Toward Collective Poetic Justice in Fiction
Plus my latest carbonpunk short story, "The CO2lector."
This month I had a few different main topics planned, but they all got scuttled, along with my Thanksgiving plans, when I came down with a nasty stomach flu this week that knocked me out for several days. I’m on the mend now, but my brain is still a bit fried from the barfing. So here’s an excerpt of a talk I gave in early 2020, right before COVID came down, at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars creative writing conference at ASU. The talk was titled “Just World Building” with all double meanings intended. Enjoy, and also jump below to find a link to my latest story.
Four Types of Justice in Fiction
The germ of this talk formed a couple years ago when I had drinks with a much more famous, successful and talented writer than myself, and we discussed a novel that we had both recently read. The novel featured main characters who developed a stumbling romance over the course of a violent, action-packed detective adventure. I liked the novel just fine, though I wasn’t crazy about it. But my friend surprised me with how critical they were.
They said the novel was grotesque for letting its killer-torturer heroes ride off into the sunset at the end, to a presumably happy life together. This really surprised me. After all, isn’t our culture filled to the brim with flashy blockbusters where the protagonists cut through a dozen henchmen, defeat the boss, blow up the base, and make out in front of the resulting fireworks? Of course movies are not novels, but there is still a sense that that sort of story is very normal, even if it comes off campier on the page than it does on screen. So I demur, but my friend doubles down. “I’ve actually seen the aftermath of violence,” they said. “And anyone who writes that should have to write twenty thousand words about the families of the people their heroes kill.” Meaning the grieving, the funerals and paperwork, the figuring out how to make a living and raise children, the way violence cascades through the generations.
Not wanting to get in trouble, I immediately went home and vowed to rewrite the end of the novella I’d been working on, where an unstoppable action hero cuts his way through a dozen henchmen on his way toward dealing a blow to an evil oligarchic power. And I’d like to think this story was not quite so egregious on this score as it could have been. Much of the story focused on the protagonist’s return home, dealing with guilt and PTSD. But still, my hero’s life after doing some awful things was pretty good. He got to process his trauma and grow from the experience, and that felt like a good character arc, but it didn’t feel like justice was being done.
I started to think a lot about this. Should I punish my hero? Have him get hit by lightning, kill off his family, afflict him with some poetic torment? But reality isn’t like that. The universe doesn’t punish bad people with Final Destination-style freak accidents. Should I have him stand trial? But the story was about war, and his community wasn’t about to give him up to the oligarchs he had taken on. Nor was I the author going to disavow the cause that had sent him on his mission. And anyway, soldiers and war criminals get away with terrible violence all the time.
I realized I was exploring a space with pros and cons to each option. So like all good futurists I drew a four-square. One axis went from Material to Poetic. On the poetic half of the grid, justice is delivered by the author, the structure of the story. On the material side justice is delivered through the internal logic of the story’s world. The other axis goes from individual to collective. Individual justice focuses on the experience of the wrong-doer. The collective side focuses on the community process.
Let’s go through these quadrants one by one.
Poetic individual: that’s karma. Your character does something bad, and you the author make sure bad things happen to them afterwards. The events of the story conspire to bring suffering upon the character, even if those consequences are seemingly random, statistically unlikely, or disconnected from actual crime. In the end the reader should feel like the crime stirred the wrath of righteous, vengeful furies.
Material individual: call this quadrant “torment.” This is where the act of wrongdoing is an affliction that echoes through the character’s life. The torment is often internal guilt, shame, PTSD, broken relationships, a cycle of trauma that is passed on to others. The reader should feel like the crime wasn’t worth the pain it caused the criminal, even if the criminal “gets away with it.”
Material collective: this quadrant would be the trial. The story shows us the workings of a justice system that allows a community or a victim to hold the criminal responsible. Again, maybe in the end the criminal gets away with it. But at least we give the community a forum to confront the criminal. The reader should see that society tries to punish those who violate the social contract.
Collective poetic: This, I think, is the formulation that suddenly occurred to me when my friend proposed twenty thousand words of homework about the families of the people hurt by the Bonnie and Clyde couple we’d been discussing. Now maybe my interlocutor's point had simply been, understand the weight of violence before you glorify it, or write about it too casually. But nonetheless I think it’s a really interesting way to think about this quadrant. The story zooms out, shows the reader what happens as a result of the wrongdoing, takes the story itself, the attention of the audience, away from the criminal and gives it to those they hurt. It’s a way to serve justice in a story that exists in a fundamentally unjust world. In the end the reader should see that the crime was wrong because of the real damage it did to other people. But also they should feel like the crime wasn’t rewarded by the author by continuing to attend to the feelings and sympathies of the criminal.
Now, of course, a story can use more than one of these mechanisms, or none of them. Not all stories feature sympathetic characters doing problematic things, and they certainly don’t have to. And it’s a whole other question whether it is the responsibility of the author to pass judgement on fictional characters or somehow make their stories “fair and balanced.” I don’t think art or fiction needs to teach morality necessarily, though I do think fiction can help teach empathy, and empathy is often the seed of moral thinking. But I’m not going to hate on a well-executed book that doesn’t, in some way, punish the “bad” things its characters do——especially because what’s good and “bad” are often socially and politically contested, which is what makes stories about crime, violence, violation of the peace, and so on so interesting to write about.
Still I do think this notion of the collective poetic might help us see the thematic and moral blind spots that a lot of tried-and-true writing wisdom can miss. Take, for instance, our villains. We live in an age with a lot of tragic, complicated villains. I certainly think this is an improvement on one-dimensional villains who are evil for the sake of evil, who wear the spikey black Sauron helmet and everything. But if we look at these villains through the lens of delivering collective poetic justice in our stories, I think we might find that these characters aren’t serving to advance our moral thinking quite like we want.
Having villains with tragic backstories is one of the ways writers cheat on punishing them in the story. They frontload all the suffering bad characters deserve into the flashbacks that describe how they become bad characters, and then you sort of let them go about their mayhem with a minimum amount of reflection beyond what’s needed to identify and stop them. But the problem is that in the real world, the worst people are often those who never suffer at all. Most real villains are entitled and unsympathetic of others because they never got told no and their appetites just evolved to wanting things we should find objectionable.
Yet we’re obsessed with the suffering that makes the villain. Regular people will find cause in everyday conversation to say things like “if only people had bought Hitler’s paintings.” Are you kidding me? We aren’t going to prevent future Hitlers by patronizing every wannabe artist we pass on the street. Preventing Hitler from doing evil isn’t about distracting him with some other kind of success. It would’ve involved not having anyone follow him when he started spouting evil ideas, and generally telling off and correcting the people who did. It would mean changing the societal inequalities and structures that make those ideas appealing. It’s not Hitler’s personal resentment and anger that’s the problem, the problem is that too few people tried to get in his way.
Or take the Oliver Stone biopic about George W. Bush, starring Josh Brolin as a much more interesting villain than Thanos. The basic theory the movie has about George is that he had daddy issues. George felt the need to become president so he could one up his old man. Which is a great story, the kind of character complexity any writer should be proud of.
Now, I don’t doubt that that was probably a part of W’s motivation in running for president, but that’s not the reason he’s a war criminal. He’s a war criminal because of all the other people who encouraged and steered and yes-manned him, and who wrote up battle plans and profited off the military contracts and lied to the public and followed the orders sending off planes of working class teenagers to kill other working class teenagers on the other side of the world.
My point is we do a disservice to our readers and our society when we focus on tragic villain origin stories, not because those stories aren’t interesting and not even because it excuses their crimes, though there is that, but because doing so excuses everyone else who should be held to account.
(There’s more to this talk, which maybe I’ll post in a future newsletter.)
New Story: “The CO2lector”
I have a new story out this month, published by the Open Air Collective, a carbon removal advocacy and research network. The story follows Raf, a 19-year-old “sunvalet” in future Reno, who——after a fateful encounter with a car-mounted direct air capture rig——develops an interest in the complex, liberalized, carbon removal industry. With the help of his hustle-bro millennial grandma, Raf works his way into the transportation side of this burgeoning sector messily trying to repair the climate.
We’ve billed the story as “Carbonpunk,” as it is interested in the “burner phone version” (to borrow C’s incredible term) of a particular, potential technological upheaval——that of cleaning up the carbon waste we’ve dumped in the atmosphere. Open Air released the story as part of their work on the CDR pavilion at COP27.
We also recorded a great webinar conversation with myself, Denise Baden (editor of the Green Stories COP anthology I discussed last month), and Reena Shah. Check it out! And I’d love to know what you think of “The CO2lector.”
Art Collection: “Shooting Star Swamp”
I don’t have this in hand yet, but I’m stoked that this week I tracked down a print of this Magic: The Gathering art by Mark Poole. Magic (the trading card game, not, like, sleight of hand tricks) has been hobby of mine for almost twenty years now, but I only have a couple of pieces of MTG art. One of my last bits of travel before COVID was to a MTG tournament in Reno (inspo for the above story), where I picked up prints of this “shooting star” basic land series. Four of them anyway: plains, island, mountain, and forest. The swamp was sold out. I figured I could complete the set later, but it wasn’t actually available online——and the pandemic nixed big paper MTG gatherings for a few years. Last weekend, however, a friend was competing at the North American regional championship in Atlanta, and I was reminded to check on this swamp, which was now online. Excited to no longer be an Omnath household. We are now a Horde of Notions household.
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