Monday 14 March 2011

The Prerogative of the Harlot

"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)

Am I the only one who feels that, as writers, we have a dichotomous responsibility to both our muse and our readers?

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.


Bish Denham said...

Good post Judy! I find it quite irritating in life, in reading, and in movies to be bombarded with excessive cussing, sex and/or violence. It's a kind of emotional mind loses its power to shock if over used. One well placed f**k coming unexpectedly out of the mouth of a heroine will tell a reader a great deal.

Misha Gerrick said...

Well said!

I have come to the sad realization that more emphasis is placed on political correctness without actually thinking about more important issues like respect and understanding.

Any person can be pc. But is he necessarily respectful? Or is he actually counting the words he can't say?

Is not dealing with things that happened and moving on helping?

Or does the bubbling undercurrent remain because it isn't pc to talk about it?

Lauri said...

Interesting debate. I think we as writers have only one responsibility and that is to the writing. If we concern ourselves with who will like it and who won't we will begin to censor. We must write the truth as we see it otherwise the writing will not work.

Frances Garrood said...

An interesting post, Judy, and I think the key word is "gratuitous". If the use of an offensive word serves no purpose other than to shock, then it is gratuitous and the writing is thoughtless or even bad. But if a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird (a great novel, beautifully written) were to eschew altogther (say) the n word, then it would not be true to its narrative or to its readers. The story is, after all, a shocking one, so readers can expect to be shocked; by the plot as well as the language. We have to write so that our readers can identify with what they read, and feel that the story is genuine; to spare a reader's feelings could be seen as patronising. Thus, the vocabulary has to reflect the subject matter. If that vocabulary offends someone, then that is a shame, but the reader can choose not to pursue that book any further. Like anything else, it is matter of taste, and if we as writers offend our readers too often, then ultimately, we will be the losers. We may invest years of work in one book; the reader can easily pick up another.

(I don't know what the k word is, but I guess it's similar to the n word?)

Paul Greci said...

As a reader, I can choose what I want to read. As a writer, one of my goals is to be sensitive to my readers while at the same time having emotional truth ring true in whatever it is that I'm writing--at least that's what I strive for. Thanks, Judy. This was interesting!

Stephanie Faris said...

I haven't really had to debate these two lately...although I will say often there's a war between my muse and my agent. I'll have some fantabulous idea but it's something that won't sell in the current market. That leaves me with the choice of a) going ahead and writing it and hoping someday it'll sell or b) tabling it for later. Since time is limited anyway, I usually choose b and work on something that will sell.

Damaria Senne said...

@Judy - I agree with Lauri. As writers we have a responsibility to write, and to allow our characters to be true to who they are. That can only be good for the story. And if the character happens to be PC, then well and good. If not, then that's that.

But I also think it's a good thing that the books are challenged. It allows our society to take the story and characters that the writer created, and use them as a means to challenge itself and its views ( in terms of the greater good).

I don't think the challenge should mean that the writer should apologise, or that we should start writing boring PC characters who reflect neither the world we create or nor the world we live live in. The challenge should mean to us writers that we have created an opportunity for debate. Which can be a good thing.

septembermom said...

Bravo Judy to you for this post and I applaud the commenters above. You all make very valid points. Like you said Judy, respect between writer and reader is crucial, and it's a two way street.

Claire Robyns said...

Thought-provoking post, Judy. I think that every piece of writing, fiction or non, is a form of recording history. Contemporary novels of today will be tomorrow's historicals, and it leaves us a documented trail of how people acted, thought, felt, etc. But, whether writing a contemporary story now or a story set in the past, I do believe it's crucial to stay true to the time in which you are writing, even if you wouldn't have used certain words or done certain things even in that day and age, if you character would have, your story must, without a doubt, reflect that...unless you're writing fantasy. We learn by our mistakes, and many mistakes have been higlighted by fiction, where readers get a glimpse of the other side of the story and start thinking about their views and how they see/treat other people.

I hate gratuitous overuse of cruelty and swearing... prove your point, show your character, then move on. I find this abused more in films nowadays with swearing and graphic brutality (blood and gore) than in reading, but maybe I'm reading the wrong (right) books :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Super post from a SUPER lady. And spot on, too. I beta read a MS for a writer that had a cuss word every three words, it seemed like. I told him that all but one of those words should be cut. The one word strategically placed would do more for his book than all the others. He just thought that's what you do for YA these days. I guess he's been reading the wrong books.

But To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my most favorite books ever. It's just great writing. That's all you can make of it.

Love you. Christopher sends hugs and kisses. Me too. :)

Sarah Allen said...

Great post! I agree, our muses and readers are both important, and I don't necessarily think they are incompatible. Wonderful advice!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Hello all, thanks for your interest in the topic. And apologies that I’ve taken so long to get back into it. The last few days I’ve felt like the poor folk who didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark…drowning! I’m sure you all know the feeling :)

Without more ado:

BISH: “Emotional mind rape” is an excellent description of how I sometimes feel when reading a book or watching a movie these days! Less is more is a motto that applies to many things in life, and the excesses around today tend (I think) to deprive the reader/viewer of their greatest asset: their imagination.

MISHA: Yes, that’s exactly it. The question I ask myself is who should have the courage (or take on the responsibility) of ensuring that the important issues are dealt with, even if politically incorrect. I suggest that both parties (writer/reader) should each look at the other side of the story and respect/understand that differing view. Like love & marriage, writer and reader must work together. And moving on is so important – collective and individual wounds are painful, but clinging to those wounds will keep the cauldron of misunderstanding bubbling away…

LAURIE: A good point; if we as writers don’t write a thing without worrying about who will like it or not, we’d never finish a page, let alone a whole book! But I do suggest that the truth (our truth) should be – how can I put it properly?– a balance between maintaining the integrity of the writing and accepting that what we write has the power to affect our readers. This power requires a responsible attitude towards what we send out into the public. I’m thinking, for example, of that “Samurai Boy” in Roodepoort, who copied some US band’s on-stage act and ended up murdering about 3 or 4 fellow students. This was apparently the second time this kind of incident had been incited by their act, and when the band was approached for comment, their answer was “TS, it’s not our problem!”

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

FRANCES: The k- word is the South African version of the n-word. Quite daunting to think we can spend years of our life on one book and the reader can toss it in a second. Gulp. What concerns me as much as the potential for an author to gratuitously use words that shock and offend, is what I perceive as a rising trend in readers to be offended *out of context*. Taking the brilliant “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. I like to think it’s a great example of the power of the written word to help change society’s thought patterns in a positive way. However, any reader *in today’s world* who doesn’t read this book in the correct context of the social era in which it was written is, I suggest, being an irresponsible reader. Just as the writer has the responsibility to remain true to the context in which he/she writes, so any reader who picks up any book should understand that the story needs to be read in the correct context.

PAUL: I agree! Part of having the gift of free will is being able to make conscious choices that are true to our Self. And that applies equally whether we adopt the role or writer or reader.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

STEPHANIE: As a writer who wants to be published (or to remain published), it’s a difficult choice. I suppose it boils down to what your personal writing goals are.

DAMARIA: I don’t have an objection per se to books being challenged by readers but, as the writer must take care not to use gratuitous images/words, so to must the reader take care not to make gratuitous challenges. If a reader (because of some inner wound they carry, perhaps one they’re not even consciously aware of) challenges a book, he needs to be certain that the challenge is valid and not just as a result of his over-sensitivity to the issue raised by the book. Perhaps the author never intended it as an issue, but rather as a contextual placing to keep the integrity of the story (which, as both Lauri and you have said, is what we, as writers, should do and I agree with that in principle.) Although, even if the writer didn’t intend it to be a debated issue, if an issue is raised by a book and opens up a *healthy* debate, than I agree, it can only be good thing!

SEPTEMBERMOM : Thanks! I agree, the commentators have all made excellent points. I don’t think I’ve thought so hard with my answers since I started my blog…:) Two-way streets are such a good exchange of energy and that applies in writing/reading as well as in other areas of life.

CLAIRE: Oh, well said! Of course any writing is a form of recording history! And, because it’s so subjective, that adds an even greater responsibility onto the writer’s shoulders. I also tend to find the gratuitous violence etc more on TV and in movies, although perhaps the writing equivalent of it is rearing its ugly head in many dystopian novels and the crime genre. Every artist (visual or written) has the right to choose their own vision, but does the vision have to be quite so brutal and hopeless as many books I read today are? The human spirit is so full of potential, both good and evil. If writers reflect only the brutal and hopeless, rather than the human potential to transcend our lower self, are we not then being gratuitous in our depiction of the worst of humankind? Should we not use our gifts to inspire, as To Kill a Mockingbird did (even if we have to reflect a brutal reality to show our readers what the human spirit can achieve)? But, again, it’s each writer’s prerogative to chose how they reflect the vision of reality they see. I prefer to reflect a reality of what is possible, rather than what is.

ROBYN: I find it sad that a YA (!!) book had a cuss word every 3 words. Have we lost the ability to communicate without swearing? And I’d be content to write only one book if it was as powerful as To Kill a Mockingbird; such a brilliant work. Sending hugs and love to Christopher and you as well (((HUGS)))

SARAH: Great way of putting it! Our muses and our readers are *not* necessarily incompatible. We need to find that point where both can be satisfied! :)

And that’s it for tonight! I’ll be catching up on my overdue visits to everyone’s blogs over the next couple of days. See you then!

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting post! My WIP has English boys who swear a lot, especially a boy from a poor background, but it wouldn't be true to clean up their language, even though I rarely ever swear. I still wouldn't use the n-word because it would be too painful to African Americans especially. There was a recent controversy over a republishing of Mark Twain with the n-word removed for classroom use. I don't think it's right to change a historical text, but the offensive word needs to be addressed like that in the classroom.

Judith Mercado said...

"...the gratuitous use..."

There you have the key to measuring whether the use of an offensive term is permissible. As writers, we have an obligation to present our characters in the most authentic form possible. As writers, too, we have an obligation to ensure that a word, whether offensive or not, is used properly from the standpoint of craft, which might mean avoiding overuse of a word. Honoring those two obligations should strike the right balance between our roles as writers and our roles as citizens. At least, I hope so.

Helen Ginger said...

I think the writer has to be true to the character and the time. Having said that, I would rather not read a book where such words are used, but I, of course, have. I've read To Kill a Mockingbird, for example.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

SARAH L: I read about that controversy over the re-pubbed Mark Twain. Addressing the use of the word and the historical context is the route to go; changing the text is taking political correctness too far.

JUDITH: I like that you use the word "honour"; that's what's needed. As both writers & readers we need to act with honour and respect. Then a natural balance will take effect.

HELEN: I think some books and some movies have to be seen/read unchanged - as Claire pointed out they form a good historical record. I recently watched some Clint Eastwood movies (my teenaged self's hero) I was horrified at some of the scenes, and thought how much it reflected what society was then, and how much not only I, but society as a whole, has changed. The same with books - if we can read them objectively, they can yield some interesting (although not always pleasant or positive) observations about society. I really like to read (and write) what I would like the world to be, not what it is, otherwise I'd be permanently depressed. Perhaps that's naive, but it keeps me happy! :)

Helen Ginger said...

It does make you wonder how what we write today will be viewed a hundred years from now. Will things have changed in ways we haven't imagined and our work will be banned or shunned?

Lisa said...

Great post Judy.

I think as much as authors have the responsibility over what they write, the readers too have the equal amount of responsibility, if not more, over what they choose to read.

Jayne said...

Judy - I found you by way of Yvonne, and I'm so glad I did. This is a very thoughtful post. I strongly believe that a writer's integrity comes from writing honestly and remaining true to self. It irks me no end that To Kill a Mockingbird should be challenged for the use of the N word. It's historically honest and correct! Are we to bury history's truths?!
And that you tackled the concept of "responsibility of reader" is mighty ambitious. It sort of begs the question: do we write for readers, or do we write for ourselves? I tend to do the latter regardless of what the reader thinks. Maybe I'm naive, but it's rather impossible to control and demand how the reader should feel about, or interpret, a piece of writing. Nevertheless, I agree with you, as writers we ought to always write responsibly. And when it comes to touchy subjects, a writer must be aware of certain sensibilities, but shouldn't necessary administer self-censureship on the basis of those sensibilities.
I'm enjoying your blog. I anticipate it will be much fun following your perspective. ;)

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

HELEN: So true! Sometimes when I’m feeling down about my writing I wonder if all the struggle is worth because what will it matter in a hundred years? When I read Chaucer, I feel I’m reading a foreign language rather than English. When I read the new “sms language”, I feel the same. And that’s only one small way things are changing! The mind boggles at what will have changed in a century!

OCEAN GIRL: Thanks! And, yes, I agree that readers have an equal responsibility when they read. This responsibility extends to both what they choose to read, as well as understanding that it’s important to ensure a story is read in context *without* taking offensive at something from a previous era, (like the n-word in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird” or when a writer has chosen an offensive term/action to sustain the integrity of character or story.)

JAYNE: Welcome to my blog and thanks for following! You raise an important point when you ask whether we must bury history’s truths. What is so easily forgotten is that all history is written by the victors, thus leaving at least 66% of the story untold (for example, when writing about a war, there is the victor’s truth, the loser’s truth and the real truth in any story).

So while writers should write *their* truth (as they see it), they need to do so with the understanding that what they’re only telling one part of the story, and need to accept the responsibility of telling that part with respect for the other parts. Equally, the reader should accept a similar responsibility: to read with the understanding that the writer has the right to write his truth.

Yes, I think it’s pretty impossible to control/demand how a reader should interpret a piece of writing…I don’t think it’s up to us as writers; we can only be responsible for what we write. Readers need to be responsible for *how* (not so much “what”) they read.

This is a na├»ve, and perhaps rather hopeless, wish of mine, but it would be ideal if both writers and readers interacted with each other from a point of respect. After all, as a writer, it’s my privilege (not my right) that a reader buys/reads what I write. I need to respect that.

And, as a reader, it’s my privilege that an author has put so much blood, sweat and tears into the pages of her book and, whether I agree or disagree with what the author has written, I don’t have the right to demand the book is censored or changed or banned because of my personal sensibilities. Ah well! I can live in hope! :)

Ian Martin said...

Hey Judy, I chanced upon your existence while trawling through the largely inane comments on the Smashwords blog. Your post about ‘irresponsible’ writing being the prerogative of the harlot has got me hot under the collar. I can’t believe you are unable to bring yourself to say the word ‘nigger’. I mean, what COUNTRY are you living in? What century is this? Jesus, you’ve even got some benighted woman asking you what the k-word is, and you won’t tell her. Can I tell her? Kaffir.
There, and the sky didn’t fall in!
What pisses me off is this attempt at ‘keeping up standards’. It’s so very Colonial, paternalistic and condescending. Who are you, or who am I , to set the standards? Let’s just write our fiction, whether it be genteel or vile, and let the readers decide whether they like it or not.
And as for that old arsehole Stanley Baldwin, my History aint that hot but I believe Winston (hic!) Churchill said this about him: "I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived." And knowing that he was an Earl, or something, means that it’s highly likely that this privileged member of a parasitic elite would have had first hand knowledge of harlots.

Ian Martin

PS You write bloody well, so a free download of your book will be in order. Asseblief.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

IAN: Thanks for the compliment on my writing. If you click on the tag above called "my stories," you'll see links to some free on-line stories.