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Context, Goodwill and Narrative

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In the decade or so that I've been a Terry Pratchett fan, I'm yet to satisfactorily solve the dilemma of which of his Discworld books to recommend as a starting point for newcomers to the series, despite the comparative regularity with which I've been asked to do so. The number of novels on offer is Wodehousian in its breadth: The latest installment, Dodger, due for release this month, will bring the total to forty, and while each book can theoretically be read as a stand-alone, there's significantly more enjoyment to be had in watching the characters develop over time. Which is where the problem comes in, because while the majority of multi-book serials tend to steadily decline in quality (or at least, undergo a radical change in tone over time), Discworld does the opposite, building from fairly weak beginnings into a genuine, breathtaking juggernaut. And that's an issue for novice readers, because once you've been told the best stuff is further down the line, who wants to set it aside in favour of reading lesser material first? The dilemma reaches crescendo when, invariably, I'm asked instead to pick out the single best book in the sequence to serve as a tester volume. Both for me and for countless others, the crowning glory of Discworld is 2003's Night Watch, but though it's an undeniably superb novel, the bulk of its emotional impact comes from seeing existing characters before they were famous -- as adolescents and, in some cases, children -- dealing with a catastrophe that both shapes and threatens their futures. In other words, the entire book is an Easter egg for fans of the series: a literary in-joke, and therefore completely useless as a starting point for outsiders. And so, instead, I default to recommending either Guards! Guards!, which marks the first appearance of Sam Vimes, or Wyrd Sisters, which is the first story to focus on Granny Weatherwax as a protagonist, even though neither book is even in my top five.

All of which is a way of saying that our relationship with an author's total body of work -- to say nothing of our opinion of the author themselves -- can be crucial to our interpretation of their individual stories. Inevitably, we compare and contrast, forming preferences around which particular style or book best showcases the author's skill and thereby creating a yardstick against which all their former and subsequent offerings are measured. Whenever we feel they excel, it builds up a store of goodwill, so that if and when they transgress, our faith in their talents helps to cushion the blow. In that sense, it's easier to be critical of new writers, because they haven't yet won our trust -- or rather, if they have done, it will have been for something other than fictional acumen. Good reviews can up our expectations, as can hearing good things about the author themselves. Particularly now that so many writers have an interactive online presence through sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads and various blogging platforms, it's far from uncommon to encounter the author-as-individual long before ever deciding to read their work, and depending on what you've seen them talk about, you're likely to go in with different ideas of how their writing should be.

Similarly, it's possible to start out, not from a neutral position, but an antagonistic one: instances where your opinion has been pre-shaped by reading bad reviews, or else -- as is increasingly the case -- by hearing bad things about the author-as-individual. Sometimes, the latter occurrence is strong enough to put you off their work altogether, as can be attested to by the number of bloggers and readers who've opted to blacklist particular novels, not because of anything to do with their content, but because of gaffes or opinions expressed by their creators. Particularly as relates to the recent Goodreads bullying furor, there are some who consider this practice unfair, if not actively wrong and prejudicial -- after all, shouldn't a book stand or fall by its own merits? Aren't the actions and opinions of the author irrelevant?

In order to answer those two questions, we first have to answer a third: What happens when an author we love starts to lose our goodwill? I say "author" as though this process applies only to people who write books, when in reality, it's just the same for musicians, directors, TV producers, artists, actors, scriptwriters and just about anyone else who produces creative content or lives a public life. In fact, it was my reaction to a TV series that prompted this whole chain of thought -- specifically, my thoughts on Doctor Who, and why I have issues with Steven Moffat's handling of the show. In trying to explain to someone else why his tenure is wearing me raw, I came up with the following metaphor:

Engaging with narrative is like going for a drive: the road beneath is the story, the car is the skill with which it's been structured, and the shock-absorbing suspension is your goodwill towards the creator. At its best, a well-constructed story makes for pleasurable driving -- the road is flat and straight, the car is a joy to work with, and the combination of these two facts ensures that the smooth suspension keeps you, the audience, comfortable. If the road becomes rocky, or if the car starts to falter, you rely on the shock absorbers to cushion the impact. But past a certain point, the suspension is going to get damaged. Every jolt erodes your goodwill, and if there ever comes a time when it breaks completely, it doesn't matter how beautiful the car looks or how wide and inviting the road: going for a drive is still going to leave you gritting your teeth with discomfort and frustration, because even the slightest change in gear or gradient will register as pain. Without suspension -- without trust and goodwill to soften the blows -- even minor irritations are magnified, while large ones become unendurable. And while that doesn't put the situation beyond repair, it does mean there has to be significant change in order for your confidence to return.

Thus: if it's possible for authors to lose the goodwill of existing readers -- whether through offensive behaviour as individuals, the creation of a bad story or a sudden lapse in skill -- it must also be possible for authors to loose the goodwill of potential readers via identical causes; or at least, through the readers' perception of same. Which is why, for instance, I will never read Robert Heinlen, Frank Miller or Orson Scott Card: their respective racism, jingoistic Islamophobia and homophobia are so well established that I'd rather spend time with stories whose creators don't fill me with loathing than masochistically assume that being Big Names somehow magically guarantees them my attention, time and money. Because, at base, creators are not entitled to an audience -- not even famous ones. The fact that somebody took the time to make something doesn't mean they inherently deserve to earn money for it, or that I should feel compelled to support them in that endeavour purely because it would help them if I did. The idea that my understanding of SFF is fundamentally incomplete because I purposefully avoid classic or Golden Age authors whose morals and tropes offend me or whose writing I find dull is not only insulting, but connotes a prescriptive, static view of genre as a whole -- as though every subsequent positive evolution of SFF is meaningless unless lauded alongside the negatives it was endeavouring to escape.

Things get even trickier, however, when it comes to the question of collective goodwill: the general consensus on a particular work or author. There is, for instance, significant outrage in the SFF community over the fact that the World Fantasy Award is still a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, a man who, apart from being the creator of Cthulhu, was profoundly racist. The issue was brought prominently to light last year by Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian-American writer who, having won the award, was forced to reflect on how uncomfortable it was that one of her proudest achievements as a writer came in the form of a paean to a man who doubtless would've considered her bestial and unworthy. So the question then becomes, in essence, a matter of moral priorities. What matters more: that Lovecraft is an important name, or that he considered the majority of the world's population to be physically, socially and mentally his inferiors? That Roman Polanski made some good films, or that he was convicted of raping a thirteen year old girl?

Being creative or famous shouldn't grant someone carte blanche to break the law or otherwise act reprehensibly, and yet, all too often, it does. Institutionally, our systems and communities forgive the unforgiveable when it comes to people like Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson, because somehow, we've convinced ourselves that our right to creativity is fundamentally more important than our responsibility to others, and that failure in the latter arena should never be a barrier to success in the former. The fact that such do-as-thou-wilt licence is overwhelmingly granted to straight white men, both historically and currently, is just another facet of the problem: as in the case of Lovecraft, we still think it's more important to venerate the achievements of someone who's been dead for 75 years than to consider that maybe, the cultural implications of eliding his racism far outweigh the benefits of keeping him as a mascot.

Which brings us back to the matter of viewing a given story, not just as an individual work or cultural product, but in relation to the canon and achievements of its creator. Goodwill on the part of your audience should be earned, not assumed, and while it's important that artists and creators be given freedom of expression, that's not the same as saying that such freedom must necessarily outweigh all other concerns, nor assuming that the right to criticism is somehow fundamentally distinct from freedom of speech. On both the micro level and the macro, it's vital that creators and public figures be questioned about and held accountable for their actions as individuals, and that we acknowledge the link between a person's creative output and their personal opinions. Because ultimately, nothing and nobody exists in a vacuum: by attempting to elide the bad in favour of the good, we help to diminish the importance of personal responsibility, not only in that instance, but as a cultural imperative -- and that has seldom lead to anything good.