Do writers have a social responsibility to contribute to and change the world they live in?


ruth Writers tell stories. And good writers tell good stories well. Our very own guest blogger, Ruth Hunt, asks if this is enough. Should writers also have a social responsibility? What do you think? Whether you are a writer or a reader, we would love to hear from you 🙂

Over to Ruth ….

What do you feel writers can contribute to society? Jeanette Winterson author of  ‘Oranges are not the only Fruit’ recently spoke about the writers role within society to The Believer magazine. She wrote:

imgres ‘That’s why everybody who has a chance to make even the smallest difference – whether you influence one person or many people, whether you change something in your neighbourhood or you change something at a bigger level…

And writing books isn’t separate by the way. I do think the writer or the artist has to live in the world, fully participate in it. This isn’t ivory-tower stuff. It’s about blvrsubs_new being in the world that we’ve got and contributing to it and trying to change it.’ (Jeanette Winterson interviewed by
Andrea Tetrick page 52 in The Believer Magazine March/April 2013. www.believermag.com)

When I was first thinking about this question, I thought it was clear cut. I thought that as long as I was writing original material, which was factually correct where it needed to be, that I didn’t perpetuate stereotypes and that my characters were believable, this was enough.  This is where my responsibilities were at and where they ended. However, I read the interview with Jeanette Winterson and thought about what she was saying. She was talking about the writer as an artist, and what should our responsibilities should be politically or socially. I think she was also reaching out to writers to consider what we are writing in terms of the impact our work has. Does it increase understanding about an issue or does it reinforce stereotypes?

It was then that I realised, hang on, if as writers we are writing about characters imagined or real, social problems are everywhere. Now I once heard somebody debate this, but what they argued was ‘This is fine for writers in China or Sri Lanka but if you are a Western writer, there isn’t any real social issue.’ I can think of racism, sexism, child abuse. I could say poverty, mental illness, illiteracy, or I might point to gangs, drugs and guns. Indeed, scratch under the surface and every social problem or issue is present.

A precise description of the social novel is:

‘A work of fiction in which a prevailing social problem such as gender, race, class prejudice are dramatized through its effect on the characters in the novel.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic edition 2012)

url Examples of ‘the social novel’ can be seen as early as the 19th Century with novels like Harriet Beecher Stowes anti slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1892). Another example is Charles Dickens novel, ‘Hard Times.’

As we look back on these novels, an accusation that is often repeated is how do these writers, who were white and often middle class/ upper-class, know about these issues? How could they possibly feel what it is like to experience those problems?

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I don’t think that is totally fair, at least these writers tried to make a difference. We can only write about the time we know about. The belief that unless you have lived through the social injustice, or know about the issues and problems from a personal perspective is one which means writers are put off from even attempting to do anything related to the subject.

However, time and time again, I come across great writers who have done a lot of research and have written a ‘social novel’ for the world now.

url-1 Dave Eggers is just one example. His novel Zeitoun (Published by McSweeney’s in 2009 ) tells the story Zeitoun Abdulrahman who got caught up in a nightmare of a situation following Hurricane Katrina.

Zeitoun is described by The Toronto Globe and Mail as …

‘A damning indictment of governmental and judicial failings in the wake of Katrina – but beyond that, it recounts a wrenching, human story of family, faith and ultimately, hope.’

Dave Eggers didn’t experience Hurricane Katrina himself, but he did do a lot of research which paid off.

His latest book  ‘A Hologram for the King’ deals with the economic crisis and recession. (Published by Hamish Hamilton, February 2013).

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Dave Eggers also contributes to society in another way, he founded ‘826 Valencia’ which uses writers who have spare time to help teach on a one to one basis with in the local community. There is an English equivalent in London ‘The Ministry of Stories’ co-founded by Nick Hornby. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper Dave Eggers said:

‘But sitting in your Garage writing, or pretending to write… sometimes makes you feel a little useless. Sometimes you feel like getting out in the world and seeing if you can be useful in some more immediate or tangible way.’

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/26/dave-eggers-hologram-king-interview

This illustrates how writers can participate in society, and contribute to society. Even if you don’t have the funds to open a writing school in your community, simply through your fiction you can make a difference. After all, in fiction we create a landscape and world for our readers including our invented characters. Does this charge us to show the diversity of the world? Surely fiction means we imagine a life other than our own?

Does this give us a better understanding of people and the wider world? Is this one of the purposes of fiction, that it can bridge the gaps between people who have different backgrounds and experiences? Is the end result a novel which could help promote compassion, empathy and understanding amongst readers?

I believe a novel can shape events, and allow a reader to grasp the issue or injustice. A fiction writer could shine a torch onto an issue rather than deflecting the light away. What do you think?

What would the world have lost if the social novel wasn’t here? What would the world be like if great writers hadn’t chosen to change the world through their fiction and through their actions?

Dave Eggers’ wish: Once Upon a School

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27 Responses to Do writers have a social responsibility to contribute to and change the world they live in?

  1. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Hello Marianne,
    Thank you for letting me do a post for your blog. I will be interested to see what my fellow writing friends think. Do you feel you have a responsibility to society in terms of your books or in terms of your life?

    • Hi Ruth
      I missed this somehow, so sorry to take so long to reply… Yes, I do feel a responsibility to my readers to be honest and truthful – which may seem a contradiction since writing fiction is all about telling lies, but the writing needs to reveal a universal truth if it’s to be more than a mechanical piling up of details. And I feel an equal responsibility to be an honest person in real life and to treat people around me fairly and with integrity and to try not to judge – which, of course, I don’t always achieve – hem! In writing, I don’t always know what it is I am wanting to say, but that is fine, because like Alice Munro, for me part of the pleasure of writing is finding out what my story is … (apologies to those who have heard this quote before, its one of my favourites):

      “It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, but that’s what it is – the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.” Alice Munro.

      Not sure I have answered your questions, but anyway, thanks for being a great guest blogger 🙂

  2. D'Arcy Doran says:

    I recently had the opportunity to interview Dave Eggers and asked what motivates his sense of social responsibility. The first part of the interview is online here: http://www.huckmagazine.com/features/dave-eggers/

  3. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Hello,
    Wow, thank you so much for putting the link to this interview. I think he is a really good example of a writer, who not only writes great stories, but socially relevant stories. And as a writer and person he contributes so much to society and to those who perhaps are less fortunate for a variety of reasons.
    Thank you once again D’Arcy.
    Ruth

  4. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth.

    A very interesting blog post- I think writer do shape the world weather they write about advents that happen or fantasy because both takes the reader on a journey that normal leaves them with feelings of hope, desperation, love or even knowledge.

    I think each of us as a writer can help each other weather its reading and feedback or taking the time to talk ideas etc.. Even online you don’t have to be a teacher or have a space to help other improve on there words or confidants. I think that is important to me to share what I learn along the way in many things. In turn you learn a lot.

    I think that it’s great if you write what you feel strongly about because it does change people thoughts when they read.

    I believe in karma if you help others you feel good about yourself. And if you change anything in the world or people that’s lovely.

    I agree Ruth if it’s something you haven’t seen yourself but lived it through research it can make really amazing books that touches people.

    Take care
    Katie.

    • Hi Katie,
      I don’t know if you know of the writer Stef Penny? Her amazing novel The Tenderness of Wolves is set in Canada and is full of amazing description of the beautiful Canadian wilderness. I was astounded when she told me she’d never been to Canada, especially as the beauty of the landscape is an integral part of the book. Her descriptions were all based on research – and of course her skill as a writer to bring the research to life for us. I admire her even more as a writer knowing that 🙂

  5. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Thanks Katie for such a thoughtful response, indeed we don’t have to change the world in what we write or how we behave as writers. Change can be on a large scale or by just reaching out and being a responsible person. By sharing, giving feedback and helping or encouraging fellow writers is certainly a good example.
    In terms of books that are well researched and respond to the challenges in the world, whether represented in realistic ways or through fantasy, give the reader an additional element to consider. This could result in a satisfying read plus a deeper understanding of the issue.
    Thanks Katie!

    • Katie says:

      Hi Ruth

      I agree with you on that Change can be on a wide scale or a more personal level. I terms of books I agree with that and after all books are meant to tell a story that shows the reader something.

      Thanks for an interesting blog post.

      Katie.

  6. Ruth F Hunt says:

    And thank you Katie!
    Has anyone read a novel, that made them think more deeply about the world or an issue? Or a social novel that you feel deserves more recognition? Let me know and why…

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Ruth,
      One of my recent favourites is ‘Do They Hear you Cry’ by Fauziya Kassinda which is about a young African woman trying to gain asylum in America from the brutal practice of FGM and what she goes through. It’s a powerful and disturbing read but I’m so glad the author had the courage to write it and draw attention to what she went through. Also Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter about growing up black in a small Kansas town during the early 1900s and how racism affects him as a person, Adeline Yen Mah Chinese Cinderella about the cultural stigma of growing up without a mother in 1940s China.

  7. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth
    Once Jilted by Ciara gold- Shauna Joyce has three weeks to find a husband or face watching a special little girl fall into the hands of loveless parents. An orphan herself, she knows the heartache of growing up without love. Armed with a need greater than her own, she finds a likely candidate in bridge-builder, Kane McKenna. Kane McKenna has one goal; to finish the bridge he’s erecting so he can earn the capital needed to start a business of his own. A wife and child would drain his finances, so when Shauna Joyce proposes marriage, he balks at the idea. Will her determination be enough to build the bridge of trust needed to make him trade one dream for another?http://www.amazon.co.uk/Once-Jilted-ebook/dp/B004GKMKWG/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1367494105&sr=8-7&keywords=Ciara+gold+kindle

    This book made me think deeply everytime I read it. It takes of love of not being treated as you should if you are an orphan. But mostly it takes of sacrifice and the drive to help a girl not have the same fate as Shauna had and to share the love she felt she never had. Such a touching book.

    Take care
    Katie.

  8. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Hi Katie,
    That does indeed sound like a special book, and it’s good that it made you consider and think about a different viewpoint. Thanks again, and for the link as well.
    Best wishes
    Ruth

  9. Kendra says:

    Hi Ruth,
    Thank you for another interesting and thought provoking blog post. I think it is a fascinating subject and I’m not sure what the answer is. I would say that I think writers have a duty to not reinforce stereotypes in their work and to treat their characters fairly, meaning that they take the time to understand them, their background, beliefs etc and represent that to the best of their ability. I don’t think it’s right to say that someone can only write about what they have experienced as the whole point of fiction is to imagine what it would be like to be in another person’s shoes, another place etc, if we aren’t free to imagine when writing fiction then when are we? I would say that if a writer is able to draw attention to broader social topics and to promote justice then that is great. At the same time I think that it is okay if a work of fiction is simply a story without any broader meaning or agenda. Even though stories exist in the world and writers need to be of the world to tell their stories, there are many different aspects to the world and I think it is okay to tell all sides of them. I do find the stories about people who may not otherwise have their story told (such as Zeitoun) especially interesting and refreshing though and I also think there is a minefield of material here for writers.

    • Hi Kendra
      yes to all of the above. I think we writers have a responsibility to be honest and the truth behind the lies we write can be something very subtle and simple and not mind blowing or earth shattering. Whether it is simply reminding the reader he or she is part of (and connected with) the human race and not alone.
      And thanks for great book tips from you and Katie 🙂

  10. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello Kendra,
    Thanks for some brill book suggestions as well as a thoughtful reply. I certainly don’t think that every writer has to write about social issues and yes, primarily the story comes first. Writers, though, like every profession contribute to society. It’s up to each and every one of us to decide how we live our lives and in what way, shape or form that contribution takes.
    Thanks once again Kendra for your comments. It’s good to hear from you. I will look those books up!

  11. fcmalby says:

    A great post, Ruth. Thanks, Marianne for hosting a really interesting topic. As I read this I kept thinking of George Orwell’s letters. I absolutely believe we do, yes! As writers, I think that it is difficult not to raise social and justice issues. This may not be as appropriate with romantic fiction but there’s always a way. I think crime, literary, historical and so many genres of fiction lend themselves to the writer voicing a particular issue. If it is done subtly, I think it can be extremely powerful.

  12. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Hello FCmalby,
    Thank you for your response. Yes George Orwell did have plenty to say on this subject!
    I agree, there is always a way to address social issues, injustice and if it’s subtle even better, as it allows the reader to think and consider to reach an opinion.
    (I think Orwell would be horrified that 1984 has become a Conservative Party favourite novel)
    Thank you once again.

  13. Excellent blog post!

    I think writers should have a social conscience and express that through their writing. At the same time though, you don’t want the social issues to weigh down the writing to the extent that narrative drive is destroyed or your characters become just mouthpieces for your social issue!

    I’ve read lots of good novels with good social messages, too many to list here to be honest.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello,
      Thanks for your response, I’m glad you liked this post!
      Good to hear from you, yes, there are so many good books to mention!
      Thanks again,
      Ruth

    • Hi Juliet
      yes, definitely, writing is not about standing on a soapbox and hitting your readers over the head with your social messages – I can’t think of anything worse. First and foremost writing is about engaging a reader through the story and language of the story – but if the writing has no truth at it’s centre, it could have hollow ring to it.
      Cheers 🙂

  14. My current ms is a wilderness thriller, so at first I didn’t see that it had to have any meaning, other than a bunch of people going out into the woods and killing each other. 😉

    But I ended up in a fellowship program and my manuscript consultant asked me, “What is the big theme of your novel? What point are you trying to make?” My first reaction was, “Huh? Didn’t know it had to do that!” But then I regrouped and realised there were in fact themes there and things that were important to me, things that I wanted to say through the choices these people made to deal with what was happening to them.

    I found it very hard to pull together, and the final result is hardly going to challenge To Kill A Mockingbird in significance anytime soon 😉 but I think we can actually make our books say something, even genre fiction.

    Great topic, Marianne and Ruth!

  15. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello Belinda,
    You are quite right, even in books not normally considered as ‘social novels’ there are often themes that may show through your characters and in your plot. We all have choices as writers, and what we choose can be reflected in our work and lives.
    Looking forward to reading your book, Belinda and thanks for your response to the post.

  16. Hi Belinda

    Good luck with the wilderness thriller. Look forward to reading it soon! And I agree, it does not mater what kind of fiction I am writing, I feel an obligation, whether subconscious or conscious, to say something and reveal a truth … even if like Flannery O’ Connor “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Having something to say is what writing is all about for me. I think this quote from John Gardener sums it up quite well…

    “To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write […] so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write […] so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.

    If there is good to be said, the writer should say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.

    The true artist […] gets his sense of worth and honor from his conviction that art is powerful–”
    John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

  17. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Marianne,
    What a superb quote!

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