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?

PayPal vs. Smashwords

By Joe Moore

In February, PayPal, the global e-commerce payment service notified Smashwords, one of the biggest indie publishers or electronic literature that they had one week to remove all books in their catalogue that dealt with themes of rape, incest, bestiality and underage sex. Failure to do so meant that PayPal would deactivate their services. The pressure to take this action appeared to have come from the credit card companies that partner with PayPal (owned by eBay). Smashwords has over 100k books available online. A quick search of Smashwords showed that there were about 1k titles tagged with the offensive subjects.

Smashwords has been able to negotiate an extension of the deadline in order to come to some compromise with PayPal and its credit card, bank, and credit union partners. In the meantime, as this situation goes on, it raises many questions starting with:

Should a business such as a credit card company be allowed to force its moral beliefs directly or indirectly upon another company?

Before everyone starts pointing out the lack of redeeming literary qualities of the specific books targeted, let’s just move to the bigger topics of censorship and free speech—and who in this example has the right to decide when and how to implement it. Does a middle-man payment company like PayPal have the right to decide what is obscene? If PayPal can tell booksellers what they can and cannot sell, aren’t they also telling readers what they can and cannot read?

What’s your reaction to PayPal’s mandate? Is this just the start of bigger things to come in the censorship arena?