Being a writer comes with great responsibility
Ok, sorry to start this post off with an echo of the clichéd Spiderman quote, but it’s true. As writers, we have the power to influence readers. We can change the way readers perceive the world and themselves, which in turn, can influence the way they treat the world and the people around them.
This has been proven time and again. Just look at the modern classics: George Orwell’s 1984 (a dystopian novel warning the dangers of a totalitarian society) and Animal Farm (an allegory criticizing the Soviet Union under Stalin), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a discussion of rape and racial inequality in the Deep South of 1930s USA), The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (an exploration of idealism and the dangers of excess and decadence), and so many more.
All of these books are commentary on an aspect of society that deeply resonated with the public. So much so, that some of these books were (and are still) even banned in various countries in fear of how they would influence the population. And these are only a meager few examples of modern controversial novels. Influential books have been around since what is considered to be the birth of literature. Books and poems like The Iliad by Homer, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Utopia by John More and so many more have impacted readers for thousands of years. Likewise, social commentary is found in all genres; it’s not exclusive to what’s considered literary or realistic fiction. (More on that in a previous post)
The simple truth is: Books influence people.
As writers, we should consider exactly what we’re publishing
I always try to be conscientious and question what I am writing. Is this character a real, three-dimensional, relatable character? Or is he/she merely a stereotype? Am I unknowingly perpetuating sexism, racism, homophobia or any other oppressive ideology with this scene or event in my plot line? What is my book saying about our society? Is it truly representing our world and its diversity?
Now, I don’t want to get political or too amped up about the unfortunate social issues we have in our society today. This blog is about the craft of writing and literature, and such opinionated rants don’t have a place here. (I am also aware that not everyone shares my opinions or beliefs on all issues, and I respect that.) However, it’s nearly impossible to separate that political/social activist part of myself from my writer self. They are one and the same. Because they are all me. Just as all of the facets of yourself make up who you are as a writer. And you should always be true to yourself— especially in your writing.
Your writing should reflect your perception of the world
Trust me, even when you’re not thinking about it, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Take a look again at your current work in progress or at works you’ve written and published. Inevitably, you have subconsciously chosen to use a certain character, setting, or event to portray your view on social issues. Because that’s what your writing should do: be a commentary (openly or subtly) on things that matter to you.
This is done in numerous ways. Tensions between humans and an alien race in a sci-fi novel can represent racial tension. The fall of a government in a dystopian novel can be compared to the author’s opinions on politics. Even the way your narrator describes the events of your book illustrates how they (and in part you) feel about certain aspects of our society.
Even the little details of your story matter
Aside from politics and civil rights issues, writers can influence people’s perspectives on any aspect of life. I’m talking about things like tolerance and morals that are represented in all forms of writing from books to poems to films to even TV shows. Today, a lot of what I see being produced is quite frankly, garbage. Instead of meaningful stories being told, we have narratives encouraging greed, selfishness, apathy and intolerance. We are cultivating a generation of self-centered, negative idiots. We’re being fed the same stifling crap over and over again.
Shows I used to watch as a child taught empathy, respect and tolerance while also being entertaining: eg. ABC’s Boy Meets World (1993-2000) which followed a boy’s coming-of-age and the life lessons he learned along the way. Now, sadly, kid’s TV shows are mostly about young people trying to be famous actors or singers, or about idolizing people and trivial things. This can be detrimental to young viewers’ perceptions of themselves and others.
This is not only seen in stories for kids. Other books, shows and movies for all ages often center on: popularity, peer pressure, racial/cultural stereotypes, and what society deems expected of certain genders and groups of people and how they should behave. If these subjects are not clearly identifiable as social commentary, they can encourage these negative traits and serve only to produce enmity and divide us.
Shouldn’t we want to make a difference? Don’t we want our readers to be positively affected or changed by the time they finish our story? Countless times have I pondered on a book’s message or have changed my perception on something because of how it was presented in a book, poem, movie or show. Isn’t that what writing, what art, is all about?
So why then are these detrimental stories being written?
What or who is responsible for this? The answer may surprise you: it’s us.
We are responsible for all of the bad movies, TV shows and books out there. Unfortunately, money runs the world today. What sells is what is being made. Even if it is representing oppressive ideology and setting a bad example, especially for young readers and viewers. Even if it is harmful and not conducive to a positive, healthy environment. If people keep buying into them, they will continue to be produced.
Yes, even as readers we hold some responsibility. As writers, this pressure is even stronger since we are the ones creating it. So don’t be another one of those writers. Let’s try to be the change. Even if you don’t want to be an active participant in this change:
People will see things in your novels whether you like it or not
Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “I’m seriously not trying to make any statement or influence anyone. I just want to write an entertaining story!”
That’s what I said at first too. And that’s what I thought I had written when I finished the first draft of my current novel-in-progress; just a fun, entertaining high fantasy story for people to escape their dull “real” worlds with for a while. But then the beta readers in my workshop started to say that so-and-so symbolized this, and that this event was a comparison of that historical event, and I went “Woah, woah, hold it! What!?” Without even realizing it, there were readily identifiable messages throughout my novel.
Now, you can say that “people see what they want to see,” and in a sense, that is true. But then again, that’s sort of the point. People will see things in your novels whether you like it or not. And more than likely, symbols, motifs and social commentary will crop up even if you had no intention of creating them. So why not try to take a measure of control and make sure these messages represent what you believe and want others to understand about our world?
That could be anything from avoiding the damsel-in-distress character, to including LGTBQA couples, to giving your racially diverse characters more personality traits than just what their limited stereotypes deem necessary. (Again, I know these are touchy subjects about which there are varying opinions and I respect that.) Of course, this is your book and it should represent what you believe so write whatever you wish to address based on your views and opinions.
I hope I haven’t scared any of you away from your dreams of being a writer. But if you are a little afraid, good! That means you are digging into things that really matter to you and that will be reflected in your work in a positive way. All writers (even the best, well-known, well-published ones) are scared about how their work will be received. But if you are aware of your role as a writer in the literary community and of how much of an impact you can have on people, you can take the necessary measures to make sure your novel is not just meaningless words on a page.
Most importantly, be passionate about what you write
When you write about what makes you angry or ecstatic or what you’d like to see change in our world, your writing will be that much more powerful. If you were passionate while writing it, the reader should be able to feel that and love reading it.
What are your thoughts on how literature affects society? Do you think as writers we should take responsibility for what we publish? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.