Three things happened recently that have me thinking about the author’s responsibility to the reader.
- A friend of mine found herself questioning if she should include content in her work that some might consider blasphemous.
- Someone else presented a story on his podcast with some taboo content, and apparently lost a fan.
- Then, I received a very polite, very earnest e-mail expressing offense at my portrayal of teen-agers in Brave Men Run. Too much swearing, too many uses of “God damn it,” too much premarital fooling around and too much teen drinking.
It got me thinking, all right.
What Is The Author’s Responsibility?
Is it the author’s responsibility to take into account the moral, religious, or political leanings of their audience when writing content? Should we worry about including something that might offend?
My opinion is: no, we shouldn’t. To be blunt: no, I won’t.
I’m going to tell my stories in the best way I know. If I portray something some people consider blasphemous, or offensive, or demeaning, or immoral, I must trust the majority of the audience will understand I do it in service to the story.
If I’m not doing it in service to the story — if I’m just trying to titillate, or get someone’s hackles up — well, then I’m just a hack. So far, so good, I think.
In Brave Men Run, the teen-aged characters swear. They think about sex. They fool around. They do things they shouldn’t do when their parents aren’t around.
To the best of my recollection, they act like most teenagers act. They certainly act like me and my friends did when I was a teenager… and trust me, we weren’t out of the ordinary. My approximation of the teen mindset and lifestyle comes pretty close, judging from the number of teenagers who have contacted me expressing their appreciation of the depiction.
On of my goals as a writer is to create the illusion you are reading about people as real as you are.
People Who Burn Books Shouldn’t Live In Paper Houses
Look in the mirror. You have imperfections. You are challenged by faults and vices. You have regrets. You’ve made bad choices.
You do things… whether it’s as minor as picking your nose in traffic or as extreme as keeping a box full of child porn.
No? Look closer.
If you still can’t see it, maybe you need to pay someone by the hour for the right to lay on their couch and talk. They’ll dig it out for you.
Think Of The Children
“But Matt,” some have said, “you must think of the impressionable young people who will read your book!”
No, I mustn’t.
First of all, I don’t write young adult material. My first book has young adults in it — there’s a difference. If someone under the age of eighteen reads anything I write, the only person responsible for policing that is their legal guardian. I’m no one’s parent.
Second, I find it a little patronizing to think young people are so pliant, so vulnerable to influence, that they’ll read my book and go on drunken make-out sessions, taking the Christian god’s name in vain in between copping feels. So far, no young person has written me to say, “Now that I’ve read your book, I’m totally gonna get someone to buy me and my girlfriend some beer so we can get drunk and mess around while everyone else is in Sunday school!”
I appreciate that everyone has different beliefs, different standards, and different limits as far as what they find acceptable. That’s the beauty of humanity; it’s what makes us so interesting.
Heck, it’s one of the reasons writers write.
However, when anyone assumes an author has the same opinions and beliefs as themselves, or should… well, that’s a very particular kind of arrogance, or a very particular kind of ignorance.
Either way, that attitude offends me.
I guarantee you: works of mine feature, or will feature…
- three-way sex that ends in murder
- drug use both recreational and otherwise
- date rape
- heathen idolatry
- homicidal violence
I can also guarantee that future work of mine will feature redemption, forgiveness, heroism, tolerance, justice and healing love. Off the top of my head.
Honestly, I don’t give a damn if anyone has a problem with any of that. No author should.
In fact, authors dare not worry about offending the reader.
Authors have one responsibility, as I see it: tell a story that helps us all understand a little bit about what it means to be human, and do it in a way that makes people want to keep reading ’til the end.
If you are a reader who doesn’t like what you read, put that book down and find another one.
Or write something yourself.
Opinions & Advice For People Who Write
Subscribe to receive new articles from Scribtotum by Matthew Wayne Selznick: Opinion, advice, and recommendations on staying human while creating a successful and healthy writing life, as well as personal insights, reflections, and observations.