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Influence and Responsibility

January 26, 2013

Note: We’re nearly a month into the new year. No mass layoffs have occurred in the industry. The Big Five is still the Big Five. No huge new lawsuits have occurred. No massive new product lines have been released by the e-Reader folks. In short, we’re in some doldrums. So today, I am departing from the Industry News format.

In Stephen King’s novel Rage, published under the name Richard Bachman, a teenager takes a high school classroom hostage with a gun. After teenaged shooters in the 1980s referred to Rage as a partial inspiration for their actions, he requested that it be pulled from sales. In his new essay Guns, available on Amazon, Mr. King does not take responsibility for the shooters’ actions.

“It took more than one slim novel to cause [these teenagers] to do what they did. These were unhappy boys with deep psychological problems, boys who were bullied at school and bruised at home by parental neglect or outright abuse.

My book did not break (them) or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.”

In other words, words have meaning. And while no author can or should be held responsible if someone reads a book not meant to insight, and gets insighted, recent events could cause a reasonable writer to wonder about the relationship between the written word and actions. Books are often written to influence how people think. Examples about: Johnny Got His Gun, An Inconvenient Truth, The Turner Diaries, The Bible, and entire genres of political and self-help books come to mind. King’s essay, in which he supports gun control, is a perfect example.

No one is arguing–at least in this blog post–that books directly cause violence. No one is arguing that authors should pull their work. That chilling effect would have a tremendous price. But neither can you argue that books don’t have influence.

The question is how much influence they have. Stephen King certainly has the right to withdraw his book. But overall, it was no more responsible for school shootings than Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. Still, if you wrote something and a killer pointed specifically to your work as an inspiration, you might struggle with that realization. You might wonder whether your work has that kind of influence.

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