Should Authors Be Good Role Models?

JK Rowling

I recently concluded that reading Young Adult dystopian isn’t for me.

Admittedly, having just celebrated my 35th birthday, it’s hardly a revelation that I’m the genre’s target audience.

However, my conclusion came even less recently than that; it happened about a month ago when I finished my sixth YA dystopian title this year after Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay, Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy, and Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season:

The uber-popular Divergent, by Veronica Roth (soon to be a movie in 2014).

In this book, all 16-year-olds – the main character, Tris, included – undergo often violent and competitive initiations in order to be inducted into one of four societal factions that go on the govern the rest of their lives (full plot summary here).

(Minor spoiler)

At one point during her initiation, Tris is attacked at night by three boys she outranks in the competition, who try to kill her and likely would have raped her as well were she not rescued in time.

Afterward, her rescuer suggests reporting the attack, but Tris refuses, stating,

“I don’t want them to think I’m scared.” (p.284)

Her rescuer (himself something of an authority figure) goes on to suggest she rely on her friends to help keep her safe, and, because Tris outranks many of them as well, adds,

“The others won’t be as jealous if you show some vulnerability. Even if it isn’t real.”(p.285)

(End spoiler)

I found this scene so repellent, I seriously considered not finishing the book.

To me, this scene reinforces the tendency for women to not report violence and sexual assault for fear of the numerous indignities they generally face after doing so. As well, it implies victim-blaming: in order to get her friends to help her, Tris has to feign helplessness so they won’t be jealous and what – think she had it coming?

I did end up reading the entire book, but the I deducted a star from my review because of that scene.

I also started pondering, among others, the question that comprises the title of this post.

So should they?

The moral compass

My initial reaction, with regards to authors of YA, is to say yes – that YA stories should contain useful life lessons and morals rather than sacrifice them for the sake of an engaging or otherwise marketable plot.

Teens and tweens are often impressionable, lacking the social awareness and knowledge to parse sensitive issues that are presented in overly simplistic or unquestioning terms.

At the same time, youth are huge consumers of media of all sorts, and use it to shape their values, beliefs, and perceptions of life and their purpose in it, particularly as they start relying less upon their parents to explain the world and help direct their moral compasses.

However, this immediately raises the question of which morals and whose morals are the “right” morals.

I personally find playing fast and loose with issues related to assault irresponsible.  I’m also not fond of stories in which kids are trained to be fighters (AKA child soldiers).  This is the hallmark of the YA dystopian genre, yet I consider it a serious a modern-day problem that doesn’t warrant glorification in fiction.

But I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with YA books featuring teen sex, so long as it is protected, consensual, non-gratuitous, and adds something meaningful to the plot.

Plenty of people would disagree with me.

Lots of people object to kids swearing, to having interracial friendships and relationships, and to Harry Potter, stating he promotes witchcraft and the occult.  I don’t agree with that.

Thus does the issue of authors of YA as role models become a tricky one.

To say nothing about authors for adults?

Society made me what I am

I’ve definitely noticed that in adult storytelling – particularly TV and movies – we’re being asked more and more to empathize/sympathize with much darker, more dubious, more “edgy”, and at times downright villainous protagonists: e.g. Tony Soprano, Dexter, Walter White, at least half of the Game of Thrones characters.

Walter White

Breaking Bad‘s Walter White

Adults are (one hopes) more savvy at navigating the grey area along the great divide of good and evil, right and wrong, but is altogether crossing over to the dark side a healthy place to dwell?

According to the November/December 2011 issues of Scientific American Mind,

The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.  It can even change your personality.(p. 63)

Personally, I enjoy antiheroes and characters that are morally ambiguous yet nonetheless find it within themselves to do the right(ish) thing in the end.

I don’t like to feel I’m being intentional inured to immoral acts the way one trains a puppy to poo on the newspaper.

Judging by the popularity of the aforementioned shows, again, not everyone agrees on this matter.

My own father doesn’t agree with me.

Just last weekend, he was telling me how he likes violence and depraved characters in storytelling, for since the norms of society constrain him to be good, he obtains a vicarious release of his baser instincts through his entertainment.

Or, in psychology parlance, Catharsis Theory, which itself isn’t without its detractors.

Even more difficultly for adults than youth, the line between artistic expression of all facets of the human condition and plain tacky and tactless is a blurry one.  We’re not all offended by the same things, our unique experiences and interests often leading us to not even notice the same things, let alone perceive them in the same way.

I have no definitive answers; only suggestions:

  • Figure out ahead of time what you are and are not willing to expose yourself to for the benefit of entertainment.
  • If you find something objectionable, let it be known.  Talk about it; blog about it; write a review – anything to get people discussing and debating instead of just accepting it without thought.
  • In the case of fiction for youth, rather than expecting the author to be a good role model, you yourself model the values and behaviour you want the young people in your life to possess.  Read what they’re reading, watch what they’re watching, and discuss it with them. Help them understand the rest of the story.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

15 thoughts on “Should Authors Be Good Role Models?

    • I think that adults are responsible for their behaviour. Young people, I think, need help getting to that point, which is where parents and educators come in, infusing them with good values. At the same time, coming back to adults, no person is an island. I think we’re all influenced by other people in ways that we’re not even aware of, and owe it to ourselves to seek out good influences (however one might define that) to prevent our unwittingly being transformed by things we don’t believe in or agree with.

  1. Interesting topic full of gray areas (at least 50 shades). To me, books with built-in lessons are artificial. In real life, people are more complicated than that. My current WIP (if thinking about it counts as “in progress”) is all kids. It’s going to be rough, because I’m going for realism. Themes and motifs will emerge, but I have no lesson, because I am not wise.

    I know what you mean about glorification of bad people in the recent crop of TV offerings, but I am glad to see the writers and producers are being up-front and questioning about the bad parts. I feel it’s actually better to show and analyze the ugly side, as opposed to something like Ocean’s 11, about a bunch of super-hunky men in great suits who are cool for stealing other people’s stuff. Or James Bond, as much as I enjoy those films, who is a cruel misogynist and a man who stands for all the wonderful things that colonialism wrought. There is no gray area with 007. He is the hero, laws of sovereign nations and the safety of their citizens be damned. I’d also say there is a fair amount of fiction targeted at women that glorifies adultery (I read one about a married woman who was bored, went on a tour of about 50 men, only to realize her husband was a good guy after all. Naturally, he took her back without question, confirming he is indeed a good guy). None of this offends me, by the way. I find the older stuff far more unpleasant, which often holds the default position that women and minorities are objects to serve the goals of white men.

    As you pointed out, the concept of “values” is pretty open-ended. Some parents think good values are going to church on Sunday, flying the flag, spare the rod/spoil the child, marriage is between a man and a woman, etc. A lot of good, honest, generous people are raised on those values. I happen to view those things as, in order: indoctrination, armchair patriotism/nationalism, child abuse, and oppression. I think of myself as a good, honest, generous person as well.

    As always, I enjoy the nuance of your discussions.

    • I disagree that stories with built-in lessons are necessarily artificial, the reason being that I think that every story has a lesson, even if it’s not a grand, sweeping one that will forever alter our understanding of the world. It could be as simple as “always follow your heart” or, to take your example, “a good guy will forgive your adultery”. I think that themes and motifs set up the continuum for the issues that our stories examine, but the way the plot plays out will place a specific point on the line in keeping with the author’s personal beliefs, whether the author is aware of that point going in or not. I don’t think wisdom, or the lack thereof, has anything to do with it.

      I do agree that it’s better to be upfront and question questionable material than to create caricature characters that question nothing. Books and TV series tend to offer more opportunities for this; movies less so, as there’s only so much you can do with two hours. As I mentioned in the post, I like grey characters a lot, but I also like for them to find their heart and their humanity in the end, for that’s what I want for myself in the end, and every story I read/watch is vicarious practice.

      The best defense against kids being indoctrinated is for them to learn to ask questions and think critically (which they hopefully learn over the course of their education), and also through interaction to many different sorts of people.

      • I see a distinction between a lesson and a theme. Maybe it’s a thin line, but, to me, a lesson is often didactic or lecturing, as if the writer somehow is more expert in worldly things than the reader. I view themes as emerging organically from the material.

        Either way, a good, provocative discussion. I really want to do a point counter point someday, but I don’t see how we can make it short enough that people won’t be scared away at the word count!

      • I’ll see you a slight difference between a lesson and a theme, but I don’t think themes have to emerge organically only. I think a writer can go both in with some in mind, and have others emerge over the course of writing.

        I want to do a point-counterpoint with you as well! We could put a strict limit on the word count; I can be concise under duress. Maybe it could be a two-part post.

  2. Great, thoughtful post.

    I was NEVER raised being sheltered from the media, and rather was taught to think critically about it. Aside from porn and the very worst of horror movies I’m allowed to watch, read, and play whatever I want.

    I kind of agree with your father. I get a vicarious thrill from say, brutally murdering the entire society mysoginistic, human traffickers in the post-apocalyptic game Fallout: New Vegas. In real life I’m too much of a goody two shoes to even text in class, so I like to experience “bad” things through the consumption of media.

    In my mind, Divergent (a book to which I am the prime audience) had rape subtext written aaaaaallllll over it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sophia. I’m glad you weren’t sheltered from media growing up. I wasn’t either, which I think is important for young people. The minute you go censoring things, it becomes that much harder for teens to think critically about them, for it becomes more about rebellion instead. That said, I would never buy a book for my nieces without first reading it to determine what kind of conversation to have with them about it.

      I occasionally get the vicarious thrill from media violence, but for me, it more so comes from more active pursuits, like driving fast or listening to hard music while running.

      I was actually really surprised by that part in Divergent. I’d have thought an editor would have nixed that. (Actually, I’m surprised the author wrote it in the first place, being female.) Now I’m curious to see how that scene will be handled in the movie.

  3. Excellent post Janna, and a good debate with Eric. Instinctively I’d tend to go with Eric and your father, but only because I hope that even impressionable readers have good enough influences in the ‘real’ world to realise that it’s a story in their hands, no more. (Thank goodness I ditched the TV years ago).

  4. In my opinion anything goes in all fiction – as long as it is handled well.
    One of my issues with rape, for instance, is how badly it’s handled. Often it’s merely a trick to get you to sympathise with a female character, often “strong” female characters that we’d otherwise think were “bitchy”.
    The child soldier theme doesn’t bother me. In fact I thought its dark implications should have been explored further in the hunger games but it wasn’t. My problem with the YA dystopian genre is that it takes these real issues and put them in the back to some teenage romance and water it down with some wooshy washy plots. The hunger games had a really interesting premise: what will good people do if forced to chose between their own or another’s death?
    But this question was never approached in the hunger games. All the ones trying to kill others were bad people and the people fleeing and trying to hide and just survive the others were good, making the hunger games no different from other YA despite its premise. Every time Katlyn kills someone it’s either accident, instinct or because they asked her to.
    That, in my book, doesn’t count.

    • I agree with you that anything goes in fiction so long as it’s handled well. The problem is that often, it’s not handled well, particularly in YA. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that many YA writers don’t actually have any experience conveying serious, adult issues in an age-appropriate way. This is the sort of thing teachers spend years in university learning how to do. Then along comes some writer whose day job isn’t anything even close to education who decides to throw in a near-rape scene to make the story “edgy”. Ugh!

      As writers, I think we have a responsibility to our audiences to be fully mindful of what we’re espousing in our work and how it might be interpreted and applied outside of the realm of story. As you mention above, we’re all influenced by all types of media, and that’s never going to change. As producers of media rather than mere consumers, that makes us complicit in how that influence manifests, whether we like it or not.

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