Karen Miller is in serious danger of contracting word poisoning. She’s been writing professionally since 2005, and since the publication of her first fantasy novel The Innocent Mage has written 17 novels. They cover epic historical fantasy, media tie-in work for Star Wars and Stargate SG-1, and the Rogue Agent fantasy series under her pen name K E Mills: there’s simply too much Karen for one name, and not even in a He’s-Fred-but-on-Friday-nights-calls-himself-Jessica kind of way. Her work has been short-listed for both the James Tiptree Jr award and the Aurealis Award, so you know she’s damn good at what she does. When she’s not busy at the computer, Karen enjoys acting and directing at her local theatre company. Before she realised her dream of becoming a professional writer, she studied for and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) degree and a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature, and worked in a wide variety of jobs, including: horse groom, college lecturer, PR officer in local government, publishing assistant, and owned a specialist science fiction, fantasy and mystery book shop. She’s one of the people I seek out to sit next to at cons: literate, intelligent, bawdy and always, always thinking, not to mention unfailingly kind: my first serious contact with an agent was because Karen bumped into her at an airport and thought she’d be a good fit for me. Karen’s website and LJ are always highly readable, and so is the article that follows.
To be honest, this one’s got my head in a bit of a tailspin. And as a result it may well be that what I’m about to say is going to ruffle feelings, which isn’t my intention. But it is what it is … so …
I am not comfortable with the notion of framing myself as an artist. And I’m not comfortable with the idea of seeing myself as someone who has important things to say, whose purpose is to enlighten the reading public with the brilliance of my insights about … whatever. I don’t think it’s my place. I don’t think it’s my job. I think the audience, the reading public, gets to decide what is or isn’t important about my work, or works of literature in general.
First and foremost, I see myself as an entertainer. A yarnspinner, a storyteller, someone who’s been blessed with the gift of the gab.
Does that mean I don’t have opinions, thoughts, feelings, about a whole range of subjects? Hell, no. I’m about as opinionated as they come. I have more opinions than I know what to do with. But should I use my fiction as a vehicle to parade my various thoughts and opinions?
No. I don’t think I should. Because as a novelist, a writer of fiction, I believe I’m making a promise to the reader who picks up my book … and that’s not the same promise as would exist if I’d written a work of non-fiction, or autobiography.
And I say that being fully aware of the fact that a writer’s life experience informs all aspect of the writing, that we all proceed using a road map of conscious and unconscious assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, points of view and perspectives. For example, one reason why I write fantasy is because I really do believe in the concept of good and evil. I believe that power can corrupt. That greed is poisonous. That weak people do terrible things to compensate for their failings. That good people can make a difference in a sometimes dark and dangerous world. And I think there is a style of fantasy fiction that allows me to explore those beliefs. So as far as it goes, yes, it’s true. My opinions are informing my fiction.
But I also think there’s a fine line that writers walk , a line that when crossed leads us into writing thinly-veiled polemics, into riding our personal hobbyhorses into the realms of non-fictional lecturing. And when we do that, I think we’ve let down the readers. I think when a reader walks into a bookshop and starts browsing the fiction shelves, they’re looking for a great story. Yes, they might also be looking for a story that makes them think, gives them a chance to see the world in a different light, to reconsider their world viewpoint. All of that. But mainly, I think they’re looking for great entertainment.
That’s why I’m wary of falling into what I think is the trap of defining my own work. I don’t think it’s up to me to decide that I’m writing something ‘special’ or ‘important’ or ‘socially relevant’. I’m afraid the minute I start thinking that way, I’m going to lose my connection to the reader. I’m going to cross the line from entertainer to pontificator. Most fatally of all, I’m afraid I’m going to start thinking of myself as superior to my readers, that my purpose is to point out to them all the ills of the world that I understand so much better than they do, and that their purpose is to receive my wisdom with awe and gratitude.
So how do I, as a writer, try to walk that fine line? To keep my focus on reader engagement, and not reader enlightenment? Thinking about it, I’ve come to this conclusion. I think that if I start a story from a place of polemics: I believe that unbridled capitalism is evil and I’m going to write a story showing that, then chances are my story isn’t going to please a lot of readers, because my primary purpose for writing isn’t to connect with them and entertain them with a rattling good yarn, it’s to lecture them and prove my point.
On the other hand, if I happen to think that unbridled capitalism is evil, but can explore that idea as I investigate the lives of a cast of characters in an engaging way, then I can make my point effectively and subtly, while never making that point more important than the needs of the reader … which is, more often than not, to be entertained.
There’s an argument that gets made that says not to address matters of social importance in fiction is to support the status quo, to give tacit approval to the ills of the world. There are writers who rail against the complacency of audiences who only read so they can have their narrow views of the world comfortably confirmed. There are people who feel that writers have some kind of obligation to challenge the status quo, to shake the tree, to rock the boat.
My feeling is that while there’s merit to that argument, at the end of the day it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it. If we let ourselves become strident and condescending, if we’re so busy shaking our fists and stamping our feet and demanding that people pay attention to what we’re saying because we’re artists – and by implication better and special – that we forget about the person who picked up our book in the first place, and why they picked it up, then I think we’ll most likely lose any chance we have of making a connection that will let us ask questions and challenge preconceptions and encourage people to see the world through different eyes for a while.
Let the readers decide if the books I’ve written are art. My job, I think, is to do my best to see they’ve not wasted their money.