The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all, it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. -- George Orwell
Last week I was alerted to a situation on Facebook. R.J. Keller, author of the wonderful novel Waiting For Spring, which I reviewed here, apparently received another bout of nasty "I am offended" emails from readers of her book, to which I replied with this comment:
All a writer can do is be honest, be true to the story and the characters. A writer has no other choice. What other people take away from a story, or rather how they interpret it or misinterpret it, is nothing more than a projection of their own inner self and is of no concern to you, as a writer -- unless you want to use them as a character in your next book. In the moment of writing, all that matters is the story.
Now this is not just my personal take on the issue, many other literary authors have made their stance known: Zoe Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal, said that it is not a writer's job to offer up moral avatars; if you want friends, go to a cocktail party. In the Gospel of Mark it is said that John came to “agitate the comfortable and comfort the agitated.” Now that was used in a religious context, meaning the people were spiritually asleep, and it was the prophet's job to wake them, but “art” does this as well. It awakens people, challenges people and their ideals. I am not saying that the readers' opinions don't matter, I am saying that reader opinions only matter to a certain degree. That's how art works. Artists, including writers, have been commenting on society's indiscretions since the dawn of time, i.e. The Bible, which is full of some god-awful violent and disturbing stuff.
The fact of the matter is that there is someone out there who is bound to be offended by something you write, say, or do. In this world, being offended is like a hobby. And like any other truly egocentric pursuit, the offended’s opinion is the only one of value. Not to mention, those who love to engage in this sort of thing have a huge fan base. But I digress. All this is really irrelevant to the writer. It's all just static, and it means nothing in the greater scheme of things. If you have got yourself a controversial book, you have done yourself a favour as an artist, so bask in the glory despite your detractors.
Writers are like explorers, and the human psyche is like the greatest fucking adventure land that ever existed -- yes, even Disney sucks ass by comparison -- and many serious writers feel compelled to explore difficult, challenging, and often controversial subjects and ideas. Some writers have a point to make, and they make it, and some writers take the objective approach and simply tell a story. Some parts of that story might be objectionable to some readers; hell, the author might even find them objectionable for that matter. Just because an author writes about something does not necessarily mean that they advocate said thing. I wish more readers understood this, because it's a painful process, and it takes a lot of time for an author to build up some sort of resistance to being affected by this ... this purely subjective criticism that some feel the need to level not only at the work but at the author personally. I'll share a story that set me into a tailspin of personal doubt for about a year. I haven't shared this with too many people, but maybe it's time.
When I wrote the book The Thin Wall, my idea was to explore the dangers of the co-dependent relationship. When the story and the characters came to me, the main coupling just happened to be between two fortyish single people who shared certain sexual proclivities. The fact that they were a BDSM couple was relevant to the theme of unconventional love that I had in mind for the story. While the story is not graphic by any means -- I just don't write graphic sex -- there is a scene in the beginning of the book which illustrates that the relationship between these two people had reached a level most compassionate human beings would find abusive. Anyway ... along comes this internet person, a person who had not even read the book, who decided in her infinite wisdom to take it upon herself to vocalize her opinion that my story could not be a romance and how dare I call it one while she proceeded to have herself a love-in at my expense. Basically, she declared, that to write such a thing and call it a romance made me some sort of pervert. Yes, all this was said while ignoring the fact that the story is about a confused woman in the middle of her midlife crisis who is trying to sort out her feelings after discovering that the man she has spent the last twenty years with isn't really right or healthy for her at this stage of her life. The happy ever after comes when she winds up with the man that is at the end of the book. But this blogger didn't even have the courtesy to read the book before commenting on something she knew nothing about, so the fact that it actually fits the exact definition of a romance was rendered a moot point by her ignorance of the facts.
Now I look back at the incident and laugh because I have come to understand how irrelevant and biased the comments were, and that it was really nothing but a self-projection and had nothing to do with my story specifically, or my art, or me personally as a writer. At the time though, it really dug in deep. I began worrying about what other people might think of me or that people might think I was advocating such sexual activity. The whole thing made me so sick down to my core that I actually pulled the book from print after it had been out only a few weeks. I actually took all my books out print. I completely shut down. I knew that in order for me to resolve my feelings about my own artistic freedom, I had to shut everything out for a bit, which I did. I took a year off to pull my boot straps up. I needed to step back, away from readers, away from the net, and spend some time with my writerly person -- do some self-affirmations. While I had the time and all the books out of print, I decided to take a long hard editorial look at them, and what I found was that I liked what I had written, I had been objective in my explorations, so I revised some and then sent my deviant thoughts back out into the world.
It took a year, but I have reached a level of Zen about this sort of thing. If I am going to be honest and true to the human condition, which is ugly at best, I can't be worried about offending someone. It takes too damn much energy away from the writing.
Now my thoughts here are based on my own personal struggle. I can't really give authors any advice on how to deal with this sort of situation, other than: NEVER EVER EVER RESPOND TO IT DIRECTLY. That is an exercise in futility, because in this situation, you cannot change someone’s mind, so it’s best to ignore it, lest it consume you with negativity.
Getting Zen with this takes courage and confidence, and you can't really combat that sort of emotional attack until you are faced with it and have taken the time to reflect upon it. You will question everything you have ever written. You will question your motivations. You will question your own ideals and your personal dogma, and you will question not only the words but the integrity of your writing, as well. I think, for a serious writer, the exercise is good for the art in the end. But that's just me. I practice “write what you want, how you want to write it.” Some writers will not be able to endure it and will bow to the censors. It's a personal choice every writer must make on their own, and I wish you the best and all the good energy I can send your way.
Cheryl Anne Gardner
The Art this week is: Erotische Burleske by Johann Heinrich Fussli circa 1772