the myth of writer’s responsibility

This issue comes up once in a while.  And like so many things, it seems to crop up in several places at once when it does.  Collective unconscious? Hive mind? I don’t know…

I was on a writing website and involved in a comment thread where the discussion centered around BDSM and “rape fantasies”. The point of the thread was that we (in our romance/erotica group) would respect the fact that everyone is writing fiction, and the inclusion of scenes/themes of an ethically murky nature would be considered pure fantasy, and not a reflection of the writer’s personal ethics or beliefs. I agreed, and perhaps a dozen of us chimed in on the issue.

Reading my blog feed the other day, I saw this…

From Amelia C. Gormley’s Blog:

“So before you jump all over an author and savage him or her with URDOINITRONG! stop and ask yourself the following questions:

1) Is the character doing this because the author is ignorant of the subjects at play, or because the author has chosen to take that route for reasons specific to that author, that character, or that scenario?

and 2) Who gave you the authority to demand an author make each and every work a treatise on the safe and proper use of condoms, or BDSM play, or whatever?

It’s really that simple. Authors are under no obligation to pander to your person crusade on “how to condoms” or “how to BDSM” etc. Their only obligation is to tell a story. You’re under no obligation to like it. You’re under no obligation to read it. Just don’t get self-righteous about it or assume objectionable creative choices equate to ignorance. And recognize that you have absolutely no right whatsoever to expect or demand that they do so.

My books are here to tell a story, not to promote a social agenda–mine or anyone else’s. Full stop.”

link to full post

I agree! Yes, this is right. No one should tell an author what to write or how to write it. Stories don’t hurt anyone.

Then I was looking at some reviews, and found a few that basically held the opposite view. They said that the author has a responsibility to present things (like BDSM) in a fairly accurate way, because so many readers are not informed about the subject, and fiction for them has a somewhat educational function. I found myself agreeing with this, to an extent, as well. (wishy-washy much?) I even recalled chiming in on another thread, about the dreaded Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey, saying that it was dangerous for books to glorify unhealthy relationships, especially when the readers are mostly young women.  

An interesting quote from a 1974 Kurt Vonnegut interview:

“It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one…..

“I think writers should be more responsible than they are, as we’ve imagined for a long time that it really doesn’t matter what we say. I also often have First-Amendment schizophrenia — there’s a lot that I wish wasn’t popular and in circulation, I think there is a lot of damaging material in circulation. . . I think it’s a beginning for authors to acknowledge that they are myth-makers and that if they are widely read, will have an influence that will last for many years — I don’t think that there’s a strong awareness of that now, and we have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.” 

from Brain Pickings

A good point. Does it matter how popular your book gets? Would anyone have cared or noticed the issues with Twilight/50 Shades if they had not been sold in such high numbers? At what point do stories take on a life of their own?I’ve thought about it in terms of crime, as well. A well researched book about murder, terrorism, kidnapping, etc. could function quite well as a “how-to” guide. Is this a failure of writer responsibility? Where is the line between giving exposure to an issue (like human trafficking, child pornography, or the like), and glorifying/promoting it? Should we care? Or should the story always come first? Are there any stories that shouldn’t be written? So many questions…

And I also think about that “highest compliment” most of us writers hope to receive. The reader who says “Your story helped me”. And I think, if we are so motivated by that, and we say “well, if my work improves the life of one person, then I can consider myself a success”, then isn’t the opposite also true? Wouldn’t it be horrifying to learn that someone stayed in an abusive relationship, or was injured in some unhealthy/unsafe BDSM scenario, or allowed themselves to be used or abused because your book implied it was “normal”?

So I think that maybe both sides are correct, and perhaps as writers we don’t have to do anything (of course), but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what is right, anyway. Just in case.

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