How Can You Be?4 min read

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Earlier this year Julie K. Brown, an award-winning Miami Herald investigative reporter, tweeted words that ignited rage across the literary world: “So I’m going to slammed for this … from people I love—but I have to ask how can you be obsessed by fiction—yes ‘we’ get how important it is—but at a time like this? I’m reading history books about how the fuck it came to this. Bracing for the hate.”

And Brown did get the hate, a well-deserved drumming from people pointing out that fiction is one of the ways humanity dreams of and imagines better worlds. Others said that fiction is sometimes all that allows us to keep going forward. That fiction “is a lens through which we interrogate, deal with, and understand the reality of our lives in a more organized or manageable way,” and how fiction “tells us so much about who we are and how we got here, and makes emotional, spiritual sense of life that raw facts alone often can’t.

All of which is true.

Brown was referencing the Ukraine invasion, but she could also have been writing about any of today’s near-endless stream of horrors. In our interconnected existence we endure not only the tragedies and pains of our own lives but continually witness those of the entire world. We see in real-time the deaths and wars and hate and struggles of others along with watching the wholesale destruction of our planet’s environments and the inept responses to all this from our cultural and political systems.

It’s overwhelming. It often feels difficult to do anything more than continually scream from the pain we experience day in and day out.

And then in response we hear from self-appointed “serious” people like Brown, asking “How can you be?”

  • How can you be obsessed with fiction?
  • How can you be reading fantasy or science fiction in this horrible age?
  • How can you be a dreamer with all the horrors around us?
  • How can you be ignoring reality by watching that show?
  • How can you be a fan of that?
  • How can you be creating something that doesn’t matter?

It’s interesting how our world’s “serious” people always find a way to dismiss things. How there are always people finding ways to insist other people’s activities and loves are not up to the task of dealing with life. How, to them, the time is never right to create art and fiction and anything else they deem frivolous.

I suspect such attitudes have always existed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the emerging genre of novels such as those of Jane Austen were looked down upon by serious people. Similar attitudes were directed toward the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres for a large part of the 20th century. Most other creative and artistic pursuits have experienced similar tut-tuttings, with the short list of creative fields being dismissed over the decades including movies, TV shows, jazz, comic books, hip hop, video games, rap, manga, anime, and cosplay.

Hell, it’s a safe bet that every type of art and storytelling has been dismissed at one time or another by the world’s serious people.

But here’s a secret: Serious people don’t have a monopoly on dealing with the reality of our world. Reading history books and news reports aren’t the only way to understand current events. In fact, focusing only on such limited examinations of our lives impairs one’s ability to see the possibilities of how this world can be changed for the better.

When you limit yourself to only seeing certain aspects of existence, you miss so much. Seriously.

I’ve seen how the arbiters of “weighty thoughts” of this world deal with reality and I’m not impressed. Why is it that when people claim to believe in realpolitik—proclaiming they’re dealing with the world as it supposedly actually exists—their actions and words frequently turn into philosophical cover for screwing people over?

We often hear complaints about how idealogues on various sides of political issues ignore facts and ideas if they don’t fit with their beliefs. To that group I’d add the so-called realists and serious people.

Instead, it’s frequently the dreamers and artists and visionaries who change our world for the better. True change comes from people who dare to imagine worlds different from our own. True insight into our lives comes from people whose anger and defiance and love leads them to dream of new possibilities and paths for everyone.

Show me a person screaming “Hell no, I refuse to accept a world like this!” and I’ll show you a person who might create new realities meant for all to embrace.

Our world has countless ways to destroy and damage each and every one of us—and one of the most insidious methods is when “serious” people demand we limit ourselves to reacting to the world as they do. Especially when these people say this isn’t the time for art or stories or books or enjoyment or happiness or anything else that doesn’t mesh with their limited view of misery setting its table for learned contemplation.

But creativity and imagination always matter. Sometimes the simple act of creating and dreaming of different worlds is the best thing we can do in troubled times.

When people ask how can you devote time and resources to art you love at a time like this, understand that they are actually asking “How can you be?”

They’re asking how can you be different from me? How can you take solace in this world? How can you dare to experience dreams that do not touch me or that I haven’t approved?

They are expressing their fear at being unmoored.

Don’t listen to such wailing. Instead, keep creating. Keep dreaming. Keep reading novels and watching shows and doing anything else you love. Keep striving to discover new paths forward. If you want this world to change—and we all do—the first step is the simplest and boldest, as it anchors you against the storms: refuse to allow the serious people to convince you that your imagination does not matter.

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