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Your responsibility as a writer (or is it)?

May 14, 2013

I was just about to knock off for the day in terms of blogging ahead, when my fellow FWA-ite, the fabulous Chris Coward, posted this on Facebook:


Because you can’t click a link in a screen shot and go anywhere (heaven knows I’ve tried), here’s a link to the article. The author, Muhammed Yunus, the guy who invented microloans, says that because science can often follow science fiction, we should have social fiction that advances society the way science fiction advances technology.

First of all, I’d debate that we don’t have social fiction. Perhaps the second most famous science fiction franchise ever, Star Trek is as much social fiction as science fiction. In the 1960s, when Star Trek debuted, Henry Aaron was still almost a decade away from getting death threats for hitting home runs when William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols engaged in television’s first inter-racial kiss.

Star Trek featured a Russian character during the height of the cold war–and got quite a joke out of it when he spent time looking for nuclear wessels in Alameda. And in the Star Trek world, people worked for fulfillment, not to pay the bills. That’s as much social fiction as science fiction.

The question in my mind isn’t whether there’s social fiction, or should be. It’s whether we have the responsibility to forward social improvement as part of our writing work. Is our first responsibility to society or to the story?

It’s a question this blog can’t answer for you. But there are some precedents–and I’ll use TV, which is likely to be a little more universal experience. We’ve covered Star Trek. Remember the one with the people who looked like black-and-white cookies? For all it’s ground-breaking formula, Star Trek could be kind of preachy. Remember the one with the people who looked like black-and-white cookies?

The West Wing was run by Aaron Sorkin, an unabashed liberal, and it made its point, but at least through the end of season two, has never gotten so preachy, it turned me off. His newer effort, The Newsroom, may not share that even-handedness, as its been bashed for sancitmony and smugness by media critics, who tend to be well left of Rush Limbaugh.

Even Cheers, which no one could confuse with socially conscious entertainment, had an episode that covered gay rights, without punching you in the face about it. (At least I didn’t feel punched in the face.)

For my money, the responsibility is to the story first, then to the social message. Personally, I have no problem working my stances on gay rights into my stories. Personally, it’s none of my business who you’re attracted to, as long as the object of your affection is a consenting adult. In my opinion, the 14th amendment covers the issue from a civil standpoint, and from a moral standpoint, that’s between you and God. I don’t have the tools. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary and probably does, and that’s what we do in a free society.

In  other words, whatever your stance on social issues, if you don’t examine that stance as a natural part of the piece you’re writing–if your dedication to the social issue is strong than your dedication to the story and its character, you’ll make even Aaron Sorkin (or Rush, if that’s more your speed) gag on the message.

  1. May 14, 2013 11:23 am

    Reblogged this on The BiaLog.

  2. May 15, 2013 2:14 am

    I’m a long time science fiction fan, although of books rather than movies or TV, and one of the things I love about the genre is its ability to ask what-if questions in a non-threatening way.

    The first time I ever seriously thought about homosexuality was while I was reading Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story won a Hugo award in its day – think Pulitzer for sci-fi – and I could literally feel my cosy, middle-class, 20-something female mind expand. Not because there was anything overtly sexual in the storyline, but because it made me realize that sexuality did not define either the individual or his/her emotional attachments. You can find something similar in the movie The Crying Game.

    I have no idea why Le Guin wrote that particular story, or whether she had some kind of social agenda, but it certainly made me a more tolerant and open-minded person.

    In terms of your original question, I don’t believe authors should push any agenda in their writing. Nonetheless, I do believe authors need to think about the world around them. They need to explore both sides of any debate as honestly as possible because, like it or not, unless they are writing to a strict formula, their world views will percolate into whatever they write. And fiction has the power to /persuade/. That power does give us a certain responsibility.

    For myself, the fiction that gives me the most pleasure is the kind that opens up my mind to new things, and new ways of looking at the world. And then lets me make up my own mind. 🙂

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