Your Attitude Via Subtext

Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.” – Stephen Covey

There have been many conversations about whether authors should share their political views, particularly in the past few years. One of the things that bothers me about even raising the question is that every person has a right to free speech. 

It also bothers me that so many of us take the view that being silent equals being complicit. I have that view. “As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.”

Think of it this way. You’re in high school and walking with a friend. A group of popular kids surround both of you. These chastise you for hanging out with a loser when you could hang out with them and then they start calling your friend horrific things.

If you leave and hang out with the popular kids you’ve betrayed your friend.

If you say nothing and watch while your friend is harassed, you’ve also betrayed them.

Your lack of action is still a choice, and it says a lot about you.

In literary terms there’s a word for that. Subtext. “The implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)”

Or, in other words, hidden meaning in the text. 

There can be more than one hidden meaning. I recognize that a lot of newer writers don’t think about subtext when they tend to be very ‘on the nose’ and repeat and summarize and underscore in the main text to make sure that in case you didn’t get it the first three times, this is the point. 

It’s a common mistake, but even when writers think about subtext in general, they don’t always think about what their writing can betray about their own beliefs and attitudes.

My husband was reading submissions the other day and told me about a submission he put in the ‘no’ category. He pointed to the first evidence of homophobia in the text. There was a possibility it was character establishment, because it was character dialogue. In that case, it was potentially warranted for the purposes of character development.

As the submission progressed there were more references. In the overall context of the work, it made no difference for the theme of the story or for the specific character. The homophobic jabs recurred in dialogue and narrative without necessity.

Once could be characterization. Twice even, depending on the length of the work. But a skilled writer knows they never need to say something more than once to make the point; trust the reader. Readers are smart. From years of reviewing, publishing and writing crime fiction I know how important it is to trust readers with clues in a mystery. I also know that I would much prefer that I realize the writer put something on the page once and I missed it than have the author feel the need to tell me something again and again.

They may as well tell me they think I’m stupid.

We can all fall into the trap of repeating something, but one repeat is the maximum, and it had better be worth it in the context of the story. The more you repeat, the more you’re padding your story with filler and telling your audience that you don’t trust them to pay attention.

While some of this can be edited out from manuscripts, some of the repetitions are problematic.

For example, a manuscript riddled with homophobic references. 

When these references don’t have anything to do with the story being told there’s a good chance it means the author is allowing their own attitudes to slip through into the text.

The subtext then tells you something about them. They are likely homophobic.

And if this work is riddled with these types of references what else have they published that also betrays this attitude?

As a publisher we have to consider these things. Our goal here is to have a welcoming, safe space for all readers and writers, no matter what their religion, race, sexual orientation or gender is. 

Can we create that safe space for readers and writers if we publish people with homophobic, racist or sexist attitudes?

We do not have time to investigate every single person who submits a short story or manuscript to us, so it is possible that some people we would disagree with can slip through the cracks.

However, it’s more likely that people with these attitudes will let their views slip through the cracks in their writing and their subtext will betray them.

We will reject a work based on negative inference from subtext alone.

We will also point out these potential concerns to readers in reviews on Bronzeville Bee if we feel that references in a work exceed what is necessary to establish a negative attitude with a character. In a review our obligation is to the readers, not the writers.

We live in a very public world now, where people can go on social media and feel like they know you in a short span of time. Some people are extremely cautious with their social media profiles, but others do not consider what slips through. Are you a man who only recommends books by other men? Is every book on your annual ‘best of’ list written by a cis white guy? 

Do you read, link to, and write for sites with regular contributors who have expressed racist and/or sexist attitudes through their actions? How is that not being complicit? You are turning a blind eye to that conduct and excusing it.

Once is possible. Twice is suggestive. Anything more than that is a pattern. 

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”Edward de Bono

Nobody is obligated to read your work. As an editor, it’s my job to consider whether or not you are bringing something fresh and entertaining or insightful to the table. If I have reason to believe that your work is a platform for promoting sexist, racist or bigoted views I have no reason to read it, and I certainly have no obligation to publish it.