Welcome to Sunday Sit-Down Dinner, our weekly essay feature. We will focus on essays by members and friends of Evanston Writers Workshop, including our industry partners such as editors, publishers, agents, publicists, photographers, and others. If you have something you'd like to submit, please email us at Evanston ShopNotes.
Today, we will reprise a wonderful essay written by our member RJ Robertson. A long-time member of our weekly Critique Group, he uses his background as a retired practicing psychologist and author to craft stories and essays on a large number of topics. Here, then, is "A Writer's Mission." Enjoy.
A Writer's Mission
by RJ Robertson
“By their works ye shall know them.” -Jesus Christ
Are writers responsible for anything more than to make a living at writing? I believe so. The very fact that people will pay for a writer’s efforts indicates that the customer finds the work of value. But what exactly is that value? “Entertainment,” one quickly replies, but what does that mean? Depending on how you define it the term can mean escape into a fantasy world in which the reader finds a model of heroic, long-suffering, amusing, adventurous or otherwise fascinating experience to enjoy vicariously and identify with. Or, it can mean glimpsing a corner of the world the reader had known nothing about, Or something in which to lose oneself to howls of laughter, tears of sympathy, or touching empathy. But that’s not all.
Much writing, even fiction, can be informative as well as entertaining, overtly or covertly supplying facts the reader would not otherwise know, or it can promulgate political or economic systems to improve on existing institutions. It can encourage the reader to envision conditions he would not otherwise have thought—or known about. Even the most frivolous kinds of writing, such as the romance novel, can expand the reader’s grasp of what is human, by introducing the reader to life styles she might never have known otherwise, along with material for daydreaming oneself into a more heroic, noble, romantic role than her current “real life”.
I got this thought upon finishing one of my wife’s gothic novels. I had been trying to find out what turns-on the reader of that genre nowadays. The writer had done her homework well—about the English and Scottish engagements in the middle to late sixteen hundreds. I checked her history with Wikipedia and found it accurate. I also learned things about sexual passion that I did not know I didn’t know. My wife said, “Oh, it’s just porn.” What a great advertisement. Had I been still a young buck wondering when and how I might get laid, I would have found hints and instructions on what a young woman might like in a romantic encounter. I presume that a young woman would also find a model of how to enact a ravishing persona and what to demand for herself in the way of equal respect.
Serious writing, of course, is by definition intended to inform you about some important matter and, or solicit your support for a particular line of action. It might be purely educational or purely artistic, combining both entertainment quality and education.
Thus there are implicit, as well as explicit qualifications that all writing needs to satisfy. Just as Tennis, baseball, football, hockey and other recreations have rules, so does writing. What distinguishes a football game from a riot or free-for-all is rules. I maintain writing also has some elemental rules.
First, a written work should not corrupt the language in which it is written. This is not as simple a principle as might seem at first glance. Since all languages are in a state of gradual evolution expressions that once violated the cannon can come in time to be accepted. On the other hand, expressions that clearly violate current practice need their users to justify what they are doing. Prokofiev is reported to have written his “classical symphony” to show that he knew the reigning cannon of his medium, Therefore, when he violated it that was by intention rather than ignorance. If a writer chooses to violate accepted rules of punctuation and grammar he or she needs either to explain her choices or at least follow his own anti-rule consistently.
Second, great ideas are not restricted to non-fiction works. We know Ayn Rand deliberately spelled out a powerful theory of economic principles in her novels. A good number of science fiction writers have depicted hypothetical political styles of society that expand one’s conceptions of how current problems of real societies might be modified or solved. For example, Robert Heinlein’s book, Starship Troopers, is described by a Wikipedia editor as. “a political essay as well as a novel [describing].juvenile “characters engaged in debates with their History and Moral Philosophy teachers…”
That idea made sense to me as a young man—in university on the G I bill—and recently as I have felt critical of the fact that our so-called “volunteer” military, unlike the volunteers in 1776, functions in some ways more like a mercenary army than like patriots. Don’t misunderstand, I believe our G Is are patriots (and deserve far more from our nation than many get on returning from combat), but they come disproportionately from the working class many of whose members were forced into service as a way of making a living, because of all the business sent overseas. How much more thought might have gone into the decisions about the wars if the sons and daughters of business owners, members of congress, etc. were just as vulnerable to end up on the front lines as anyone else? Heinlein’s additional notion—of two levels of citizenship in which only those who joined the service could vote, as “electors”—also strikes me as a worthy experiment. Too bad our society is so controlled by the top that Heinlein’s idea couldn’t be put to the test.
A contemporary novel, The Paris Vendetta (Ballantine, 2010), by Steve Berry, gives a picture of the amorality and acceptance of violence to preserve their prerogatives—of some of the super-rich—that John Perkins documents in his all-too-real non-fiction work, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. (Berrett-Koehler, 2004.) The lesson here might be that—just as many of the super-rich invested far more of their time, energy and risk, to get where they are, than the average person—in this world you can expect to get trampled on, if you lie back and think you don’t have to do your homework. If you aspire to rule your corner of space, rather than be ruled in it—you have to hold your own against the competition.
I like it when a fiction writer chooses to promote a philosophical or political stand. I only ask that he or she stand behind it, keep in consistent and embed it in an interesting adventure.