Do fiction authors (or any entertainer, for that matter) have any responsibility to the world?
It’s probably an age old question, and the answer you give probably depends on a number of factors (background, beliefs, political leanings, etc.).
I’m asking the question for the following reasons:1 I’m an author of fiction.
I could simply write stories for the sake of writing stories. Purely entertainment, nothing more. If that were my approach (and if it were truly possible), I could conceivably write about anything – from dragon slayers, to witches, to serial murderers. The only litmus test of whether a subject was “fair game” for me would be whether or not I thought it would make for a good story. Would it be entertaining to the readers?
There are many, many fiction authors who appear to take this approach. Some purely for the sake of the story, others purely for the sake of building a huge catalog of books so they can make more money. Some even do the research to target whatever story niches are selling the most books, and that’s what they write.
Surely, I want my books to be entertaining. There’s nothing worse than a book that you have to slug through in order to get to the end. I’ve done that as a reader myself, sometimes out of duty, sometimes because I simply didn’t want to quit. It’s important to me that I write a story that is engaging, exciting, and leading the reader to a satisfactory conclusion. But for me, there has to be more than that. I want my stories to have an impact on the reader, in a positive way.
Surely, I want my books to be successful (profitable). But at what cost? Personally, I’m simply not willing to write things that are immoral, questionable, or outside the realm of my desires as an author, just for the bucks I could make.2 I’m a Christian
As a follower of Christ, my books, like my life, come under His authority and Lordship. I am only “free” to write what I believe He desires. That rules out a lot of things for me that might be considered if point 1, above, was all I was concerned with.
As a Christ-follower, I also want my books to be a tool that is used of God in the lives of my readers. I want my stories to encourage, to challenge, and in the end, to build up the reader. If there are things in my novels that bring discouragement to an individual or group of people, I have to consider whether I’m being faithful to my calling as a Christian.
That leads to the last reason I’m concerned about this issue:3 I recently got some thought-provoking feedback from a fellow author and reader of my book
Recently, I became acquainted with a fellow author, Donovan M. Neal, who agreed to read and review my book. Donovan is a fellow believer in Christ, and like me, a retired minister of the gospel-turned fiction author. I’m still reading his novel (see the link above), and heartily recommend it to you.
His comments about my book were encouraging, but also challenging. Being an African-American, he had an interesting perspective on my book… including some issues that I’d never considered. Here’s part of what he shared with me (used by permission)…
WARNING: If you’ve not read the book… there are some minor spoilers in the next section
I’m not saying you have to like this criticism. Nor am I saying there is any undercurrent of prejudice here. What I am saying is, recognize that for some readers of color it will be a turn off. Expect if you get more circulation at some point, to hear this from another person of color, in a review…
I’m raising these questions to you to sharpen you as you carry your series forward: to think deeper about your world creation. People will care about Hon, they will hate Silas. My guess is they will hate Raj too. You are a counselor, and you know people are impacted by what they read and see, especially young people who are will take away many messages from your work. But the little girl of color might not get your message, or worse be given a subtle message that black people are evil.
At first, I was pretty put-off by Donovan’s comments because what he saw was not my intention at all. But when I gave it time to settle, and interacted with him a bit more. I came to see his point. He’s not being overly sensitive to the “race issue,” he’s being appropriately concerned… and he’s taking my responsibility as a Christian author of fiction, very seriously. I’m thankful for that. I want to take it seriously, too.
I don’t think the answer is for me to avoid using “people of color” as characters in my book. But I do need to be mindful of how my use of nationalities and races may impact my readers. I want them to be challenged and built up, encouraged in their faith or challenged toward new faith, and ready to move in a positive direction when they finish one of my books, no matter what ethnic background they are from. To that end, I need to make sure that my characterization of heroes and villains do not fall into stereotypical patterns that imply something negative where nothing negative is intended. Honestly, I didn’t even think about it being an issue… which shows why I needed Donovan’s kind email in the first place.
Thanks Donovan, for making me aware of an issue that is important to many, many people, and one that I want to handle well. You are a true brother in Christ.
Do fiction authors have a responsibility to the world?
I believe we do. We are responsible to add something good to the world, something that builds into the lives of real people (our readers). That doesn’t mean that every story has to have a happy ending, or that every character is “redeemed” somehow in the end. Neither does it mean that we have to avoid the harsher realities of life. Sterile is not synonymous with positive. What it does mean is that as we write, we must be thoughtful… of how our writing will impact our readers. Here are what I consider some simple, yet helpful questions toward that end…
- Will my readers be helped or harmed by this book?
- Does my book lead readers in the direction of hope or hopelessness?
- Does my writing leave readers encouraged or depressed?
- Is the average reader going to be challenged to examine their own life, in light of what the characters face?
- Does my writing step outside the realm of my experience to consider that others may view what I’m portraying in a different light?
- What can I do to build up all people, everywhere, no matter their background?
And I’m sure there are many, many other questions to be asked…
Thanks for reading these ramblings. I appreciate you. I hope to be an author who takes his role in the world seriously, for the sake of helping my readers weather life better, and find God in the midst of their storms.
Below is a video that Donovan shared with me, that is worth your time. I hope you watch it and consider how YOU may need to be more aware of the place others come from, and how you can serve to bridge the gap between their world and yours, their experience, and the direction of the world.