Over the past week, I have been doing a lot of thinking on the so-called “writer obligation.” This is discussed a lot, often times involving a controversial text and whether or not it should have been written/be read by the public. It speaks to a writer’s obligation to society: stating that what is written in part shapes the fabric of daily life and perception. I don’t disagree with that last sentence, but still encourage all writers to not be obliged to anyone.
Writers’ obligations are often cited with matters of political correctness (more on this term in a later post). I have personally seen it come up in the following: writers have a responsibility not to write racist characters, publishers should not publish books with racist characters, readers should not read books with racist rhetoric. Likewise I have heard a debate of whether white writers should write characters of color – the list goes on.
Racism, sexism, and any other form of discrimination based on arbitrary external features that have little to do with a person’s inner character are horrible. Make no mistake, this is not an article condoning prejudice in any way.
That said, I believe a writer has the obligation to ignore all issues I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Write racism – write sexism – write every horrific thing that exists in the world today: only write it well. Writing a thoughtful, well-constructed narrative that captures truth is the sole obligation of the writer. We should never be concerned that our writing will upset anyone. Let me elaborate:
Lessons can be learned in many ways. Some people are visual learners – they learn with the aid of images and the spatial organization of elements on a page. Some people are auditory – they need only hear something once and they’ll process and remember it. Still others are kinesthetic: these people learn best when they’re moving, putting their whole body into the exercise. The last group of learners I want to mention learn through reading/writing. That one is self-explanatory.
This means that, for some people, reading To Kill a Mockingbird will do more to inform them of racism/inequality than listing to all the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X combined. To Kill a Mockingbird – a book written by a white woman.
Many books teach lessons, and this isn’t confined to nonfiction. To Kill a Mockingbird is a prime example of fiction being used to teach a real lesson. By presenting a real world issue in a fictional story, Harper Lee entertains as she enlightens. Yet To Kill a Mockingbird is only one example – one that is not subtle at all.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a tougher animal. For those that don’t know, this book is about a child molester who stalks and sexually abuses a young girl. This child molester is the protagonist – the whole book is told only through his perspective. He is in constant defense of his abominable actions and, until the end, never shows a shred of remorse.
Reading Lolita is not an enjoyable experience, but it is a powerful one. It drags its reader down a rabbit hole of horror until the very end, humanizing arguably the most type of person on the planet. Yet, despite the lack of heroic figure or a flatly stated lesson, the reader never once vindicates Humbert Humbert (the protagonist)’s actions.
Lolita is a story about a sexual predator, not about how being a sexual predator is okay. The reader sees the full truth in the revulsion of the other characters once they learn what has happened, and in the horror of what happens to teenage Dolores as she is abused by Humbert.
This is what I mean about writing a thoughtful and well-constructed piece. Nabokov clearly did not cut corners or try to simplify any of his writing. He embraced the challenge of it, knowing that if he failed – Lolita would be nothing more than sensationalist trash that tries too hard to get under a reader’s skin. Humbert Humbert needed humanity to fully capture the horror of what he was doing.
The truth is not always a nice thing… very often it isn’t. Sometimes that truth can be as comforting as the importance of friendship (the Harry Potter series) or that ordinary people can do great things to change the world (the Lord of the Rings). Other times, the truth is terrible: loss can be needed to make change happen (Romeo and Juliet) and that the monsters in our world are people too (Lolita).
Capturing truth isn’t easy, whether it’s good or bad. It is what separates the good works of art from the popcorn. It is what makes stories stay with us, even if we haven’t read them for decades. For those writers out there: take your time – the truth is a nuanced beast. Like with most of the best things in writing, it is very unlikely that any writer captures truth in the first draft.
Writers have just one obligation: write the best pieces they can. It is the readers’ obligation to tell them if they failed or succeeded.