What do we write about now?

In addition to everything President Trump has done, he has eliminated entire genres of fiction.

Cold War spy thrillers where a hostile power tries to take over the United States government? Today, it’s the subject of an active investigation. An adversary who tries to blackmail the president with compromising information? Look at all the compromising information that has already been released about this president. A dystopia where the United States has been turned into a brutal totalitarian state? Someone told me she watches A Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu to escape from the news.

Today’s headlines even affect YA. Want to write a book about a group of teenagers who endure a terrible tragedy and must battle the evil, cowardly, and corrupt adults who threaten to destroy them and their world? It has already been done.

So, what do we write about now?

We must acknowledge that the world has changed and the genres used to cubbyhole books for the past twenty years no longer apply. What do manic pixie girls and moody vampire guys have to say about mass shootings and the forced separation of children from parents? How can we talk about battling zombies when we see real monsters on the news?

I see us at the same state we were at the end of World War I. For writers and other artists 100 years ago, traditional rules of style, structure, and suitable content were inadequate to describe the world that emerged from the ruins of war. Whatever confidence they had in the old familiar order had been upended by the changes they saw around them. As a result, we got the hedonistic ennui of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the pared-down grittiness of Ernest Hemingway, as well as Cubism, Dadaism, and movies like Metropolis and Nosferatu. Every major social change forced the arts to respond with new styles, genres, and ideas.

What does writing look like in the era of Trump, Brexit, and nationalistic populism? There are a few things I see.

  • Inclusion can’t be just a checklist thing where we put in token characters until our cast looks like a stock photo of business people. We need to put in the effort to develop well-rounded characters and understand what that identity means to them. Representation isn’t just having someone of ethnic group A or sexual orientation B. It’s when we see ourselves in that character.
  • Genres have to adjust to the times. Science fiction has always been the first to comment on emerging social trends. We’re also seeing it in horror with movies like Get Out. What about other genres? How can romance, YA, and fantasy adapt to changing times? Can these genres be modified? Can new ones emerge?
  • Experimentation is essential. Familiar formulas and tropes limit our vision because they were geared for a world that is becoming obsolete. As artists have in the past, we need to break rules and twist expectations. If the world has changed, how do we change our artistic decisions to fit it?
  • Hope has to be part of our writing. There is enough of a sense of hopelessness in today’s world. But the tacked-on Hollywood happy ending seems even more fake and demoralizing when the future seems grim. There are ways to offer hope while being realistic. We can show how people can preserve their humanity in the most inhumane of situations. How values of mercy and compassion can achieve some small victories in the face of cruelty and greed. Or at least, we can show the cruel and greedy suffer the consequences of their actions. We need to offer the comfort, “If we can hold out a little longer, we can get through this.”

The world is changing, and we have to change our writing to reflect it. Our words can help people understand and cope with times of uncertainty, and we can offer them the courage and reassurance to make the world better.