Writer Responsibility 101

by Chelsea Sutton

Back in the olden days, when people gathered together in musty lecture halls to discuss the “literary” canon, I was a TA for a large literature class whose professor loved to include novels involving navel-gazing male protagonists. I was in charge of roughly a quarter of the 130 eager undergraduates, many of whom were aspiring writers themselves.

In my sections, I made it very clear that these students were under no obligation to LIKE any of these 10 books we were reading and that, in fact, I HATED some of them as well. Just because a professor is telling you it’s good does NOT mean you have to agree, I said. But agree or not, you better be able to tell me why you feel that way.

See, it’s my philosophy that you can learn just as much about writing from reading a book you hate as you can from reading one you love. Maybe even more so.

I had to teach Greg Jackson’s book of short stories Prodigals both times I covered this literature class. To spare you the details, most of the stories in the book are about terrible privileged people doing terrible privileged things. But of course, one could argue that most stories are about terrible people. In my house, we don’t say: hey, do you want to watch Avenue 5 tonight? We say: hey, do you want to watch Shitty People in Space tonight?

I do not enjoy Prodigals. Though there are a few sentences I wish I had written.

So Fall 2018 rolls around and we get to Prodigals week. One of my students does not like the book. Why, I asked. He doesn’t agree with the morality of the book – how the characters behaved and treated each other. Doesn’t writing about that behavior condone it? he asked. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the author to expose bad behavior or offer positive role models and morality?

I mean, what a fucking good question.

Let’s get real: no one really likes Aesop’s fables. Not all the time. We don’t want Breaking Bad to wrap up its series finale with: the moral of the story, kids, is don’t become a meth dealer in New Mexico!

But I’d argue that an author has an obligation to read the damn room, to have a larger understanding of the context in which the writing is presented and read, to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and to do their due diligence.

Don’t ask me how we got there, but we compared two television shows to explore this line of thinking: Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick) and one that was in development at the time – Confederate, supposedly going to be penned by the Game of Thrones guys, who, you know, never caused an issue (eye roll).

Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan occupy the United States. Confederate is an alternate history in early development at HBO in which the South won the Civil War – so slavery was still a thing in its universe (this was going to be helmed by WHITE MEN, as a reminder.)

At first, the students didn’t see the difference. Two wars, two alternate histories, so what? I am not a history expert nor well-versed in either of these shows, I said. BUT…

Let’s look at the context and the general narratives surrounding both wars, I said. In this country we have oversimplified the WWII narrative to be about good vs. evil. Sure, you could quibble about this or that, but The Good Guys won. So we take that context with us when watching the show. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that the correct people won that war, except maybe Neo-Nazis and aluminum foil-wearing conspiracy theorists, but do you really want them on your side?

No thanks, they said.

Now the Civil War. That’s another thing. We seem to have an ongoing debate in this country surrounding what that war was about (slavery). Many people argue that it was about state’s rights (it was slavery). Many states in the South still have statues of Confederate war heroes (slave owners) and fly the Confederate flag (you know, about slavery).* There are still people in this country who are not convinced that slavery is a bad idea. WE DO NOT HAVE AN AGREED UPON NARRATIVE SURROUNDING RACISM IN THIS COUNTRY. And that carries with us as we watch the show. Would you agree?

Oh shit, yeah, they said.

So back to morality and responsibility. You’re writing a show like Confederate. If you’re going to write a good story, then you’re going to have fleshed out characters, right? That means the slaves and the slave owners will have nuances and good qualities and tragic flaws and we will FEEL for them. And they will exist in a complicated world. And maybe there will be an Emmy-contending monologue in act 4 of the pilot that offers a damn good argument for slavery.

Sounding worrisome? Or at the very least…delicate? In need of a deft hand?

What is the danger of offering up an empathetic slave owner in a society in which we still have not achieved true equity, have not done the work required to actually deal with these sins in a way that uplifts, creates anti-racist policies, and gathers the country into a narrative we agree on?

Especially if that story is offered to us by people who cannot and DO NOT CARE TO understand racism in the way that the Black actors, Black crew members, and Black viewers would understand it. We’ve all seen Game of Thrones. What do YOU think would happen?

Light bulbs flipped on all over the room. These kids had so much to say.

I might be wrong and obtuse about all of this, I said. And please, question me. Question me, question your own thoughts and biases too. Maybe Confederate could be done really well. But look at who is telling the story and why. Who is invited into the room and who is not.

You cannot control how everyone is going to read your writing. It’s simply not possible. But I believe that our responsibility as writers is to first ask ourselves the hard questions about our characters, our narratives, and the larger world in which they will be interacting.

It’s our job to ask the hard questions even when we don’t know the answers. ESPECIALLY when we don’t know the answers. And to confront our own biases and blindness. To show shitty people doing terrible things and sometimes even BE shitty people doing terrible things, but to learn from those stories, to let the stories maybe, somehow, help us build a world that is better than this one.

But that still doesn’t make Prodigals any good.

P.S. Here are my favorite books from that class (both written by Black authors.) Read them. I’m available for discussion at my office hours posted in the syllabus.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Also, Lindsey Ellis’ video essay about Mel Brooks and the Ethics of Satire is required watching.

*Fucking hooray to all the statues and confederate flags being burned and removed.

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