I’ve been pondering this on the Steampunk side for a few days now, and have started playing compare and contrast with Paganism. What is the relationship between a culture and the fiction about it? The vast majority of fiction featuring Pagans is written by non-pagans and owes more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than to Gerald Gardner.
Fiction written from within a culture can tend to want to affirm it, highlight its good points, celebrate and promote. This is natural. Whatever cultures we feel kinship with – be they spiritual, social or political, we want to portray in a good light. I’ve been round this one, writing about Paganism. The way we are, the way I want us to be, the way that makes for a good story – they don’t overlap as much as they might. The essence of story, is conflict. In a lovely world where everything is splendid, there aren’t as many tales to tell. Give me corruption and evil deeds, villains to fight, trials to overcome and I can make a more engaging sort of tale. The land of loveliness is not a land of stories. Perfection is an awful lot like stasis.
On the Pagan front, issues like the predators who want to sexually initiate pretty young witches, the swindlers, the power crazed, self important and the downright loopy – a tiny minority, but so laden with plot potential. But if I write about them, will people who read it take that as a representation of the Pagan community as a whole? Would that be responsible? I suspect if we did a count up, I’d turn out to have given more page time to Christian characters than Druids. There’s an odd irony there. But if we don’t write from the inside, the only story representations of Druids, or Pagans are going to be the startling things that show up in paranormal romances.
On the Steampunk side, I’m drawn to all the things I perhaps shouldn’t be. It’s not the splendid innovation and lovely manners that draw me, it’s the places of dysfunction, the historical colonialism, sexism, class prejudice and widespread oppression in many forms. I’m not so much on the inside of Steampunk as a community, which may make it easier to play with the dark stuff, but at the same time, is this what Steampunks want to read? The social culture of Steampunk is inherently celebratory, playful and quite upbeat. There is an inevitable clash between the culture, and the fiction. Do Pagans want to read about how actual modern Pagan life really is? At a guess, no. I suspect most Pagans would prefer something a tad escapist, whilst wanting something a bit more realistic than Sabrina the teenage witch.
It’s much easier to write stories about a group of people, than for them. Celebrating something in fiction, can make for rather bland, insipid tales. The best way to celebrate is by throwing the good stuff into relief against a backdrop of terrible darkness. Sure, you can have ‘all the nasty people who disagree with us’ as your backdrop of darkness, but that gets tired really quickly and the ‘we’re so lovely and oppressed’ stories can get samey. Black and white tones do not make for a good story. Shades of grey are where it’s at, full of complexity and uncertainty.
I don’t have a clever punch line, or a cunning plan. To be honest, I’m scratching my head over this one. I’ve never read a contemporary fiction that seemed like real life Paganism to me. (Any suggestions?) I dislike fiction written by non-pagans about Pagans, for the greater part. There are a few Pagan authors whose fiction I like, but they aren’t doing contemporary Pagan life. Steampunk, I am getting my toes in the water, trying to see what comes from the inside, and what comes from the outside, what is good, what is liked, how it works.
Is there something about the nature of story that makes it far more comfortable to have them be about some other people, somewhere else, another time? Do we read to escape, or are we looking for reflections?