Is it the writer’s duty to force bitter medicine on the reader?

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Something I read recently on Twitter rather annoyed me, and not just because the one person said it, but because I have heard its like before so many times: that it is the artist’s or writer’s job to make people uncomfortable.

What I don’t like about this is the assumption that everyone needs to be made uncomfortable, and the artist or writer in his or her all-knowing wisdom is the one to decide what form this discomfort should take and to spread this discomfort as far as he or she can. Though I wonder if even the people who say this kind of thing really mean it, or whether it’s a way of hiding the vulnerabilities and insecurities we all have as writers, a way to make the writing sound important.

If we do believe this is our mission, then perhaps we need some lessons in humility. We weren’t put here to decide what other people feel, or how they should feel it.

Every so often, something terrible happens — someone takes an assault rifle and slaughters school children, or a beloved public figure ends his own life — and we are reminded of how many people are carrying around soul-destroying anger or secret sorrows. We don’t, we can’t know what strangers who may view our art or pick up our books require, whether it is a kick in the pants or a hand up, whether they need to be shaken up or be inspired to greater things, and it is arrogant to assume that we do know. All we can do is write what is in our own hearts, write what moves us, whether to joy or pain, sorrow, hope, or anger, political action, or acts of kindness, and hope that in some way we reach out and touch someone so that there is a moment when we recognize our shared humanity. And there is nothing wrong, or lesser, about writing something that simply makes people laugh, or gives them pleasure. Everyone deserves such moments in their lives.

Writing, at its best, is transformative, but there are many kinds of transformation. The one that takes us from despair to hope is no less valid than the one that shocks us, or opens our eyes to all the miseries of the world. Without that hope to sustain us, how will we find the courage to confront those harsh realities and do something about them, rather than simply congratulate ourselves on how knowing we are and then go back to whatever it is we were doing before. (Sorry, reading about rape and violence, starvation and despair, doesn’t equate to writing that letter to our congressman or MP, volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating blood to the Red Cross, offering shelter to a friend who is out of work and out of funds, or caring for a dying parent. If we’re going to claim the books we read move us to compassion, then we should act on it. As readers, we have responsibilities, too, in what we take away from what we read, and what we do about it.)

Certainly, it can be a good thing to shake up those who are complacent, to open their eyes, to stir them to action. But shaking them up and opening their eyes may not be enough. They need to believe that they, as individuals, can make a difference. If we look at the great books of the past, we can see many that accomplish both these things. And as writers, as human beings, we should also remember that those who appear most complacent may simply be successful at hiding their wounds. Let us not be like the 18th century doctors who prescribed bleeding and blistering for every ailment. Books may heal by offering catharis, but they may do so just as effectively by offering hope, laughter, beauty.

Then there are the books that excite readers with shock after shock in order to entertain them, and if a book does nothing more than entertain there is nothing inherently wrong with that — the other arts do so unashamedly — but let’s not elevate that particular style of entertainment above books and arts that offer something else.

As I see it, the best that I can do is to write whatever quickens my own emotions, and hope that whatever that is will be written with sufficient art to arouse the same emotions in my readers — whether it is to thrill them, terrify them, encite or disturb them, or simply to offer them a moment of pure delight. And try not to become too complacent about doing it.

(A shorter version of this was posted on my sffchronicles blog.)

copyright Teresa Edgerton 2014

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