Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

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Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Mira » 20 Sep 2010, 14:50

The disussion last week on female emotionality in books had some interesting comments that got me thinking.

I think there is a viewpoint that it's the story that is important: An author shouldn't have a message, other than relaying the story and letting the story tell its tale. I think this is a sort-of moral stance that the Story (and the truth is conveys) trumps all.

I do disagree with this viewpoint, and I wanted to share my thoughts. But I'm also interested in what other folks think.

For me, I think that the author who is putting their work out in public incurs a social responsiblity. People will read our words and be influenced by them. I don't think we can ignore that.

I think that writing should be used to do many things: to enhance the culture; to improve the human condition; to help people grow in a positive way; to help people face challenges; to entertain in a way that refreshes; to inspire.

Or, at the very least, not to do the reverse.

If we want to write evil little pieces in the privacy of our rooms, that's one thing. There's something to be said for venting and exorcising the demons.

But to publish them, without any thought to consequences, and without revision, is quite another. I absolutely think there is value in uncovering the hidden and the dark, but I think there are ways to do it that are more socially responsible than other ways. Does that make sense?

But that's what I think. What do other people think, if anyone wants to share?

Edit: Tiger brought up some good points about political correctness, politeness and current social agendas. That's not my meaning when I say: socially responsible. Although it may be some so for some folks. What I think I mean is for the greater good.
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Re: Social responsiblity and the author

Postby TigerGray » 20 Sep 2010, 17:16

For me, it's a middle ground. You should not struggle to make your work more all inclusive, for example, if you do not believe in that. Every author puts some of themselves in to their work, for good or ill, and at a certain point if you try and revise all traces of your opinion out of a work it will fall flat. Not to mention if your character would say "fuck those ragheads" or something, then the character should be allowed to say it. If we all write perfect gems of social responsibility we're not going to get much that's daring, or fresh, or changes minds. Not to mention the fact that we will never be able to present realistically flawed and/or complex people again.

At the same time a little sensitivity is a good thing. Acknowledging your own biases and prejudices is, I feel, important to getting your themes across. As much as we don't want to write a story with a Moral, we do have themes that frequently have some kind of value judgment to them. It would be hard to have bad guys, otherwise. If we're trying to present say, a theme of racial respect, and we portray all of the "bad" characters as genetically unable to overcome some terrible vice and they all have black skin, and the people with white skin represent some kind of moral high ground, we might want to examine what we're saying, if only because leaving it unexamined may very well muddle the intended point.
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Re: Social responsiblity and the author

Postby Mira » 20 Sep 2010, 17:39

Tiger - thank you. I'll ammend my post. By socially responsible, I didn't mean polite, politically correct, or obeying social norms. In fact, socially responsible literature might challenge those social norms.

Writing needs to be wild and free.

And this is a dangerous subject, in some ways, because it can be used as an excuse for censorship.

But it's also an important subject: How will your writing be used? How do you want it to be used?
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby TigerGray » 20 Sep 2010, 19:10

At a certain point, I have no control over how my writing will be used, just as scientists have no control over their research once it is published. (I am both writer and scientist, so I guess I am doubly screwed!)

I would like it to be used for a number of things, not least of which is entertainment. In terms of social issues, I would like people to see that the most unlikely of people can become heroes, and work together to make a better future for everyone. I would like people to get the idea that trauma can refine instead of destroy, and that one shouldn't assume anything about others and then use those assumptions as though they were concrete truth. It would be nice if people struggling with those things got something out of what I wrote, since I put a lot of my heart and thoughts and passion in to it.

I know that people view things through their own lens, though, and that is both the beauty and danger of artwork.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby maybegenius » 20 Sep 2010, 19:53

Great topic :)

I'm in the camp that feels the story always comes first and that we shouldn't be writing books with the sole intention of teaching a lesson (unless we're writing, like, a self-help book). But let me explain my position a little more in-depth.

As Tiger touched on, we writers all have our biases and experiences and opinions that make us who we are. Those biases can and will come out in our writing. I mean, I believe in empowering women. So I'm never going to write anything that implies that women are lesser than men. And by that I mean I'm never going to write anything that unabashedly implies that women are weak, not something like The Handmaiden's Tale that contains misogyny, but uses it as a device to show the inherent flaws of the attitude. Likewise, I think racism/beliefism/etc. sucks and I will not write a story that underhandedly (or not so underhandedly) implies that one belief system or race is better than all others.

I guess those are poor examples, because of course I'd want to write about NOT being a jerk to other people. Another example: I'm not particularly religious or spiritual. I disagree with positions held by a lot of the major religions, and I get frustrated sometimes. So my writing is predominantly secular, which some people are okay with and some aren't.

So anyway, naturally, certain "themes" are clearly evident in my writing. Namely themes like "empowering oneself when faced with limitations" or "belief systems are all roads that lead to the same location" or "bloodlines don't necessarily make a family" or whatever. And if I'm not careful, those themes can start getting preachy.

And THAT is what I mean when I say that it has to be about the story, not the message. Themes are cool - expected, even - but a reader should never feel like, "Oh, this is the author trying to teach me a lesson right now."

As for whether or not we have a social responsibility to send a "good" message, I think that to an extent we do need to be mindful of what we're putting out to the public. I feel like there's enough hate and mistrust in the world, and I feel a personal responsibility not to add to it. I don't believe in restricting freedom of speech or being politically correct 100% of the time, but I am absolutely against blatant hatefulness or positions that are detrimental to a group of people - like implying members of *insert race here* are always violent/corrupt or *insert gender here* are always stupid/unable to function by themselves.

Basically, as quoted by John and Hank Green, I believe in "increasing world awesome and decreasing world suck" through my fiction. And I want to do that by allowing readers to connect to compelling and functional characters, not by being like, "This is my book about treating people nicely."

Does that make sense?
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Regan Leigh » 20 Sep 2010, 21:04

I suppose it's all about how you define those different terms...

I'm assuming you know about the #SpeakLoudly campaign and all the people reacting to a proposed book banning of SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. Some have called the story of a rape victim "soft pornography". Everyone has a different comfort level with what they want to read or what they'd like their writing to represent. I'm on the side of raw honesty and reality. At times, that may come off as too harsh or not a good example. But many times it's real.

I don't know if I'm making sense, but there is another thing to consider. I've worked with many teens who have struggled with very tough issues. (Horrible home life, abuse, grief, etc...) Many of those kids like to read darker books because it pulls them from their reality while giving them examples of worse situations than their own. It makes them feel more "normal". People find inspiration and value in books for different reasons, so it's hard to draw a line. What may be valuable to you, may not be what someone else needs/wants.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Mira » 21 Sep 2010, 07:28

Regan - no!!!! I had no idea about "Speak" until I read Sommer's post in the book's section today.

What a problematic week for me to post this topic, since it may be misunderstood!

I haven't read the book, but from the way Sommer describes it, that book is extremely socially responsible. It sounds like a powerful example of the devasation of rape, and the pressure to be silent about it, as well as an example of how someone can find the strength to heal from it.

No, the topic I'm raising is more what maybegenuis and tigergrey are talking about - how concerned should a writer be with the impact of their work, and with the message it conveys.

I'm trying to think of what I might consider a socially irresponsible book.....but I'm having trouble coming up with one, because I steer away from them.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Margo » 21 Sep 2010, 11:02

Do writers have a social responsibility to consider when they write? That's a difficult question to answer when you consider that what is moral to one person is immoral to another.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby polymath » 21 Sep 2010, 14:18

To my way of thinking literature both influences and reflects society. As pertains to message, in my opinion, anything socially appropriate goes as long as there's an audience. Taboos are another matter with limiting factors, like promoting pedophilia is the worst form of inappropriateness. Any kind of predatory behavior promotion is inappropriate.

Scatological functions are taboo in some quarters, but not necessarily inappropriate. I'm reminded of the foofaraw a few artworks cause every once in awhile because they use excrement for pigment or sculptural features. I think that's hilarious because of the countercultural self-aware Postmodern message. I am scat. Therefore, art is scat. Postmodern from self-aware questioning and challenging authorities and absolutes. Like, scat isn't paint, isn't art. It's scat sayeth critical authorities who take themselves too seriously. Fling a little doo at high brow stratification once in awhile. Remind critics of their origins and self-ordained roles, literally.

The socially redeeming value and benefit to society of literature--reading or writing and study or review--is it fosters thinking consciously, conscientiously, critically for one's self. The world could use a little more of that instead of the tendency to emotionally, indifferently sleepwalk undead through life and let others do the thinking.

Sharp and powerful messages are appropriate, if not essential for literature. Othewise, there'd be no point. It would all be mindless, candy-floss convenient entertainment. Again, I'm reminded of a profound underlying message in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451. Television [technology] destroys culture, said Bradbury in May 2007 about one of the novel's central messages.

Link for L.A. Weekly May 30, 2007 article "Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted;"
http://www.laweekly.com/2007-05-31/news ... nterpreted
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Down the well » 21 Sep 2010, 16:27

polymath wrote:Sharp and powerful messages are appropriate, if not essential for literature. Othewise, there'd be no point. It would all be mindless, candy-floss convenient entertainment.


I fall into this camp. While I don't think writers who try and club their readers over the head with a message endear themselves to anyone, I do think the best books have some statement in the writing, some theme that challenges the reader to think for themselves. I suppose as Polymath pointed out there are some subjects that are taboo, but I think just about any topic can be tackled in literature. If it exists in society there is a way to write about it. Does the writer have a responsibility to treat the subject matter respectfully? Probably. But I like writers who poke people with sticks now and again. To Kill A Mockingbird, A Handmaid's Tale, Huckleberry Finn -- all of these books are gems because they work like speed bumps, forcing people to slow down and pay attention to subjects they might otherwise roll right over.

Anyway, in my opinion, stirring up a little controversy now and then is the socially responsible thing to do. But then again I tend to be a bit of a nonconformist most of the time.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby TigerGray » 22 Sep 2010, 00:02

"If it exists in society there is a way to write about it"

so very much this.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Mira » 22 Sep 2010, 10:00

TigerGray wrote:I know that people view things through their own lens, though, and that is both the beauty and danger of artwork.


I agree! We do the best we can, but how our work is used is completely out of our hands.

maybegenius wrote:
So anyway, naturally, certain "themes" are clearly evident in my writing. Namely themes like "empowering oneself when faced with limitations" or "belief systems are all roads that lead to the same location" or "bloodlines don't necessarily make a family" or whatever. And if I'm not careful, those themes can start getting preachy.

And THAT is what I mean when I say that it has to be about the story, not the message. Themes are cool - expected, even - but a reader should never feel like, "Oh, this is the author trying to teach me a lesson right now."


I agree with you - but I sometimes think that authors confuse the 'hiding' of the message with not having a message at all. I could be wrong, but I think it is the job of an author to have a message - a theme, like you said. And I think the theme should be one that is beneficial to readers.

But, I also think it's the writer's job to hide that message so it doesn't bang the reader over the head. But that's a skill. So, I think there should be a message, but the writer needs to be skilled enough to hide it. My turn - does that make sense? :)

Margo wrote:Do writers have a social responsibility to consider when they write? That's a difficult question to answer when you consider that what is moral to one person is immoral to another.


That's a really good point! I was thinking of that too. I don't know what to do about that one, though. :)

polymath wrote: Sharp and powerful messages are appropriate, if not essential for literature. Othewise, there'd be no point. It would all be mindless, candy-floss convenient entertainment.


Exactly!! That's my thinking too!

Down the well wrote:Anyway, in my opinion, stirring up a little controversy now and then is the socially responsible thing to do.


I agree! Poking society with a stick is one of the most important things a writer can do, IMHO. Look at the Jungle, for example. Or most of Charles Dickens' works.

Writing is a powerful tool for social change. Everything we publish has social impact. And I think it's good to acknowledge that and and stand up to meet the challenge.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby maybegenius » 22 Sep 2010, 11:49

Mira wrote:I agree with you - but I sometimes think that authors confuse the 'hiding' of the message with not having a message at all. I could be wrong, but I think it is the job of an author to have a message - a theme, like you said. And I think the theme should be one that is beneficial to readers.

But, I also think it's the writer's job to hide that message so it doesn't bang the reader over the head. But that's a skill. So, I think there should be a message, but the writer needs to be skilled enough to hide it. My turn - does that make sense? :)


I think we're on the same page :) Stories do need underlying themes.They add to the structure. Writers just have to be careful not to preach at their audience from a metaphorical pulpit.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby polymath » 22 Sep 2010, 12:25

Theme's purpose in narratives is unification. A narrative without a theme will have an And Plot, where something happens in the beginning, several somethings happen in the middle, and something happens in the ending to no meaningful end.

Message connects directly to theme. Delivering the message contributes to emotional payoff. Plot-driving complication directly relates to theme and message.

For instance, a race of bug-eyed, flesh devouring, mind and soul sucking bipedal aliens attacks Phoenix, Arizona as a complication to be addressed. Zenophobia theme. Aliens are evil, message. Poetic justice subtheme and message and moral, good will be rewarded, evil punished. Dress it up in a high-paced action-adventure narrative and the current event metaphor becomes subliminally received and more palatably acceptable.
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Re: Social responsiblity (the greater good) and the author

Postby Margo » 22 Sep 2010, 13:52

polymath wrote:For instance, a race of bug-eyed, flesh devouring, mind and soul sucking bipedal aliens attacks Phoenix, Arizona as a complication to be addressed.


Soooo.....the new immigration law would probably cover those types of aliens, too, huh? Species profiling all the way.

Completely beside the point you were making, but the only one I have the brain-power to contemplate right now.
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