I’m going to take a big, fat liberty here, so bear with me, okay?
There’s a powerful Annie Dillard quote that has to do with churches that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
While I happen to agree with the above, that’s beside the point for my purpose. Re-read the paragraph, and put the word “writers” in place of “Christians” and “churches.” I’ll wait…
Pretty interesting, yes? Did you ever think of the power that your words and stories might have?
Your words can influence, inspire, anger, irritate, uplift, depress, frighten, amuse, or engender admiration or scorn. Fictional stories have helped change laws and influenced social progress. There are many novels that have even inspired horrific crimes. When we read things in print—particularly if they look official, free of typos, etc.—we take them more seriously than if they’re just hearsay.
We can’t predict what effects our written words will have on the people who read them. That leads to the question: What responsibility do we have for the effects our words have on our readers?
I doubt that any two writers would answer this question the same way because there is no cut and dried answer. Words are ideas, and ideas are infinite and peculiar to every writer/reader/thinker. A scene or a bit of dialogue that seems innocuous to one reader might lead another to take to social media in protest.
As a writer, I see my job as telling the story the very best way I know how. I may want to appeal to a certain audience, but I feel my first responsibility is to the story. I start with a kind of Platonic ideal of the story I see in my head, and do everything I can to be faithful to that ideal as I write. Everything else is secondary.
But once a story is shared—even in a workshop/classroom setting—or published, it becomes something different. It’s no longer just ours. It takes up space in other people’s heads and they will react to it. We have no control over those reactions, but do we have a responsibility to predict them and change our work to accommodate them?
I’m personally familiar with a workshop situation in which a writer submitted a story that contained an abduction and rape. Several people in the workshop didn’t want to participate in the critique of the story because it triggered distressing emotional reactions in them. There were hurt and angry feelings on both sides. There’s also no clear answer here as to how the situation should be resolved. Does the writer have the right to tell the story as she envisions it? Do the other participants have the right to not be hurt or offended?
Announcing that there are potential trigger issues in a piece of work is getting more common on blogs and in academic settings. I haven’t yet seen it in the commercial writing world. Between cover art and jacket blurbs, publishers do a pretty good job of telegraphing what sort of material is contained inside. Occasionally they get it wrong and readers are misled, and the writer pays by suffering angry negative reviews based on unexpected content. There are many voices on the issue on the use of trigger warnings. Here is one pro voice and one con.
More and more publishers (and writers) are becoming proactive in another area of reader reaction anticipation: the hiring and use of sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers specialize in checking manuscripts for misrepresentation of minorities and marginalized populations. If you’re writing about a population to which you don’t belong, you should anticipate sensitivity scrutiny of your work. Recently Writer Unboxed had a piece on sensitivity readers. It also references a widely shared Chicago Tribune article.
Writers now have access to audiences that most of us could hardly have dreamed of a decade ago. Readers, too, now have larger voices. The world appears to be demanding more from writers: to not simply be entertaining, but thoughtful and, some would say, authentic. But where should that authenticity come from? How concerned should we be with reader reaction issues as we write, and how do those issues affect creativity and storytelling?
I realize I’ve posed a lot of questions here. Let me ask you a few more: (you needn’t answer them all!)
How do you make sure your characters accurately reflect their cultural, societal, or ethnic backgrounds when they’re different from your own?
What is the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?
Have you ever changed your work or held back because you worried about criticism or questions of authenticity?