Socially Responsible Writing

Before I write this, I must admit to curmudgeonly and cross-grained status. My response to “you shouldn’t play in the middle of traffic” has been “Says who?” ever since I can remember. The only way to stop me darting across roads without warning was for mom to read me never-ending stories of gruesome accidents, because just laying down the law wouldn’t work.

So, when a co-panelist in a panel said that from now on she would write violence realistically (so as not to encourage it, I presume) because it was the “socially responsible” thing to do and what we all should do, my spines went up, and I got my fight face on, and except for my husband giving me the “can it” sign from the front row, I’d have told her that was sort of like Christian fundamentalists saying we should only write stories that support the gospel and I wasn’t going to play along with her, any more than I’d play along with them. Because contrary. And cross grained.

But because Dan kept me from fulminating (he’s no fun!) I had to sit there and stew, which means thinking through the assumptions of the whole idea of “socially responsible writing.”

The particular instance she was citing just makes me roll my eyes for several reasons: 1) you’re not going to stop violence by not writing about it, or not writing about it in an “enticing” manner. Humans are a violent species, or we wouldn’t be the dominant species on this planet. Pacifist cave men left no descendants. 2) Real violence is considerably less “dangerous sounding” than fictional one. In fictional violence, for instance, if you spray a room with a machine gun, you’ll have dozens of corpses. In real violence, it’s quite possible you won’t even have wounded, except where hit by glass fragments from a window, or something. (Stupid Maoists didn’t realize recoil would point their machine guns at the ceiling. This is what you get when rich little boys play at revolution.) 3- If you depict realistic violence, you might be giving these people a leg up on avoiding the sort of mistakes that prevent their violence from being lethal. Like idiot gang bangers who hold their guns sideways, like in the movies, and therefore jam them more often than not. Tell them not to do that, and you’re increasing the deaths.

However, she’s not the only one. One of my colleagues, and not the only person in the field to do this, edited older stories (and they’ve edited older movies) not to show people smoking. This comes under the heading of rewriting the past. I want no part of that “social conscience.” First, because even if smoking is as bad as they say it is, then removing it from old movies and books will avoid showing new generations how an entire society can succumb to a bad habit because it’s portrayed as “cool.” Second, what if it isn’t as bad as we think? Most of the hazards of smoking seem to be linked to tar and burning tobacco. We already have a means of delivery that doesn’t involve tar, and tobacco itself can have mildly beneficial effects in things like treating bi-polar disorder and anxiety, not to mention some very mild but not irrelevant effects in preventing pneumonia.

To blindly assert it is always bad – or rewrite history to show it as always bad – is a disservice to future generations, on all fronts. It is imposing our view of what is good for them (and for EVERYONE) on them, without allowing them a decision.

And that gets us to the core of what I really hate about the notion that we should be “socially responsible” in our writing.

Whose society, buddy? You and whose indisputable truth? You and whose immortal philosopher? You and whose army of righteousness?

A decent writer writes not only for his time but for the future. I grant you, at my level it’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t be the first writer to enjoy more popularity 100 years after death than while alive.

The assumptions of what is right and wrong will by then be completely different. Please note that Shakespeare’s political propaganda, though still co-opted by various contemporary regimes, is far less strong than his “universal to the human condition” plays, and that if he’d written only the “Tudors are teh awesome” plays he’d probably be only another Elizabethan author we have to trudge through.

An exhortation to write socially responsible fiction is an exhortation to believe the values we right now believe are “socially responsible” are immutable, now and forever. It betrays an immense hubris and the certainty that now, at last, we’ve reached the pinnacle of humanity’s social consciousness.

It is an invitation for future generations to laugh at you.

But more importantly, it is futile.

Writers don’t have that kind of power. A lot of us, over time, working in concert, or at least towards the same goal, might make some difference. One of us (Heinlein) can make a difference to a lot of people (Heinlein’s children. More than he could have sired biologically.)

But part of the reason the ball moved so far in the culture wars was the collusion of gatekeepers and politicians (not a conspiracy, mind, but just that they’d all drank the same koolaid.) It was their agreement to an unspoken set of rules – unspoken because obvious to them – which informed their every decision.

In this, they weren’t very different from Catholic Europe, where every work of art supported the Church’s narrative. Until the reformation shattered it all apart.

And that’s part of the point – these coordinated (though not enforced, except in terms of editors choosing things they thought “socially responsible”) narratives are historically very fragile. They usually fall apart the minute there is credible back-talk. And you can’t put them together again. And future generations point and laugh, as they do at Piers Plowman.

To exhort one to write “socially responsible” fiction is to believe in that utterly bizarre idea that history comes with an arrow from less to more enlightened and “progressive.” It is a basic fallacy of thought and philosophy.

It is also futile.

Writers write what excites them. I can’t imagine struggling to finish a novel I didn’t believe in. (Or rather I can. Those never happened.)

If they write to push a message they’re not fiction writers, they’re pamphleteers. Real-politik art

suffers (and makes you suffer) from the same basic wooden and stultifying character, whether made my Nazis, Communists or earnest Enviro-evangelists.

It’s all squarish humans gazing lovingly onto the inevitable glorious future. It is by definition no human who ever lived.

And it’s nonsense. And usually proven untrue, also, before the ink is dried or the stone cuts weathered.

For the sake of art, for the sake of craft, for the sake of your potential future readers, don’t write socially responsible. Write what you feel, what you love, what resonates through you like the pounding of a drum in an utterly silent midnight.

Write YOUR book, not society’s.

Society will take it up or not, as it pleases. But famous or ignored it will be your book, the book only you could write, not a collection of fearful, echoing and appeasing shibboleths based on a view of a future that might never come.


  1. Whose society, buddy? You and whose indisputable truth? You and whose immortal philosopher? You and whose army of righteousness?

    Why…Mohammed’s of course. [G,D, Rvvvvvvvf] 😉

  2. “Whose society?” The only one that “matters”. That is the “Progressives’ Society”. [Sad Smile]

  3. I write the stories I like and if they happen to show my personal philosophy, so be it. But I’ll be damned if I write something because I want to instruct someone on the way to think. If they like my point of view, fine. If they don’t, put the book down (metaphorically) and walk away.

  4. I write what I write . . . and then I look at it and worry that anyone could find any message they wanted, in there. Meh. You can’t stop readers. You can only write and hope to entertain.

    1. As I recall Heinlein was at first amused then driven to the point of distraction by all the readers who considered Stranger an instruction manual. Seems they would show up unannounced on his doorstep looking to grok with the guru.

        1. Considering how well the Main Character in Stranger could “disappear somebody”, if it was an instruction manual, imagine how well Heinlein could “disappear people”. [Very Big Evil Grin]

  5. First thing I thought of when you said “socially responsible writing” was Twilight. If feminists are going after that author with stones for writing that shit, I don’t want to hear boo about my sex and violence.

  6. That reminds me of this article that Orson Scott Card wrote in 1977:

    Money quote:

    Over the years, some people whose judgment I respect have asked me a question that you might think is naive, but it is not. “Why do you have to write such depressing stuff? Why can’t you show the good things in life? Why do all your characters have to suffer?”
    Well, why indeed? After all, fiction isn’t fact. Fiction is lies. Those people are made up. They’d better be-if they’re not, you can get sued. As long as you’re making things up, why not make up a happy life for them?
    The most obvious answer is also the most trivial. Money. He who writes about happy people being happy in a happy world ain’t gonna last long as a writer. Nobody buys that happy stuff. Evil is intrinsically more interesting. More entertaining. Evil sells.
    “Indeed, “answers the English Puritan after Cromwell’s successful revolution. “All these people are going to the theatre to see evil reenacted on the stage. We will make England a much better place if we simply ban theatre altogether. No more Macbeth and his bloody crimes. No more King Lear and his self-destructive madness. We have made the world safe for Christianity.”
    But it took about twenty minutes after the Puritans were thrown out for the theater to be back in business. The people wanted it. And I don’t think they wanted it because they were evil.

    1. I would argue, personally, that people want to see evil LOOSE. Having seen quite a bit of Evil. Evil is, by itself, boring and painfully predictable. It is the fight against evil that is interesting. People don’t seem to much like ‘everyone is just flat evil and no one is good’ stories either.

      1. He gets into that a bit later in the article — talking about Tolkien, where he points out that Sauron and the Orcs are merely nasty,even though they’re called evil. But it’s Sam, Frodo, and even Gollum where we see the struggle to overcome evil from within, and the triumphs and failures and the resulting consequences, and that’s why Sauron and the Orcs aren’t actually dwelt on much — they’re all generically evil and thus boring, just as you say. They exist only as a foil for the main characters who are much more interesting.

        1. Have to disagree with that last point: Sauron, Saruman and the various breeds of Orcs are all evil in different ways and to different degrees, and it can be downright interesting during those times when readers get to eavesdrop on them and discern stuff about their masters’ management style and their respective…societies? Don’t know if that’s the right word to describe ’em.

          You even feel a weird pity (as long as they’re not in front of you and able to hurt you) when you realize how completely miserable the Orcs’ existence must be, and when you get a glimpse of what Sauron must’ve been like before his fall. Like how he numbers all his underlings and keeps everything organized, showing someone who valued orderliness and efficiency, then compare that to the polluted land and miserable, backstabbing subjects those designs have created on the ground. He invents the Black Speech, a complex language that none of his people can speak.

          Then there’s the Ring itself, as an extension of Sauron also the primary villain in the text, which operates by empowering and corrupting its wielders according to their nature. Gandalf, Galadriel, Boromir and Aragon all would have fallen in different ways had they tried to use the Ring…

          Sorry, I like my Tolkien.

          There’s even an interesting essay about the particular evil represented by the Orcs:

        2. A followup and a chilling thought: if Gandalf would have been motivated by pity and a desire to do good, then Gandalf with the Ring may well have become the ultimate SJW…


  7. “Socially Responsible Fiction” is something that many of us are expected, but not allowed, to write. Sound confusing? Sound hypocritical? It’s actually both so let me explain.
    Those of us, like myself, who are white, male, Christian and heterosexual are expected to include women, gays, minorities and non-Christians in our writing in order for it to be “socially responsible” and/or “socially relevant.” We are also not allowed to write women, gays, minorities or non-Christians because we are then “co-opting their victimhood.” The only acceptable solution would be to stop writing but that’s not going to happen. I choose the unacceptable option. It involves two middle fingers and freedom to write whatever the hell I want to. Anyone who doesn’t like it can …


    This is a family blog. Let’s just say it involves an activity often conducted by the wind and a goat. That’s all I’m sayin’.

  8. I was about to agree with you about socially responsible art, when I remembered The Threepenny Opera. A wonderfully written, extremely well done and popular, paean to depravity. Whether it is murder as just revenge (, choosing abusive lovers (, or selling sex and aborting the results ( – it supports them all.

    Do I believe such works should be censored? No, I don’t trust any human or group thereof with the power of censorship. Do I believe they should be censured as glorifying evil and making good appear unattainable? Yes.

    So I cannot disagree with the concept of socially responsible art. All I can do is point out that socially responsible means the kinds of values Human Wave stands for.

    1. Curse you. Now I have “Makie Messer” stuck in my brain. “Oh der Haifisch/ der hat Zähnen/ Und er trägt die/ ins Gesicht . . .”

  9. Heh. One of the reasons I like the character of Joschka so much is he doesn’t give a fig about the current wisdom, he’s going to smoke his pipe if he wants to and that’s that (not around flammable liquids or O2 bottles, of course. He’s not that stupid [although Rada and his wife might disagree on occasion, for different reasons]).

  10. Wow. The stupid, it burns. “From now on, I will only write violence realistically.” Has she never heard of noir fiction? For wide swathes of the reading populace, describing how, when the bullet hit him in the eye, splashes of blood, bits of skull, and globules of brain matter splattered all over the wall behind him is a FEATURE, not a bug?

    The whole point of “gritty realism” in fantasy and science fiction was to satisfy the people who enjoy their violence realistic. So, she is just feeding the beast she wants to starve. To quote Mr. B. Bunny, “What a maroon!”


    1. “So, she is just feeding the beast she wants to starve.”

      If the spatter-lovers ever find her. She’s far more likely to repel her current fans.

  11. And it always sounds so reasonable. In one of the fora I hang out in, there was an earnest post about how the poster was going to be careful to include LGBT characters as normal human beings (ehhh–boring), and would we like to join her in a blow against cultural injustice? Most of the responses were warm and supportive and of course we’ll do what we can to change hearts and minds with our writing.

    These posts are always sweet, they know they’re on the side of justice, but they’re hoping to persuade rather than beat the bad thinkers into oblivion. But every time someone says, “we need to be aware of what our words can do,” all I hear is “Silence, comrade.”

  12. I take an absolute pleasure in kicking political correctness in the shorts, when I can in my own books. I have people smoking, occasionally swearing, and now and again giving out with a opinion which is wholly historically accurate, but is considered bait for the fainting couch by the easily offended these days.

    1. Yeah, but that can be a two-edged sword. I have been studying the era for my WIP (8th-14th century Japan) for about thirty years, off and on, and every now and then, the stuff I find even makes me sit up and take notice. Children getting married off at 12 years old? Blink (And that is using the oriental aging system, where you are one year old at birth and you age a year every New Year, so a child born on the last day of the year is two years old the next day). 75% of the people dying of malnutrition because Buddhism was such a malignant force in their lives that it cut them off from about 75% of the good foods? Average age of death 20?

      I can’t begin to put some of this stuff in the book.


      1. I am curious about the dietary laws that caused the malnutrition. Could you suggest a source for investigation?

  13. Agree with everything that you said here, but (and you knew that there would be a but didn’t you) there are things, such as cars blowing up every time that they get in an accident, that cause people to take actions that create real harm (like pulling a person with a broken back out of a crashed car that is not burning (I saw it happen, she was paralyzed for life)) thinking that they are doing the right thing. Avoiding giving that sort of wrong idea is a type of socially responsible writing that I can get behind.

  14. “Social responsibility” is also a trap because it’s too easily abused by people willing to impute causal connections between work X and social situation Y. Stephen King writes about one example in Danse Macabre, where the 1973 TV movie Fuzz — based on an 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain — depicted an incendiary murder that was very closely mimicked by two real-life murders later that year; the controversy was strong enough that TV networks curbed violence in all their programming for most of the following decade. That the murders might well have happened anyway, perhaps in another way or a later time, is true, but deemed irrelevant; as long as media X can be connected to violence Y, X — and X’s creator — is held responsible.

    I’ve always visualized the dilemma of media impact as follows: Imagine I am a singer who likes to sing very loudly. Most places that’s just noise — but one day I’m stupid enough to sing while walking through a mountain pass prone to avalanches; I trigger one and a party of travellers ahead of me is wiped out. Most people would consider me responsible for their deaths, regardless of my protestations of ignorance or lack of intent, and most would consider laws against singing in a mountain pass to be only good sense, eminently justifiable, and easy to comply with. But one day I’m told that a worldwide network of loudspeakers has been built, and anything I sing will go almost everywhere in the world — so no matter where I am or what I sing, my voice may reach that mountain pass and set off an avalanche anyway. What do I do? On the one hand, if I’m allowed to sing, the odds that someone will get hurt as a result may become unacceptably high; on the other hand, are we going to outlaw singing entirely, as the only way to be “safe”?

    “Social responsibility” is ultimately one’s attempt to control the “volume” or “pitch” of one’s message to avoid facilitating or triggering antisocial responses, and it’s fundamentally based on the assumption that individual responsibility is not adequate — in theory or practice — to minimize such responses. As long as kids don’t read stuff they’re not ready for, which used to be the job of parents to decide, “social responsibility” is a paranoia spiral. I just try not to tell lies about human nature or reality, and that’s as far as I go.

    1. The avalanche is the fault of the damfools who put a furshlugginer loudspeaker near the mountain—and who may only be falsely claiming to have put it there in hopes I’ll shut myself up. ESR recently gave a good description of this tactic: they’re trying to use your own sense of decency as a club to beat you into submission with.

  15. Hmm. I have to wonder just how ‘realistic’ her realistic violence is going to be. Will she consult with Larry Correia on how shooting actually works, for example?

  16. Actually, I’m pretty sure that a huge chunk of medieval art wasn’t designed to promote anything but frivoling. It was when everybody got all worried about heresy and being properly Catholic or Protestant that art got so ideological.

    Piers Plowman was kinda progressive, actually, what with making the everyday farmer guy be the wise teacher. So hip and relevant! There were other writers that did similar storylines more realistically in other languages, but Piers Plowman is the longest and has the least action.

    Of course, it’s fair to say that medieval Irish poets were trying to uphold both the secular and religious order of things, because that was in fact their theory. They also thought they were basically prophets and judges still, and were really sad that Irish law had moved away from that. And apparently they were right, because Irish society did fall apart when they ditched the poets. 🙂 (Okay, there were several other simultaneous factors.)

  17. There’s also the practical issue. A book that is socially responsible in one way has a specific target audience it must reach better than the alternatives to be effective. It is fairly safe to assume that there are a fair amount of books competing for that audience that are not socially responsible in that way.

    Look at the ‘gay characters in certain roles in certain books have caused gay suicides’ social responsibility issue. Even if from now on enlightened people stuck to writing the prescribed ‘bullied now, bullied forever’ medicine, the people prone to suicide are unlikely to find it to their taste. There would still be many alternatives available, that would likely continue to attract that demographic more.

    I figure I’ll write for the ‘lulz’ and just not share the stuff likely to make the world worse for sharing.

  18. By coincidence, I read a blog post today that in passing touched on the subject of socially-responsible writing:

    … an “opportunity to my advantage” appeared and I had to turn it down, because I couldn’t write something that I no[t] only don’t believe in, but which I violently disagree with, and which I think would be one more “pull” towards what I consider despair and giving up on the human race. I realized then that one of the directives of my work is “Snatching brands from the fire” not “piling on coals of destruction.”


    1. Yeah. 🙂

      I think that there are definitely things that I wouldn’t put in a story because I’d feel it was unwise or wrong or potentially dangerous… but I probably wouldn’t write those things anyway. Could someone write a book that encouraged depressed teens to commit suicide? Sure. Could I write it? No, I don’t think so. Am I going to agonize about *accidentally* inspiring some weird thing? Absolutely not.

      I had to laugh at a passage in _Maximum Ride_ (I think? Patterson?) where they hot-wire a car and the passage says something like… “of course that’s not how you start a car without a key, but I’m not going to say how to really do it because someone would go out and try and I won’t be responsible for that…” or get sued or something… I’m working from old memory, but it was cute.

      And I’m not super sure off the top of my head which of the romance authors I read told the story of sitting on a plane plotting out a terrorist plot when her seat-mate just happened to be Homeland Security or somesuch, who totally freaked out because she was actually using real vulnerabilities in the plot. In the end she said she agreed to hold the book for a year, but not longer, and the various concerned parties had to be happy with that. Because in that case, what is responsible? Not publishing it, or publishing it? Anything an author can think up a Bad Guy can think up too and the more people aware that something is a threat the better.

      For the rest? If I’m writing it whatever it is will reflect my understanding of how the world works. Often enough, poor behavior will result in consequences, but not always. Characters, like real people, will have some ideas that I don’t like. But I can promise this… my travelers to the Jurassic WILL kill dinosaurs… the Good Guys WILL have guns… and my elves WILL be carnivores. Oh, and my humans WILL experience the biological drive to reproduce like Bunnies.

      (I think my computer has begun randomizing who I am at any given moment in time.)

  19. When Eric Flint edited a “friendly cigarette” out of one of the Schmitz stories, he explained to all his critics on Usenet that he was just getting rid of something that would throw modern readers right out of the story. “A cigarette, on an airplane! What rubbish is this?!?”

    Mind you, it was a flying car, the person offering the smoke was a manly man who called all women “doll”, and the woman receiving the offer had been introduced at the beginning of the book with speculation that if she didn’t put out for her boss soon, the villain would surely take what he wanted by force. (said speculation being thought by an older male who was busily admiring her ass as she walked away)

    Nearly every page of the book was stamped with something that screamed “Welcome To The Future Of The Sixties”, and he thought that a friendly cigarette would be the reader’s first clue that something was amiss.


  20. Oddly enough, something in this reminded me of Kohlberg’s levels of moral development, from back about 1958? The idea is that there are various reasons for dealing with moral dilemmas and other problems, and they are roughly arranged in stages. Let me check Wikipedia — ah, there it is.

    1. Obedience and punishment orientation, aka how can I avoid punishment?
    2. Self-interest orientation, aka what’s in it for me, or how do I get carrots?
    3. Interpersonal accord and conformity, aka I wanna be a good boy/girl and fit in!
    4. Authority/social order maintaining, aka law and order
    5. Social Contract, aka I pledge with society
    6. Universal ethical principles, aka I believe these principles

    Notice that social responsibility is probably a version of level 3, I wanna fit in. And according to Kohlberg and others, relatively weak, because of problems with who is setting the social norms, what about cross-social situations, and so forth. Additional reasons why this fails as a standard for morality are left as an exercise for anyone who wants to think about it.

    I do think it is worth noting that the first two depend on visibility and how other people punish or reward your actions, the middle pair depend heavily on social structure and organization, while the last two really are individual commitments that can stand whether society, that grey mass over there, agrees or not. The “I have chosen” principle is the only one that really works no matter what others may do.

    Or, if everyone gets together and agrees to jump off a cliff, what are you going to do?

    1. These seem to track the shame vs guilt continuum. There was a book (I think it had Chrysanthemum in the title) which was a reflection on Japanese culture, and the writer espoused the point that Japan had a shame culture. I have no idea if she was right.

      The idea was that guilt is about your internal motivations, and shame about whether others think poorly of you.

      1. I don’t know as much about Japan, but it wouldn’t surprise me. They don’t (in what I know) draw as big a line between ‘face’ and ‘honor’ as the Koreans seem to. In Korea you have ‘Face’ which is reputation/public honor, and then you have your actual Honor. In Korea Honor is more important than Face (and it is considered dishonorable to cause another to loose Face). For a really good example of that find a good bio of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin. Best known for his turtle boats, but he wound up an admiral (started a land soldier) because he was honorable and incorruptible. So much so that all the smear jobs would not stick and he kept getting relegated to worse and worse posts and turning them around. Ticked a lot of people off. 😉

        1. That’s a good story. I saw a movie a couple of years (probably out of Korea or Hong Kong–there were subtitles) where the climactic battle took place on a river, and the ships had red sails. It was pretty awesome. I wish I could remember the name, but I wonder if it was about your guy.

  21. Realistic violence? Sure, if it’s done well that can be exciting. But…for social responsibility??? That falls under the header of ‘You got it right for the wrong reasons, and that makes you all the way wrong.’

    I’m imagining the nightmare of some SJW mistaking my narrative choices for socially responsible crap.

    SJW: Brilliant book!

    Me: Aw, shucks, thanks-

    SJW: I love the marvelous illustration of (buzzword) (buzzword)

    Me: That’s-what?

    SJW: And (character)’s situation was a poignant illustration of intersectionality-

    Me: No it’s not!

    SJW: And how you force readers to confront male privilege and rape culture in all it’s ugliness-

    Me: Did you not see all the men killed or otherwise screwed over? What book are you reading? Stop praising me! You’re driving readers away! No, don’t give me an award, it’s a buyer-repellent! Argh!

  22. The point about Tolkien is that the tale, as he put it, grew in the telling. He wasn’t try to tell a story about the struggle between good in evil. He was just telling the story that came to him.

    And it most fitting that I read Sarah’s post this week as I have been wondering if the audience that flocks to fantasy fiction will flocks to my epic, a story which if you took all the sentiment that George R. R. Martin drained from his Song of Ice and Fire and doubled it, you’d have half of what I have put into the first two (of three) books of my epic. Do fantasy readers want to hear of a gay wizard’s mother issues?

    Or how he gains wisdom through his romantic relationship with a gay elf?

    Should I try to use the elements of the story that has come to me and try to tell a more conventional fantasy tale? Mr. Martin broke with so many conventions and his books are selling better than hotcakes.

    Like Tolkien, he just told his story. We just tell the story. And perhaps, like Tolkien, we’ll find that we are addressing great themes, some of which we only come to understand in the telling.

    And if you have a political or social agenda in mind when you seek to tell your tale, you’re not telling a story, you’re composing a lecture.

  23. Socially Responsible Writing?

    As far as i will get into that is not telling anyone how to make RDX in their kitchen sink. That is as responsible as i will get.

    1. I just borrow some from the neighbor’s shed. *waves at Fed the Fred* That and I don’t write excuses for evil.

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