Thursday, 13 October 2016

Does an author have a social responsibility?

Long term readers of this blog may know that I have a novel-length manuscript permanently "on the go". It's provisionally entitled Drawn To The Deep End, and tells the tale of a 30-something wage slave who cannot forgive himself for the part he played in his fiancée's suicide three years earlier. His life spirals downwards under a succession of blows, until he ultimately attempts (but is unable) to take his own life.

Now I've workshopped a lot of this story to death, if you'll pardon the pun, and many of my critique group have had an issue with the ending. I've always defended the story by saying that the protagonist has come to view death as redemption, and that was usually that. I put it down to my group-mates not wanting my (anti-) hero to die.

But this week, after an especially full-on but focused session (just three of us - thank you, KC and DA) another issue was raised. Did I need to think about the message I was putting out there, into the wider world? Okay, it's unlikely that the book, whenever the manuscript becomes a book, will ever be read by that many people. But even if it's only read by one person, was I comfortable with putting out the message that death, and especially suicide, can be redemption? What if one person who's feeling suicidal reads my book, takes that message away, and acts on it? How would I feel?

So, the bigger question: do authors have a social, ethical responsibility for the message, as well as the content, of what they release to the reading world? I'm starting to think they do. And if they do, when does that outrank the story? Could I, with a clear conscience, release my story with it's current ending if I took the Eastenders approach, and put something at the end of the book along the lines of "if you've been affected by the issues in Peter's story, please call this number of visit that website." Is that enough? Or is that a cop-out?

What do you think?

By the way, if you are feeling affected by Peter's story, why not give the Samaritans a call on 116 123 (UK & ROI) or visit them at Thanks.


  1. Tricky. I wouldn't want to lead someone into a bad decision, but I'm not sure I'd want to censor myself in case this happened. I think someone might seek out something to confirm what they already feel is an option for them. I think of Sing Me To Sleep, how it makes suicide make sense to someone who feels that way. Should it have been recorded and released? I think so. Reflecting how someone feels could have the opposite effect one might expect. Or it might just make them feel better about a decision they have already made. Who's to say? I'm with Wilde when he says no book can be moral or immoral, only well written or badly written (and I don't include yours in the latter at all). If it comes from some dubious place in the author, it shouldn't be given the time of day. I have this argument with my father-in-law about violence in films. I think Disney films at their worst are more dangerous/toxic than something like No Country For Old Men (which I love, as you know). I won't go into why because I'll go on for ages, but so it is with fiction that maintains 'good taste'. Give me the ones that address difficult issues in an honest way any day of the week. That'll make me feel more like living.

  2. Sorry, forgot to sign the above. Ian Nettleton, Smiths fan and disliker of most things Disney (but not Pixar).

    1. You know what, mate? I think I'm with you (and Wilde) on this. The more I think about it, the more I think the authorial responsibility is simply to be mindful of what is written, and how it is written, but not to be limited. And I would be happy for you to go on at as much length as you like regarding No Country For Old Men...

  3. Hmm. I agree with much of what Ian has writen above, but it also comes down to a wider context in the overall story.

    He doesn't take his life, even though he tries. Does he learn to value life more in the attempt? If so, the overall message is a positive one. If he fails and this just adds to his sense of failure: if we leave the book with the sense that he's just going to do it again... and probably succeed next time...

    I dunno.

    Think Romeo & Juliet. They succeed, and it could be said their deaths are seen as the ultimate romantic gesture, even though Shakespeare positioned it as a tragedy. But I would like to bet there's been at least one foolish teenage suicide pact resulting from that play in the last couple of centuries. Did Shakespeare err?

    1. There is a coda to the story, that I didn't reveal for fear of spoilers. He doesn't try again, but we're led to believe that he sort of gets what he wants, just not in the way he expected. Damn. Spoiled. Ish.

      And you're right, of course, about Romeo & Juliet - no doubt some star-crossed lovers have taken that as their cue for a pact.

      I wonder if Stanley Kubrick had this internal debate between releasing and withdrawing A Clockwork Orange?

  4. Other responses to this post received via other media...

    The incomparable author Sarah Dobbs (who you should all definitely be reading, especially her debut novel, Killing Daniel), responding via Twitter, answered the question thus: "I didn't start out thinking this, no. I do think you can write with a creative manifesto, yes [and] surely writing creates our interior image of the world/society/gender dynamics, etc, etc, so yes. I think we could at least be more aware of what we're building in these apparent fictions." And I think Sarah's bang on with this.

    Mark Kilner (a master of short fiction whose three excellent collections should all be on your shelves) responded by email, offering an interesting perspective (and editorial advice) on the validity of my story's "death as redemption" angle, and considering how such subject matter may be easier to handle in shorter fiction. Mark wrote, "I think a story should be able to stand up on its own without the need for additional caveats or trigger warnings. [...] In your blog post you talk about your protagonist seeking redemption in death, but his death as written doesn't feel redemptive to me. His death would only be redemptive if it came as the result of a genuinely selfless act. On the other hand, if you feel your protagonist should be punished, then give him the happiness he craves and cruelly snatch it away from him. Or if death is what he craves then you could snatch that away from him and condemn him to a form of living hell ([...] a metaphorical death?). [...] But hey, novels are difficult; that's why I stick to short stories. (And you can get away with the kind of nihilistic outcomes that would be tough to pull off in a novel)."