Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Moral Responsibility of the Writer

By Mitchell

The latest issue of First Things has an intriguing article (not yet available online) by Ross Douthat entitled “Lost and Saved on Television.” Douthat writes about the underlying questions of religion, morality and salvation (some obvious, others allegorical) that appear in several of today's most successful TV shows, such as Lost (obviously, judging from the title of the article), Battlestar Galactica, and The Sopranos (full disclosure: these are shows that don't air in this household, although any good cultural archaeologist would certainly be familiar with them). It's a good piece, one that should be read on its own merits.

However, of particular interest, especially to the aspiring artist, is the following section:

The question, of course, is whether the audience gets the point, or whether The Sporanos’ faithful viewers are in it for the same reasons the mobsters are: the adrenaline rush that comes with any violent or sexual encounter, no matter how degrading it may be. This is the problem for any artist who seeks to show sin as it is. Does depicting an act make you complicit in it, even when you stand in judgment? Last Tango in Paris makes loveless sex look like hell on earth, for instance, but there are still people who watch it for titillation, just as there must be some segment of The Sopranos’ audience – young men, in particular – who spend their time cheering on the killers, identifying with the mobsters instead of profiting from their hell-bound example.


[I]s it the chance to see the story of Christ’s Passion as Mel Gibson reimagined it – blood-drenched and harrowing and brilliant – worth giving the same R-rated carte blanche to Quentin Tarantino, or worse, the makers of torture-porn thrillers like Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes?

I don't know how far Douthat intended to go down this particular avenue, but here we have an issue that works on many levels, radiating from one central question which Douthat asks: Are you glamorizing sin?

We've talked often in these pages about the relationship between art and the artist, and the moral responsibility thrust upon the artist by his art. This gets dangerously close to Drew’s territory (Nazi artists and whatnot), so we'll defer to him for the most part on the historical analysis.

But one cannot look at this without thinking of art as a creation, and the artist as creator. And while the idea of art for art's sake is an old one, it would seem that at least a secondary effect of art is the depiction - the revelation, if you will - of the artist himself. Art doesn't create itself, and it seems as if separating the art from the artist, even if one could do so, would leave the creation incomplete, lacking in some fundamental way. For example, we cannot know that God is good simply by looking at His creation, but we can know that His creation is good by looking at Him.

And therefore, one must read into the creation itself the personality of the creator, which in turn will tell you not only about the creation, but the creator as well.

Taking this back into the world of art, specifically the medium of the written word, it seems safe to say that much of what a reader knows about an author comes from the author's own words. The conclusions they draw about the author are to a great extent based on what they read, and that judgment of the author's character in turn helps to determine the weight to which they give those words.

So the writer returns to the question posited by Douthat - are you responsible for how people interpret your art? Can you plead innocence, even in cases where you ought to know better, as to what that interpretation is? Can you be held responsible for drawing your readers into, say, the proximate cause of sin? As Douthat asks, "Does depicting an act make you complicit in it, even when you stand in judgment?" For the author who attempts to portray man's rise from sin to salvation, what kind of risks does he assume when he takes on the mantle of sin itself?

This is an issue that confronts me directly in several of the fictional stories I work on, one of which features as its heroine a stripper, another with a professional assassin as the protagonist. What can be gained, despite the literary quality of these stories, by delving into such territory? Can it be justified by invoking the name of Art Itself? And does the author assume the responsibility for everything the reader takes from his work, even if it runs contrary to the author's own desire?

Is there a psychological or sociological justification which can be cited, for example, the desire to explore the Big Question? For one with a fertile, inquiring mind it is a road that begs invitingly. Certainly I think such a case exists, or else I wouldn't be investing time in it myself. I think that in terms both of self-expression and the desire to lead the reader into areas of the mind that might not previously have been considered, the author has a responsibility to honestly confront these issues as best he can.

It's possible, of course, that this could also simply be some kind of self-justification wrapped in denial. I wouldn't dismiss it.

But there can be no denying that the work will rub off on in some way on the writer, and will color the impression of said writer in the eyes of the reader. Which is why, once again, it is so important for the writer to assume responsibility - good or bad - for what he writes. If the writer wants to be taken seriously, if the writer seeks to influence or inspire, if the writer intents to pose serious questions to which he requests serious answers - all this will depend on how he conducts himself, both in public and in private. His writing may appear to apply only to the public arena, but surely the reader will interpolate its contents into the writer's private life as well.

So do I worry about glamorizing sin, about making sex too sexual and violence too violent? Absolutely. It presents a constant struggle within the creative process. A good many writers whose work I admire appear to go through similar struggles, with varying outcomes - some of which I quesiton, some with which I disagree totally. I can never know completely how they arrived at that process (although in the confessional world of the blogosphere I can come closer), and so I must content myself with my own personal struggles.

But this is a question worth posing, not only for the moral theorist but for the creative writer. In choosing the subjects one pursues and the words one sets down, the consideration of the effect these words have on those who read it can never be put far from one's mind.

Or, in other, simpler terms, think before you write.

It's a lesson those in the blogosphere could mull over more often.

1 comment:

  1. This is a question posed by many a Christian writer.

    Where to draw the line?

    We do have to see life as it is, and to portray it as such is not a sin, unless we portray it in such a way so as to cause the very titillation you cite. Yet we as writers cannot be responsible to the reaction to our words; sometimes yes, but sometimes not, because people will often interject an intention or description that is not there. What then?

    We can only do what we can do, and sometimes, in order to make the moral point, the immoral must be exposed. There are some who will be stuck, but they would have been stuck prior to our own words. There are those who are stuck who might be open to being drawn to the next level, to which we want to draw them, but it is their choice.

    We can only do what we can do, and do so in the spirit of morality and truthfulness. The truth is often ugly or difficult, but that in an of itself means it is more worthy of being portrayed. It is the author who must determine how far to go, how much tact to use, and how much "literary license" can be used before crossing that line into immoral propaganda.


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