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.