Attacking writers is nothing new. We often find ourselves on the sharp-end of someone's ire. But how does this affect what we write? How do emerging writers navigate through the prospect of being attacked publicly for what they write?
The timing of this post is twofold. It is inspired by a conversation I had last night with a good friend and writer, and it is also the three year anniversary since I was personally attacked by a former employer for my fiction writing.
I'm not allowed to give specific details about my experience, but what I can say is that a former employer tried to charge me with serious misconduct because of my creative writing. It seemed ridiculous at the time, but the destruction of my career, the damage to my professional and personal reputation, and all the emotional trauma that came with it, was very real. Throughout the process, they tried to create a narrative about my personality and questioned my mental stability, based on my fiction writing. It was possibly one of the most damaging experiences I have ever endured and caused my family and I a great deal of suffering during the time and for long afterwards.
So, I want to use this experience with the hope that emerging writers can have some insight into the potential pitfalls.
I write dark fiction. It can be unpleasant and is not to everyone's taste. I'm fine with that. I have also written characters with seriously skewed morals; some deeply disturbed, others possessing murderous intent. I'm comfortable with the knowledge that some people (including honest friends) find my work difficult to read. My response to them is that they should refrain from reading it, and support me in other ways.
But I think writers are more effective when they can write without fear. To write from different perspectives and challenge people's ideas. To explore the uncomfortable. To say the things we have difficulty in saying. To present ideas that dislodge and encourage further thought. Emerging writers shouldn't shrink away from this. After all, art is supposed to subvert and challenge ways of thinking, isn't it? Otherwise, what's the point? Otherwise, all we have is "elevator music" - meaningless background noise that in the end, appeals to no one. I don't want to write elevator music.
Some might even argue that, as authors, it is our responsibility to push boundaries in literature. I'm not entirely sure we should bear this burden, because if my work simply entertains someone, I'm good with that too. But memorable work often sits with us because it ripped us from our comfort zone. The writing spoke to us in a unique way. I think the best writing prompts us to think about something in a different way, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
But writing like this brings about a degree of responsibility. Its important that we write with respect and sensitivity. Presenting certain characters in certain ways can be tough, especially those characters that hold insipid opinions. So we must handle this with care by doing our research, avoiding the idea that a single character is somehow representative of an entire group, and also not being reductive about the way in which we present characters. After all, as human beings, we are all complex and effective writing demands the same of our fictional characters. Good or evil. Compassionate or monstrous human beings.
But, we must also be aware of the fact that we cannot control fully the response of an audience. Art is subjective. A nude painting in a gallery can be beautiful to some and crass to others. Often as writers, we assume that readers will have a certain level of sophistication that allows them to understand nuances of the text. But that is not always the case. I was naïve enough to assume that all readers would understand that the views and actions of one of my characters was not in any way representative of my own. Because we all know that fiction is make-believe, right? Made up stuff? But unfortunately, some people literally cannot distinguish between the two and hold onto the notion that an author must be disturbed if they are writing something disturbing. Really? If this was the case, most of the writing community would be incarcerated by now, including practically every thriller and horror writer. Good luck, Stephen King.
Having an awareness of the potential impact of your words is certainly a start. That way, at least making the choice about what to write is an informed one - a considered one. But generally, the most effective works of literature are the ones which can cause a stir, and I think most writers should aspire to do that at some point in their careers.
But most writers do not support themselves through writing alone. Most of us have day-jobs. Its safe to say that legally a writer cannot have their employment threatened simply by writing fiction. We are all protected by laws that allow creative freedom. In my case, it was beyond doubt that my former employer broke the law. However, in the end I lacked the strength and financial backing to take them to court - a case I would have won in a heartbeat. And this is where writers need a degree of caution. As easy as it is for me to encourage emerging writers to take those risks and push the envelope... as simple it is for me to say we're afforded some legal protection over our creative works - the fact remains that anyone who writes COULD be attacked, and I guess the real test comes down to asking yourself if you have the fight in you to defend passionately what you write. If you do - wonderful, get writing. If not, then I wouldn't blame you for holding back.
Booker Prize Winner, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, said, "Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views" but reminds us that "we do have the obligation to teach ourselves and to do research and to treat people with respect if we're going to have them feature in our work."
I think its equally important that we can hold up to scrutiny anything we write and engage in further conversation around the viewpoints our stories present.
But attacking writers for exploring the dark side of humanity can never be a good thing. It only creates an environment of fear, which leads to self-censorship, and those meaningful, wonderful, uncomfortable, dislodging, important perspectives remain silenced. And no one benefits from silence.