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December 26, 2019

How Do We Measure the “Value” of Fiction?

Stacks of coins with text: Measuring the Value of Fiction

Despite the holiday, the romance community on Twitter has exploded with disbelief and anger over the last few days. As initially shared by author Alyssa Cole, the Romance Writers of America organization decided to censure and ban author Courtney Milan.

Essentially, the situation comes down to the fact that—on Twitter (not even on an RWA forum)—Courtney pointed out racism, and others who didn’t like the conversation filed a complaint that ended up in front of an “ethics committee.” In the wake of the news, the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney has trended on Twitter.

Unprepared for the outcry, RWA convened an emergency Board meeting Christmas Eve and rescinded the judgment, pending legal counsel. There’s far more ugliness to the situation than I can summarize here, but suffice it to say that it looks like some people had it in for Courtney’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the genre.

(For a quick rundown of why this case matters, even to those who dislike Courtney and/or her methods: This complaint wasn’t heard by the standing Ethics Committee of RWA, which never even knew the complaint existed. Instead, RWA created a special, anonymous, secret committee (with who knows what qualifications for judging ethical issues) just to deal with this one complaint. From a procedural perspective, the whole process was a mess, with incomplete and contradictory findings, inaccurate information provided to Courtney ahead of her defense response, etc., and many RWA leaders have resigned in protest for how the situation was handled.)

It’s ugly. And unfortunately, we all hear of various scandals in the publishing industry on a regular basis. Whether it’s news about a publisher not paying authors, large-scale plagiarism, or cover ups of various issues, our writing career can have the potential of intersecting with scandal every time we deal with anyone other than ourselves.

All that can make us question sometimes: Why are we doing this? Why are we writing, publishing, trying to be successful, whatever? Why do we keep going despite everything standing in our way? In times of doubt, it’s good to have a reminder of the value of fiction to help us press on.

What Makes All the “Crap” Worth It?

For some of us, we might continue just to prove we can. Others of us might get strong support to keep us going. If we’re lucky, we might get external validation to push us forward.

Considering all the “crap” of my health issues and how our house flooded last month, I’m blessed to get regular reminders from others of why my work is important. Every comment or email from my blog readers motivates me to continue with my blog.

For my stories, the feedback can be more rare (my fiction-release schedule is much slower than the twice-a-week posting schedule here *grin*), but any validation thus feels even more special. I’m not a bestseller by any means, so contest successes or emails from my fiction readers are priceless in keeping me going.

Can Recognizing the Value of Our Writing Help Motivate Us?

I’ve often said that I’m pathologically helpful. That desire to help others means that I want to give something of value to others. In turn, feedback regarding the value they receive is what makes me feel good.

When it comes to my blog here, the value I provide to others is easier to see and “measure.” I share information and insights with others that might help them in their careers.

However, fiction writing is another situation. How can we measure the value we give to others with our stories?

My Recent Reminder of Why Our Work Matters

Just a few days ago, I got an email from one of my fiction readers with a reminder of one way to measure the value of our stories. Laura emailed me to share a video she saw on Facebook about B.A.C.A. (Bikers Against Child Abuse).

Facebook Video: When bearded bikers start protecting abused children in court

For those who haven’t read my story Ironclad Devotion, the heroine of the story is a member of B.A.C.A. The heroine’s fostering a little girl she’d previously been a B.A.C.A. “primary” for through an abusive situation. The video above shares how the members of B.A.C.A. accompany the kids to court to confront their abusers, and in my story, the chapter accompanies the girl to meet her father for the first time so she’ll feel safe during a scary and intimidating time.

In her email to me, Laura went on to say that although she’d heard of B.A.C.A. before reading my story, the group didn’t feel “real.” Instead of what we might assume, reading about the group through the fiction of my story made B.A.C.A. feel more real to Laura than the facts of real life.

The Value of Fiction

If we stop to think about it, that perspective might not be so surprising. Fiction allows readers to experience facts and details.

Is fiction valuable in a tangible way? Click To TweetReading about a job, a setting, a health issue, etc. through dry facts is informational, sure. But reading about those things through storytelling like fiction makes readers feel and experience those facts. That mix of information and emotion is deeper, more powerful, and more memorable for readers.

Providing readers with a powerful, memorable experience can be valuable. So if we ever question why we bother writing our stories, remember that we are providing value. We’re giving readers enjoyment, a mental break, another perspective to consider, insights to make them think — and we’re giving them experiences.

Respect the Experiences We Create

Laura’s comment also emphasizes why it’s so important to be respectful when writing about marginalized communities. Given that our fiction can feel more real to readers than the facts, we can easily do harm with the experiences we create in our stories.

Creating experiences for readers makes fiction valuable...and is why misleading readers is so dangerous. Click To TweetAny stereotypes in the experiences we write can feel like more of a “given” or an “always,” rather than just a generalization. Misleading readers with false details can overwhelm the facts they’d previously been exposed to. Something that seems minor to us as authors—after all, we’re thinking only of creating fiction—can have an oversized influence on what readers think is real and factual.

It’s not that readers don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. Instead, it’s about how fiction that uses elements of the real world has a deeper impact on readers than the dry facts for those elements.

Real-world-based details can “feel legit” no matter how invalid or inaccurate they might be. So if those details are based on assumptions or stereotypes, are misleading, or are just plain wrong, the experiences we’re giving readers can cause harm.

That’s just one of many reasons why it’s important to push ourselves to keep learning, keep growing, and keep understanding the many nuances found in the world around us. Those who point out racism or other issues in stories might cause some to be uncomfortable, but if we see how the experiences we create are one way to measure the value of fiction, we might be more willing to listen to advice on how to provide better experiences for our readers. *smile*

Have you noticed how details shared in fiction can feel more real than real-life facts? What were the circumstances of that experience for you? Does it make sense how experiences based on false or misleading information can feel more real than accurate facts? Had you heard of the issues with RWA’s handling of Courtney’s case? Do you agree that there’s value in learning how we can do better, even if it makes us uncomfortable?

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

Not familiar with RWA, nor quite frankly with any “official” writing groups, so I find myself wondering just what is the importance of such groups – particularly if they can behave in such a manner as this? Is it just the prestige factor of being accepted, or is there some other thing that makes all the seeming BS worthwhile? I can’t believe it would only be contacts, as that’s quite possible online or via other “physical” venues. Does belonging to any such organization mean increased sales? Open doors to publishers or agents that are otherwise closed? Or is their importance self-induced?

As to the importance of fiction, and of using fiction to bring real life into sharper focus, one only need look at such books as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, many of Mark Twain’s works, most of Charles Dickens’, etc etc. Fiction allows readers to experience the wrongs in society, versus reading page after page of dry and typically dull statistics and theories, and then to either feel “included”, or “safe” while still igniting that fire within which may move us to action.

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