I Know Not of War: The Responsibility of the Writer

Posted by @ 5:10 pm on January 18th, 2011

Over at the Hayden’s Ferry Review blog, Alan Stewart Carl wrote a really interesting essay in response to my posts about race, class, Best American Short Stories, and publishing at large. In his essay, he grapples with his responsibility as a writer who self-identifies as a white, middle class man.

He writes:

Yes, there is plenty all writers can do to change things on the editorial front and on the promotional front and on the educational and societal front, too. But what about the writing itself? Should white, middle-class male writers feel any pressure to write about people and experiences outside of those they intimately know? Would doing so even help matters?

Ultimately, he concludes that as a writer he has a responsibility not only to himself and the stories he wants to tell but also to the outside world because, “writing towards the outside world seems like a good way to proceed forward.”

Sometimes I think about the responsibility of the writer, the stories I want to write, the stories people assume or expect me to write, and how I want to be known as a writer. Like most people, I hate being told what to do or how to behave and especially how to write. When I was younger, I often deliberately wrote stories about white people because I thought that’s what I needed to do so as not to be branded as a “black writer,” especially in creative writing workshops where all too often, my peers wondered why I wasn’t writing stories that spoke to the “black condition” as if it were a subject worthy of detached, sociological dissection. Once, out of spite, I wrote a story called “Ghetto Anthem” about a couple and their kids and visiting their son in jail and it was full of clichés and urban strife and I thought, “I’ll take this story to workshop and they’ll hate it and I can go back to writing my stories.” My peers loved the story, said it was my best work. It was not a bad story but it was not my best. I thought I was writing a parody. I thought I was making a point about unfair burdens of responsibility as a writer.

I cannot say I think about the broader issues Carl discusses in his essay when I write. I do not have a mission or a grand plan. I am not trying to change the world. There is ample evidence that some people believe writers should have some kind of mission with their writing. We’ve discussed Ted Genoways’s essay in Mother Jones before, and one of the parts of that essay I remember most is how Genoways, editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, chastises writers for telling inconsequential stories. He stated, “Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism,” asserting that we have a responsibility to address the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other international conflicts and issues. I would not begin to know how to write about such matters. I know not of war. Of course, as a fiction writer, I don’t need to know of war so much as I need to be able to convince my audience I know of war. If I tried, I could write a “big story,” but I don’t know that I want to.

During a master tea at Yale this past fall, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Reviewdiscussed the state of literature with the students in his audience. He said he is looking for “stories and poems that resonate because they are about real life,” adding that “young writers do not have enough life experience to tackle the important themes that only fiction can illuminate, so they write about writing instead.” Again, an editor seems to be lamenting the small story, “the inconsequential story,” the story where people write about the close, intimate things they know best. I know what Stein means and I too don’t care for writing about writing in fiction. At the same time, young writers have to start somewhere. They cannot be expected to know about important themes and “illuminating” through fiction and they probably won’t be able to do such things unless they start by writing the stories Stein doesn’t care for.

I don’t know what an important theme in fiction is though I suspect it is one of those things easily recognizable when you see it. I am writing my first novel or the first novel that matters. I have a book length work somewhere on my harddrive that is 80,000 words of nonsense written in my late teens or early 20s. I have no memory of writing it and only unearthed it when I was sifting through my harddrive.  My novel is a story about a woman who is kidnapped in Haiti and held hostage for 13 days. It’s a big story about difficult global issues but it is also a smaller, more intimate story about a woman who has to return to her family after surviving an experience they could not possibly understand. I don’t know if the story I am telling is going to resonate or illuminate anything. I cannot possibly strive to do those things and the attempt would only lessen my writing.

Nadine Gordimer, in 1984, said, “The creative act is not pure.  History evidences it. Ideology demands it.  Society exacts it.  The writer loses Eden, writes to be read, and comes to realize that he is answerable. The  writer is held responsible: and the verbal phrase is ominously accurate,  for the writer not  only has laid upon  him responsibility for  various  interpretations of  the consequences  of  his work, he is ‘held’  before  he begins  by the claims of different concepts of morality — artistic, linguistic, ideological,  national,  political, religious — asserted  upon him.” She also goes on, later in that same speech, to ask, “What  right  has  society to  impose responsibility  upon writers and what right  has  the  writer to  resist?” She made these comments during a speech in which she talked about how, for many black South African writers, there was an (unfair) expectation for them to be more than writers, for them to chronicle the histories of their people, for them to use their writing toward activism, often times at great cost. It’s easy to say, I only have a responsibility to myself as a writer but I wonder if that could ever be true. I think, again, about what Alan Stewart Carl wrote, how “writing towards the outside world seems like a good way to proceed forward.” I’m not sure how to write toward the outside world but I suspect I might be trying even when I don’t recognize the effort in myself.

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