The best writers consider their moral stance and write so well that even those who disagree enjoy their writing.
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What Kind of Author Do You Want to Be?
In my last article, I spoke about the different things that writers can do. I’m often surprised by how few authors have really thought about what it is that they’re trying to accomplish. Do you want to be considered an entertainer? A prophet who forewarns of political doom? A writer whose work electrifies and binds people together?
I love it when an author figures that out early. Personally, I didn’t have much of a vision for what I wanted to become. I figured it out over a few years.
About twenty years ago, L. Ron Hubbard re-released the novel Buckskin Brigades. A businessman in an airport bought a copy, sat down to read, and became so engrossed in the novel, he discovered that his plane had taken off without him—more than an hour earlier! So he hopped on the next plane home. When he got there, he saw police cars in his driveway, along with his brother’s car. He became alarmed and rushed into the house to find his brother comforting his wife. It turned out that the plane he was to have taken crashed, and everyone on it had died. That book had saved his life!
I read about it on the cover of a major newspaper, and I decided, “That’s the kind of writer I want to be—the kind who saves lives by entertaining people well!” So I went to work.
I wrote The Runelords and sent it in to my agent. She passed it off to her assistant, who began to read. She had planned to read a chapter before bed, but became so engrossed that she kept reading. At two she still couldn’t find a place to stop.
At five in the morning, she realized that she was in trouble and drove to an all-night clinic.
At nine in the morning she finished the novel in the hospital and called the agent to let her know that she was stuck there with a urinary-tract infection.
Another reader began reading one morning before work and kept on for hours, even though his boss kept calling with threats. He got fired, but said, “I realized that there are a lot of crummy jobs in the world, but not a lot of good books.”
So I’ve never managed to save anyone’s life, but I have managed to get them fired from their day jobs and put them in the hospital!
Entertaining is important to me. In fact, I believe that whatever else you want to do as an author, you must first entertain. No one cares if you’re a political thinker or a great self-help guru, unless you can capture their interest and entertain at the same time.
I also believe that entertainers are far more valuable than the average critic understands.
But your story can do more than just entertain. I mentioned being a teacher. Some tales are admittedly more about teaching than mere storytelling. If you watch Shakespeare’s “Othello,” for example, it’s a masterful argument about the evils of dishonesty, about the power of lies to destroy others, and the viewpoint character in the tale is the monstrous liar himself. Other Shakespeare plays tackle issues such as jealousy, the dangers of the occult, and so on. Each has a strong moral theme, but the morals aren’t particularly revelatory in nature. One professor summed up the moral of one of Shakespeare’s plays thusly, “We should be nice to each other.” True? Yes. Profound? No.
In other words, though our works might teach, they don’t have to be profound. Each generation must learn the same truths about life over and over again. So stories that teach need only to deliver the tale effectively—with enough intellectual clarity and emotional power so that the message stays with the audience.
Let me give you an example. When I was a young teen, I had a political science teacher who was a communist. I lived in a neighborhood where we had dozens of communes nearby. I was attracted to the idealism that some of my communist friends exuded. I felt that any society that doesn’t take care of those who are in great need—the physically and mentally ill, the disabled—was a failure, an embarrassment.
One day I was speaking to a very intelligent young woman, and she recommended one of her favorite books—Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
Rand’s works are so pro-capitalist that they read almost like tracts, but I found her arguments to be thought-provoking and convincing. Indeed, the arguments entertained me on an intellectual level, even though the story did not hold my interest. Forty years later, I don’t recall the plot at all, only the substance of the author’s argument. Ayn Rand turned me from a communist into a capitalist.
In order to be that kind of “teacher,” it seems to me that one needs to sound a clear warning. You must strive to be unambiguous. What if Ayn Rand had a second novel, one that promotes the ideals of communism? Would her novels have galvanized any readers to choose one side of the topic or another? I think not.
Many literary writers believe that it’s a virtue to examine both sides of an issue and let the reader decide what’s right and what’s wrong. They don’t want to be didactic. As a result, they waffle on every topic and never sound a clear call on anything. That’s a huge mistake. It’s a sign of intellectual weakness and moral cowardice.
Some people believe that in order to be a great writer, you must entertain and also be a great teacher. That seems reasonable. Given two books of equal merit as entertainment, the one that also gives us some profound insights will feel “stronger,” of greater value.
My old friend Algis Budrys was the editor who first discovered Stephen King, at least according to King’s book on writing. Algis was a big fan of King’s work. But one day in the mid-90s, Algis was reading one of King’s novels, preparing to write a review for the Chicago Sun, and he became quite agitated. He said, “Stephen is a world-class entertainer, but I’m worried that he’ll never be a great writer.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he doesn’t seem to have an opinion about whether evil just happens or whether we bring it down upon ourselves, and until he reaches that conclusion, he can’t become a great writer.”
Well, my thoughts on the matter are quite complex. Sometimes we do call down the lightning. If you drive too fast and run off the road, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. The physics are inescapable. On the other hand, you can be walking down the street and find yourself targeted by a serial killer just because you have a red shirt on. So lightning strikes despite your best attempts to avert it. I suggested that perhaps Stephen felt as I do.
“No,” Algis contended, “a great writer must sound a clear call.”
“Ah, but about what?” I asked. The question of whether evil strikes us because of our own choices is a central question to some critics, such as John Gardner. To me, it’s not. I’m a moral writer, but I won’t tackle that question because it’s a false dichotomy. Obviously, we can protect ourselves from many things, but not everything. There are plenty of other questions that a great author can sound a “clear call” about.
But do you as an author sound a clear call about anything? Do you stand up for something? Do you actively promote a set of ideals?
Let’s go back to Stephen King. He’s a fine entertainer, but what have I learned from his novels? In criticizing Stephenie Meyer, King recently wrote that “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”
It’s easy to trivialize the work of other writers, particularly in speculative fiction, where even the best stories sound stupid. One could easily say that “Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is about confronting racism, growing up, and standing up for what is right in the face of public pressure. Carrie is about how important it is to be Prom Queen.” Or “Misery is about how writers can escape mentally challenged fans by beating them to death with their typewriters.” Or “It is about the threat posed by evil clowns.” Or “Christine is about the horrors that lurk in possessed classic cars.”
See how easy it is to trivialize the work of other writers? I can do it all day.
At the very best, King’s analogy sounds like “the pot calling the kettle black.” One might be tempted to think that its jealousy talking, but I don’t think that’s the problem. Nor do I think that his judgment is fair. I’ve read some of Meyer’s work. I was her writing teacher in college. As a first novel, Twilight definitely earned an A+.
Here’s the only problem with Meyer’s work. When an author writes a novel, he or she must tailor it to an audience. They may be young, or old; male or female. Stephenie is writing to young women—Stephen King’s granddaughters. Of course he doesn’t like her story. It wasn’t written for him!
There’s another important difference between the two. Stephenie Meyer is consciously more of a teacher than Stephen King is. Part of what she’s teaching deals with making right choices concerning romance.
In Twilight, Bella is falling in love, and she has to wonder what to do about it. For a young teen girl, that’s a powerful conflict.
At age 12, a young woman is deluged with hormones as she’s entering puberty. One textbook that I read on the topic pointed out that for a 12-year-old girl, the most common fantasy deals with having sex with multiple partners. At the same time, a 12-year-old’s mind is just beginning to mature to the point where she’s capable of symbolic thought. In other words, she begins to spend a lot of time wondering what others think of her at the very time when puberty strikes. It’s a powerful one-two punch.
So romance becomes one of the most consuming topics in her life. She wonders “What is love?” “How will I know when I’m in love? What should I do if I fall in love?” and so on.
Stephenie Meyer understood the power of the buttons that she was pushing. So she wrote a romance for young women. But it’s not just a romance. It’s also a morality tale. Stephenie has Bella fall in love, but she sets a goal to save herself for marriage. Bella tries to make a choice, and the story revolves around the difficulty that she faces—the constant tug of the hormones, the draw of other men, and so on.
One mother, in referring to Bella’s desire to remain abstinent, called this a “revolutionary teaching.” The mother had gotten pregnant at age 15, and she asked, “Why wasn’t there anyone around talking about that when I was a teen?” She hoped that her own daughters would become fans of Meyer’s work.
Well, in some segments of society, abstinence does sound revolutionary. As I say, as authors, we have to teach the same lessons over and over again. Of course, not everyone will agree with Stephenie’s ideas. A lot of authors would have Bella succumbing to temptation, realizing that she’d feel more “fulfilled” that way. That’s their right, to take opposing stances on an author’s views.
My friend Robert J. Sawyer has pointed out that if you write powerful stories about important topics, if you take sides, you’re likely to alienate a lot of people. You’ll find that many of them hate your writing, not because they dislike the writing itself, but because they dislike your political or ethical stance. Sawyer suggests that you should write your heart out anyway. You can’t be great without being controversial.
The best stories don’t just entertain, they promote the ideals that you most believe in.
But that’s only another rung on a ladder. Some authors entertain so brilliantly and educate so electrifyingly, that they garner huge audiences. The question then becomes, which author is “greater,” the one who has tens of thousands of fans, or an author who has tens of millions?
Having a large number of fans alone is not a good measure of an author’s merit.
Many writers adopt cultural attitudes that are not worth transmitting. Their ideas are more like a plague, replicating and spreading sporadically, catching the attention of the naïve and silly.
Since I’ve brought up Meyer’s stance on morality, let’s take an example of another young adult author, a famous champion of hedonism.
Robert Heinlein was a fine entertainer. He sounded a clear call. Yet in his books, Heinlein preached “free love” long before the idea took hold nationally in the 1960s. In fact, I suspect that his works helped spur the sexual revolution. He spoke of pedophilia in a somewhat encouraging tone, and professed that if a child happened to be born from a casual union, it should be left to the care of those who could be bothered to nurture children.
Now, there are excellent reasons why cultural norms across every society in the world have long countered Heinlein’s reasoning.
Heinlein didn’t take into account the dangers of what he promoted. He doesn’t discuss the risks of catching STDs such as AIDS. It’s a terrible disease. I have one old friend who is ill with it now. If dying from the disease wasn’t bad enough, he once confided that he spread it to several lovers, who have all since passed away. I can’t imagine bearing that kind of guilt. I’ve noticed over and over again how men who give into promiscuity become distant with their spouses, families, and friends. They seem unable to bond—as if by making love with many, they become unable to love anyone deeply. Heaven help any children that are born from such unions. They may lose a parent before they were ever born.
If you can’t tell, I don’t think much of writers who champion hedonism. Heinlein was a moral idiot. He was a fine entertainer. He sounded a clear call. But his reasoning was faulty.
Of course, Heinlein didn’t invent lust, he just glorified it. His wasn’t the only voice calling for a sexual revolution. But have you ever considered the high cost of the attitudes he fostered? How many lives were lost? Three hundred and eighty million people catch STDs each year. Two million people die from them per year. Hundreds of millions of homes have been broken over the past fifty years due to the sexual revolution. No war has ever caused so much damage.
I like Charles Darwin’s teachings on the topic: “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”
If you hope to entertain and teach and garner a great following, that’s the highest aim for an author. But take care what you’re teaching. If your work doesn’t have a positive impact on the world, then you’re not really the greatest of storytellers, are you? You now become the basest of them all.
There are those critics who contend that to be a truly “great writer,” you must first become a great person. That’s the highest that any storyteller can hope to achieve—to entertain, to teach, to garner an audience, and to have a powerful and positive influence on your culture.