At SF cons, on panels, in the hallways, talking about good books, someone always worries about the folks who REALLY NEED this book but would never, ever read it! (How do they know I don’t REALLY NEED the book?) Indeed, in recent months, I have heard over and over that too many great writers are just PREACHING TO THE CHOIR. And that has to be just about the worst thing you can do, particularly in these trying times. If you’re spewing out your guts for folks who already agree with you, might as well not have written the book at all. Even if we, who are present and talking to each other, agree the book is a damn good read—complex, mysterious, disturbing—the folks who REALLY NEED the book haunt us, spook us. So, instead of discussing what the good book does for us, the conversation drifts into:
Writer Beware! Where is the room at your table for those who would run from your story? How can you invite future allies to listen to you if you’re pitching your book not to them but to somebody else?
Such a response is usually code for authors rejecting the default settings of blockbuster success and CENTERING their books on characters and perspectives that might make future allies feel so bad, so unsure, so unloved they run.
Suggestions pour in.
Dear Writer who would like to upset the default setting, how can you change the world if you’re not making the folks who want to run from you and your story feel, well, if not comfortable, allowed to pull up a chair? Now is the time to allocate some of or all of your heart and artistry to inviting folks who might be put off by your story to the table too. Otherwise aren’t you just: PREACHING TO THE CHOIR?
Writing for the default setting audience is not considered PREACHING TO THE CHOIR.
Let’s be real. I spend a lot of time at tables where nobody has set a place for me. And a lot of folks would rather I wasn’t here, there, or anywhere. I walk through worlds where nobody expects to see me coming. A lot of people:
Don’t know my story
Don’t think I have anything to say
Can barely see me at all
I am almost invisible or monstrous when seen. My existence at the table upsets the default setting. The familiar is the real. What has been seen and done before is real. Repetition is truth. Some people want to erase me and annihilate my story. This is an emotional load, a cognitive burden, a physical hazard to my health. If I complain, it’s whining. Exaggeration.
I am not alone. I’m in a big Choir. I have talked to other folks in the Choir and collected much data. (My mother pegged me for a mathematician when I was two and I started sorting the playing cards instead of chewing them. I was the family fourth for bridge at six.) The data I’ve collected is anecdotal data, of course! Stories, stories, stories! We in the Choir need to hear good words too. We need regular sustenance for our spirits.
We need inspiration, reality checks. Can anybody be everywhere at once? That’s what stories are for, so we can spread our minds all over the world, all through time!
We need to time travel to feel the power of our communities yesterday and tomorrow. We need to be shaken out of complacency and pointed in the right directions.
A sermon for the Choir won’t congratulate us for being superior, but challenge us to be the best that we can, challenge us to be better than we thought we could. A good sermon powers action.
Despite what you might have heard, a good sermon will not reassure you that all is well in the world despite the evil done in your name. It will not reassure you that you are loved despite the evil that benefits you, evil that you’ve done nothing to eradicate. A good sermon is a call to action in your mind, in your spirit, on the streets. A good sermon is very entertaining, just what you need to survive the apocalypse.
I have to repeat this: We in the Choir need reality checks. Reality is not a matter of fact, but a matter of story, a matter of truth. A good sermon will exhort the Choir not just to listen to ourselves. A good sermon will give us the strength and clarity to hear what might otherwise send us into a flaming bitch rage.
At symposia on astrobiology and conferences on artificial intelligence, I have gathered with wise and wonderful folks to consider the great concerns of science fiction and fantasy:
What does it mean to be human, alive, intelligent?
What does it mean to be alien, other?
How can we be different together?
Invariably the question comes up, if the microorganisms we encounter on a planet or a moon or a big rock aren’t intelligent … if the little buggers don’t have a prayer of evolving conscious intelligence … (as far as we know which may not be far …)
Do we have to act nice toward them?
Can we replace them with bots?
Do we have to worry about contamination and annihilation?
Manifest destiny in space…
I am really feeling the microbes in these conversations. I am (we are) bacteria. (Bacteria cells win the popular vote in the symbiotic bodies we claim as our sovereign territory. More of "them" than of "us.") So let me just say right now, it is very, very hard to talk or listen to people who want to destroy you, who want to annihilate any sign of your existence and that’s just on the microbial level. I confess, it is damn hard to talk to people who think you are less than human.
A good sermon to the Choir gives us the strength we need, not to be shaped and deformed by who and what despises us.
Preach to us!
So that when we lift our voices to sing, pain and hatred do not power our songs.
Because the Choir needs to be singing for the world we want.
After a really good sermon we refuse to be the flip side to evil, the entangled reaction to injustice, the monster or the fool.
Hey, I REALLY NEED THAT BOOK!
N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk’s Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy and is dedicated to "those who have no choice but to prepare their children for the battlefield." We’re on that battlefield. Nora offers a rehearsal of the possible.
L. Timmel Duchamp’s The Waterdancer’s World and Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds could be dedicated to the artists living through the apocalypse who imagine freedom, who dance and sing freedom, who walk on water and turn the tides of history. Timmi and Kiini write a rehearsal of the impossible!
Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, a steampunk alternate history of the Congo, lets us appreciate that history isn’t inevitable. In the mindboggling crush of empire, we frail imperfect beings can imagine a just, sustainable future and start making that world a reality.
Sheree R. Thomas’s Sleeping Under the Tree of Life is a conjure book of stories and poems, ancestor talk and future revelations. Her gorgeous language inspires us to reach for our best selves. Sheree maps the forgotten worlds "where forests have been cut away from their trees" and women can draw comfort from stone. She demands that we work the roots and conjure the world that we want—a call and response with the Choir. Sheree (and all these writers) insist we are the dreams of the ancestors. What are we dreaming?
So we can sing ourselves to another world.