May 20, 2014

Authorial responsibility

MY PROBLEM WITH ALL THIS

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I completely hate this. “This” being specifically this blog, what I’m typing, this direct, immediate communication from me to you, the reader.

(Of course, chances are you’re not a reader of mine. But I’ll gloss over that for now.)

Why do I hate this? Well, I feel like I’ve said this before – in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve said it a lot – but one of my deepest beliefs as a writer is that writers should stay the fuck out of their audience’s business.

This is because the reading experience is an extremely private, personal, subjective experience. The core relationship is between the reader and the text: the writer has no place interjecting themselves into this relationship. It is not the writer’s place to tell the audience how to think about the work, or whether the audience’s opinion or interpretation is wrong or not.

Nor is it the writer’s place to directly enter into discourse with the reader, because to do so would, in a sense, overrule them, contradict them, taking this very delicate and personal relationship with a work and forcing a completely different set of associations and connotations and interpretations on it.

I will say this a thousand times: 90% of the work done in the reading experience is done by the reader. The writer is essentially providing a recipe, a blueprint: it’s the reader who comes in and does the creating. I am not putting anything into your head: it’s you that’s rendering and summoning up this beautiful or terrible experience, guided by my vague instructions.

My opinion is moot. If I don’t mention a character’s race, and you make them black in their head, it’s not my place to say, “Actually, no, that’s wrong, she’s white. Oh yeah, and she’s from Connecticut, actually, and she played field hockey, and she also failed out of law school and worked in house renovations for six years before the story, I just didn’t mention any of that stuff. But here it is now, here’s who she really is. I don’t know what’s in your head, but that’s who she is.”

No. That’s not how this works. You have the authority. I am giving you soft clay figures, and you are shaping them and giving them details.

 

HOW MUCH OF THIS IS YOU? HOW MUCH OF THIS IS ME?

This leaves only the issue of responsibility.

Am I, the writer, responsible to you? Are you responsible to me? If you completely misinterpret my work and say, for example, that The Troupe actually has a hidden Jewish agenda, that it’s putting a nice face on the Jewish culture and I’m actively extending the secret Jewish control over the media, is it my responsibility to come out and publicly say, hey, no, pump the brakes here, what you’re saying is crazy?

I prefer to think it isn’t. A story is a conversation. And when the writer’s done writing it, they’ve had their say. Now it’s up to the story to speak for itself, and for the readers to talk amongst themselves and make their own decisions about what this book is.

The writer should more or less leave the premises. The writer should be, in some sense, an absentee parent. Or at least a very hands-off one.

Now, this relationship – the one between me, the writer, and you, the reader – is muddy despite my beliefs that a writer should flee the spotlight (or throne) whenever possible. If I’m writing about something extremely sensitive – say, apartheid, or something like that – it is my responsibility to be judicious and thoughtful when writing it. That should be the default mode at all times: ideally, any piece of writing should be informed by a humane and empathic sensibility, one that considers experiences external to one own, even if it isn’t about something delicate.

So here’s the ideal mode of the writer/reader relationship:

  1. Even when writing about hard or sensitive things, the assumption should be that the writer is writing about this with care. The reader should trust that the writer is doing this, or attempting to, and if the writer is being lurid or provocative, the assumption should be that they are doing so for a reason.
  2. Likewise, the writer should write assuming that the reader will be reading the story with the same trust and care. The writer should assume that the reader will not be taking the text at face value: the writer must trust that the reader understands that a book involving violence, for example, is not necessarily encouraging violence.

This is the ideal state.

But people fuck it up a lot.

Some writers will write stupid, offensive shit. Some readers will read stupid, offense shit into a work that might be neither. The latter can go both ways: some readers might read the work and say, “Boo, racism!” or some might alternately say, “Hooray, racism, because I am a racist!” (They won’t say that, because they don’t think they are. But they are.)

So the question is, what’s the writer’s responsibility in all this? Is it up to them to set the record straight?

My feeling is that the writer should shut up and stay out of it, regardless of whether or not the work is what people are claiming it is.

Seriously, how many times has a writer weighed in on a bad review and wound up looking stupid? And has that ever actually helped? When has the writer’s involvement ever actually fixed anything? It seems to me like it just makes it worse.

Here’s the deal, writers: if you write something, people get to say whatever they like about it. And, in my opinion, you don’t get to say anything back. You’ve had your say.

This isn’t about you. The deal is, everyone gets to read it, everyone’s reading of it is legitimate, and it’s up to the audience to figure it out. Even if they are saying some wildly fucked up shit about your work, your job – and it’s a cruddy job – is to placidly sit it out, or, better yet, get started writing the next thing.

This is their thing, their relationship. It’s like your kid fighting with their significant other, and though you might get mentioned a lot (“It’s because your crazy, stupid dad messed you all up!”), it’s not your fight. Let them figure it out. Even if it hurts you, it’s their decision.

 

WHY THE HELL ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THIS

The reason I’m writing this is because of – take a breath here now, because we’re gonna get deep – the recent discussion around trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings, for those who don’t know, are kind of like the warnings you get before television shows (“This show is rated TV MA-LSV”) except way more specific, in that what it’s warning you about is something along the lines of rape, domestic abuse, child abuse, etc.

It’s my general understanding that trigger warnings came about because the internet – in its infinite hunger for outrage and all manner of upsetting things – encourages sharing of incendiary material, and some of this material causes deep, terrible reactions in those who might have gone through the experience described in the material.

I completely understand this. It actually happens to me: sometimes I wish people would include trigger warnings for “infant died of brain cancer” because, hey, I have a kid, and that makes me feel all fucked up at work. I would prefer not to read that. It triggered a really nasty reaction in me. So it must be a million times worse if it’s actually happened to you.

Trigger warnings have since become somewhat popular with fiction. Some writers include trigger warnings for their stuff. Strong Female Protagonist, one of my favorite webcomics, included one before they tackled an arc in which gang rape was very, very obliquely (and, I think, tastefully) mentioned. And I support them for doing it. That’s a sensitive position to take, and SFP is very involved with their fans.

I know I’m never going to do it, though.

Some people complain about trigger warnings because they’re basically spoilers. “Watch out!” the trigger warning might say. “This story contains spousal abuse!” And then you spend the rest of the story waiting for the spousal abuse to come along.

That’s a somewhat legitimate issue with trigger warnings. But it’s not why I’m not going to do it.

My problem is that I genuinely, sincerely, honestly believe it is not my place to interject any bit of myself between you and what I wrote. Even if it’s to tell you to watch out, to help you.

That passage above about the white girl field hockey player from Connecticut, that’s authorial “helping” too. Authorial help is not, in my opinion, very helpful.

That’s why I tell myself every day that if I ever Make It (whatever that means) I am chunking this blog in the garbage and starting some oblique avant-garde website where you can’t figure out if I’m real or not. (I guess that’s what I do with twitter, anyway.)

I don’t want to be involved in your relationship with my books, even to smallest degree. I don’t want to hold your hand through the story. I don’t want you to like the story more because you think you like me. I want this to be about you and what I wrote.

 

DO YOU ACTUALLY THINK THIS CAN WORK

I can hear the questions out there, and they’re fair ones:

So you’re okay with this? You’re okay causing these sorts of horrible reactions in people, you’re willing to let that happen?

To which I have to say, hell no, I’m not okay with it.

I’ve had people tell me they read my books and spent all night crying. I’ve had people tell me my books violently reminded them of their fucked up relationships with their parents. I’ve had one person tell me – once, agonizingly – that I had accurately captured the feeling of losing a child, because they had gone through that.

And I could tell, each time, that it had fucked them all up. This thing I made had done this to them. My book had fucked them all up.

Except it didn’t. I didn’t do this, I didn’t sneak into their heads and make this happen. I didn’t set them out to remind them of their deceased child. What breaks one reader’s heart will completely bounce off another’s.

We all bring our own baggage to our books. It’s a muddy relationship, but I still think the reader does most of the work. It’s the reader who animates the horrors in all the corners of a book. And the reader is who what makes all the good parts beautiful.

Is it fair? No. Does it make me feel good? No. It makes me feel like dogshit. I still don’t know how to react to, “Your book made me cry.” Do I thank them? Do I apologize? And then the next reader will walk up and say, “That part was hilarious,” and I’ll wonder what the hell is wrong with them.

Despite our image of authorial authority – one imagines a writer like a provocative director of a play, imagining upsetting scenarios – I don’t have any control over you. I don’t control what you see. I can’t make you like my books. And I also can’t make my books not hurt you.

I really cannot articulate the wide, wide, yawning disconnect between composition and reaction. The disconnect between what I wrote and what you react to is wider than the distance between the sun and the earth. And if I try and jump in and fix that disconnect, odds are I’ll just wind up doing more damage.

But – But! – I do think that it’s my place to take the criticism if you’re giving it out. If you think my book should have had trigger warnings, it’s completely okay for you to get all over Amazon and all over Goodreads and give me 1-star reviews for not doing so. By all means, write essays about it, tell all your friends about it.

That’s your prerogative as reader, as audience member. If you think I’m an insensitive piece of shit, grab a megaphone and sing it from the mountains.

And I won’t stop you. I’ll stay completely silent. I won’t raise a single hand to defend myself. Because that’s the deal. Your reading of my work, no matter what it is, is legitimate. It’s your reading. And it’s not my place to overrule you, even the tiniest bit.

Is this a good relationship? Is this a good way to leave this world, as writer and reader? Is this healthy? I don’t particularly know. I doubt it. But I think it might be the right way to do it. To warn you about something would be to distance myself from it, to abandon it – to a certain extent, it’s to avoid responsibility for it.

But it’s a moot point. If what I wrote is bad, really, genuinely hurtful, it’s me, the writer, who should be the fall guy for it. And I should fall all the way, if that’s the case.