Sunday, January 13, 2013

With Great Writing Comes Great Responsibility

Last year, I talked about a study that shows how great writing can make the reader turn fiction into reality—transporting them into the main character’s story and feeling as though it was his own. I’ve certainly experienced this, and I love it. It inspires me to want to write my stories that well.

It also sparked some thoughts that I chose not to share last year, when I wrote that first post. I'm not exactly sure why, perhaps because last year was insanely busy and I had limited time to respond to what could potentially be a controversial post. I haven't been able to shake these thoughts, though, and I'm also looking to start my year off right. So, I'm sharing. :)

Over the years, many writers and readers have mused on how much accountability should be placed on the writer. Responses to this stretch widely across the spectrum. Some say that since fiction isn't real, the reader shouldn't take any of it seriously. Some say that all accountability is on the reader, because the writer is only one person and can't possibly see his/her story how everyone else sees it. Others say that writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they intentionally (or unintentionally) send.

To those who think fiction shouldn't be taken seriously, I say *PSHAW*. If we don't take fiction seriously, then it has no meaning. Just because a fictional story never happened doesn't make it meaningless. In fact, I find lots of meaning in fiction because the author created everything for a purpose, and it's my job as a reader to discover those purposes. That always gets my brain thinking, and that's pretty much always a good thing...

For those who think the onus is on the reader, well, I think that's partially true. The reader is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. And, the writer *is* only one person and therefore limited. However, there are ways around that. That's where critique partners and beta readers come into play. They provide additional perspectives, which can give the author a wealth of information. It's easy to dismiss one person's feedback as 'oh, well, he just didn't quite get it.' While that may be true, chances are that he won't be the only person to think this, and it could earn you unfavorable reviews. It's in your best interest to listen to him, figure out where and how he got off track, and then fix it so that future readers don't have the same issue.

As for those who say writers should hold themselves accountable for what messages they send, well, this study on a reader's 'experience-taking' makes a good argument for it. It's kind of saying that great writing requires great responsibility.

According to this study, experience-taking works when the reader solidly identifies with the main character. Which is what should happen! It’s why we write fiction, right? Well, it’s why I write fiction. And I want to write the most believable, relatable characters I can because then my readers will identify with them and enjoy the story. Lisa Libby, assistant professor of psychology, says "Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways." Which is great! But...what if the change isn't meaningful or beneficial? What if it's hurtful?

I could rant for hours on the hot-jerk-boyfriend that’s prevalent in YA stories today, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’m going to make one observation about one scenario that scares me:

An author writes an amazing story, in which a good person is partnered with a rotten significant other. Then, that rotten person suddenly changes and becomes a good person. I can't count how many times I've seen this formula in YA stories... And teen girls are devouring them. Is it enough to just be happy that they're reading? I'm not so sure.

For readers in the throes of experience-taking, I think this is a recipe for disaster. These readers are taking on a character's experiences as their own, and, according to Ms. Libby, are making conscious or unconscious decisions based on them. Which means they will be stuck in an unhealthy relationship, believing on some level that the rotten significant other will suddenly change. I won't say that's impossible, because it could happen. But it's *highly* unlikely. And this will begin the pattern of lousy relationships because they will be looking for a person that doesn't exist. That scares the crap out of me, and I don't think our teens (boys or girls) deserve that.

So, there's my thoughts. Feel free to share your own.

To be clear, I don't think that tough subjects should be bypassed in YA fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact. Books are a safe arena for broaching these subjects, and not addressing them does a disservice to teens. They are quite capable of taking these things on and dealing with them in effective ways, and don't deserve 'dumbed down' books that pretend all is hunky dory with the world. What I take issue with is putting rose-colored glasses on the story, and then giving it a fairy-tale ending. I think our teens deserve much more than that.


Anne M Leone said...

There's been a great debate going on about this in the UK kidlit community, after an article in the Daily Mail complained about "sick lit" and kids thinking dying was somehow glamorous or an opportunity to fall in love.

Here's a link to a great post about it all:

Personally, I think there are so many shades of gray in this discussion. Of course writers, especially writers for children, need to take responsibility, the same as teachers. And I totally agree with your point about jerk boys being made good. A terrible message for vulnerable girls. However, reading about something is much safer than experimenting with it firsthand. And I don't think we can ever tackle real world issues (which are extraordinarily important in teen fiction) without some kids handling things poorly or wanting to go out and experiment. The best fiction shouldn't provide answers, but questions.

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, the author certainly has some responsibility and it's true that total jerks mostly don't become saints! That said, many kids do grow from being irresponsible and selfish (and other less-than stellar qualities) to more mature young adults. So there is a gray area to work with in fiction.

Tabitha said...

To be clear, I'm not saying that difficult subjects shouldn't be tackled in books. Quite the opposite--I think they SHOULD. I just completely disagree with putting cliched rose-colored glasses on them and giving them a fairy tale ending. That I have huge issues with, especially since they are all over the place.

Tabitha said...

And thanks for the link, Anne. I'm reading it now.

Kelly Hashway said...

I've always thought that guys in real life can't measure up to guys in books. Maybe this is why. Books do tend to portray guys in very unrealistic ways. Personally, I like guys who are real, who have flaws. That's how my characters are because even the nicest guy, is still a guy. ;) And while I believe people can change, I don't think most do. So some jerks, need to stay jerks. I've written my share of those, too. It's what's real and that's what I want in my books.

Unknown said...

I agree that I like realism in my characters, but sometimes it's fun to read a "fairy tale".

Lori Norman said...

This is a thought-provoking post with great comments. I remember in high school literature classes being challenged to think deeply about the characters, issues, and story threads, etc. We had class discussions, always pushed further by our teacher. We were learning to read in a way that didn't just accept things at face value, but to question, ponder, share ideas with others. I've always been grateful for that. I don't have any connection to teens or high school curriculum these days, but I hope teachers are still challenging kids to thinking-readers. Thanks for getting me thinking about author / reader responsibility today.

Kiersi said...

UGH! I've been trying to write a post about this same thing FOR-EVER and have not been able to do it with subtlety or aplomb. I started calling it "The Princess Fantasy," or the fantasy that if a girl is sweet enough, and works hard enough to be likable, that she can turn a monster into a man (a jerk into a nice guy). And it's not true, at least, most of the time.

I read this really interesting comment on Reddit about Twilight as a tragedy:

And it got me thinking about these "happily ever after" stories that girls (but also to some degree, boys) are raised hearing--and whether that skews or damages their ability to have adult relationships later in life.

Are we, as authors, obliged to try to give our audience other routes, other "ideals"? I don't know. I think so.

Great post, Tab.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

When it comes to the topic of responsibility, it can be difficult to get anywhere. Because I find that what one person thinks sets a bad example, another views quite differently. For example, some people think it's irresponsible to acknowledge to young people that sex exists, while other people think it's irresponsible to pretend that sex doesn't exist.

There's also the role of fantasy and wish fulfillment in our art. To what extent is our art a blueprint for the actual world, and to what extent is it an escape from it?

Does a fantasy about reforming a rogue actually lead real women to cling to bad relationships, or does it provide a "road-not-taken" fantasy to women who in real life choose more sensibly?

Fantasy violence is another area where this is a big question. Personally, I'm not drawn to fictional violence, but I know there are huge audiences for it. It meets some need in our culture, but I don't know what that need is. Is it whetting an appetite for actual violence, or is it providing a vent that reduces that appetite, or does it produce one effect in some people and the opposite in others, or does it have no effect either way?

All too often, I see this conversation go in the direction of, "If a work of art agrees with my politics/morality/worldview, then it's important, but if it goes against my politics/morality/worldview, then it's corrupting our children." And so I wonder: if I trust readers not to (for example) use drugs after reading a book in which the characters use drugs, why would I not trust a reader to avoid an arrogant guy even after reading a book in which the hero was arrogant?

I myself don't have a lot of answers on this topic. Only--as you can see--lots of questions.

CS Perryess said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on this issue.
I particularly agree with you on the frightening prevalence of the he's-a-bad-boy-but-I-can-fix-him myth in YA lit.

A related observation: kids read right over things they aren't ready for. As a middle school teacher I see this all the time. It works exactly like sex education. Those who are ready & need it, internalize it. Those who aren't there yet can study the material & pass the test, but it's as though the reality of sex never really hits home. I see this same dynamic among young readers of fiction, & it pleases me.

Anonymous said...

An interesting topic that brings up a lot of questions about the meaning and purpose of art. Lots to ponder here . . . . Thanks for sharing this.

Carmela Martino said...

I found your blog via the Comment Challenge. I'm too tired to respond thoughtfully to this post, but I think it's an intriguing topic and one worthy of discussion. I commend you for talking about "uncomfortable" topics.