It’s a question that I see many a writer squabble about on blogs and in the comment sections across the wild expanses of the untamed internet. Does a writer owe anything to their readers? Must a writer compromise their pure artistic vision to appeal to the ever-changing tastes of the market? What the hell does that even mean? (Pro-tip: If you’re writing schlock genre fiction for a quick buck, please stop talking about your divine creative spark or whatever. Just accept what you do, bro. Be proud of that schlock.)
While I’ve attempted to figure this question out for myself, the apparent general consensus is that all writers are geniuses who owe nothing to their readers. Just as the brilliant painter owes nothing to the drooling public, nor the driven filmmaker to the unwashed film-going masses, writers must be allowed to bring their uncompromising vision of pure creative energy to the world. Or something. This is what I’ve been told on Facebook and Twitter, anyway. Nobody owes anybody anything, and we should all just be glad for the writers putting out stuff for us to read. Writing is a hard job, somebody has to do it, so readers shouldn’t feel entitled to have a say in the work itself. And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s an alright way to look at it. This is a business. I make the product, you buy the product, and hopefully everybody gets what they want in the process.
But, the older I get, and — let’s be real — the crankier I am, my response to that question is far more personal and complex. As a writer, I see what I do — writing stuff for people to read, be it a comic book review or a 100k novel — as an extension of the morality I adhere to in my daily life. It’s like an oath to do what I can to make the world suck less than it already does. Which, when I hear myself say that, makes me sound as much of a wind-bag as the self-described geniuses I spend most of my time lampooning on the internet. (#Genericwritertweets?) Before you accuse me of donning my Social Justice Warrior armor and shield, and taking to the internet to rain on your collective parade, think about it like this.
The Writer’s Oath (stolen from Hippocrates, for reasons)
I swear by Warren Ellis the mad asshole who made me want to write as a kid, and William Gibson who was rad as hell, likewise Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, and call all the writers to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.
I will reverence the cool guys who taught me the art. Equally with my peers on the intertubes, will I allow them things necessary for their support, and will retweet their sale links. I will be aware of my privileges, and check them frequently, before I make an ass of myself. With regard to writing for my audience, I will devise and produce for them the best work that I can, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care not to regurgitate harmful or toxic stereotypes. I will walk a mile in the shoes of my audience, so that I may better understand their points of view and the hardships they face. If I expect their money, they expect a product worthy of it, and this transaction must be based upon respect.
Never shall any publisher’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poisonous, harmful, or abusive viewpoints to anyone, even if it is to make a quick buck; neither will I counsel any writer to do so. Not even in the service of plot, so don’t give me that shit. Moreover, I will do what I can, whenever I can, to advance the presence of women, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and all other marginalized people in the media that I produce. I will do what I can to elevate their voices and stories above than my own, and try to keep my white middle class American feels out of the conversation.
If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, feel free to kick my ass to the curb!
The typical response I receive from other writers is “I don’t write stories like that,” or “I don’t need to get bogged down in politics or PC stuff.” This sounds like good reasoning on the face of it; after all, everybody has their own agenda, and writes with different intentions. But is writing about perspectives outside of your own just a matter of politics? Shouldn’t a writer be self-aware enough to examine their own place in the world, and to consider writing about characters that don’t look or think like they do? If your high concept sci-fi epic is white as Miracle Whip, you’re hardly a visionary. If your gritty supernatural horror novel just spits out the same old sexist or transphobic cliches, that’s not ‘edgy’ or ‘rebellious’ – it’s just falling in step with the status quo.
In the end, I can’t tell anybody how to write. I can’t tell you how to feel about your audience, either. I can only do what I do, for the reasons that I do it. For me, that means do no harm. Take that as you will.