Although I’m a crime novelist (it’s the reason I was invited to contribute to this blog, after all), I do write in different genres and a recent publication brought home to me how easy it might be to offend readers without wishing to. It was a fantasy story, a book about the tensions and laughs that could be generated by online role-playing games and the way they tend to blur the separation of real and virtual worlds. It’s called Alternative Dimension and its primary aim is to make readers laugh.
Here’s the background: Joe has created a highly successful virtual world in which avatars interact according to the whims of the people who created them. He sends his avatar, Ross Magee, on a tour round it, the idea being to look at national stereotypes worldwide before concentrating in greater detail on the Welsh, Scots and English. And the key word is stereotypes because this is satire. It’s not what I believe any of these nations to be like really and some of the ideas I came up with were based on suggestions from European, Australian and American friends. And yet I’m concerned that the supposed impenetrability of ‘British humour’ might make some readers feel they’re being insulted.
This is a sample of what I wrote.
Joe translocated to Australasia and flew around
Alice Springs in a thick haze of
barbecue smoke, listening to deep discussions about the relative merits of real
and virtual lagers and the finer points of crocodile wrestling. He travelled
through Europe sampling stereotypical attitudes
to food, morality, political corruption and foreigners. All the avatars in the
Latin countries were dark, brooding creatures who burst into gesticulating life
when talking of women, football and either pasta or corridas, but up in
Scandinavia, they were nearly all blonde and still, staring out over the fjords.
Every word they typed on the screen was heavy with strange accents and
Joe found this herd mentality interesting and spent some time acclimatising in various places. His frequent trips to the
him wonder whether it had been wise to give residents so much freedom to adapt
the in-world environment to suit their own preferences. Each state he visited
proclaimed its pride in being part of the Americas and yet the differences between
them were so extreme that he began to wonder what ‘United’ meant. The south
thought the north was populated by effete homosexuals while the north failed to
understand the semantic lapses that led their southern counterparts to confuse
the words ‘bride’, ‘groom’ and ‘first cousin’. The west claimed to be the true
representatives of American history, the east celebrated a long European
ancestry. And, except for a few individuals in USA Kentucky
every single resident had wonderful teeth. Tennessee
To the north were the Canadians, who were thought by all to be Americans, but nicer.
Joe was more familiar with the European experience and nowhere did he find more compelling evidence of the comfort of stereotypes. Russian avatars cried a lot, drank a lot, and sang mournful songs. In
those who bothered to build roads in the cities piled cobblestones across them
to save time when the next revolution or strike came round. There was general
bewilderment among them at the idea that anyone wanted to be anything other
than French. The Germans would pause briefly to smile mirthlessly at this
before getting on with doing whatever they were doing very efficiently. And the
Dutch, anxious to be inclusive and give equal status to their urban and rural
myths, would bend over their tulips, a joint dangling from their lips, look
across at their bikes leaning against a windmill and, to the sound of wooden
clogs on cobbles and the occasional splash as someone fell into a canal, simply
go on being liberal. France
That’s it. It’s all meant to be a joke and yet I’ve had plenty of emails and comments over the years that have obviously taken such things seriously and believe me to be a bigot peddling xenophobic ideas. I’m not sure we can avoid such responses so, as I keep telling myself, be careful what you write.