Are Writers Responsible to their Readers?

This topic came up recently in my crit group, and it made me think. In this case, the person who asked the question had seen a lot of comments online about the Game of Thrones TV series, and how, since George R.R. Martin wrote about certain things, this made him a pedophile and a rapist. Apparently, some people think that since he writes about such things, that means he’s endorsing them. Let me say first of all that I haven’t read any of these comments myself. I’m sure they’re out there; that seems like something people would take offense at. I just haven’t seen them personally. But this idea, that writing about something means that I’m endorsing it…that bothers me on a lot of levels.

As a writer, I do think I have a responsibility to my readers. I have a responsibility to be true to my story, my characters, and the world I’ve set up. I’m responsible for writing the best, most entertaining story I possibly can. For getting my readers’ emotions involved, for making them laugh or cry or roll their eyes or growl in anger. For creating characters that they can care about. But most of all, for telling the truest story possible. Notice I didn’t say “for telling the happiest, most fluffy-bunny, sunshine, and unicorns story possible.” No. The truest story.

That does not mean all my stories have to have happy endings, although personally, I prefer them. (Just because I prefer them, doesn’t mean my characters will deliver.) This also does not mean that things that are ugly or painful or horrible will never happen to my characters. I’ve written about murder, and rape, and torture. These things happen in real life each and every day, how can they not happen in my fictional worlds as well? I don’t live in Utopia. Or Shangri La. Bad stuff happens. It happens to good people. It happens whether or not people deserve it. It happens. Just because I write about it, that doesn’t mean I endorse it.

If writing about something means the author endorses is, does that mean that someone writing about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, CO last week is endorsing violent shooting sprees? I think not. Does that mean that since James Cameron destroyed Hometree in Avatar, he is endorsing the destruction of the rainforest? No. (Actually, I think he’s trying to do the exact opposite.) So what makes some people think that just because a writer writes about something, that must mean the writer is endorsing it?

I’ve never actually met George R.R. Martin, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’s a huge supporter of rape, pedophilia, or public beheadings. I mean, seriously, people? He writes fiction. Which, by definition, deals with events that are not factual. Not to say that they don’t happen, but the author does not claim to be writing about actual events (unless the writer happens to be James Frey. In which case the definition of fiction is somewhat…skewed.).

So…just how responsible are writers to their readers?

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8 thoughts on “Are Writers Responsible to their Readers?

  1. I thought this was a thought provoking post. However, whilst I agree by and large with your comments. I also think there is a tendency towards writing more and more graphic and shocking scenes of murder, rape and violence in certain books, especially against women… Now I don’t believe George to be doing such things but I also think that to write well, you tend to show rather than tell and that there are ways of implying things happen without having to go the warts and all route. Great post BTW.

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    1. I do agree that some authors write things simply for the shock value. I’m not a proponent of that at all. But if the story calls for it, if it moves the plot forward and isn’t simply gratuitous, then I think it should be there. That being said…I am all for the fade-to-black routine in some instances. In my own writing, I used that instead of a graphic rape scene. It still got the point across, but I didn’t need all of the explicit details in there to convey the character’s emotions.

      And thank you!

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  2. I agree with S.J. on the value of this post and on both the other comments about the fade to black hints of real violence rather than explicit words on a page you can never erase. One of my regrets about the whole Dragon Tattoo series is that rape scene that is so graphically described and then referred to over and over again. I enjoyed the book BUT for that explicit scene. Do I think the author was a sociopath? No, but I think to write it he may have not had ENOUGH empathy for a woman who has been attacked in that way.

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    1. Ah. I haven’t actually read the Dragon Tattoo books yet. But I’ve seen the movie, and I actually wondered how that scene was handled in the book. Guess that answers that question.

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    2. But don’t you feel like the bad guy in that case really really really hits your heart as a bad guy? He certainly stands out in mind as an unforgettable vile character, not just the average rapist.

      Graphic violence isn’t tolerable to everyone, so that’s a judgement call. The author might also have been assuming his base audience would be male rather than female, and that men could tolerate the violence more. I still enjoyed the books and it got me really mad and on Sallanger’s side. Maybe he thought it would create more empathy for the Sallanger and show her unique personality. I truly wanted to see the bad guy go down, and I thought her revenge was just. If I hadn’t seen how bad the rape was, the revenge might’ve made her look more crazed than justified, especially to a male target audience.

      Just a thought. I’ve heard several other people say it was too much, though.

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      1. That’s a good point, too. But I’m basing my perceptions off the movie, as I haven’t read the book yet. However, if the movie had done a fade to black, yes, her revenge would have seemed a little over-the-top and crazy. As it was, it just seemed like justice. And I actively hated him as a character as well, so it evoked a very strong emotional response. And isn’t that what we want to do with our readers? Maybe not those particular emotions, but an emotional response.

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  3. I agree with you Tamara.

    As a relatively nice person who tries very hard not to harm anyone — how the hell am I supposed to write interesting fiction if I don’t make things up?!

    I think this sort of thing is probably of the extreme annoyance to romance or erotica writers. People assume that everything written into a book must make the author really hot. Maybe it’s just interesting and unusual.

    It’s a sad world when audiences judge artists because they are so out of the box, fresh, and entertaining.

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