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?