Fiction writers have a long and rich tradition of being the unofficial historians of social and political conditions. You can learn much about early twentieth-century midwestern America from Faulkner, or the Spanish Civil War from Hemingway, or the social constraints of the Victorian era from Thomas Hardy. These “learnings” are less about dates and events and more about the “feel” and the “perspectives” of these times.
Likewise, political conditions have often found their way into the classics be it trends or warnings of the future course of such practices. Thus, like those before us, the present day writer has, if not the responsibility, then certainly the precedent to include his or her opinions and viewpoints in the written work.
Of course, today’s world is different. We live in an era that provides an unprecedented ability to communicate with the world. A time when anyone with social media access can create a public persona. Unlike the great classic writers, present day authors can speak through both their novels and their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
And for the good or the bad, that public persona can define us as much and sometimes more than our novels.
Consequently, when an author takes to social media, they invite evaluations beyond the quality and content of their writing. People or more accurately, readers, cannot separate the author’s work from the author’s public persona.
The results of this “persona” convergence can have long-term consequences for an author’s career.
Hit with the Philosopher’s Stone
Case in point is the recent Twitter storm involving beloved children’s author J.K. Rowling. Rowling has a firm opinion on the refugee crisis. In her view, countries should open their doors completely and without restriction. And she has not shied away from being a harsh critic of those who disagrees.
People called Rowling to task for her comments. An entire Twitter campaign devoted itself to offering the purchase of plane tickets for any refugees who could live at Rowling’s mansion for a year.
Ms. Rowling has been silent on the offers, but in fairness to her, she has given away a significant portion of her wealth to help others.
The bigger point here, however, is that an author who’s work positively impacted the lives of so many children finds herself in a less than positive public relations battle. It’s not a question of her viewpoint or whether one agrees or disagrees with her views. The issue is the manner in which she has handled the communication.
While she and her supporters most likely see her as Dumbledore, those who disagree probably think she has more Voldemort in her than she recognizes.
Again, it’s not a question of politics or social justice for authors. An author must contemplate: Do my personal views belong beyond the pages of my fiction? And, if I choose advocacy, what is the cost?
In the Court of Public Opinion
In America, free speech is an inalienable right. A fundamental right at the foundation of our democracy. Americans extend their belief in freedom of expression to people of all nations. That Ms. Rowling has the right to speak her mind is not in question.
Of course, for almost every viewpoint there is a counter view. Thoughts on what is “right” and what is “wrong” tend to come in shades of gray.
We are all guilty of living in our social media bubbles. We tend to associate with people who share our opinions and views. Often we hold views that we believe “everyone” shares…or should share.
In psychology, we call this the formation of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” When our circles become too small or too tight, we can lose perspective or lose the ability to consider other points of view. And the most “charged” issues rarely share a unanimous consensus.
In the U.S., where 77% of people see the country as “divided,” recent polls on the hottest topics demonstrate this point.
* 53% support Abortion without restriction of any kind
* 61% support Gay Marriage
* 55% believe businesses should be able to refuse services that conflict with their religious beliefs.
* 60% support the Death Penalty
* 63% do not support removal of the word “God” from money/buildings
* 82% believe in the deportation of criminal illegal immigrants
* 55% believe the U.S. should build the Wall
* 42% support a ban on immigration and 36% oppose (when other criteria is added the numbers shift to 47/53%)
Opine on any of the above, and you are guaranteed to meet with (harsh) opposing views. And although history shows that “popular” is not always synonymous with “right,” an author must decide between two paths: “Am I to use my real voice?” Or “Is my perspective better served within my craft?”
Fiction has no political niche.
If you’re a non-fiction writer, your audience most likely shares or is at least open to your opinion. Ann Coulter, Milo Y, and Chelsea Handler, they all have their followers, and their books do well with their “in-groups.”
In fiction, however, the only shared demographic is the love of the genre. Romance novel readers, for example, come from all walks of life. Chances are they divided on the topics mentioned above in a way similar to the national averages. The same applies to the other genres.
So when a fiction author “speaks” out, there is an excellent chance they will insult, provoke, or alienate half their audience.
The cost of “you doing you.”
Maybe some social and political issues are so important the risk of speaking out publically is worth it. As writers, however, we must consider that beyond our particular craft knowledge, our authority on any topic is no greater than anyone else’s. Our opinion is no less and no more important.
We’ve grown used to “celebrities” voicing views on everything from climate change to national economics. But being a good actor doesn’t necessarily transfer to being a brilliant economist. And while surrounded by their in-groups, celebrities may indeed feel they are voicing the “popular” and the “obvious,” a look at the polls would suggest quite a few ticket-buying movie goers might not agree.
Likewise, forty to eighty percent of Americans, might not appreciate being ridiculed by a “children’s author who doesn’t even live in their country.”
It is a matter of authority. Celebrities are experts in their craft. Their opinions on acting can be considered expert advice. Their authority to opine on humanitarian issues is certainly within their rights but not necessarily within their expertise.
And weighing in with a public persona has consequences.
The laws of consumer behavior are clear. We buy from people and companies we like, and we like individuals and businesses who seem similar to us.
Should that make a difference to an author?
Depends on the goal.
If the aim is to reach as many people as possible and to use one’s stories to influence then it might be best to follow the same practice one does in writing: Choose your words carefully.
Say it where it counts
Can’t we be both an author and social justice advocate?
Yes. If we say it where it counts.
Storytelling highly influences people. Our brains love stories, and these stories have the power to form our opinions and, by seeing a different perspective, change our minds.
Authors own this powerful storytelling tool. In fact, censorship exists because people have long understood the influential power of the story.
For all the anti-communist campaigns none did it more damage than Orwell’s Animal Farm. The idea of Libertarianism became a force through Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. !984 lays out a persuasive argument that we should distrust Big Brother attempts by governments. To Kill a Mockingbird showed us the destructiveness of racism.
These novels used fiction to help us not just understand, but to empathize. A compelling story has the power to change the reader’s perspective and to shine a light on important issues related to the human condition.
Would these authors have been more successful had their opinions appeared as Twitter rants, Facebook posts, or at an awards show? Doubtful.
A Mile in His Shoes
Every culture has a version of this adage:
You can’t truly understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
A story can be those shoes. The reader can slip them on and discover new perspectives. A story can show us things we never would have seen, help us empathize with people who, before, we saw only as “different,” and it has the power to change minds.
When the author slips out of those shoes he or she may feel more righteous, may feel they are doing “more” but in fact, they are doing less. Because the public voice of an author will never be as powerful or influential as the faceless voice of the narrator.
The power for change is in words, not in the celebrity status an author has achieved.
The Narrator’s Many Faces
As Bruce Wayne so aptly put it: “As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
The narrator can have many voices and can share many ideas. Those ideas become symbols, and the stories work their way into our perspective. They can become a part of our culture.
Camelot can transform from the page to an ideal. We can suddenly perceive life’s many Catch-22’s, and universally understand the “first rule of fight club is never discuss fight club.”
I have much admiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I am thankful that her stories provided such an enriching experience for my children. As an author, I see her rise to fame as an inspirational lesson in the power of tenacity and perseverance.
Watching her devolve into a public persona and speak in a tone of “righteousness” and sometimes display “bitterness” toward those who disagree, has made her, to me, a little less noble than the characters she created.
And I can’t help but wonder if she would have been far more effective had she only tweeted: “Are we truly better off keeping out those “mud bloods?”