- I should realize that this might be an unfortunate effect of having a worldview (which is a GOOD thing overall), and consider what to do to mitigate it.

So what do I do? Clearly it's easier to do this in fiction, where with a stroke of my mighty pen, I can turn that Pakistani in London into the heir to an impoverished earldom, who grew up with all the luxuries and will do anything to keep them. There! Now I have three villains, and only 2/3rds are non-majority race.

Harder in non-fiction, where people don't transform so easily. But I can be objective and see that it wasn't just the minority bankers who used the corporate jets and insisted on private elevators. And these three weren't actually any more the villain (as in the ones that caused the bad stuff to happen) than the other 17. So whether or not I focused on these three because of their non-majority status, or for some other reason, I might consider if I could focus on one of the 17 as emblematic of the snobbery and rottenness. Or I might (if I pride myself on my depth of characterization) introduce some nuance, learning to love and not just scorn these characters.

Point is, we need to step outside ourselves sometimes. We are not our readers, after all. We might not realize how what seems perfectly plausible to us might be off-putting to reader who do not have our particular worldview. This doesn't mean you can't be unique and speak from your own perspective. I'm just saying that you might want to examine your own presentation for undesired and unconscious problems. We might need to use both the unconscious and the conscious parts of our brain. And we need to be both writer and reader-stand-in, making sure that we convey what we want to convey, and not what we don't.



Leigh Duncan said...

Excellent post, Alicia. And a great eye-opener for a Monday morning.

Carol Riggs said...

Wow, yes, mind-boggling what our subconscious may be saying in our writings without us even being aware of them. It's good to try to be more conscious of them, so we can tweak, BUT I think the most helpful thing is to have a varied group of beta readers to point out things we can't see in our own work. I had a critiquer point out a potentially offensive line in one of my novels, which I omitted; it had never occurred to me that it could be offensive! (I thought it was amusing, actually.)

Alicia said...

Carol, yes, a varied group of readers! And a writer open like you to comment so that the readers are not afraid to speak!

Lisa Hughey said...

Alicia--seriously I am always in awe of your ability to see below and inside of any story. And I swear I learn something new from you every time. I have a hard time with conscious subtext (trying not to bang the reader over the head with it and subtly insert in the manuscript) Goodness knows what I am doing with the subconscious :)