Is art—in particular, writing—meant to be representative or aspirational?
On Twitter, where I admittedly spend more time than is probably recommended, the issue of representative vs. aspirational writing comes up often, if not necessarily using these exact terms.
What I like to call “representative writing” involves the world of the story being portrayed much like the real world, with all our existing societal ills and adversities.
“Aspirational writing”, on the other hand, features a world we aspire t
o live in—a more idealized setting where our real-world social problems don’t exist, or don’t manifest in the same way as in reality.
Some genres and sub-genres seem to naturally lean more to one form of writing than the other: romance, cozy mystery, and high fantasy tend to be aspirational; thrillers, military fiction, literary, and historical fiction tend to be representative.
Personally, I see both of these forms as equally valid, with pros and cons to each approach.
Depending on the story, aspirational writing might offer fewer life lessons that are immediately applicable, since the world from which they arise doesn’t actually exist (yet).
But it can also provide a working model of what the world could be. It can inspire and motivate the weary and the jaded to new ways of thinking and imagining that they never could have conjured up on their own.
Meanwhile, representative writing often dramatizes all the worst parts of the world we know: violence, discrimination in its endless iterations, suffering and hopelessness. Even in stories that ultimately have a happy/happy-ish ending, it can be exhausting—just one more spoke on the never-ending wheel of real-life misery (particularly during a year and counting of the Covid-19 global pandemic).
Yet representative writing can help people feel seen—showing them others suffering as they have—and thereby offer moral support and encouragement. Seeing a character struggle with our same hardships yet still succeed in the end can be a revelation and healing to those who need it.
For a writer, the form of writing they employ is both a personal and artistic choice, one that they get to make again and again with each new novel. So too do readers get to pick their level of literary engagement with the real world.
And while I’d argue that more writing overall is representative than not, representative writing currently seems to be suffering reduced popularity.
On Twitter it usually comes up, as Twitter things typically do, in the form of criticism:
“I don’t need to read about violence against women/discrimination against people of colour/X form of harm against X marginalized group because it already happens often enough in real life.”
“I don’t read to experience the real world. I read to escape it.”
“When writing fantasy/sci-fi, where you have the freedom to create literally any sort of world, why would you create one that replicates the same systems of oppression as the real world?”
This last complaint especially edges into a subsection of people who not only dislike representative writing, they seem determined to willfully misunderstand its purpose. People who claim that writing that includes negative or challenging situations (e.g. sexual violence; characters who are openly racist; romantic relationships with questionable power dynamics) equals the author’s endorsement of that thing in real life, as well as their inherent sadism, poor values, and overall harmfulness as a person.
Even where these negative/challenging subjects are actively critiqued on the page.
It’s a baffling and, frankly, frustrating perspective, an infestation of purity culture where so much of fiction has always been about exploring and pushing beyond society’s restrictive boundaries.
All stories seek to examine the human condition and reveal varying proportions of both entertainment and valuable life lessons.
It’s a personal choice how a writer goes about this, just like the reader gets to choose to either read a story negatively (a paranoid reading), which is to automatically ascribe ill-intent on the writer’s part, or to read it generously (a reparative reading).
To quote Emily VanDer Werff, who discusses literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1995 concept of paranoid vs. reparative readings,
A reparative reading seeks out what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art, even if the work is flawed. Importantly, a reparative reading also tends to consider what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art for someone who isn’t the reader.
So in the end, perhaps writing isn’t meant to be either representative or aspirational at all, but rather just meant to be, period.
Or else perhaps it’s true intent—especially when it comes to writing we don’t enjoy—is to serve as a constant reminder that we all experience it, experience the world at large, in our own individual ways. And there’s nothing wrong with any of them.