Artistic Responsibility and Unexamined Art


I recently read an article which took the time to compile a series of tweets between Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli, discussing the prevalence of violent and abusive lyrics in rap and hip-hop (instigated by a recent song by Rick Ross that contains a glorification of date rape). While their conversation applies specifically to rap/hip-hop, it’s a subject I hear discussed heatedly, in waves: artistic responsibility, or the lack thereof.

Art is never divorced of its context. The art you create is informed by your life experience, by the world you live in, the language(s) you speak, and, importantly, the art you yourself have consumed. In my opinion, this is a good thing, and the greater variety of voices and backgrounds we can bring to the table, the more varied and wonderful our art will be. But unfortunately, some people come from toxic environments of varying categories, consume toxic art of varying degrees, and they either do not have the ability or do not take the time to examine these things for their flaws. Instead of critiquing their context and art, their art will at best present them without comment, at worst celebrate them.

It’s really inevitable, there will be art that doesn’t examine context. Art that degrades instead of uplifts. Art that abuses and hurts instead of empowers and cares. Is this art a symptom of the negative things in the world we live in, or a cause? And what do we as fellow artists do when confronted by this art?

The first question, asking whether hurtful art is a symptom or a disease, well, I feel like it oversimplifies the issue, demands that art as a collected body be only one thing for all of us. Art is both a symptom of our context and a cause of it. Repeatedly, in books, television, film, we see people of color as villains, as sacrifices, as helpers, as secondary characters, never as heroes. We see the tragic gay romance, if we see one at all. We’re lucky if we see a disabled character.

People learn from stories. We have fairy tales to pass down our learned cautionary tales. It’s how we gain insight into the experiences of others. How we learn where we “fit” in the world. And if we see these persistent messages of the inferiority of specific people based on traits they were born to rather than the content of their character, and if we refuse to examine these messages, we are more likely to act them out in reality.

If we truly believe that people should be judged based not on their gender, sexual preference, skin color, or dis/ability, then it behooves us to examine our art. Writing, painting, photography, film, any medium we use to convey our thoughts to the world at large, we should understand how these things fit in a greater context, and what our use of them says about our beliefs.

So what do we do when we see this art? More importantly, what do we do when it’s pointed out that our art failed to be aware of the negative aspects of the context it emerged from?

We as a community of artists really have three choices here. One, we can ignore these transgressions, perhaps out of apathy, or indifference, or a tired hope it will go away. Two, we can shun these artists, reject them entirely. Or three, we can engage them on their craft, thoughtfully critique them, and attempt to work with them on being more aware of their art and the context it is in.

I’m sure you can guess where I stand on this one.

It’s of course optimistic to say that we can engage artists on their hurtful art. It’s a fact that many of them will not be able to see past their own context, or will simply not care to. And it’s even more optimistic to think that when we as creators are confronted about the failures of our art, that we will be able to respond graciously and thoughtfully. But optimistic as this may be, it’s something we should strive towards, in the effort of making art that challenges, art that confronts the negative, art that investigates our world and reveals it for what it is.

And what if my aim is not for great art? you ask. What if I just want to entertain? Well, in that case, how do you expect to entertain when your art is hurtful? How do you expect to bring a pleasant distraction when your art uncritically reflects these painful realities? Even in entertaining, it behooves you to be critical. It behooves you to examine your art. Like the unexamined life is not worth living, unexamined art is not worth creating.

Damage Control and the Anatomy of an Apology

Text lacks tone, and it’s inevitable: you’re going to piss someone off on the Internet. It’s not a question of if but a question of when. If you’re reading this right now and saying “Surely not me, I won’t piss someone off, I’m really careful,” obviously you are new here. This is the Internet. Someone is always angry. The question is: what are you going to do when you piss someone off?

The Inciting Incident

First thing’s first: why are they angry? It’s not enough to say “Oh I said something offensive and now they’re mad.” You need to understand why they found what you said or did offensive. Without taking the time to comprehend why someone would find something you have said offensive, you won’t be able to progress towards a resolution. At least, not towards the kind of resolution that won’t damage your public persona.

Let’s say you make a blog post about a topic that is near and dear to you. And let’s say, in that blog post, you say something negative about a minority group (whether purposely or accidentally). And someone tweets about it, calling you, say, racist. And then someone else tweets it. And then it’s on tumblr. And then there’s three response-posts to your post, and it’s only been a half hour. What do you do?

(a) Double-down on the blog post and defend what you said.

(b) Call everybody oversensitive crybabies and bemoan the power of the PC-police.

(c) Ignore this and hope it goes away.

(d) Take a deep breath, read their criticism, and ask yourself “What if they’re right?”

If you didn’t find “D” to be the obvious answer, then I honestly don’t know what to say.

So once you’ve taken stock of the situation, and see that there is a possibly a very real reason as to why these people are now angry with what you have said, the next step is to rectify the situation. Note how I did not say that you agree that what you have said is offensive. Perhaps you do, but perhaps you don’t. The fact of the matter is: someone is hurt by the thing you have said. If you put it out there, you’re responsible for it, and you should feel bad that you’ve hurt someone with your words. If you’re a decent human being, anyway.

The Anatomy of an Apology

A proper apology first and foremost accepts blame for what has happened. It claims ownership over what happened. It is the difference between “I’m sorry you were offended” and “I’m sorry I offended you.” The former pushes responsibility on the other person for being offended, the latter takes responsibility for being the offending party.

A proper apology also indicates either an understanding of the wrong that was done, or that an attempt will be made to understand the wrong that was done. Perhaps you see the subtle racism in your blog post — own that. “What I said was offensive and unacceptable.” Perhaps you do not see the subtle racism in your post — if you can’t take the time to understand why it was offensive, then at least own that you don’t rather than lie. “I don’t yet see how what I said was offensive, but clearly it was, and for that I am sorry.”

Also, a proper apology contains some form of corrective action. Whether it is the modification of your original post (note: do not delete the offensive content, but add commentary that reveals you understand your ignorance) or the sacking of people who need to be sacked, you must somehow show that you will take steps to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again in the future.

Optionally, a proper apology can thank the offended party for bringing this issue to your attention. This is more of a bonus round, and not strictly necessary, but in the case of something offensive slipping past your editorial oversight, you should thank someone for being the whistleblower.

And Then… Let It Go

Once you’ve identified the issue, apologized to the public, and done your due diligence to ensure it won’t happen again, it’s important to let it go. There is literally nothing more you can do past giving a proper apology and working to guard against future incidents. Further action risks two things: one, it can cause the news to spread yet further, not allowing the fire to die down; and two, the longer you engage the issue, the more tired and emotional you will become, and the more likely you are to cause yet another Inciting Incident, looping this whole thing back to the start.

Studies have shown that corporations who, after error, have publicly apologized in an acceptable manner and offered recompense have actually gained favor in public opinion. People can forgive a screw-up, and people respect someone who is willing to openly take responsibility for their actions.

So in the future, if you find yourself at the center of an Internet shitstorm of your own making, remember: people actually don’t like to get angry for no stupid reason. Recognize their hurt is sincere, apologize for what you’ve done, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And then? Get back to your art.

A Newbie Writer’s Take on Random House’s Hydra Imprint

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the new Random House eBook imprint. Scalzi outlined its awfulness, SFWA has declared Hydra not to be a qualifying market, Random house responded… the discussion is, shall we say, ongoing.

The thing that strikes me about this whole mess is that I feel what Hydra is offering is basically another flavor of vanity publishing.

When you’re just starting out as a writer and have no major publications under your belt and no real reputation, you get asked a lot if you’re planning on self-publishing. At least I’ve gotten that question a fair bit. And being the responsible over-researched writer that I am, I sought to understand the differences between being published by a publisher, large or small, and publishing your book on your own. I wanted to make the right decisions for myself and do what would make me the happiest in the long-term.

A lot of things go into making a book go from your finished draft to something people might want to buy. Editing, for one. All the editing. The editing for content and continuity, the copy edits. The book-formatting, making it go from a Word document to epub or whatever-all format you’re working in. Cover art. Advertising. Marketing. Promotion. It’s a lot of work.

Frankly, I just want to write stories. I’m not so naive as to think that I can simply throw manuscripts at the wall and eventually something will stick and then I can wash my hands of the whole thing. Increasingly, authors are taking on portions of the promotional work for their books. But by and large, publishers take on a fair bit of the heavy lifting of transforming a book from manuscript to bound pages on a shelf. And I’m kind of lazy, so I’m pretty stoked on the concept of having someone else do that work for me, while paying me for the right to distribute my work.

So here we have two models: one model, where someone pays me to distribute my work, take a cut of the profits, and share a cut of the risk; and the other model, where I distribute my own work, keep all (most) of the profits, take on all of the risk.

But there was a third model out there, that people rarely talk about in a positive way. It’s a model where you pay a publisher to publish your book. The term for this is “Vanity Press” and I don’t think I’ve ever really heard anybody in the industry seriously discuss this as a good model for a career. It’s basically the worst of all worlds: You pay someone else to put your book together, and are expected to carry the burden of distribution. The vanity press has no real vested interest once the book is packaged. They have their money, they don’t need to work to sell your book.

Which, to me, sounds a lot like what Random House is offering with the Hydra imprint. Pay them to put your book together (not directly, of course, these fees will just come out of any money your book makes), and then you split the profits. Oh, and unlike self-publishing where you keep your copyright, and unlike traditional publishing where there are explicitly set periods on the copyright, Hydra keeps the rights forever. Meaning if your book takes off, you can’t scale up to a better deal. You the author take on the bulk of the risk and only keep a percentage of the reward. It’s a watered-down vanity press.

To be honest, even as a newbie like myself who would very much enjoy seeing her book available for other people to read someday, Hydra sounds like a bad deal. I feel like Random House believes that putting their imprint’s name on my book is a privilege for me and I should be happy to get it. It comes off to me as condescending and frankly we authors deserve far better.

EDIT: 03/12/2013 @ 3:30P Pacific

Well. The Internet moves fast, don’t it.

Shortly after my previous post about my thoughts on the Hydra contract, Writers Beware made a post on Hydra’s updated contract. And to be honest, it sounds like a pretty decent improvement. It makes me very optimistic that they were so willing to take on criticism and to respond in a respectable manner, and actually consider the problems with their contract. It also makes me happy that the backlash actually had some impact here. One of the concerns was that if something like this went unchallenged or unedited it could become the New Normal. Thankfully it looks like Random House listened.

Stress, Real Life, and Professionalism

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and it’s all you can do to not strike out. And sometimes that curve ball shows up in the middle of a deadline, when you’re in the home stretch of editing your book, when everything is so close yet so far and your capacity for higher-order thinking skills are being put to the test. At this point, you have two options: you can push through and get that deadline handled despite the chaos, or you can set aside the work to handle life.

I’ve always been the kind of person to take the first option. In college, dealing with personal crisis, I pushed through my courses as hard as I could, eventually driving myself into a five-month case of bronchitis that to this day will flare up whenever I get stressed or exhausted.

Since then, however, I’ve slowly been learning that sometimes you don’t push through. You just don’t.

Recently, a part of my life that was once-stable has flipped, and a lot of changes have happened in the past week. It’s been emotionally and physically draining, and the lack-of-sick I’ve blessedly had all winter long has started to waver, and there’s a constant press in my chest and a nagging cough. All little signs that are saying “Hey, we might be pushing things a bit here.”

I made a tough personal call to let people know that I would not be meeting certain deadlines I’d set, because of this nonsense. Really hard conversations to initiate, really hard emails to write. I take it as a point of personal pride that I make deadlines when I say I will. But sometimes, it’s just not possible. And sometimes when it is possible, it’s just not responsible.

I’ve been really surprised, to the point of tears, the kindness that people have shown me in dealing with my professional life, both in writing and in my dayjob as an engineer. I’ve always believed the world to be fairly unforgiving of failure and of personal problems, but not everybody is like that, and it’s comforting to work with such wonderful people.

And let’s be real, folks: when your head is somewhere else entirely, you’re just not going to be able to put together a good book. So if you’re dealing with personal crisis, take your time, handle your shit, and come back to the work when you’re able to make it the best. If you’re a perfectionist like me who has to push through everything to meet your deadlines, take a step back and give yourself space. You might be surprised by how understanding people are.