11.48: Elemental Issue Q&A, with DongWon Song

DongWon Song, literary agent with HMLA, joins us for a Q&A on the elemental genre of “Issue.” Here are the questions, which were submitted by the attendees at WXR ’16:

  • Can only certain people tackle certain issues in certain stories?
  • Science Fiction often explores issues by changing the context. Why does this work?
  • How would you handle an issue story in short fiction?
  • How do you make sure to research the issue enough without paralyzing yourself with the fear that you cannot do it justice?
  • How do you convincingly write a position with which you disagree without convincing your readers that you agree with it?
  • How do you write about a deeply personal issue without making it sound like a personal sob story?

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Take an ensemble cast, and write each member’s position on a given issue.

Gift Child, by Janci Patterson

5 thoughts on “11.48: Elemental Issue Q&A, with DongWon Song”

  1. Thank you very much to the whole WE team and guests for tackling this topic – I’m glad this conversation is happening and it’s incredibly compelling interesting to listen to.

    However, I’m going to take issue with Mary’s response that only certain people can or should write about certain topics. I agree with DongWon that fiction requires empathy on a fundamental level and everything is built around that. Unless you’re writing an autobiography, by default you are writing about a character that does not share your beliefs/views/privileges/life experience, whatever, people of different nationalities and cultures comes in that package. It’s almost never a matter of race or culture as much as it is a matter of human empathy and the ability to transport yourself into a perspective that isn’t your own and being aware of the pitfalls.

    Saying “you can but you shouldn’t” is essentially telling certain people that they really do need to stay clear of certain topics. And my response to that is that is that no one is the arbiter of what is or isn’t offensive, what’s right and what’s wrong. Who gets to decide what should and shouldn’t be written about? Who decides what is and isn’t offensive/taboo? Who decides what cultures are marginalized enough? (Ironically, it seems to be US authors telling non-USians how to write other non-USians.) There’s objectively wrong material and subscribing to harmful stereotypes, but that doesn’t cover the grey areas. As a (half) Middle-Easterner I love The Satanic Verses and am very happy that novel exists…and clearly there are a huge amount of people who feel differently. Should Rushdie not have written that book because of the aforementioned reasons? There are countless such examples across all mediums.

    Again, I’m very glad this discussion is happening, but I just wanted to mention this and look forward to future episodes.

  2. Here we go, the episode you’ve been waiting for, the Q&A on Issues! No one said, “It’s elemental, my dear.” But we do have plenty of other tidbits when DongWon Song and the fearless foursome get together and consider questions about issues. Should you avoid writing about certain issues? Why does science fiction and fantasy seem to be able to tackle issues where angels fear to tread? Short fiction, research, accidental issue inclusion, and more, all the questions and answers you want! And now, the transcript is available in the archives and over here


    Just for you! So read it and enjoy!

  3. I agree with Mary, and draw the distinction that DongWon drew: Not everyone can, or even SHOULD tell every story, and a large part of whether you’re part of the “should” group has to do with whether it’s actually your story to tell.

    I like the way it was put at the end of Ratatouille. It’s not “everyone can become a chef,” it’s “a chef can come from anywhere.” Yes, non-members of a given demographic absolutely can write stories featuring members of that demographic, but not ALL of those non-members can. Some aren’t good enough writers, and some simply don’t have authorial voices that will work.

    Consider also: “should you” is different from “can you get away with it.” Members of the dominant cultural and economic demographic can get away with a lot. If you want to write a story that is not yours, and you happen to be part of the dominant demographic, you likely enjoy the luxury of not caring about the people who are hurt by you when you tell the story. If you’re good with embracing that, fine. Personally, I am not.

    Ultimately the take-away here is this: whether or not you think it’s fine for you to tell a given story, if you’re writing stories that you want other people to read you need to consider how those other people will react to what you write, including how they’ll react to the fact that it is you telling the story.

  4. Howard:

    Thanks for the response. I obviously agree insofar as that not everyone is at the skill level or has the knowledge wide enough to write about another culture or subgroup, and it’s hard regardless of who you are. My issue primarily comes from the lack of clarity surrounding the topic. At the risk of repeating mysef: who gets to decide what cultures and demographics are scared and what are not? Who gets to decide what’s “problematic”? If you wanted to apply it very liberally, then no one would ever be able to write outside the dimensions of their identity for fear of hurting others.

    It’s impossible not to offend someone at some point with your writing, no matter how much research you do and I feel very strongly, like the previous commenter who deleted their post, that you should be able to use whatever tools you need to tell the story you want to tell (of course you need to know *how* to use those tools). I don’t think we’re disagreeing over that, just the context and definition of “should”.

    Also, shouldn’t basic empathy and search win over the identity of the author? For me, if a person is able to do their research and represent my culture and demographic well, then I couldn’t care less who the author is or what they look like (ie, Ian McDonald’s “The Dervish House”). For me, human empathy is all that matters, because at the end of the day, because really, what else is there?

    1. As authors we don’t get to decide whether our identities are separate from our work. The reader decides that. This principle applies to every aspect of our art: we can say whatever we want with it, and about it, but the consumer of the art will get something else out of it.

      I’m not positioning myself as an arbiter of cultural issues. I’m saying that our readers care, and we can’t argue their opinions out of existence. I’ve chosen to listen to readers from marginalized demographics on this matter, in part because not listening to them results in further marginalization (which I believe to be wrong) and in part because their input makes me a better writer.

Comments are closed.