All Writers Are

Years and years ago at an sf convention I sat on a panel during which one of the other panelists opined that (I’m totally paraphrasing and mangling the second half but I am pretty sure that the first phrase is a direct quote) “all writers are rapists, because we force our words into the minds of readers where they grow into something new.”   (Don’t ask me who;  I won’t tell you.  Please honor my silence and refrain from guessing.)

Now, I have to admit, I was taken aback for two reasons (well, more than two reasons, but two main reasons).

One, there were two women on the panel who were, you know, writers. So — as in fact I said at the time in response up there on the panel — “that’s kind of a male model of looking at it, isn’t it?”  (Yes, this is a deeply touchy subject, and I didn’t mean to implicate all males or to imply that women can’t be rapists, but I was actually shocked and it was the best I could do on the spur of the moment as I really did not want to let the comment go unchallenged.)

Second, the way the comment was phrased.  I would have been, um, cool with it had the writer said, “I think of myself as a rapist” or “sometimes the act of putting a novel in the hands of readers can, if you push the metaphor really hard and have a slightly skeezy way of looking at these things anyway, be compared to rape” or “this metaphor works for me because I’m trying to shock you” or “I’m tired today and I’m really going to regret this metaphor tomorrow.”

But — wow –  I get tired of formulations that begin with the omnipotent All.  The declarative All.  The All in which someone else has decided that they can define you and how you do things or who you are.

However, I will tell you what reminded me of this particular story.

I have been following–pretty much obsessively–the current situation in Iran.  I’ve long been interested in Iran (I’m not mentioning this in order to open up a political discussion here;  if you want that, check out my regular blog) so the elections and post election events have gripped me and caused me to spend most of my online time, such as it is (and it is too much of my time, I am sorry to say), following various blogs, twitter, news, and etc.  This is one of those times where Real Life strikes me as as so intense and dramatic and compelling that nothing fictional can possibly compare.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was finishing up revisions on my current manuscript.

You know:  all writers are cannibals.

There I was, revising through this scene in which several characters have to leave one place and make their way through a city in which a riot has been taking place and the prince’s militia are out to subdue the populace.  And I had written that all the shutters and doors were closed (or some such), and then I remembered that I’d been reading how residents of Tehran had been leaving their compound gates slightly ajar so that protestors could flee into the outer courts of such private homes if the Baseej were after them.

So guess what I did?  Of course.  I cannibalized that detail and put it into the text.  It’s minor, and it flashes past so you would not likely even notice it, but I thought it was better than the generic “doors and gates closed.”  I thought that it tells the reader a little more about what is going on and who is supporting whom.  Just like in Iran.

But I kind of felt like I was eating their pain and struggle for my own trivial devices.  I often do, as a writer.  Even my own pain and struggles, such as they are — especially them.

I could argue that cannibalism has gotten a bad rap.  It’s what those “savages” do when we want to make them out to be less than “human”;  or what the people who live over the ridge do but definitely not us we never do that;  or those dudes in an airplane crash in the Andes forced to eat the dead due to the exigencies of their situation.  Or it’s Mark Twain, on the train (great story).

But actually–or so I’ve read–some peoples eat parts of their deceased as a way to ingest the virtues, qualities, and strengths of the honored dead.  Maybe one could say that, as writers, we do that too.  We ingest pain and struggle and joy and rapture and anger and fear and every part of the human condition and the human experience, and we try to make it part of ourselves so that we can offer it back to the reader through the stories we tell.

I don’t actually think that all writers are cannibals, of course.  Or that any are.  For some people, for various reasons, the word has such negative weight that it may well therefore strike them as an offensive comparison, and I think that’s fair enough.  It is, of course, a statement meant to startle, rather like the one in the story at the top of this post.

But sometimes, for me, the idea of metaphorically eating the honored dead in order to share their qualities and strengths is one that makes sense to me when I think about the process of writing.  And sometimes, I have to admit, I do feel like I’m “eating” other people’s lives as well as my own because I can never quite turn off my brain as I observe life around me:  Everything, as they say, becomes grist for the mill.  Stuff going on around me, with me, with others, from my reading, whatever, turns up in the oddest ways in my fiction, often in ways I could not have predicted and often in ways whose patterns elude me until much later.  Because, you know, I’m human.

There you go:  All writers are human.  I think I’m safe with that one.  I mean, at least as far as the ones I’ve come across.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) “All writers are” declarative sentences?

Meanwhile, I have to get back to checking #iranelection on twitter.

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I don’t have any good “all writers are” sentences (unless I’m being a smartass, in which case “all writers are writers” comes to mind, thank you, Tautology Brain) — but I like your cannibalism metaphor. Now is neither the place nor the time to talk about the different kinds of cannibalism and why I don’t believe it’s automatically immoral to eat other people*, but boy howdy do I know what you mean about constantly noting stuff, good and most especially bad, for my own purposes. It’s distancing, and I’ll believe you if you tell me that isn’t always healthy . . . but I don’t know if I can stop doing it. It might be hard-wired into me.

    *Dear Everyone Who Doesn’t Know Me And Is Squicked Out By That Statement: blame the anthropology degrees. Though please note I’m talking morality; there are good health reasons not to eat people.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    The rapists thing is totally wrong. No one forces someone to pick up a book (except maybe school teachers). I think good writers could be called seducers, and just as a pick-up line works on one person but not another, the opening to a story will hook one reader but not another.

    I always found it interesting that cannibalism is so limited in nature; there are few animals, even predators, who eat their own kind. I think the reason is rooted in biology. When a lion eats a gazelle, it is less likely to ingest any viruses or bacteria that are harmful to lions.

    But I don’t consider using details observed from life to be cannibalism, because putting something in a story doesn’t really consume the thing being used. It’s really closer to recycling– taking something and reworking it to make it something else.

    When I used to work in visual arts, I often found that looking out the window would make me pause and consider the view as a composition. Now that I write, I have a similar reaction to hearing about situations– I frame them in the context of a story, just as I used to frame a view out the window.

  3. 3. green_knight

    I think in general the rapist metaphor is a very bad one, unless in reverse: don’t be a rapist. Don’t take readers to places (unless they explicitly consent to be taken) where they will be squicked or frightened, because it is impossible to _unremember_ those words. I once followed a protagonist for 13/4 books, felt with him, rooted for him, when – to score a point in the relationship with his brother – he murdered his nephew in the most callous, disgusting, on-screen manner. (And that’s the sanitized version.)

    It was disgusting. I felt deeply betrayed not just by the author, but by the character – I’d supported him for all this time, shelled out my money in trade paperback because I didn’t want to wait, and as a repayment, I was sickened to the bottom of my soul.

    Not part of the author/reader contract. My trust had been not just violated, but trampled in the mud and laughed at. I don’t think there’s any justification for doing that, ever.

  4. 4. JS Bangs

    Hmmm, the rapist metaphor works only insofar as all communication can be likened to rape. After all, I can walk up to you and say something incredibly offensive or disturbing, and you can’t choose to unhear that, either. Still, it’s not the metaphor I would have chosen.

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    Good post. Need to think about it. But first reaction is, has to be, much like yours was, that the writer who uttered the original “rapist” comment is… not speaking for me.

    So his “all writers” sentence is automatically shot.

    So THERE.

  6. 6. Jaws

    Sort of sideways from “all writers are cannibals”:

    Soylent Pulp Is Authors

    I think the only “all authors are” equation that makes sense is “all authors are imperfect”.

  7. 7. S. Megan Payne

    How about “All authors WRITE.” ‘Cause a lot of folks that call themselves writers don’t actually put butt in chair and produce. But anyone that makes it to be a published author DOES.

    As for the rapists thing…words fail me.

  8. 8. Raethe

    Megan: To borrow a quote from Making Light, “too bad they didn’t fail him first”?

    I have to agree. That’s kind of… Ugh.

    I kind of like the cannibal analogy, though. Gofigure.

  9. 9. S. Megan Payne

    I totally agree with that quote, Raethe. Perfectly.

  10. 10. glenda larke

    I’ve had plenty of All Fantasy Is….followed by some nonsensical statement, usually insulting. Can’t say I’ve been told anything about “All Writers” though. Somehow I don’t like the idea of forcing words into a reader’s head. If that’s what writing was really about, I wouldn’t be a writer.

    And Green Knight, I sympathise. Felt the same way about the same book. Mostly, I suppose, because I the reader was misled into believing that the protag was basically a decent fellow incapable of the vile crime he ultimately committed.

  11. 11. chris roland

    I would say perhaps that all writers have an extra dimension, a stage in their heads upon which they re-enact/rehearse alternative scenarios. Perhaps all writers are in some way unhappy with the world, or dissatisfied with the world they find. It follows then that a lot of readers are too. There’s probably a reader/writer continuum here and it may be misleading to draw a line between the one and the two. The writer drives themself half insane trying to become ‘the reader’ and evaluate their work from the perspective of ‘the other’ whilst the reader of necessity must enter into the writer’s world to co-author what the writer doesn’t manage to complete (most of the picture). So the rapist analogy, perhaps not. Love affair, orgy, ‘exclusive’ party or harmless flirt on the bus, café or at the library? And what happened to a plain old chat. A harmless chat. ‘All writers are like someone you might chat to at a bus stop.’ Not quite as grabbing though is it.

    Anyway, please try my blog, there’s an entire online story just waiting for you to read it!

    http://offbloodtombbalcony.blogspot.com/

    Chris

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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