Monday, 21 October 2013

Writers and Responsibilities

Hi Guys,

New topic from me this time. Partly because I'm at a loose end having just finished the first draft of Guinea Pig and sent it off to be edited. And partly because this has been a question that's been popping up in several of the writing fora which I participate in. So in a nut shell it's simply - what are the responsibilities of a writer? And here of course I'm thinking of novelists particularly.

Now obviously we can all think of a few absolute no no's. For example let's not copy wholesale other people's books - someone is always bound to notice and then start jumping up and down. That however hasn't stopped people trying, and I know of at least one author on Kindle who has been doing this (or I suppose now who was doing this). Those of you on Kindle Boards will know the same example.

Another good one is don't defame people. And this is a question that keeps being asked. - I've written a book about my neighbour / friend / business partner etc and it's not flattering - can I just put up front a standard disclaimer that the work is one of complete fiction? Well unfortunately no. If a person can be identified from your work then the disclaimer won't hold any water. After that your two standard defences would either be that the work is true and you can prove it, or that no reasonable reader could assume that the work is about said person. If you were a comedian and the book is one about a public figure then you can claim that it's satire, but that may still need to be tested in a court.

But probably the one that will matter to most writers is the idea that their work will lead to nothing less than the decline of Western Civilisation (A claim as old as Western Civilisation!). And in particular that it promotes unhealthy values - eg violence, pornography etc. Or it may lead to impressionable people doing unfortunate things.

And against this we have the old arguments of freedom of expression in its various forms. Authors I think are very keen to claim this. Certainly I would be if Western Civilisation sudenly fell over and it was put down to my work. And there is no doubt that it is an important defence. But I do sometimes wonder if some take this right to freedom of expression too far.

In part I think this is because many writers - and again here I'm thinking mostly of novelists - tend to be a little removed from society. It takes days, months and sometimes years of hard work and reflection to write a novel, and you don't generally do it in an office surrounded by other people. Writing can be a very lonely profession. In part I suspect it will also depend on the nature of the writing itself. If you get negative feedback about a jounal article which took you all of an hour to write then it's not going to be as personally traumatic as will be the negative feedback about a novel that took six months of intense creative thought.

Having said this I think that there is a responsibility upon all of us to be mindful of our neighbour's wellbeing. And there are laws put in place in all parts of our lives to reflect this responsibility. These include everything from speed limits so that hopefully we won't run our neighbours over, to the passive smoking legislation. And in the same vein there are laws that limit freedom of speech. For example yelling "Fire" in a crowded theatre will land you in a lot of trouble.

In the end I think it's important for writers to be considerate of what their books glorify, advocate or promote, whether they're works of fiction or not. And the golden rule would surely have to be that if your work promotes harm to others, think twice about how it's written and what it says. I'm not saying don't write it, but I am saying that as a writer you need to recognise that you do have a responsibility to others - your readers in particular.

I think it's also the duty of every writer to mke certain he or she spends plenty of time with friends and family, out in the real world. It may help your writing, but it's probably even more important for your own mental well-being.

Cheers, Greg.

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