Writers and Societal Illusions

Last week, my editor, his assistant, and I were “discussing” some elements of a book I’d turned in. I use the word “discussing” in very loose terms. My editor was having a hard time with the situation in the book. I won’t go into the specifics here, because some of you might read the book, but both my editor and I did agree on the facts, on the credibility of the situation, and the culture. But, in essence, the issue turned on one point — that to be sympathetic to the reader the protagonist should find a “better way” to resolve the issue. Either that, or all the “bad” characters should be so overwhelmingly evil that no matter what the protagonist did, every reader would cheer.

I resisted this — and time and your future comments will reveal exactly how readers do in fact react — because I’ve gotten more than a little tired of culture-centric societal illusions, in particular, American culture-centric illusions. I’m not talking about ideals, where we strive to do better, and often fail, but illusions.

I’m certainly not the first writer to tilt at this windmill, and I seriously doubt that I’ll be the last. In Slaughterhouse Five, for example, Kurt Vonnegut took dead aim at the American illusion that all it takes to become rich is hard work and virtue.

I’ve addressed this issue before, if not presented in quite that way. In The Ethos Effect, the protagonist discovers that his own culture has turned from a relatively open democratic society into a xenophobic, militaristic, homophobic, and repressive society that opposes all efforts, internal and external, to return to what we might term a relatively free society. He takes drastic steps, and more than a few readers were appalled, making the almost inevitable and rhetorical statement that there had to be a”better way.”

And my discussion with my editor, not surprisingly, centered on that same great American illusion — that there’s always “a better way,” a better solution to a problem that involves less work, less cost, and sometimes, less loss of life. The problem is — sometimes there isn’t, and no one wants to face it.

If we really want to get rid of some ten thousand homicides annually in the USA, i.e., those committed with firearms, “all” we have to do is collect all the guns. That would be the most effective way, wouldn’t it? Just try it, and you’ll see how far that gets you. The illusion, because a vocal and large minority opposes gun control, is that we can reduce those homicides through a “better way.” So, in search of that better way, we enact this and that regulation, and this and that restriction, and the impact is statistically minimal. We create the illusion of doing something, and that’s “better” than giving up society-wide gun ownership. Of course, all those regulations haven’t made much of a dent in the homicide numbers, and there is no “better way” both to allow weapons and reduce gun-related homicides.

We also foster an illusion of equality, and we’re quick to cite the Declaration of Independence, in that “all men are created equal.” I’m sorry. While the birth process is the same, the results are anything but equal. A crack baby is seldom, if ever, going to be equal to a healthy one. A child born to less advantaged parents will always have a greater struggle to achieve what can be attained by one born to more privileged parents. And all the Head Start and pre-natal care and enrichment programs won’t erase all of that inequality. Am I saying such programs aren’t worth anything? Heavens, no. I’m saying that, necessary as they are, they won’t bring about complete equality, not even complete equality of opportunity, because for a society to function well, the best qualified people should be hired and promoted. Like it or not, individuals in any society are not equal. But fostering the illusion of equality allows people to ignore the realities of inequality, the true costs of remedying even just a portion of it — and the fact that it will always exist.

All societies have illusions. They always have, and they always will, but to me, one of the tasks of a writer, in addition to entertaining, is to at least occasionally draw back the dark curtain and shed a few rays of light on such illusions, even if indirectly through fictional or fantasy cultures… and even if it means occasionally disagreeing with my editor.