The “True” Responsibility of Authors?
Topics for blog posts and message boards across the internet on any given subject tend to come in waves, I find. One question, or problem or controversy comes to the top, and you find every other blogger posting their thoughts on it.
It’s not always intentional. Any given frame of time withing the writers community say may just happen to have become the “Summer of the Oxford Comma,” wherein a few people happen to write about the topic.
Since the election, (though I can’t say if this is because of the election, though it could be), I’ve come across a few posts in my regular feed of writers dealing with a similar sentiment. Each expressed this in a different way of course, but there has been a trend in the last thirty days of the so called importance of your writing. It’s mission, and the seriousness thereof.
I’d site some of my sources normally, but in this case, I’m going to respond to this mini-trend, because I don’t want this to be about Me vs. Blogger X. IN most cases I don’t think the author’s of the articles in question are bad people. In many ways they are correct in what they say. But in more than a few of this articles/threads I’ve stated the mild exception I’ve taken to the thesis. Whether by chance or by design, thus far nobody has ever responded to my comments, including the normally response-friendly authors of said post.
Since as of now I don’t seem to have kicked up any conversation elsewhere, I’ll share a few simple thoughts on the matter here, though I have addressed this topic before here at TyUnglebower.com
I’ll ask fellow writers some questions here, based on the articles I’ve mentions:
Does our writing in fact have to be complex? Is it required to rip the guts out of the reader? Challenge the very nature of our society? Force people to take a long, frightened, uncomfortable look at their own complacency within a world that is possibly collapsing? Should we as authors use our fiction confuse, agitate, incite? Do we require a theme, indeed a specific purpose, if not a target with every word we put together for every story we tell? Do we choose to disrupt, disturb and ultimately destroy when we make the choice to commit ourselves to writing? Is the value of our body of work, all of it, measured by just how many torches we throw in a mass effort to burn the village to the ground in order to save it?
So many questions there, and more that could be added. I would ask them if I didn’t have at least an answer, would I?
Well, I would. And I just did. Because there is no answer to any of those questions. Actually, there are so many answers to each of those questions that to presume to answer them on behalf of the writing community would be as ineffective as it would be arrogant.
The truth is that these questions must be answered by each author for themselves. And each author will probably answer differently depending on numerous factors throughout their life. Things change. People change, and contrary to some opinion, even writers are people.
I felt a stirring need to address this today, because contrary to the subjectivity I’ve put forth on these subjects just now, several of the articles that sparked my recent consideration of this topic presumed to not only answer these questions, but answer them all in the affirmative, on behalf of the writing community. Put it another way, I’re read posts and articles from people on various places in the writing spectrum of commercial success insist that our duty is to do all of the things mentioned in that paragraph of questions below, suggesting in places that to do otherwise, or less is to not take one’s writing seriously.
This was suggested throughout these articles and posts in a variety of ways. Some people have always seen writing in this way. Others indicated that things have changed in the country as a result of the election, and that whatever we authors were doing before it happened, we all have to saddle up and get ready for war, by exposing the ugly truth to our readers and forcing them into action. I’ll paraphrase a few of these pronouncements:
“Ask yourself why you enjoy writing escapist fantasy so much, in a world that now desperately needs all hands on deck to face some approaching cold realities. No matter what you write, your characters must now at least be made tacitly aware through your narrative of just how dark our real world is becoming, and make them act accordingly. Your writing shouldn’t be a vacation, but a battle cry.”
“We can’t be like the Ents wanted to be in LOTR, content to be what we are, staying out of human affairs.”
“If, let’s say, your ultimate goal in writing fiction is to play, have fun, entertain readers who want to do the same, you need to ask yourself why you have no ambition.”
And so on. I think you get the idea. That’s what I keep running into online lately.
I don;t comment on threads or messages boards very often. I never seem to belong, and that remains true now. But the specifics of these messages hit me in such the wrong way I felt the need to respectfully disagree with it in more than one thread. As I said, as of this writing, it’s not caused much response from said threads, so allow me to respond here as I did there.
Appointing ourselves prophets, or jesters, (in the more historical sense) is in conflict with common advice to writers that we must not write with the expectation that we are going to be read, or get paid for it, or make a difference. Now, I have never accepted that position wholeheartedly, but the fact is that it’s a common perspective, but is not at all compatible with the idea of being that important.
Secondly, and if you write with any amount of pride you know this; writing well is difficult. It doesn’t matter what you are writing ion what genre. If you are serious about producing what is your best work, (work which again you hope someone will read someday) it involves a lot of time and work. I think some of the “author as agitator” crowd give off the impression, (though perhaps not intentionally) that if your writing isn’t doing the Salmon Rushdie thing, it must be easy. It isn’t. And frankly I think there is plenty of “important” literature out there that feels lazy.
Entertaining the fickle masses of our fellow human beings that have millions of choices besides us is no easy task. Writing, editing, correcting, rewriting, self-publishing a piece and all of the endless marketing you have to do for yourself afterward or seeking an agent, getting one, getting a publishing contract (and all of the endless marketing you have to do for yourself afterward) are not easy. A few get lucky, and becomes stars, yes, we can’t deny it. But the fact is, it takes work to create a novel expressly for escapism and entertainment, if quality is a concern.
Entertaining people, in any of the arts, is far from easy if you don’t want to be cheap and shoddy in your work. It does in fact take motivation. It takes ambition.
So if as an author we find ourselves with some attention, are we to tell the readers in our fledgling fan base that, “as much as I appreciate you being entertained by my previous novel, now that I have your attention I really need to remind you of how lost, corrupted, privileged or ignorant you are. It’s time to truly challenge you to such a degree that my words will give you headaches, keep you up at night, and possibly make you weep. Click here for that!”
Plus, I’ll ask again what I have asked many times before; if the world is a dark, cruel place, and if it really is becoming worse as world events swirl out of control around us, why is entertaining someone an inferior goal to “fighting the power,” and such? Do we not trust readers of high fantasy to also be socially aware? If a woman reads nothing but suspense novels that have erotic twists, do we assume she isn’t paying attention to Standing Rock? Perhaps such people have enough of being challenged, and getting kicked in the teeth by the world the rest of their lives, and they just want our book to vanish into for a while. An ambition to help people do this is somehow lesser?
Obviously fiction has, does, and will continue to start social change, and it will do so at times by making us uncomfortable. By scaring and repulsing us. I respect authors who view that as their mission. I also respect those who continue to seek ways to entertain, humor or yes, offer us vacation from the world we are in. Both camps contribute, and we really only ought to concern ourselves with quality, engaging work, not with whether or not we are chipping away chunks of the status quo with tools approved of by our friendly neighborhood literati.
Some of my works have themes. Lessons. A moral or two. Other of my works are yarns, and meant to be so. Whether I succeed at either of those goals I leave up to my readers, who can be more than one thing at a time, such as reader and citizen. My work can be either. I, Ty Unglebower, person as well as author can be both, or either, depending on what I choose any given time I sit down at my keyboard.
- Posted in: Writing