Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Moral Responsibility Of the Writer Part 1


Stephen King decision to withdraw his novel "Rage" from publication, is explained in his latest Kindle published essay "Guns". King cites four cases of boys attacking others in their schools who each made mention of King's "Rage" (the book, not any animus felt by King). He quite reasonably explains in "Guns" that his writing neither "broke [those boys] nor made them killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken".

Despite claiming that the book had no causative influence, King still took the decision to remove his book. This seems to me to contradict his own faith in his contention that the book has no baleful influence. At best, it is simply because he is uneasy at the thought of even being associated with such terrible events. That though there is no blood on his hands, somehow there is secondary spatter transferred on to his shirt sleeve.

King tries to draw the comparison that his book is protected under the 1st Amendment for free speech, so that he was under no compunction to withdraw it but did so voluntarily as a responsible act, with the position of automatic gun owners; that they are entitled to own such guns under the 2nd Amendment's right to bear arms, but out of responsibility the mass killer semi-automatics and automatics ought to be voluntarily handed over to the authorities. Nice sentiment, but the mentality of a gun owner isn't readily comparable with that of an author, there being a chasm of difference between a work of literature and the cold hard steel of a gun. Sorry Mr King, but all of this seems to me to demonstrate a hopeless wishful thinking.

As a writer myself here in the UK, the gun ownership debate doesn't really enter my thinking at all, let alone my work. But I was struck by King's stance awkwardly straddling the issue, as well as his decision to withdraw his own book. Personally I think any artist who puts their work out into the public domain, ought to believe in it to the extent of standing by it no matter what. If they don't, then they are admitting that they got it wrong, which is of course both possible and proper to own up to, but fundamentally compromises your reputation as a decent artist. Good artists manage to produce prescient work, work that tips us off ahead of time as to certain occurrences possibly coming to pass. That such events are so terrible, but do actually occur, is no reason for the artist to backtrack on their work and apologise for demonstrating imaginative foresight. King didn't withdraw his story "The Running Man" which has a similar ending to what transpired at the Twin Towers in 9/11. And nor should he. Presumably he felt there was enough distance in that futuristic, sci-fi scenario, from the extreme religio-terrorist reality that struck the Twin Towers.

I don't believe an artist has any responsibility other than entertaining their audience and staying within the laws of the land on things like obscenity, offense and the like. (Whether said artist agrees with such laws is a different issue). Artists are only responsible for backing their own work, defending it to the hilt if required. Equally they can make no demands of their audience to react only in certain prescribed ways. Audience members will run with a work in whatever way they will. Audiences bring their own value systems ahead of contemplating any work of art, ahead of opening up  a new book and no artist or author can control this. All the artist has to do is maintain responsibility for any ideas they put into the public pool of thought and conception. Beyond that, it's open season.

The author has to be aware of the likely reception to their work if it contains inflammable ideas. Once the author has gone ahead and published said work, then it behooves them to deal with the fallout in the public reaction. And that shouldn't include withdrawing the book from publication. Self-censorship is the most insidious form of censorship. A good artist edits themselves at the outset, instead of censoring themselves late in the production and distribution process.


Tomorrow I'll blog about a different aspect of the moral responsibility of the artist, when an author puts themselves into the lives of those people they write about.

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