On the Responsibility of Writers

What responsibility, if any, does a writer have to society?

This was the question I posted to the message board of the writer’s group I run to be the discussion topic for our next meeting.

I knew at the time of writing it that it was a provocative question – one that different people might interpret in different ways.  Regardless, I was sure it would result in a lively, interesting discussion as my writer’s group meetings always are.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the overwrought response on the message board from an out-of-nowhere, aggrieved and impassioned troll.

Oh, what a hoo-hah that turned out to be.

The notion of “responsibility” was quickly conflated with censorship and my advocating self-censorship among others.  Next, enter the accusations of me being a fake liberal and wannabe communist, and of the entire group “subversively operating in the shadows”, being overly PC, and having dull and fruitless writing careers ahead of us.

All of this was conveyed via such stellar grammatical renderings as “How very dare you?” and “I’m quite literally flabbergasted.”

For the record, I didn’t pose the question as some sort of attack on free speech or to advocate self-censorship. (I actually did so in response to the spate of articles I’d recently read claiming that Fifty Shades of Grey is harmful to society … with me on the side of Fifty Shades, no less.)

That being said, I don’t consider saying whatever the hell you want when you want and how you want to be the only valid alternative to self-censorship. I believe it’s possible to have your say yet still be moderate and considering of how others – i.e. your audience – will receive your words.

(This guy, with all 13 of his ranting comments, is the perfect example of that: because he was so insulting and abrupt in presenting his view, what otherwise could have been a legitimate argument gained no traction from anyone else on the message board.)

All for the story

The automatic response to the question of writer responsibility is often that writers are responsible only to the story.  I happen to agree with this, although perhaps not in the way that others mean it.

Responsibility aheadTo me, being responsible to the story isn’t some airy-fairy notion of stories having a sort of sentience or pre-determination, or of stories writing themselves.  Stories do not write themselves; they are written by writers with free will who make choices.

Writers can choose, for example, to portray real people inaccurately, the way James Cameron did in Titanic by portraying First Officer William Murdoch as a murderer and as having accepted a bribe.  This is not only disrespectful to the legacy of those in question, it can also harm a writer’s credibility and open him/her up to possible libel lawsuits.

Writers also have a choice in how they portray real life concepts.  I don’t mean the relatively minor inconsistencies writers will often knowingly overlook for the sake of the plot, for example, the fact that, immediately following a gun fight, one can’t have a proper conversation since s/he wouldn’t be able to hear properly.

Rather, I’m talking about larger life concepts – those that speak to our frailties or injustices or even our quirks and triumphs as humans – particularly when they are central to the story’s plot.  Things, for example, like war or slavery or science or, in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM culture.

I believe that when writing about such things, a writer has a responsibility to portray them, if not to say “truthfully” since truth can vary from person to person, than at least knowledgeably, as backed by some measure of research and real-world awareness.

Even if the perspective from which a writer is discussing a concept isn’t popular – even if a writer wants to examine it from an alternate perspective, or to subvert it, or to purposely exclude or simplify some aspects of it – s/he should still understand the reality of the concept and represent it as fully and accurately as possibly.

The reason for this is because reading is an educative experience.  This is why libraries are free and have always been recognized as  crucial to the enlightenment of society.

Even when reading just for pleasure and reading this most pulpy brain-candy on the shelf, reading isn’t just mindless entertainment.  Nonfiction isn’t the only writing that teaches; all writing has an impact on the reader.

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)

Stories also influence the way we see the world itself and conceptualize what’s desirable and possible within it.  It’s no mistake that, historically, conquerors and despots seeking to subjugate cultures and nations often began by burning all the books.

Stories are powerful, and always have something to say.  It’s the reason we tell them in the first place.

The most important way a writer is responsible to the story, then, is by never blindly believing it’s only a story.  That and ensuring the main message one’s story espouses is one that the author truly wants it to.

What responsibility, if any, do you believe writers have to society?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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9 thoughts on “On the Responsibility of Writers

  1. I’d say the level of responsibility varies with the work. A Star Wars Expanded Universe novel exists in a pretty safe bubble away from anything we would consider real life. A narrative nonfiction about, say, an unsolved crime, would be rather irresponsible to point to a real person as the guilty party.

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    • Yes and no. Obviously nonfiction work or fiction that overtly references the real world there is a great responsibility to accurate representation. But it’s often in the “un-serious” fiction where writers feel like they get a pass on realistic portrayals, and I don’t believe that’s right. This is how we end up with Star Wars-like novels that only seem to have one woman in the entire universe, or only one person of colour. Or how we end up with a fantasy novel where two kingdoms are fighting a war that blatantly resembles the Iraq War, but captures none of the subtleties inherent in that, or any, armed conflict.

      This isn’t to say that all fiction must be serious and heavy. But as Alicia commented, you can only write from who you are. We’re all inspired by real world because the real world is where we all live. I think it’s important for us to dig a little deeper into those inspirations.

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  2. I didn’t think I was doing this nearly as much as I am.

    When getting to the end of Book 1 of PC, it suddenly became very important to get a character’s beliefs exactly right, and very clear – and I realized the rest of the trilogy is strongly affected by those principles, and it does matter.

    And that different characters also have those concerns, and that, since I’m doing three pov characters, it matters if I get them right – true to themselves.

    Never mind that each of these characters has some basis on something in me – and my own uncertainties led to giving each something different.

    You can only write from who you are. You can’t possibly not do that unless you are collaborating, and allowing another writer into the driver’s seat.

    I don’t think that is in any way wrong – I have strong opinions about certain things, and a close read is going to find some of them.

    So be it.

    But still within the absolute pov of the characters – and I’m not changing any of them to suit myself.

    Great discussion topic.

    Alicia

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    • I think that character honesty (i.e. being true to his/her character) is just another means through which writers express the truth of the real world. I totally agree with you that you can only write from who you are. I just think it important for writers to realize that the way they interpret the world isn’t necessarily the way others do, and that a bit of education into alternate perspectives (whether they end up being incorporated into the work or not) is useful and will lead to richer stories. In writing from three POVs, I guess you have three times the amount of work; lucky you! 😉

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      • Oh, yeah. Couldn’t agree more. The world is FILLED with other opinions than mine – aptly defended by them – and I take them very much into account.

        But I have choices, always: which characters do I create, and how do I give them life. An aware author uses those choices; one who is not aware will still show his biases, but with less control.

        It’s all part of the fun.

        Though I wonder about all those writers with really violent conspiracies and supernatural beings – not me.

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      • I used to wonder about them too. But then had a fascinating conversation with my 75-year-old father, in which he said he liked violent shows and movies because it affords him a vicarious release of his inner darkness that society dictates he keep in check. Psychologists refer to it as Catharsis Theory, and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I get such a thrill out of watching warrior women with big swords not take anyone’s (particularly men’s) sh*t.

        I think we write for the opportunity to explore all facets and shades of our inner selves. For some people, it will manifest in the form of a supernatural creature and for others, a medieval lady. We’re all different. We should probably be glad that we all exorcise our demons and exercise our angels in our own ways or else all our work would be pretty samey-same.

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      • I’m all for variety – I don’t like the gore. I stopped watching Criminal Minds on TV when they went from focusing on the team and catching the bad guy, to giving the bad guy each week a gory stage to be bad on. I want me some story, some relationship, some talking and living and changing and copying going on.

        And I hate car chases.

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