My first thought on this topic is that these two options are not mutually exclusive. As in many things, balance is the best way, but when reading books, it’s fairly clear that some focus almost exclusively on one or the other. Some reviews also indicate that some readers so deeply subscribe to the idea that art should reflect society that they reject anything that hints of a different way of being other than what they consider to be the norm, even if that behaviour is positive.
On the other hand, some books I have read are so determined to show an enlightened world that the characters and subject matter are very hard to relate to or come across as preachy. Avoiding sounding preachy is something any author trying to show an enlightened world view must grapple with.
As readers it’s a good idea to examine our views on this because it alters how we respond to books, and if the majority of people want art primarily to reflect society, then the kind of fiction (books &movies) that become popular and grab the public imagination are those that will not be moving us towards a more enlightened society. We must ask ourselves, is that what we want?
Here’s an example.
I received a review of You Can’t Shatter Me where the reviewer, who (as well as sayings that I was a master of the English language) had an issue with the book in that the two central characters made wise choices when in her experience half of the time teens chose unwise choices. As an author, I chose to show the glass half full, ie the positive half. Since Dylan did make one unwise choice and very nearly made another, and for both the central characters, making those wise choices were not achieved without a battle with their other tendencies, I presume she was referring primarily to the end, an ending that most reviewers found very inspiring. How would those readers have felt instead and what would my book have contributed to society if I ended it with my characters making poor choices and failing in what they set out to do ie solve their problem without violence? I like inspiring books, so those are the kind I write.
I firmly believe, not only that art should enlighten society, but also that artists, especially authors, should be socially responsibility in what they present to the public. For example, if you are going to write about rape, make sure that you don’t glorify it or make it explicate or titilating & make sure that the emphasis is on how hurtful & just plain wrong it is. You have a responsibility to society not to encourage harmful behaviour. That doesn’t mean that you don’t write about such behaviour, but that you put it in a context where it is clear how damaging it is. This is particularly important in books for young people.
I’m not saying that all stories should have a moral as such – that approach is too heavy handed – just that in their overall feel they shouldn’t contribute to the mindless acceptance of damaging behaviour in society. Unfortunately a lot of our fiction does reflect the worst of present society so completely that it offers no inspiration or role models for making better choices.
Returning to You Can’t Shatter Me, the subject matter is bullying. I have read many YA books where bullying behaviour is shown, but rarely is any attempt made to show someone dealing with it effectively. Yes, it is part of our society, but that doesn’t mean that at least one of our characters can’t try to do something other than simply accept it. We all know that kind of behaviour, what we don’t know are ways to deal with it effectively, since I do know how people can strengthen themselves so that they can deal with difficult situations better, why wouldn’t I show that in my book? The saddest thing is that some people see that approach as a negative.
It was also my intention to write a book that would help kids in bullying situations, not just entertain them with a story that had bullying in it. The reviewer did end by saying that the book might be therapeutic for some, so she didn’t entirely miss that point.
The point this review brought out is that readers must find characters believable, and there will always be different opinions of what is believable in certain age groups depending on our experience. I admit that I do know a lot of particularly intelligent & self-aware teens who make excellent role models.
Do you think that artists published work should be socially responsible?
Do you tend more towards the art as a reflection of society side or the art as enlightening society side of this debate?
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