Thursday, December 1, 2011

What are you saying?

By CJ West author of Addicted To Love
Lately I’ve been thinking about perspective. Not a character’s perspective, but the author’s perspective. We all have different points of view and often an author uses his work to advocate a view on an issue. Sometimes this really bugs me, but when I think about the books I really enjoy, they are about more than an entertaining story.

When I first began writing I read about oral tradition and the idea that fiction grew out of stories told around the campfire. Campfire stories of old were used to pass down the history of the people and also to embolden young members of the tribe to act bravely in the face of challenges in war or during the hunt. When I first read this I wondered if it was my obligation to inspire readers to live better lives.

Soon after reading this, I was told someone had acted out a scene from one of my books. It wasn’t a scene I’d want anyone to imitate and from that point on I worried a bit about the types of things I portrayed in my writing and what affect my work had on my readers. I write suspense so murder and mayhem comes with the territory. On one hand I’d like to believe my readers are intelligent enough to make good choices. On the other, I don’t want to contribute to a real life catastrophe.  

So what then is our role as writers?

For me a story is richer when I learn as I read. When I wrote Sin & Vengeance, I did a great deal of research on wine and winemaking. I get lots of feedback on how evil Randy is and how people can’t sleep at night after finishing the book, but I’m always pleased when someone tells me how much they have learned about making wine.

To me the lessons in that book somehow make it more worthy than something that is pure entertainment. When I read The Lock Artist, I felt I’d learned quite a lot about locks and safes. As I think about this I also realize that in some cultures making wine is sinful, lock picking even more so. Does that make writers evil? Are we inspiring readers to do things they shouldn’t? We have to portray evil characters in our stories, don’t we?

What I’m thinking about goes beyond villains. Underneath it all, writers put a bit of ourselves on the page and we let readers view the world through our eyes. Maybe challenging readers to see things a different way is an important part of our role. Sometimes they will accept a new viewpoint and sometimes they’ll reject it.

Nothing illustrated this for me better than reading Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. I picked up this book after reading numerous recommendations of Mr. Burke’s work, but when I finished I knew I’d never read him again.


Dave Robicheaux is a detective in one of the grittiest places in America. He deals with drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. He spends his days chasing these people and yet he stops numerous times during this book to tell us that he doesn’t blame them. It’s the fault of the rich white people who victimize them. In this book he shows us a kid who rapes and tortures women and then (Burke) let’s this kid escape punishment because the things he does aren’t his fault.

When faced with a story like this I think readers with strong opinions do one of two things. Those who agree with Mr. Burke love the book and applaud him for his courage. Those who don’t shake their fists and yell at the pages that absolving people of responsibility for their actions is very dangerous.

What do you think?

Are writers better off climbing the soapbox and galvanizing those who think like they do, surely knowing they’ll lose those who disagree? Or would you rather your favorite authors keep their political notions to themselves?


  1. Interesting post! This makes me curious about Tin Roof Blowdown. I've read other books by James Lee Burke and not encountered the political attitude you describe. Maybe the book was an exception.

    I like stories that include political and cultural issues, but I also want the author to be subtle or at least somewhat balanced in the approach. When a protag/author keeps spitting out extreme political positions, I close the book and move on.

  2. Very interesting post, CJ! Lots of food for thought here.

    I really don't like books that glamorize or excuse the acts of nasty people who victimize others. I'll put one of those down really fast.

    Also, I mainly read for entertainment and escapism, so I don't like authors who get up on their soapbox and try to ram their ideas down my throat. Subtle (or even unsubtle) references to injustices are great, but weave it into the plot through character interactions, reactions and natural-sounding dialogue, not through author interruptions.

  3. LJ,

    Maybe there is hope for me reading another Burke title. This one was really over the top for me though.

    I have some characters with extreme views myself, but I try to always give some balance.

    Jodie, I agree that book are something to be enjoyed. A little education snuck into the pages is great, but when it gets preachy, I don't want to read anymore.


  4. First, I love learning via well-researched fiction. I would die of boredom reading a treatise on wine making, but woven into a novel? The best!

    I hope no one every confuses me with a character I create. But I do hope I can get people to think about things a little differently (in some situations) than they're accustomed to doing.

  5. For me the thing that makes Robicheaux interesting is that he's capable of empathy, and capable of seeing complexity. Bertrand commits terrible crimes, but he's still human, after all, and the choices he makes are determined to some extent by how and where he's brought up. Anyway, I don't think Robicheaux lets Bertrand go as much as he decides that his fate is already pretty much sealed--he's going to come to a bad end, no matter what. And of course Bertrand ultimately makes amends with the victim, more or less. It's morally complicated--that's one of things that's good about it.

  6. Well said, Jon.

    An author I've enjoyed is Alafair Burke. As the daughter of James Lee, it's rather interesting that she began her professional career as a prosecutor before becoming a crime novelist.

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  8. As for expressions of opinion in fiction--my characters have all sorts of opinions, and some of them are very outspoken. I've gotten one or two angry emails from readers who apparently don't like it when a fictional character's opinions differ from theirs. Lots of crime fiction is very overtly political, of course--from the standard glorification of the police, military and firearms to the use of racial and gender stereotypes to the standard hang 'em high vigilante fantasy that forms the backbone of a lot of contemporary "noir" fiction. It's all pretty familiar stuff it's and all pretty fundamentally right-wing--we're just so used to it we hardly even notice what's going on. But let a character express a left-of-center opinion and suddenly it's a big deal. Interesting times.

  9. Jon,

    Interesting take on crime fiction as being right wing. I get that the bad guy usually gets it in the end, and that we stereotype villains to make them easy to dislike. But I meet very few right wing crime writers.

    I agree with you on moral complexity. I've written two books from the perspective of the villain and I go out of my way to avoid racial stereotypes.

    For me, this piece by Burke was too much.

  10. No doubt some crime writers are right wing, but that's not what I'm saying. My point is that a lot of the themes/tropes that are commonplace in crime fiction, including race and gender stereotypes, and glorification of guns, police, the military, vigilantism and eye-for-an-eye justice are pretty standard right-wing fare, but they're so ubiquitous in crime fiction that we don't really see them, and often don't recognize them as being political. Write a character with even marginally left-of-center views, though, and suddenly it's controversial.

  11. Very compelling post C.J. Personally, I expect stories to present a variety of views from different characters and I actually enjoy some characters more, even if they would offend me in real life. One of my characters is a bit over the top and that's one of the things I like about him. In real life I wouldn't come within fifty feet of him.

    What does turn me off is when an author presents an opinion that is clearly theirs and has no purpose in the dialog other than advocacy. Recently I was reading a book by a very well known crime writer and the main detective is describing things found in a victim's home. I'm paraphrasing but he basically saw a subscription card for P.E.T.A. and then commented "obviously evidence of a good and thoughtful man" or words to that effect. He could have said something like, "obviously a person who loves and cares for animals" but the author instead assigned a values statement to the observation. It was so clearly the voice of the author and not the character that it cheapened the scene for me.

    Another example of what I am describing can be found in the movie "Shooter" when the Swagger character confronts the Russian sniper in the wheelchair in the house. The Russian character starts talking about Abu Ghraib of all things! To me, it was so patently political. It was so unbelievable to me that these two characters would be talking about that issue at that time and again, it cheapened the scene.

    Like I said, I expect a variety of views and philosophies but they have to remain true to the character and scene if they are to be believable. As for any responsibility authors may bear towards their reader's actions I don't think there is any. People have free will after all.


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