Monday 4 May 2009

DISCUSSION: What responsibility does a writer have?

Last year I wrote about the disturbing trend in many of today’s movies, which appear to show human beings as capable of nothing but evil and mayhem. Last week Davin Malasarn of ‘The Literary Lab’ blog wrestled intriguingly with the question of whether some books are simply too “dark” to be written.

I, too, wonder where an artist’s responsibility begins and ends. Is the drive for artistic freedom of expression such an imperative in today’s world that literally anything goes?

If a rock band’s stage act “inspires” a schoolchild to slice his friends up in a cry for attention, as recently happened in the so-called “Samurai Killings” in South Africa, are the artists in any way responsible?

In the same vein, if a genre writer portrays an extreme view of the world – whether too dark or too rosy – or a literary author writes an erudite tome on the travails of humankind, leaving his readers reeling with despair that human happiness is unattainable because our darkness is too deep to overcome, one has to ask oneself: is this what art is supposed to be?

If the purpose of art is to tell it like it is, does that leave the author with only one responsibility, namely, to be as true to his voice as he can be, irrespective of the possible effect of the work on his reader’s psyche?

Artistic talent is a gift from God, and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.
Pope John Paul II

While this is a valid viewpoint, there is another which could be considered. An artist – any genre, any medium – has been given a sacred gift.

I believe, as does Marilyn Brant in her wonderful blog post “How to Save a Life” that art has the capacity to save lives. Dramatic? Maybe. True? Definitely. Music and art and novels have provided many a soothing panacea for the ill, whether ill in body or mind or spirit.

And it is this capacity for healing – this great potential that art has and which artists carry in their gift – that places a huge responsibility on the artist’s shoulders.

Let an author find his truth by using the sacred gift of his talent responsibly.

Not by sacrificing artistic freedom for, to create anything that has meaning to both author and reader, there has to be a relationship of integrity between the inner world of the author (from whence sprung the text) and the external world (from which the reader approaches the work). In other words, the text must tell the truth as the author sees it.

However, the author should also accept that - no matter whether the work is defined as “commercial” or “literary” - every word written has the potential to influence the reader. Readers do, of course, have their own free will with which they make their choices in life. But it’s when the artist ignores this potential for influence – this power over the reader, one could say – that art becomes dark.

The pen is mightier than the sword
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, (1803–1873)

Any author – or, indeed, any artist in any medium – should remember that they have a responsibility to the divine nature of their gift. When they abdicate that responsibility in favour of a ‘truth’ that denies the divine nature of their gift then, inevitably, they must also bear some responsibility should that inner vision impact negatively on the external world into which they release it.

I suggest that, from the first moment we put pen to paper, we as authors need to consciously accept responsibility for what we write. If we do not use discretion and wisdom as we wield the power of our talent, it is then that our art becomes dark and very definitely dangerous.

We have enough people who tell it like it is.
Now we need a few who tell it like it can be.
Robert Orben

How far do you think an artist's responsibility should go?


septembermom said...

I don't feel comfortable with the enormous amount of negativity running through popular culture today. There seems to be a focus on a callous approach to human relations in many of today's novels, music, television and film. I agree that artists of all mediums should take personal responsibility for all that they create. I'm afraid that readers too easily want to be entertained by violent or degrading imagery. We need to push for more positive, life affirming themes because I do think that impressionable minds can be pushed into dangerous thinking and possibly actions.

Ann Victor said...

September Mom - yes, I also think we need to be very aware of those impressionable minds. But I'm also very averse to censorship (I only read black Beauty as a child because I was brought up in Rhodesia - it was banned in South Africa so my cousins only got to read it when my Mom sneaked it in for them when we came on holiday). Rather than external censorship, so to me the key lies in a kind of authorial/artistic "self-censorship" - we as writers (or any other artists, particularly in films!) need to temper our words, knowing the power we have over those impressionable minds.

Ann Victor said...

Sorry it's late and I'm very tired! Lots of mistakes in that last post

...Rather than external censorship, so to me the key lies... "

should read

"Rather than external censorship, to me the key lies in a kind of..."

Justus M. Bowman said...

I like this post. But honestly I don't care about so-called "freedom of expression." I've listened to too many people whine about it (not you). If I write something and someone doesn't like it, too bad! I've already written it; without a fight, I have obtained this elusive "freedom of expression," have I not?

That said, assume the opposite of what my previous words implied; that is, since I don't fear repression, I feel no need to pour expletives into my prose or beat people over the head with "forbidden" topics. Instead, I write with the intent to get something valuable across to the readers. Not to say that all my prose is rosy, but I do want something enlightening to reside in each of my stories. I like to reward the ambitious reader.

Davin Malasarn said...

This is a beautifully written post, and I'm really glad to read it and find out that this discussion is still going on. For me, this debate isn't clear cut at all. Part of me looks at it as a question of how significant can fiction writing be.

The Holocaust is something that comes to mind a lot when I think about this topic. I don't think that anyone would say that the details of the Holocaust aren't important. As gruesome and tragic as they are, society finds them useful because they educate us about how dark mankind can become and hopefully there is the lesson we learn so that we never let this horror happen again. But this is based on truth. Is there really light at the end of the tunnel for many of the stories? There's light in the hopes of people, but in the end many people lost everything, including their lives.

Now what about fiction? Is fiction allowed to tell a similar sort of story with the similar hope of preventing tragedy or perhaps illuminating hope? I'm honestly not sure. Writing about a horrific crime might inspire other minds to act on it. Then again, recording the details of the Holocaust might inspire Neo-nazis. It seems like there are both good and bad consequences to writing about darkness and negativity.

I really relate to the quote:

"To understand all is to forgive all."

When I come across the story of a person whom I cannot sympathize with, I am drawn to creating their story so that I CAN learn to sympathize.

Ann Victor said...

Justus - I like the way you put this: "reward the ambitious reader"! I've never thought of it that way before, but when one reads a book one does expect some sort of "reward", even if it's simply the reward of a few hours pleasure or something much deeper. And giving the reader that reward is, of course, also part of the author's responsibility.

Ann Victor said...

Davin - as always, you make a thought provoking and interesting point. Yes, I do agree that those historical events that reflect the darkest side of human nature do deserve recognition and recording, no matter how appalling.

The Book Thief by Markus Zukas is one of the most responsible novels I've read about the Holocaust, because it's *balanced* in its portrayal of both the evil and the good of that time. And I've read a lot about the Holocaust (particularly after the Truth & Reconciliation Committee's revelations about apartheid South Africa), including non-fiction books,such as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, The Nature of Prejudice etc)

And that's what I feel passionate about: the idea that an author should seek not just to reveal the ability the human soul has to descend into the darkness, but should also leave the reader with the hope that there is always the possibility of choosing to walk into the light.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

A very thoughtful and well written post, Ann - and a somewhat contentious one too - I think the whole debate about freedom of expression is a loaded one and it has to ultimately devolve on the individual artist to create what he needs to create. That may or may not assume that the artist has to take responsibility as each artist may have a different view of that responsibility and what it means.

I think, however, that the outpouring of "violence" into the world, has considerably less to do with individual writers and artists and more to do with a bigger system - like, for example the media which is daily loaded with the realities of life.

I don't think one can pin any of this down on one person or group of people ie artists/writers etc but one has to look at society and culture as a whole. Nothing functions in isolation and everything from parenting to social policies, from media to religion impacts upon the other.

As a Young Adult writer, I'm very aware of my "responsibilities" to potential teenage readers but at the same time I'm also aware of the need to be true to life itself.

Ann Victor said...

Hi Absolute Vanilla, lovely to have you visit!

Thanks for your interesting comments. As you say this is a contentious debate (precisely why it’s so appealing! :D). It’s also one which can never truly be resolved, merely debated.

Freedom of expression is an imperative one cannot deny. I’d like to see that freedom of expression extended to an awareness that complete freedom does, however, come with a price tag: responsibility to use that freedom wisely. This is where individuals (both artists and others) can have an important influence on the society in which they live.

Yes, we cannot isolate ourselves from the realities of the greater society in which we live. But, despite the considerable influence of any type of social conditioning, we – as both individuals and artists – do have the free will to choose between good and evil on no matter how small or large a scale. It’s sometimes too easy to abdicate responsibility for acts of darkness (think Hansie Cronje and his “the devil made me do it”!)

I like to believe that writers who choose to wield the power of their words in a responsible manner can individually influence the world in which they live for the good. And that’s an imperative I feel should have equal importance with the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Thanks again for your contribution to the debate – it’s added spice to the chicken dish (if Atyllah will forgive me the analogy!)

Lady Glamis said...

What a beautiful post, Ann. Thank you for asking such poignant and meaningful questions!

I certainly hope that writers here and in the future don't shy away from writing dark material - because it is how we learn from our mistakes, whether or not others decide to act on that knowledge or not (for good or bad).

I feel that if a writer's intention is to explore something good with what they are writing about, their intention (if they're any good at writing at all) will across as such. If they intend to write with an evil purpose, well, they should just put their pen (sword) down.

We do live in a world of light and dark, and oftentimes the dark helps contrast the light that much more. But I agree with you in the fact that the dark must be handled with great care and good intentions.

Marilyn Brant said...

Ann, thank you for this thought-provoking and beautifully crafted post. I'm so honored you referred to one of mine in it (thanks :), but you went far beyond and far deeper than I did. Bravo!

I especially loved this part: " create anything that has meaning to both author and reader, there has to be a relationship of integrity between the inner world of the author (from whence sprung the text) and the external world (from which the reader approaches the work)."

You expressed it so perfectly. And, IMO, you also hit upon something vital when you reminded writers that we must accept responsibility for what we write. It may be up to the readers to interpret or to take/leave what they want from our text, but I know I always find myself thinking, "Is my intention to bring something worthwhile to the world by publishing this?" I may not succeed, but I do think we need to begin from a place of wanting to both enlighten (truth) and inspire (hope).

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Ann,

This is a fabulous and well written post. Funny but I debate this internally. I've been told that writers must be fearless in their writing or they do not get to the truth. But many times I'll pull away in a story or gloss over because I am not comfortable and since I write for entertainment I don't choose to make the reader uncomfortable. Some say this is to my detriment. But each writer has to be responsible for their work. So I choose to only dance around the darkness and instead use it to highlight the light.


Ann Victor said...

Lady Glamis – thanks for your interesting perspective! I think intentionality is vital, but many of humans are driven by deep rooted motivations that may colour our good intentions in ways which we, as writers, are not conscious of. Thus, to me, intention and awareness as we write should be considered equally important.

Marilyn – my pleasure; your post touched a chord in me! And yes, we as writers can only strive to do the best we can. Even if we write with both good intentions and a conscious awareness of what we write there may still be times we get it wrong, but if we’ve at least *tried*!

Nancy – I think there are times that we can be allowed “to tell it like it can be”; I think a writer can be both fearless and truthful: sometimes writing about the light can be as daunting a task as writing about the darkness.

C. N. Nevets said...

Judy, thanks for re-linking to this post. This is an important conversation, and something (as an author of pretty dark stuff) that is always on my mind.

I think the concept of responsibility is a difficult one, because it smacks of duty and duty implies not only an external motivator but an external force. When it comes to art, these externals can be hard to identify.

That said, I do feel a sense of responsibility. A burden, in some ways. I think it is at least partly a share of the common human responsibility to be aware of the consequences of our actions and to act with intentional and deliberate awareness of those consequences.

There are myriad things that can result from some reading a piece of fiction. As an author, I should do a bit of thinking and weighing before I let my words out there to make sure that I'm comfortable with and willing to accept those consequences.

Ultimately, there is no predicting human response, though. A reader can latch onto something, take it in through his own filter, and draw inspiration for all kinds of things.

So what is the author's responsibility? I have no idea, but even so I can't escape the sense that there is one.

Misha Gerrick said...

I believe that writers have to hold up mirrors to the things that we see around us.

We're not there to teach lessons. We're not there to tell people what to do. We're there to show them what can happen if people do fight for change. Or what can happen if it doesn't.

While I think it's dispicable that people use music and so on as an excuse to kill people, I think it's unfair to blame an artist if the work affects someone negatively. (Even though I HATE the band referred to in the articles on the Samurai killings.)

I blame parents for not caring enough about their children to explain things to them. For trying to keep difficult thing from the children and forcing them to try and find out on their own out of controlled circumstances.

I blame consumers i.e. book buyers and so on for reading and listening etc. without distinction. Everything we read and hear goes into our minds. Some of it forms us. But people don't pay attention to what's REALLY being said. Before they learn how to do that, I think book burnings and other forms of censorship will continue.

Because it's much easier to flinch away from the cold hard facts than it is to change the sources of the big problem. Namely that people forget to think for themselves.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Nevets said: "I think the concept of responsibility is a difficult one, because it smacks of duty and duty implies not only an external motivator but an external force. When it comes to art, these externals can be hard to identify."

Yes, exactly! It's like "self-discipline" - I get shivers of horror when I hear that word, but when someone talks to me of "Self-mastery" I'm very happy to strive for it. The difference is because the connotation of self-mastery implies free will, while self-discipline carries a subtle connotation of external force.

So what's really important to me about this topic is more a writer/artist's *awareness* that, because we absolutely can't predict human responses to our work, we need to find that *balance* between fully expressing our creative freedom and a consciousness of the potential power of our art.

I think the best we can do is what you do...weigh up where we're accountable and where we're not. It's the best we can do in an imperfect world.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

MISHA: You've raised a lot of interesting & different points in your comment.

I agree that writers (and other artists)should hold up mirrors to what we see around us. How else would the human spirit evolve if we weren't shown alternate visions of reality?

But it's a dangerous road to expect the writer to have total freedom of expression for his unique creative vision.

Writers and artists - like politicians and priests - should, at the very least, be aware of the potential consequences of their work.

Shifting the blame for those consequences onto others such as parents and consumers is a denial which, ultimately, can end up as an abuse of both the gift we've been given and the power it holds.