"What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power,
and power without responsibility is the prerogative of the harlot through the ages."
Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley (1867-1947)
Scriptwriter Janet van Eerden’s post on LitNet had me brooding even more than I usually do on the issue of how we, as writers, can use the power we have-the power of words- responsibly.
As Janet points out, writers have a duty to their characters. To provide accurate historical context, a character should keep his or her integrity. Janet wrote a play where a character was a racial fanatic, and used the k-word. I recently wrote a short story about the Border War, where the main protagonist used the k-word at a dramatically intense moment. I found it difficult to actually write that word on paper. But if I hadn’t used it, the turning point wouldn’t have rung true. What was I to do? Erase the word-as painful as it will be to some potential readers of that story-or chose dialogue that’s historically accurate?
I used it and the story is the better for it. Does this mean artistic integrity is an excuse to allow the indiscriminate use of any offensive word in the name of one’s art? Certainly not!
Every writer has the perfect right to articulate his or her creative vision by whatever means possible. But can the gratuitous use of words or images intended to shock – from the f-word to the k-word (or the n-word in the USA) – ever serve any real purpose? Is it not an abuse of the power we, as writers, have when we overfill the pages with extreme images of destruction and hatred?
While we do have a responsibility to our characters, we also have a responsibility to our readers. To express something human-no matter how violent or ugly-as a way of exploring the human condition is part of the creative urge. However, to take a delight in representing the negative side of human nature only, or to wantonly disregard our readers’ sensitivities, is nothing short of the noxious screaming of an angry soul.
Writers need to be ever-aware that the power of words can influence readers in a myriad of ways, both good and bad. To use that power effectively, and for the greater good of all, is a responsibility we shouldn't ignore.
Readers, too, have a responsibility. Human history has produced many victims: Jews, gays, women and people of colour, to name but a few. While in no way wishing to diminish the effect of human cruelty on these sections of society, readers need to be sure that, when reading a novel-which is, after all, a work of the writer’s imagination-he does not allow his personal wounds to dictate his interpretation of the text. Judge Edward Cameron’s response to the movie version of Spud is a case in point, as is the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird was the fourth most-challenged book of 2009 because use of the n-word offended readers.
The responsibility of the reader lies in understanding that the writer has a task to perform: to create a unique vision of the human condition, no matter whether that vision is high-brow literary or entertaining mass-market fiction. If readers demand that authors keep their characters politically, but not historically, correct to avoid hurting their sensibilities, that’s not respecting artistic vision, that’s insisting on the creation of a cult of victimhood.
The balance of power between writer and reader is a fine one. Writers have the power to destroy a reader’s peace of mind; readers have the power to destroy a writer’s career. And it is only the prerogative of the harlot to use power without responsibility. Writers and readers alike should respect each other and use their particular powers with caution, common sense and compassion.