Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Do Creative Writers Have Social “Responsibilities”?


“Some fiction writers feel that their job is to record life; maybe do it with some creativity, but capturing what exists and rendering it is their prime function. I, almost violently, disagree.”

That quote is something I wrote in January in a post called, What’s The Writer’s Job? ~ Recording Or Creating?.

I also wrote, “My firm belief is that fiction’s proper purpose is to help humanity raise its sights, improve its situation, and strengthen its resolve to make life really matter…”

I do a bit of analysis in that post of “…a character who’s a day laborer, beats his wife and children, and discovers he has terminal cancer.”

It wouldn’t be hard to find material to create many characters who suffer as much or more than that day laborer, his wife, and his children. That material is all around us

But, if you’re the kind of creative writer who draws their inspiration from the world as it is, is it a truly creative act to merely copy those circumstances in proper language with enough fictionalization to hide identities?

To me, that would be like a painter who works assiduously to copy a garbage dump so faithfully the viewer gets sick from the smell.

Later in that post I linked to, I said, “I’m not trying to advocate some sort of sterile, moralistic fiction. We still need a damn good read and we don’t need a book telling us how to live our lives. Still… Showing the reader that even the worst conditions can hold some promise for improvement, even if the characters fail miserably to attain that promise, is, to me, a job that fiction writers should always be working to master.”

Really, are people who have the knack of creativity here only to copy reality?

What are the “moral” or “ethical” opportunities in a creative work?

What is the creative person’s “responsibility” to society?
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12 responses to “Do Creative Writers Have Social “Responsibilities”?

  1. Anthony J Marinelli (@aj_mars) September 29, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I find it a little funny that you disagree with what people think their own job is as a writer :p Writers, like goth kids, talk an awful lot about what makes someone authentic, but it seems to me that there is no absolute that we can all aspire to be. Instead, we should strive to be completely our own self. Some of us tend to a more journalistic approach to fiction, largely recording what happens. Others spin stories completely from nowhere, doing neither research nor having had similar experiences to the things they write. Most probably fall in the middle, taking bits from here and there, sometimes pursuing an agenda in a story, other times just letting it come of its own accord. Thankfully, so much of it is unconscious that a person can’t help but pour some of their own self into their works, as well as things we “borrow'” from the world around us.

    Regarding ethics, morality and responsibility, two books that may be of interest in regards to this subject come to mind On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner, discusses a responsibility for morality in fiction, specifically furthering positive qualities and progress while also maintaining artistry and creativity.

    Another is Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography,by Roger Shattuck, part of which explores how subjects pass from taboo to literature, but also warns that perhaps some lines should be drawn. For instance, the intrinsic value of labeling something as art does not remove its ability to confuse and give credence to the validity of amoral actions. This book also explores scientific inquiry and the ethics of discovery vs responsibility.

    I think both works leave some wiggle room and raise questions as they answer them. The authors make their own opinions known but don’t clobber the reader to come to their point of view,

    Eep, I think my comment was longer than your post, lol I guess I had a lot to say :)

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    • Alexander M Zoltai September 29, 2011 at 11:35 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to give your thinking on the post, Anthony.

      So, you find it strange that I, on my blog about writing, and being a writer myself, would voice my opinion about what I feel writers should try to achieve?

      Or, perhaps, I misunderstood your saying: “I find it a little funny that you disagree with what people think their own job is as a writer.”

      I’ve not read From Prometheus to Pornography but have read On Moral Fiction.

      Thanks for letting other readers know about those two books :-)

      Like

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  4. Matthew Morgan January 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Your ideas perhaps suggest that ‘simply’ showing the world as it is doesn’t also provide opportunities for ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ improvement. My favourite fiction shows me a portion of the world as the writer sees it and I draw my own conclusions and moral lessons. I don’t believe it’s an either/or situation as you seem to advocate.

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    • Alexander M Zoltai January 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      I tried my best to not show an “either/or” situation, Matthew. Perhaps I’ve failed in your eyes.

      You wrote: “My favourite fiction shows me a portion of the world as the writer sees it…”, and, perhaps this is where my post is speaking—not from what the reader interprets from the writing (which is your situation) but what the writing actually presents to the reader.

      I linked to the previous post, What’s The Writer’s Job? ~ Recording Or Creating?, and quoted a bit of it, but let me quote a bit more:

      “Take a character who’s a day laborer, beats his wife and children, and discovers he has terminal cancer.

      “The naturalist would merely record the conditions and have the character die off. The reader would receive no more value than if they actually knew such a person and stood by and watched the man come home every day, beat his wife and kids, then die of cancer.

      “The creative writer could take the same character and use their circumstances to show any number of human principles that could raise the man’s actions and death to a level that could inspire the reader–-possibly to help abused women and children, or investigate the relationship between anger and cancer, or at least serve as moral food for thought.”

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      • Matthew Morgan January 29, 2012 at 11:28 pm

        I understand what you’re getting at; I think I might have actually been the one who failed to convey what I meant! Let me try again…
        The assumption underlying the view of the ‘naturalist’ record is that the naturalist is able to divorce personal input/bias/emotion from his or her writing, that it is possible for a human to write a purely objective account of anything. Even if unintentional, angles and particular perspectives are inevitably offered, from which the reader can infer this ‘moral food for thought’.
        Another, secondary, assumption is that the world alone is without inspiring or motivational content, until the writer instills some in it. I don’t believe this to be so, and alternatively, even if it is so, why is it only writers who can find gold in nature? Surely all people are capable of it, and the writer’s job then becomes to provide others with opportunities to do so by offering recreations of the world as it is.
        Finally, and this is the most personal point and possibly the most debatable, I believe that above all a writer’s job is to tell the truth and if the truth is that some people die of cancer, sometimes good people, sometimes bad people, and often without any rhyme or reason, so be it. It is not the job of the writer to proselytize or protect the reader from the truth, even when it is unpalatable.

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        • Alexander M Zoltai January 30, 2012 at 12:27 am

          “Even if unintentional, angles and particular perspectives are inevitably offered, from which the reader can infer this ‘moral food for thought’.”

          My comment is that the “naturalistic” writer would convey some of their “values” in their writing—impossible not to; yet, if the intention is to “copy” reality, the “inspiration” available would be scant. Perhaps this quote from the post carries my meaning best: “…that would be like a painter who works assiduously to copy a garbage dump so faithfully the viewer gets sick from the smell.” So, even though some of the painter’s perspective ends up in the painting, is it “admirable” to make people sick?

          “…the world alone is without inspiring or motivational content, until the writer instills some in it. I don’t believe this to be so, and alternatively, even if it is so, why is it only writers who can find gold in nature?

          I’m not trying to say the world is without “inspiring or motivational content”. I’m trying to point out the type of writer who works hard to copy “what’s happening” without attempting to help the reader gain the inspiration or motivation. Also, I never intended that only writers are being discussed, though this blog is about Reading, Writing, and Publishing. If someone wants to extend my thoughts into other areas of life, fine. :-)

          Your final point makes me have to copy what I said in my last response:
          “Take a character who’s a day laborer, beats his wife and children, and discovers he has terminal cancer.

          “The naturalist would merely record the conditions and have the character die off. The reader would receive no more value than if they actually knew such a person and stood by and watched the man come home every day, beat his wife and kids, then die of cancer.

          “The creative writer could take the same character and use their circumstances to show any number of human principles that could raise the man’s actions and death to a level that could inspire the reader–-possibly to help abused women and children, or investigate the relationship between anger and cancer, or at least serve as moral food for thought.”

          And, as far as “It is not the job of the writer to proselytize or protect the reader from the truth, even when it is unpalatable.”, let me add another repetition, from the post I linked to in my last response:

          “I’m not trying to advocate some sort of sterile, moralistic fiction. We still need a damn good read and we don’t need a book telling us how to live our lives. Still… Showing the reader that even the worst conditions can hold some promise for improvement, even if the characters fail miserably to attain that promise, is, to me, a job that fiction writers should always be working to master.”

          Like

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