Author Responsibility

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last weekend I went to the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City and one of the key note talks was on the issue of author responsibility. I have to admit it isn’t something I’ve thought much about – beyond my responsibility to readers to write the very best books I can. My books don’t tend to contain graphic violence or sex and I don’t write with any particular agenda or controversy in mind, so it was interesting to hear what one writer thought was her responsibility as an author. 

Obviously, the issue was of particular concern to her (and to most SCBWI members, I suspect) because she wrote for children and teenagers. What I didn’t expect was that she would feel so strongly about her responsibilities, beyond that of ‘professional grace’, to instances where readers were indirectly affected by the book she had written. One example she gave was of a family who were listening to her audio book in the car and who were so overcome by emotion by the story that they were pulled over for speeding – she felt that she, as the author, was responsible for that occurring. Now in that instance, I disagree. I think there are many indirect consequences of reading/listening to a story which are not the author’s responsibly because readers have a choice as to where and when they read/listen and for their own behaviour as a result. 

Still, the concept of ‘author responsibility’ is an intriguing (and often fraught) concept…and I’m not even sure I’m totally clear on what that concept means to me. At the very least I think author should take responsibility for striving for excellence in their writing and that they should behave as a professional in all aspects of their career. At a minimum they should be held responsible for plagiarism and copyright infringement of other people’s work. As an author I also wouldn’t want to incite anyone to hatred or violence – but when I think about other authors’ work I can see the concept of ‘responsibility’ could be a slippery slope indeed.

As a strong supporter of intellectual freedom, I certainly don’t believe in author censorship but as a mother I’m also aware of the responsibilities involved when caring for young minds. I think it’s important that writers (including writers of children and YA books) tackle weighty issues such as drug abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, racial discrimination, persecution and bullying. Adults, children, and teenagers can only benefit, in my opinion, from being exposed to a variety of books dealing with a broad range of issues and perspectives (even those that make me personally uncomfortable).

Though I am often ‘caretaker’ when it comes to what my children read, I never feel that I have any right to advise others as to what their children should or should not be reading (ditto for adults!). So what do I feel, as a reader/mother, is an ‘author’s responsibility’? Do these standards differ to what I feel I’m responsible for as a writer? I’m not sure. But the talk at SCWBI certainly made me think about what I expect from both myself and other writers. 

So what do you think is your responsibility as an author? What standards to you hold yourself up to and do these standards differ when it comes to other authors?

28 thoughts on “Author Responsibility

  1. Good questions to ponder, Clare. It seems quaint to talk of “standards” in the arts anymore. When “monster porn” is a bestselling genre you know you’re not exactly operating in the Emily Post era.

    Standards are thus self-imposed, if they are imposed at all. Some do not care to do so. My own standard is to be able to look at myself in the mirror, to not embarrass my wife and children by what I write, and to provide my readers with quality.

    • It’s funny but yes, even the talk sounded a little quaint as ‘responsibility’ and ‘standards’ seem almost irrelevant to many people these days! I like your self-imposed standards. I also try to deliver a quality product but as for embarrassing my family – hey, I have 9 year old boys, I pretty much embarrass them all the time!

  2. Fascinating topic. It reminds of a blog post I read last week which raised the same issue.

    To summarize, the subject was about consequences in YA literature and whether YA authors should deliberately write about the consequences of their characters’ actions rather than let them get away with blue murder. In this particular instance, the subject was drink driving, but the same would be applicable to unprotected sex, bullying, abuse, drugs, and other difficult issues.

    I write action-adventure thrillers aimed at the adult market. I’ve also never really given much thought to my responsibility as an author beyond making sure I’ve produced a damn good story that won’t disappoint my readers. But I had an illuminating conversation with yet another blogger last year after she posted an article of the role of strong female characters and the Bechdel test (which I admit I had not heard of before).

    So my challenge to myself (and my responsibility as a writer of action-adventure-thrillers) has been this since then: in every book that I write, I will aim to portray strong, independent female protagonists.

    • Interesting! The consequence element is an important one I feel – I’m usually fine with pretty ‘out there’ circumstances in books so long as the consequences of the actions are explored (doesn’t always mean the characters do the right thing in the end but that’s okay). Even in the Twilight books I always felt like it seemed weird that Bella thought it was perfectly okay to become a vampire (a monster if you will) as long as she could be with Edward. I would have also liked her to be a stronger female protagonist (not just whining about true love:). I like your goal to portray strong independent females – I often feel like I need to counteract the influence of media portrayals of women for my boys. Happy to have one of my responsibilities to ensure strong female characters rule my books!

  3. When I wrote my YA mystery/thriller The Secret Lab, where tweens are protagonists (along with the mutant Mr. Paws) and tweens are the target audience (some adults love the book too, though), I studied the genre to see how much tween/teen angst to put in (jealousies, bullying, sexual orientation, etc). It seemed to me that there is a strong bifurcation between what parents want their kids to read and what the kids really want to read. I tried to walk the tightrope and strike a happy medium.
    For adult fiction, especially genre books (e.g. all my other books!), it’s less critical to follow the yellow brick road to high morality. Human beings are flawed and your fiction can’t seem real unless some of those flaws and associated moral conflicts show through. I was amused, though, when a reviewer of Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder thought I had swindled him–he wanted more lust and painted me as a namby-pamby. Win a few; lose a few!

    • Steven – the need for kids to be able to read what they want to read, not just what their parents feel they ought to read, really came out in the panel on censorship of kids books. I think the high moral ground is a slippery slope for children’s books and adults – though as a parent I’m still conflicted about many books, games and films for my boys.

  4. This question really hits home for me. As most folks here know, back in the 90’s I wrote several books for the Nancy Drew series under contract. Nancy Drew had always been a role model for me as a strong, independent female, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to write her character for another generation of girls coming of age. Recently I was skimming Nancy Drew info in Wikipedia, and was horrified to come across this reference to the first ND book I wrote, UPDATE ON CRIME:
    “Others criticize the series for its increasing incorporation of romance and “[dilution] of pre-feminist moxie.”[69] For example, volume 78 in the series Update on Crime (1992) opens with Nancy wondering in italics, “Am I or am I not in love with Ned Nickerson?”[70] Nancy begins dating other young men and acknowledges sexual desires: “‘I saw [you kissing him] … You don’t have to apologize to me if some guy turns you on.’ ‘Gianni doesn’t turn me on! … Won’t you please let me explain.'”[71]”
    Yikes! To have one’s book cited as initiating the dilution of the character of an iconic heroine is quite appalling! The last book I wrote had Nancy on the cover posing a la Baywatch Babe in a provocative yellow swimsuit, so maybe that criticism has a point! I wasn’t trying to make her seem more “girly,” but simply more alive, moRe contemporary. I do recall that the editor had to keep nixing my inclusions of Nancy’s makeout scenes with Ned Nickerson. If not for that, Nancy’s “transformation” could have been worse! How does that transformation relate to the notion of responsibility to young readers, though, is the question. In my books, Nancy was still a strong character. She never had to rely on males to get her out of difficulty. She still was responsible for solving mysteries, and she always prevailed in the end. To me, that’s the essence of Nancy. “Liking” boys (in the way teen girls actually do) doesn’t detract from that part of her persona. But I guess others disagree.

    • I don’t see how making Nancy more aware of liking boys detracts from her as a strong female character and it sound like you remained true to her as a sleuth who didn’t depend on males:)

    • If you read YA fiction, it’s incredibly raw and real. I wish that kind of YA fiction had been around when I was that age–it might have helped me put my own life in some perspective.

  5. There was a recent kerfuffle where a mom said she was editing Harry Potter as she read it to her children. For example, if the characters cut a class, she “edited in” consequences. If someone said “hate,” she changed it to “dislike.”

    It made me wonder if she had read the series beforehand. I wondered how she was going to handle the dark lord erupting from the dude’s head and Cedric’s rather violent death.

    If she didn’t think her kids could handle it, then she needed to be reading books with tamer themes. I think she was the one who couldn’t handle it.

    As the saying goes, “Fairy tales don’t teach kids that dragons don’t exist. Kids already know that. Fairy tales teach kids that dragons can be defeated.”

    Even the Little House books dealt with death of a child, blindness, bankruptcy, and incredible loss.

    I’m not even opposed to books like The Turner Diaries. You never know what will incite. Should Taxi Driver been banned because a killer became obsessed with Jodie Foster?


    • Terri – I remember my kids and I being puzzled when we listened to the audio of a beloved English series and discovered they had made all sorts of editorial changes in the name of political correctness. I then had to explain why the character “Dick” was suddenly now “Rick” in the audio version of the book and “Dame slap” was now “Dame snap”. My boys and I thought it was ridiculous (especially since I’d read the original version of the books to them anyway). Kids are resilient and discussing why books contained certain elements (especially politically incorrect ones) that were prevalent at the time they were written gives you an opportunity to discuss those issues (not ignore them:)). And I agree – when it comes to ‘responsibility’ – how far do you go, when people may use your book as an excuse to do things that you would never have contemplated or predicted in a million years.

  6. That is bizarre. I was talking with Jeffery Deaver at a conference and he did say the one difference between the print and audio version of one of his books is that the profanity was edited out of the audio.

    I can see the justification for that, although it was something I would have never thought of .

    But Dick to Rick? That is just hilarious and over the top political correctness.

    I have a short series on the drawing board set during slavery. I won’t be crass, but I won’t pull punches either.

  7. I struggle with this question because I write about a conspiracy of women who kill pedophiles. I suspect that some people might interpret that as a call to others to do the same thing, and that there’s no other solution.

    Is there another solution? Yes, many, but, so far, no perfect solution, and despite focusing on this subject, I haven’t yet come up with the perfect solution.

    Am I saying in my novels that pedophiles ought to be killed? No, I don’t think so because the fictional women who do so suffer consequences (although, so far, not the prison kind of consequence.)

    But I’m pretty sure I’ll be criticized anyway. I’m willing to accept this criticism because I believe the issue of pedophilia needs to be addressed in our society, so perhaps a bit of controversy isn’t a bad thing (assuming that people, other than family and friends, discover the novels.)

    • I think you’re writing an element that makes the “bad guy” (or gals, in thies case) at least somewhat sympathetic. Much better than a cardboard serial killer who just seems to kill for no reason.

  8. Ha! Now I’m thinking I should have put more tween angst in my YA novel. BTW1: the main human character, Shashi Garcia, is already a strong female, even though a tween. Mr. Paws, the mutant cat, who narrates the story, has a high opinion of her. BTW2: the book is also sci-fi, as the mystery takes place on the ISS in the future–but definitely not Harry Potter in space.
    I think many parents would be surprised at what their kids watch on TV, the video games they play, and the breadth of their knowledge about what were once considered taboo subjects. Whether we think it’s good or bad, or even PC, the times are a-changin’.
    Great discussion!

  9. Clare–
    We all know how powerful words can be–able to start or stop wars, able to cause people to risk life and limb for nothing–that is, for no thing, for just words on the page, or electrons on the screen. For that reason, it makes good sense for writers to stop and ask themselves what their standards are, etc.
    As for writing for children, I know my limitations, and don’t write for them. Which is a lucky thing for children.

    • Barry – I think that’s why the discussion was such a great one. I’ve only just started writing YA and (potentially) for younger audiences so it’s certainly making me think more about my own criteria for ‘responsibility’ and the standards I should hold myself to.

    • I agree, Barry. I think we should think about consequences (blowback) all the time. There is some stuff I won’t even attempt to tackle. Ultimately, I just think that “it” is just not my cup of tea. I don’t understand the attraction folks have to some things. My friend John says we’re (humans) some “crazy monkeys.” I’ll just leave it there.

  10. We have to be careful that certain of our word choices are not offensive. For example, we might describe a character as pleasingly plump, but a sensitive reader might be insulted by that term. We cannot watch everything we say, and certainly we must remain true to our characters, but sometimes it is just as easy to choose a more agreeable word.

    • That’s very true – though, as social media demonstrates everyday, some people are easily offended by pretty innocuous stuff!

  11. I’ve never considered myself responsible for anything other than providing the best story possible. I don’t want readers to feel as if they’ve wasted money on my books.

    Likewise, I don’t consider my favorite authors responsible for anything other than giving me the best possible story.

    Great topic for discussion!

    • Julie – that’s precisely how I felt – although now I admit I’m thinking more about the question of author responsibility than I did before!

  12. As a former teacher of tweens and a school librarian for a JK to 8 school, I’m not in favor of over-censoring and I often opposed other librarians who wanted to do that. But on the other hand, as a former teacher I’m accustomed to feeling responsible for all children, not just my own, and I think it’s important for all of us to take a “global village” attitude and look out for the emotional and physical safety of kids everywhere. So I’d hate to see extreme graphic violence in kids’ books — let them be kids and feel at least some sense of security! They have the whole rest of their lives to face harsh reality. Hmmm… come to think of it, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books were hugely popular in my library!

  13. My philosophy is that story is power. We who write stories, shape what future generations will believe of our time. We shape the minds and thoughts of our readers in this life as well. If we write drivel, we spread the notion of a wasted generation, and encourage said generation to live as such. If we write stories that are well thought out, planned, and written in honorable language we build and enhance both our living culture and the future perception of this culture.

    Whether we write children’s books, YA, cozy mysteries, hard-boiled crime, romance, serial killers, absurd comedy, biographies, horror, sci-fi or military action we all bear a distinct responsibility. We are shaping the minds and worlds of both the present and the future. We need to make it our best work. because for someone out there we are all the world they are holding on to.

    • Writing “the best story possible” seems to me as though it should be a given for writers. But what is not a given is how to present stories. I am skeptical of writers who make extensive use of sadism and sex. If someone were to tell me he had written lengthy, highly detailed descriptions of mutilation, torture, etc., in order to be true to life, I would be unconvinced. It ‘s possible for a solid writer to conjure up such content without dwelling on these moments in loving, graphic detail. Otherwise, I believe the writer is choosing exploitation/sensationalism for its shock value, then insisting with a straight face that it’s just realism.

  14. Like any artist, I think a writer has to be willing to take responsibility for what he writes. Is he being true to himself? Is he serving his readers by providing them with a compelling story and interesting characters? Is he being honest about his theme? While we can’t be responsible for everything a reader does with what we give him, I think we have to be mindful that people are impressionable. We can entertain and inspire at the same time. We must be careful about what we inspire people to think and to do. Is what we write only out there to turn us a quick buck, or are we striving for something more?

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