Every once in a while, you come across a book that strikes you like lightning; it’s a glorious time to be a reader. A few years ago, G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill came to me like that. I loved the humor, the dialogue, the surprises, the two starring lunatics; I loved the ending, which was a revelation of the entire book. I was fascinated by what questions the novel raised, and how. I wrote about it, more than once. If my weekends ever free up, I’m going to write a screenplay of The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
Still, even books that strike like lightning are eventually subject to cooler analysis. Although I didn’t notice it much at my first reading, Notting Hill has a certain peculiarity: There are almost no women. I don’t mean this the way people usually do, which is that there were women, just not enough or not very important. I mean it literally; if there was a single named female character, or a single sentence spoken by a female, I can’t remember it.
I was unrepresented in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And yet there I was, enjoying it.
People talk about the need to diversify speculative fiction, about how women and various ethnic groups are underrepresented or excluded in the genre. One writer asserted that “people of color” don’t read speculative fiction because of its lack of diversity.
I don’t object to anyone’s desire to diversify speculative fiction, though I would have a thought or two about the methods. (No quotas.) What I disagree with is the notion that people are unrepresented in stories that do not offer skin-deep reflections of themselves, or that it should be hard to connect with a story that does not have characters like oneself.
This fixation on the male/female divide, or physical diversity (pretty much a matter of pigmentation), can become myopic. People lose sight of the universal humanity that transcends all our natural human differences. If an author has created any character well, giving him or her a sense of life and complexity, then that’s enough for us to connect with. Any character that really seems human is enough like ourselves.
We are not, in any deep sense, “represented” in our stories by specific types of people, but simply by people. Even the alien races of speculative fiction, from Elves to Klingons, are made in our image, sprung wholly from our imaginations and self-knowledge; we are the only rational species we know. C.S. Lewis, criticizing Orwell’s 1984, said that its hero and heroine were not nearly as human as the animal protagonists of Animal Farm. True likeness is made of deeper things.
“People are all the same,” P.J. O’Rourke once declared, “though their circumstances differ terribly.” Authors will frequently fail to capture our circumstances, except in the most general terms; in speculative fiction, that’s pretty much the default. But good authors and good stories capture the sameness, the unchanging humanity that is as consistent as the sun itself. Jealousy and courage were no different when Shakespeare wrote about them in the foreign country of the past; love and hatred were felt the same from the first illiterate bard to the Age of the Computer.
Heroes who show us what we admire, villains who show us what we fear or hate, characters who dream, struggle, fail, hope, give up – all these represent us. Every good story is one thread of our human tapestry spooled out. There are no limitations of appearance or circumstance. It is all us.