Imagine there’s this shoe factory on a river bank, and the shoes it makes are a work of art: supple leather, long-lasting, comfortable like you wouldn’t believe. Plus, they’re just-straight up, jaw-droppingly beautiful. People write fan letters to the designer of these shoes. They have conventions about these shoes where they cosplay as these shoes, all the while wearing these shoes.
The people that work at the factory have no complaints either: the pay’s good, the benefits are great and best of all there’s this genuinely lovely work culture that means everyone really enjoys their time together. They’re proud to be involved.
At its stated purpose of making kick-ass footwear, this factory is a roaring success. Such a roaring success in fact, that other companies are copying its process wholesale, setting up near identical factories all along the river.
There’s only one snag: as part of the tanning process for the leather, the factory uses a bunch of chemicals and then dumps them into the river. Most of these compounds are benign, but there’s one that can be toxic. It affects people’s brains and in high enough concentrations, it can make them hallucinate that they’re in Star Wars.
So you go to the factory owner with a sample of the river water, and say ‘Hey, you make great shoes, but I’m a bit worried that this stuff you’re putting into the river is getting to dangerous levels.’
And the factory owner says ‘But we make great shoes.’
And you say, ‘I know you make great shoes, I just said you make great shoes, but the chemicals you’re putting in our drinking water made my brother crash his car into the side of a 7-Eleven last week because he thought it was a Super Star Destroyer and his Ford Fiesta was an X-Wing.’
And Factory owner says, ‘How do you know it was us? The chemical you’re talking about, if it’s dangerous at all, is only dangerous in high concentrations, and we only use a teeny tiny bit.’
You: ‘But a load of other shoe makers are using it too.’
Factory Owner: ‘I only think about my factory, my workers and my customers. And they all love me.’
You: ‘But this chemical, you don’t even need it. There’s a bunch of factories in the next town over making shoes just as handsome and durable and comfy, and their tanning process is completely benign. It’s not even more expensive!’
Factory owner: ‘Good for them. I like our way. Say, those shoes look really good on you. Would you like a pair in brown? ‘
LEAST SURPRISING TWIST EVER: This is an analogy.
The shoes are our stories, their comfort, durability and looks are the depth of characterization, dexterity of plotting and the beauty of the prose. The water table is our culture, our shared public consciousness.
And the chemicals? They’re tropes.
Plenty of tropes, like plenty of chemicals, are both useful and harmless. Some however – like always having the women in your story be helpless or passive or always casting the black guy as the drug dealer – are… not so harmless.
Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make the story less gripping, suspenseful or moving. Employed skilfully enough, they can even enhance those qualities – watching a hero rescue a damsel in distress is exciting, that’s how it became a trope – but that doesn’t change the fact that, like the chemical, when they leak out into the environment, they’re going to have an effect.
That effect may of a single story may be very small, like the contribution from any one factory is small, but when hundreds of thousands of them are pumping this stuff into the atmosphere, it adds up.
And I don’t think it’s crazy to believe that the fact that we have these kinds of tropes floating around in our narrative water table is not merely indicative of, but contributes to^ a culture where unarmed black kids can get shot because ‘they look threatening’ and women earn seventy-seven pence for every pound that men earn**.
Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make for a bad book, any more than tight plotting necessarily makes for good one. Books are complicated, and what makes one good or bad will depend on the reader, which is why we shouldn’t let an unresolvable argument over whether X is a good or bad book obscure the fact that it contains these tropes, and that they have an effect.
A couple of hundred years ago, there were near enough no such things as environmental regulations. We thought factories were there to make goods and make money, and that was it. Slowly we came round to the idea that the people that made things bore some responsibility for in the incidental, as well as the deliberate products of that creation, and that the air we breathed and the water we drank needed a bit of looking after. We made an effort to find cleaner, greener ways to make the same stuff, and a lot of the time we found them.
This is where the analogy breaks down* of course, as all analogies eventually do. We definitely don’t need legislation to protect our public consciousness from damaging story tropes – that way lies crazypantsville – but is it really asking so much to take a little more care with the chemicals we’re pumping into the cultural water?
Because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up swinging kitchen-knives while making lightsaber noises and chopping family member’s hands off, and that’s no way to live.
* (The other place the analogy breaks down is that the use of these tropes isn’t incidental to the reading experience the way the production process for the shoes is to the wearing experience. Their inclusion can make these texts actively hostile to the people who are poorly represented. Anne Leckie has a great analogy for this here)
^There’s evidence for this here., and some discussion of the mechanism by which it happens.