Do writers have a social responsibility to contribute and change the world they live in?

What do you feel writers can contribute to society? Jeanette Winterson author of ‘Oranges are not the only Fruit’ recently spoke about the writers role within society to ‘The Believer Magazine’. She wrote:

‘That’s why everybody who has a chance to make even the smallest difference – whether you influence one person or many people, whether you change something in your neighbourhood or you change something at a bigger level…writing books isn’t seperate by the way. I do think the writer or the artist has to live in the world, fully participate in it. This isn’t ivory-tower stuff. It’s about being in the world that we’ve got, contributing to it and trying to change it.’ (Jeanette Winterson interviewed by Andrea Tetrick, page 52 in The Believer Magazine March/April 2013 wwww.believermag.com)

When I was thinking about this question, I thought it was clear cut. I thought as long as I was writing original material, which was factually correct, where it needed to be, that I didn’t perpetuate stereotypes and my characters were believable, this was where my responsibilities ended. However, what Jeanette Winterson was talking about was the writers responsibilities politically and socially, I think she was reaching out to writers for us to consider the impact our work has. Does it increase the understanding of an issue, or reinforce stereotypes?

It was then I realised if we are writing about characters, real or imagined, social problems are everywhere. I hear some of you might say, yes that’s fine if you are writing in China or Afghanistan but if you are a Western writer there aren’t any real social issues needing to be addressed. I can think of racism, sexism, gangs, drugs and abuse. Indeed, scratch under the surface and every social problem or issue is present, all over the world.

A precise definition of a social novel is:

‘A work of fiction in which a prevailing social problem such as gender, race or class prejudice are dramatized through its effect on the characters in the novel’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition 2012)

Early examples of a ‘social novel’ can be seen as early as the 19th Century such as Charles Dickens ‘Hard Times’ or Harriet Beecher Stowes anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

As we look back on such early attempts at social novels an accusation often repeated is how do these writers, who were white and often middle/upper class, know about these issues? How could they possibly feel what it is like to experience those problems?

I don’t think this is fair. At least these writers tried to make a difference. we can only write about the time we know about. The belief that unless you have lived through the injustice or know about it through a personal perspective, is one which means writers are put off from even attempting to do anything related to the subject.

However, time and time again, I come across great writers who have put a great deal of research into their writing and have written a ‘social novel’ for now.

Dave Eggers is just one example. His novel ‘Zeitoun’ Published by McSweeney’s in 2009 tells the story of Zeitoun Abdulrahman who got caught up in a nightmare of a situation following Hurricane Katrina.
His latest novel, ‘A Hologram for the King’ deals with the economonic crisis and recession. Published by Hamish Hamilton, Fbruary 2013.

Dave Eggers also contributes to society in another way, he founded ‘826 Valencia’ which uses writers who have spare time to help teach on a one to one basis students in the local community. There is an English equivalent in London ‘The Ministry of Stories’.

In an interview with The Guardian, Dave Eggers said:

But sitting in your garage writing or pretending to write…sometimes makes you feel a little useless. Sometimes you feel like getting out in the world and seeing if you can be useful in some more immediate or tangible way.’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/26/deave-eggers-hologram-king-interview.

This illustrates how writers can participate in society and contribute to society. Even if you can’t pledge your time tutoring, simply through your fiction you can make a difference.

Is this one of the purposes of fiction – that it can bridge the gaps between people who have different backgrounds and experiences? Is the end result, a novel which could help promote compassion, empathy and understanding amongst readers?

I believe a novel can shape events and allow a reader to grasp the issue or injustice. A fiction writer could shine a torch onto an issue rather than deflecting the light away.

This blog post first appeared as a guest blog post on Marianne Wheelaghan’s Blog of A Scottish Author May 1st 2013. wwww.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk
Thanks to Marianne, once again!

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8 thoughts on “Do writers have a social responsibility to contribute and change the world they live in?

  1. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth..
    Great blog post…. Very thought provoking, I think its great if you can make a difference in the world but also novel that don’t out right do that does make a difference in other ways be it just taking someone out of there day to day life for a few hours. Really thought provoking indeed…
    Take care..
    Katie..

    1. electrasmopedRuth F. Hunt says:

      Hello, Katie,
      Thank you for your comments. Authors can do much more than just write books. They could inspire others, teach other people or just raise issues through their writing. Thanks again, and I hope you are nearly finished with the edits for your own novel!

  2. Louisa says:

    Great post! I think it is good to pose such a challenge to writers. Yes, it is important to entertain readers, but if we can make a difference socially at the same time, why not do that as well?

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Hi Louisa,
      Thanks for your comments. I think it’s important for all of us to remember our role within society, and if we can help, teach or inspire others, then as you say, why not? Thanks again!

  3. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Hey Ruth, still in sunny France and just cycled 12 k’s to a bar with internet and now enjoying a biere, sans alcohol (promise!). Lovely to read this again. Yes. Yes. Yes. A great post. And love the developing website.
    Shine on! 🙂
    ps: we’ll be back in a week or so when I will be very fed up but will do my best to get used to not being on holiday and a lady of leisure 🙂 🙂

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Lovely to hear from you, Marianne. Your holiday is turning me green, but it sounds you’re having a great time. You deserve it! Thanks for your comments and letting me use this piece again.

  4. Sierra Dawn says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, which I found because I just wrote a similar one arguing that yes, writers do have a responsibility for social change.
    Really, though, after reading your post, I think that not only artists, but all people have this responsibility. If there is something wrong with the way the world works, it is our responsibility as citizens of the world to right that wrong. Everyone has a different method for doing this – for some it’s teaching, protesting, painting, etc. For me it’s writing.

    I would also argue that all novels are social novels, just as all acts are social acts. Nothing exists in a vacuum. So everything is impacted by, and in turn impacts, its environment. Our responsibility, then, is to ensure that our impact, be it writing, painting, protesting, teaching, etc., is a positive one.

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Thank you for your reply.
      I agree! Especially with your last sentence. Indeed, everything we do as an impact in some way, and it is important we know why and how, to ensure that we are doing something positive.
      Thank you again,
      Best wishes,
      Ruth

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