FXXK WRITING: WRITING IN THE SHADOW OF MORDOR RISING Jason S. Ridler
I know some writers are having a tough time finding the enthusiasm to write in the face of Trump’s administration taking power and committing itself to the most heinous of its election promises (currently walls on the US/Mexican border and travel bans from non-profitable “Muslim” countries). I’ve tried to gather some ideas about writing and our times from a variety of folks in the publishing industry because I sure as fuck don’t have all the answers. Here are three arguments I found useful or, at least, interesting.
- We read to experience our times reflected back to us. For genre lovers, this may seem antithetical. “I want elves and orcs and magic and escapism!” Sure, but even Tolkien, who loved that his books were escapist, also wrote about what angered and disturbed him during his days on the earth, not Middle Earth. Mordor is a horror show created by the industrial revolution that consumed Europe in a war unlike any other and killed a generation in its factory maw. So, while Lord of the Rings is also a fun adventure story about small people throwing jewelry in volcanoes, it is also an indictment of the modern world. Confront what you fear, hate, and loathe in your work, and not just the easy answers. The publishing world will be littered with a thousand novels with Trump wearing a hockey mask or space helmet or Viking horns. Dig deeper for political, social, and cultural themes as to why America voted in a hate-fueled con man to rule like an oligarch. Indeed, why do so many genre readers love stories about aristocrats and magic bloodlines, and less so about revolutionaries (and Star Wars doesn’t count, and, did you know George Lucas originally wrote it as an anti-Vietnam film?), but I digress.
- Hope is needed. European audiences tend to have a greater capacity for stories of dread and falling into the Abyss. Such endings were one of two possible outcomes for much of the horror genre from the 70s onward (or, as Stephen King noted, it’s either defeat the monster or keep falling down the rabbit hole . . . forever). Cult genres like Lovecraftian horror, let alone grit-lit like Donald Ray Pollock, and other bastions of realism, also give us the ugly, immovable truths without so much as a flicker of joy unless it is to be dashed. As a Latvian, I love this stuff (Latvian folktales often argue how romantic thinking will make you stupid and let the Germans or Russians invade!), but in mainstream American publishing, hope is a critical ingredient. What kind of hope? That’s up for grabs: individual, collective, defiant in the face of impending Armageddon, and more. If you need to go bleak and despondent, do it. If not, ask yourself how hope functions in your work.
- Heroes confront systems of oppression, not just symbols. People of color, women, other various kinds of minorities and class warriors know this to be true. How about your heroes and characters? Do they accept the status quo, circumvent it, fight, counter it in some ways? The more I think about this topic, the more I want to read about those who outwit the system as much as those who punch the bad guy. And not 1001 versions of 1984, or the Hunger Games, please. How do oppressive systems operate closer to home? Can you make getting a bill paid into a quest? Also, the system sells one narrative as real (the American Dream, though not to be confused with the late, great Dusty Rhodes), but reality provides another (the Rise of American Oligarchies), and the protagonist must navigate the ideal and the real without destroying their personal integrity. Sound familiar? All the underdogs in America contend with this challenge every goddamn day. Their only super power is courage. Compare that to your elf-warrior who had a bad childhood and ask if they are found wanting.
As I hope can be seen, we may read to have our times reflected back, but we write to understand what we think, feel, need, fear, and desire (I clearly hate elves as a stand in for aristocracy to be worshiped). We create a better understanding of ourselves by investigating our world view and, I hope, have it challenged. Many novels have “answers” and are essentially polemics with laser battles or the monster is defeated, but I suggest trying to dig deeper. Deal with uncertainty as well as truth. As Charles Bukowski noted, “the problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts, but the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
I find myself growing more aware of the power and responsibility of writing fiction as the dark days begin, and I’m best known for writing novels about pro wrestling! I love adventure and fantasy. I love novels of self-discovery. I love escapism and believe it’s valuable (so does Ta-Nehisi Coates, who played Dungeons and Dragons back in the day!). I’m also a military historian and spend most of my time hanging with the dead, back in the day, studying how awful we can be to each other. I have very good reasons to ignore and means to escape Trump’s Mordor rising.
But I can’t. I’m exploring a different dimension of oppression in my work in ways I may not have considered otherwise. I’m making many mistakes and learning from failure and falling forward trying to understand better the systems of oppression others in this country have faced for years. I also see how it’s similar and different to the oppressions and brutalities I’ve studied my entire career. All of this is bleeding into my work because as a writer and historian I see patterns, echoes, portents, and harbingers as well as differences in context, actors, and goals.
Maybe if you’re finding your current project, which you started back before the coming darkness, doesn’t resonate, or you don’t know what to do next, start from where you are now.
After all, you’ll have at least four years to finish it.
Should we all live that long.
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