January 18th, 2011 / 5:10 pm

I Know Not of War: The Responsibility of the Writer

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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  1. Michael Copperman

      That Gordimer quote is a knockout, as is your thoughtful essay about how writers claim experience and think about their responsibility. Jim Shephard frames the problem this way:

      “The first worry writers have… has to do with the issue of authority: as in, where do I get off writing about that? Well, here’s the good and the bad news: where do you get off writing about anything? Where do you get off writing about someone of a different gender? A different person? Where do you get off writing about yourself, from twenty years ago? Writers shouldn’t lose sight of the essential chutzpah involved in trying to imagine any other kind of sensibility.”

      It must be awfully frustrating to be charged with writing the ‘black experience’ all the time– as opposed to YOUR experience. But it also is inadequate to simply ‘write what you know’, as the cliche goes– I forget who said we ought to start with what we know and seek what we don’t, but perhaps that’s what you’re talking about when you say that you’re perhaps subconsciously seeking the outside world. Who sits down and says, ‘Today I will navel-gaze and write another story about my small suburban sorrows?’ O’Connor said anyone who’d lived through adolescence had enough material for a lifetime. When Genoways or Stein criticize the young, or assume that ‘writing about writing’ or the meta-ness of the postmodern is necessarily trivial, myopic, and insignificant, they create false demons, or at least mischaracterize the problem they’re identifying. They wouldn’t want young writers without any real grasp of craft to write about Afghanistan or Iraq or the recent tragedy in Haiti even if they’d been there and experienced it. Genoways, especially, has (had?) been particularly international in his focus, and I don’t see anything wrong with privileging work that examines atrocity and suffering that exists in the world– VQR is only one journal of many. But surely what writers ought to be seeking is to say something significant, delightful, perhaps even weighty– to get at something that matters– and not to be seeking those topics which are ‘hot’ or salable or are in the news, domestic or international.

  2. Dave K.

      Thank you for your insights, Roxane. Do you think intentionality on the writer’s part is enough – i.e. if I’m thinking big thoughts as I begin a project, they’ll make their way to the page regardless of my intentions – or does a writer need to do something more deliberate and polemical first, to learn how to shape those bigger, more complicated thoughts into a coherent narrative?

  3. Nick Mamatas

      The responsibility of a writer to whom or what?

      Society—which aspect of it? Is it even useful to think of society as some sort of totality, rather than as a series of conflicts? And don’t societies change, sometimes a lot, and quicklly?

  4. Marc

      Very insightful post, Roxane.

      I really wish the Federal Writers’ Project was still around. It would be amazing to see what young writers could be exposed to if their government asked them to document stories within their local communities and beyond.

  5. NLY

      I think, at the end of the day, the writer must confront reality. With this done, the writer will have done the most a writer can do with writing. To get them-self, and whatever others follow, closer to reality, is to do a great service, I think, towards these kind of questions and concerns, even when they are not the direct reality being confronted. Though I find the word ‘responsibility’ to be a rather tendentious take, or at best a rather idealistic take, I do think it is probably impossible to have fully formed writerly vision which does not include them, and (when necessary) address them.

  6. Roxane

      These are good questions, Nick which speaks to the challenges when talking about the responsibility of a writer. I think the answers to these questions, are, ultimately, very personal. I don’t believe it is useful to think of society as some sort of totality because it is so dynamic and fluid. At the same time, there’s a way to frame almost anything as impossible to define. I don’t believe that should prevent us from trying to work toward something beyond ourselves with our writing.

  7. Roxane

      I would like to think intentionality is enough but I also believe too much intentionality can detract from creativity. In a perfect world, bigger, more complicated ideas might emerge from the stories we write, organically.

  8. Charles Dodd White

      Nice post, Roxane. I think there’s a similar concern in writing across gender lines in terms of reaching an aesthetic “completeness”. What greater audacity can the writer indulge than that?

      To take issue with Genoways, I’m not sure postermodernism is prevented from engaging these larger themes. Isn’t the entire point of structural linguistic integrity or the lack thereof to question orthodoxy, and isn’t that inherently political? Aren’t books like CATCH 22 and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE rooted in both the experimental and the protest?

  9. Nick Mamatas

      Sure. But one can decide, “I shall work toward something beyond myself with my writing” without claiming some responsibility for something—especially when the “something” in question might not be very interested in one’s declaration of responsibility.

      I also wonder if it is even possible for writers to on;y be involved with themselves. Writing is al;ways intersubjective, after all.

  10. Michael Copperman

      And though you may hate me for noting this (as it may send the conversation on a tangent), I thought this breakdown of the last ten years of stories at The New Yorker by Frank Kovarik over at The Millions was particularly interesting regarding your earlier posts about race and publishing:


      Of particular interest: over the last ten years, 35.8% of New Yorker stories were written by women. In 2010, women wrote 37% of the stories.

      As Kovarik notes, the 20 under 40 threw usual balances a bit this year in terms of the international nature of New Yorker fiction– over the last ten years, only 53% of NYer fiction was written by Americans. However, with greater domestic representation, and a younger group of writers allegedly representing the future of American fiction, I was surprised to find that while 14/52 stories were by writers of ethnic backgrounds we’d tend to think of as ‘minorities’ (I didn’t count Canadians, Brits, etc), or 27%, 6 of those writers were International, meaning there were only 8 stories by American minority writers in the New Yorker last year– some 15% overall on a year when there was much more ‘domestic’ fiction being written. Of course, there’s the question of what role ‘international’ fiction plays in creating a multicultural market… many of the writers the New Yorker publishes come to essentially represent an entire country (think Murakami= Japan).

  11. Tim Horvath

      And from canonical works like The Things They Carried, Silko’s Ceremony and Amis’s Time’s Arrow to more recent stuff like Joshua Cohen’s A Heaven of Others and Justin Sirois’s Mlkng Sckls, not only is there nothing incompatible about playing with form/language and setting your GPS for global coordinates, one could make a strong case that their experimentalism is indispensable.

  12. alan

      “When Genoways or Stein criticize the young, or assume that ‘writing about writing’ or the meta-ness of the postmodern is necessarily trivial, myopic, and insignificant, they create false demons”

      I agree and I would argue that modes outside of conventional realism can be helpful to writers who want to engage imaginatively with worlds they’re not personally familiar with. And meta-ness opens up a space to address concerns about this practice within the work itself.

  13. deadgod

      Rather than as two “totalities”, think of ‘society’ and ‘one person’ as uncontrollably porous multiplicities dialectically entwined with each other and mutually co-determinate.

      – not in order, in this conversation, to discern their distinct (?) compositions, but rather, to see that there is no ‘person’ or ‘myself’ that excludes the Great World – that writing about ‘oneself’ is writing about ‘society’, whether one wills to write (or read, or think about) such a thing or not.

      Of course, this intrication of ‘society’ in ‘one person’s’ story can be foregrounded or otherwise thematized, or it can be ignored by writer (and reader), but (I think) it can’t not be in that story.

      The community is naturally prior to each household and citizen, because the whole is necessarily prior to the part.

      (In my view, this priority is one side of an equiprimordiality – there’s no ‘society’ without ‘individual’ people, either; – but it’s the side that’s ignored notionally when one asserts that one is uninterested, as an artist or audience, in “society”, or, conversely, that a story even can be actually separated from ‘society’ to a fault.

      Here’s what I mean practically: say there’s a story about an unhappy marriage. If a reader finds it too selfishly concerned with problems that ‘don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’, that reader is noting, not the absence of ‘society’, but rather, society’s presence in an authorially neglectful or distracted (or, of course, technically incompetent) way.)

      One can see Aristotle’s idea of the priority of the community to the individual in language usage: we use language in an empirically individuated way, as we eat, for example, individually, but our individuated understandings are enabled by an interpretive community that stands over against the privacy of understanding that one might assert as a ground and, in turn, consequence of that (I think: only apparently) concretely individual expression.

      – which is (all) by way of asserting that, whomever or whatever a writer feels “responsible” to, ‘she or he’ is responding socially as well as individually; ‘society’ is there in the response, shaped consciously or acknowledged at all or not.

  14. deadgod

      Let me defend, as it were, the tendentious “responsibility” and the ominously accurate (I think also: desirable) “to hold responsible” (with a useful minimum of emboldness).

      “Responsible” means ‘able to respond; able to answer, however limited, inaccurate, or humble’.

      This ‘ability’ is often imposed or at least felt as a burden imposed by some competitor for resources. But surely – and not simply by a sophistical trick of etymology! – “responsibility” is also an enablement, an opportunity to indulge in poiesis, in world-disclosure – which means an opportunity to make ‘world’ itself.

      “Responsibility” is a sign of power, of ‘relations of force’ that are provisionally resolved no matter what discourse one embraces/shuns (also modes of “power”, no?).

      Likewise, “to hold responsible” is ‘to be responsible, to respond by insisting on discourse and (pure mastery excluded) dialogue’. “To be held responsible” is, paradoxically (?), ‘to be forced to exert one’s own force(s)’ – ‘to be made to be powerful; to be made powerful’.

      Demands for “responsibility” are nothing for artists to run away from or at all to deny – except in so far as those demands are malicious – ; an artist who resists
      “responsibility” per se is, in my view, being either devious or weak.

  15. I. Fontana

      Thanks for inventing a new word. That helps.

  16. deadgod

      lazy is hottt

      what are you wearing

  17. NLY

      I don’t think responsibility is a bad thing, nor, if it were applicable as something inherent to the craft, would I mind having it there. When it is treated (as I haven’t accused anyone here or in the article of doing, mind) as inherent, and writers are held to it on that basis, it can be very tendentious, as you have probably seen.
      It is, not paradoxically, by gymnastic feats of connotation, possible to behaved responsibly without in fact having been responsible for anything.

      I’m pretty sure I said most of those things, anyway; just without the idea of obligation, and espoused in terms of a writer’s vision, which is on a basic level all being a writer obligates you to (a fact that has been lamented). If we were speaking in terms of a human morality, I’d buy that as an obligation or responsibility which people could hold themselves to, as both humans and writers, but that seems to me fundamentally separate from what many people mean when they speak of writers having ‘responsibilities’. The concept is a chimera in as much as nobody actually knows what duties or responsibilities are being entailed, specifically; the tendentiousness comes in, at this point, usually, when people have made demands on what writers are or are not specifically responsible for, because they say so.
      If you do not see precisely how what I have said hews a rough equivalency to things you have said, though, I could try and be less roundly implicit about it: that closeness requires things of a writer which are far more obliging, in the makeup of the role, than notions of social responsibility have proven so far.
      Your (non-sophistical!) etymological treatment is a very clever and sound argument in favor of behaving responsibly, but does not much persuade of having responsibilities.

  18. I. Fontana

      You first.

  19. I. Fontana

      You first.

  20. Amber

      Yes! And then they’d have wages and benefits, too–the dignity of work and the experience of documenting others’ stories.

  21. Amber

      I love Alan’s work and this essay. And I must admit, I am always absolutely trying change the world, shake it up, with my writing. Despite the impossibility of doing so. And I think most writers are trying to do the same even if not consciously. Else why bother?

  22. deadgod

      that’s true

      proudly dull incomprehension is less hottt

      be lazier at being proudly dully uncomprehending and i will tell u

  23. Aku Ammah-Tagoe

      I also agree with you, Michael–thoughtfully put. One practical thing young writers might try is to write stories of encounter–that is, stories about the collisions between class groups and racial groups that occur in everyday life. That might be a natural bridge between “small” stories about upper-class malaise and “big” stories about international issues. I can’t think of a story that captures this, but I’m thinking a little of C.K. Williams’ poem “The Singing”–it frames a type of cross-cultural encounter that is small in scope, and very familiar to writers/readers of many different backgrounds, but perhaps not widely written about.

  24. Janey Smith

      Amber? Yes.

  25. I. Fontana

      “…they talked in a made-up language using words like orzoura wub and clutter while Wilson Pickett cursed the day someone was born in sexophonic screams”

      words I made up part of a piece appeared in BOMB

      your turn

  26. I. Fontana

      “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriett Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, stands as the book which most “changed the world” in the sense of being medicine meant to cure society’s ills. In other words, it is effective propaganda. Usually this ends up meaning the author tells people what they already know.

      This fits in well with the traditional American unease with “art for art’s sake.” Edgar Allan Poe pointed out in his literary criticism of the 1840s how the New England salons felt that literature was meant to have a purpose. This purpose, simply put, is to improve and uplift.

      Many still feel this same unease, and desire to improve and uplift.

      Does this result in great literature? Probably not, but everyone involved feels virtuous about the enterprise. Mere literature sans such purpose is a waste of time.

      Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Fidel Castro and those rather forgotten warriors of the Christian Coalitition such as Falwell and Pat Robertson have all been very comfortable with such judgments on literature and art. So too Karen Finley and Sue Williams, for that matter. Your work is either in aid of “the struggle” or it is not. And “the struggle” never ends.

      Art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) seems somehow infected by the possibility it may be art and literature created for the aristocracy, as if going back in time to when the artist needed a patron — or else turned to the Church.

      Secular Virtue is the religion of our time. The religion of the Western intelligentsia, in any case. It is under this aegis — or that of “the struggle” however its totalitarianism may be currently disguised — that you seek to improve and uplift.

      In other words, to tell people what they already know.

  27. Michael Copperman

      Agreed, Alan. There is a kind of opening in the meta– it seems as if its best use, it’s greatest potential, might be in exactly the sort of engagement you describe, where you can do something that maybe seems transgressive, and admit your transgression in such a way that enables the move to work and have meaning.

  28. Michael Copperman

      I really like the idea of encounter and collision. In fact, it seems to me that such encounters do occur in everyday life now, though perhaps they are often overlooked.

  29. Amber

      Yeah, I did my graduate thesis on art with a purpose and there’s definitely a fine line–most of it’s propaganda or worse. I struggle with this as i think a lot of writers do. What I’m talking about is something more subtle–not art with a greater moral purpose per se, but art designed to make us reflect, think about our place in society, examine our motives.

      Not all art for art’s sake is good, nor is all art with a purpose bad. Some of the most wonderful books in the world have been written about war, poverty, racism, oppression–great novels coming from a desire for change. It doesn’t have to wield a hammer–sometimes the scalpel is enough. And just because an author meant to effect change with a book doesn’t mean it’s not art. I’m proud about this aspect of American art, which is not rooted so much in Puritanism as in a continuing Enlightenment tradition–artists engaged in the society they live. Do you have to do this? Absolutely not. Can art like it be awful? Most of the time, yes. But, like Hitchens says, sometimes the individual pen can achieve what legislators can’t. Or read Zinn on artists in times of war. Or Tillie Olson, who wrote highly experimental literature meant to bring about better working conditions for miners by exposing the fragmentation in their lives and ours.

      Honestly, I shouldn’t have commented, because I hate having this argument on blogs. People either take one side or the other, as if there can’t be more than one reason to make art. I know people will willfully misinterpret everything I say and accuse me of being some Stalinista-stick-in-the-mud. :)

  30. wily_codger

      Any discussion of a writer’s responsibility to others is incomplete without considering whether writers have a right to be writers in the first place.

  31. Ted Genoways

      Thank you, Roxane, for keeping this discussion going. I want to clarify a couple of points—not in defense of what I wrote in MOTHER JONES but because it has been rather consistently misconstrued (suggesting that I missed the mark, not readers).

      1. I intended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve as a ready example of a pressing issue of our moment that American writers have largely ignored. I didn’t mean that every writer needed to hop into the back of a Chinook helicopter. What I meant was that too many writers seem content to nibble around the edges of life rather than taking a big bite. That may be war—but it could just as easily be poverty, inequality, the environment, what have you. And history has as much to tell us about our moment as on-the-ground reporting. I just want to read things by writers invested in what they’re writing about and not just the general enterprise of writing. I’m sick of hearing writers say, “I write for myself.” That’s a lie. If you just wrote for yourself, you wouldn’t show your work to anyone else. So admit that you want to be read and put in the agonizing work of writing something worth reading.

      2. I don’t automatically equate post-modernism and lack of engagement. As Charles Dodd White points out, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and CATCH-22 use the tools of post-modernism to access the horror and absurdity of modern warfare. T.S. Eliot said a poet must “dislocate, if necessary, language into his meaning”—but the key is that language is dislocated, not meaning. Vonnegut and Heller were on fire with purpose. To dismiss these works—or William March’s COMPANY K or David Jones’s IN PARENTHESIS or Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW—as message literature about war would be to miss their point entirely. Each was claiming a kind of derangement of the senses that had to be enacted. My objection is not to postmodernism as a tool but to postmodernism as a default. Bad realist “message fiction” is bourgeois and preachy and utilitarian. But bad postmodern “messageless fiction” is elitist and solipsistic and useless. There has to be a middle way.

      3. The middle way is a drag, because it’s a lot of work. It doesn’t follow established norms of either camp. It forces the writer to find the appropriate form for the subject matter—and not to let subject matter be dictated by the imposed limits of his or her chosen school. It bothers me to see a talented writer sign away the right to speak on topics as important and consuming as our current wars by saying, simply, “I would not begin to know how to write about such matters. I know not of war.” I know what you mean, and, yes, it’s daunting—but that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for any of us. The whole purpose of literature is to imagine the unimaginable. And the first step in that process is self-education. If you wanted to write about Afghanistan, all you would need to do is pick up a book, go to a nearby VA hospital, call around in search of refugees in your area. All you have to do is look.

      4. Which brings me to my point and then I’ll shut up. “Write what you know” isn’t, to my mind, meant to be a free pass. (“I don’t know about this, so I can’t write about it.”) It’s meant as a challenge and a charge: “You want to be a writer? Then do your homework. Do some legwork. You want to be the voice of your generation? Then you better have something to say.” I’m with Marc; I wish the Federal Writers’ Project were still around too. But you don’t need a program to go out and find out about things, to talk to people. That will help you write toward the outside world. And, believe me, when I say “you,” I mean “me” too. We all need to find paths toward a community—an audience—to give the work meaning or it just becomes so much fiddling and tinkering. Literature has the power to change the world, so why aim for anything less?

  32. deadgod

      that is still effortful incomprehension

      there are no neologisms of my coin in the post you first responded to

      it is still your turn to respond to ‘responsibility’

  33. deadgod

      that is still effortful incomprehension

      there are no neologisms of my coin in the post you first responded to

      it is still your turn to respond to ‘responsibility’

  34. deadgod

      – perhaps I should defend “tendentiousness”, but, in keeping with a prevalent instinct for ‘meta’, I won’t.

      I don’t think that the responsibility/ies that inhere in any kind of praxis, and are thematized often but not necessarily in art, admit of evasion.

      It can be said that ‘all a writer is responsible for is writing’, but – to me – that’s simply untrue: art is a social as well as a personal fact; that the artist responds discloses that she or he or they is/are not only ‘able to respond’, but is/are already in an economy of response.

      Whether the ‘ability’ is an injunction, a ‘should’? – I think that’s the wrong way around to the question of ‘responsibility’. In this case, the ‘ability’ indicates something already happening, a commitment already enacted.

      Responsibility is an already-existing context and sign of generation, as I suggest – not itself a choice, but rather a condition for the possibility of choosing.

      When you posit ‘behaving responsibly without having responsibilities’, I think you mistake effect for cause, or I don’t understand what you mean.

  35. Michael Copperman

      Until late in 3, I can find little I’d disagree with, Mr. Genoways. But then you say: “The whole purpose of literature is to imagine the unimaginable. And the first step in that process is self-education. If you wanted to write about Afghanistan, all you would need to do is pick up a book, go to a nearby VA hospital, call around in search of refugees in your area. All you have to do is look.”

      I think you make such an engagement sound easy, when in fact such an engagement is fraught (as it must be) and problematic. Two friends of mine, Jonathan Wei and Max Rayneard, pioneered the Telling Project, where they interview veterans about their experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places they’ve been stationed, and then form those narratives into monologues/scenes which the Veterans perform (and so reclaim, in a way) in ‘dramas’ of loose structure. The amount of responsibility they feel for that writing is tremendous– and too, they’ve both said that most of what’s difficult cannot be shared, as it is too personal, too damaging, too traumatic for the individuals involved. These are fine writers with tremendous skill, and there are moments in the first couple Telling Projects which are exceptional; an excerpt of the first script appeared in The Iowa Review, and the project continues to ‘construct’ new performances. Yet the most difficult of those experiences are untouchable for these writers who have put in thousands of hours of interviews: they become responsible for what is shared. It’s not as easy as ‘imagining’ their way into the unimaginable– these men and women have in fact had experiences that are irresolvably fraught and problematic. The poet Elyse Fenton, another friend who has recently become quite known as a result of winning the The Dylan Thomas Prize, had a part in the first Telling (that is, they included one of her poems, which she performed); her poetry is about being a ‘war-bride’, about war from a distance, and how it comes home through her relation to her husband, who was a medic in Iraq. And the entire book is also about culpability and her relationship to a person there– the imaginative act is personal in those poems, and is also fraught and problematic and the work itself is possible (that is, the imaginative act of reaching from the domestic to the front) only because of her husband and their relationship and the price that is exacted by that bond. It is not so simple.

      I doubt you meant to imply it was so easy, but I suppose that I find I have trouble with the idea– I have a cousin who recently returned from Afghanistan, a boy who was once brash and brave and joyful. And now he is grave and silent, and I don’t think I would presume to unpack him, to claim his suffering for art.

      When you say: “We all need to find paths toward a community—an audience—to give the work meaning or it just becomes so much fiddling and tinkering. Literature has the power to change the world, so why aim for anything less?” I am inclined to say, yes, writing requires an audience, and we ought to engage the difficult. But I’m not so sure that engagement, especially with something like the War, is so easy or should even be encouraged. Finding SOMETHING that is important, that is necessary engagement– but what is hottest and most in the news, well. I’m skeptical.

  36. What responsibility? « We Who Are About To Die

      […] Over at HTML Giant, Roxane Gay wonders whether writers have a responsibility and to whom. […]

  37. deadgod

      This ‘consideration’ is, indeed, fundamental – it’s been put into ingeniously terse form (of the mutual responsibilities of society and individual to each other) in that Gordimer quotation in the blogicle:

      What right has society to impose responsibility upon writers and what right has the writer to resist?

  38. Steven Pine

      Genoway calls it “a drag” and “a lot of work”, not sure how different that is from “problematic”. I also do not understand what exactly is alluded to when writing is too personal or too damaging to share, is it similar to a surgeon being squeamish or is it more of a TMI situation? I suspect it’s a exploitation issue.

      When a writer writes about the ‘real world’ they set themselves up to criticism. It is much easier for even the layman to feel comfortable in rejecting the work. There is less perceived risk of ‘not getting it’.

      I also suspect that many of the writers here feel writing about issues is oppressive.

  39. deadgod

      Perhaps a way forward, in those arguments worth having!, with virtuous Anti-Virtuecrats – who might suggest, say, that ‘commitment = “totalitarianism”‘ – , would be to shift the conversation to “purpose” itself. ( – as it sounds like you might’ve already done often.)

      Everything people do consciously is ‘purposeful’ – every step taken, and, certainly, every gesture or mark displayed. What economy is the ground for the gestures and marks that one displays, and into what relations do those gestures/marks return, transformed (even if only minutely) by those gestures/marks?

      Stalinista“?? Ha ha – some names are a pleasure shtoopitly to be called.

  40. Amber

      I like that. It’s not about pushing an issue, so much as it is being aware of what you’re trying to do and being thoughtful about cause and effect. And letting your aims change with your own discoveries, too–letting yourself change your mind.

      Funny, but the novel I’m just starting to write deals with war in a very wide scope. It’s definitely ambitious, but my ambition isn’t to prove something about war–it’s to find out something about war, and maybe sharing that with others in a way that may, hopefully, make people think a little and maybe even change the world for the better, a bit.

  41. Charles Dodd White

      Thanks for the clarification, Ted. Agreed.

  42. deadgod

      My objection is not to postmodernism as a tool but to postmodernism as a default.

      That is good – an effective way to rephrase ‘irresponsibility’.

      – the gist of “bad” being ‘default-mode effort with any tool’ – and of “irresponsibility”, ‘to have become a tool’.

  43. deadgod

      My objection is not to postmodernism as a tool but to postmodernism as a default.

      That is good – an effective way to rephrase ‘irresponsibility’.

      – the gist of “bad” being ‘default-mode effort with any tool’ – and of “irresponsibility”, ‘to have become a tool’.

  44. phmadore

      I love Mother Jones. That will be my only contribution to this discussion.

  45. “Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour.” | HTMLGIANT

      […] Roxane’s latest post, “I Know Not of War”, she brings up and quotes the editor of The Paris Review: During a master tea at Yale this past […]

  46. wily_codger

      To me, that quote doesn’t read as a suggestion that the responsibility of writers to society may extend to changing professions; it seems to me that if this had been Gordimer’s intended meaning she would have avoided using the word “writer” in the second clause.

  47. Ted Genoways

      Well said all around, Michael. I don’t mean at all to suggest that this is easy—only that difficulty is no excuse for not trying. Real engagement is not seeking out what’s hot and exploiting it for professional gain. That’s where responsibility comes in. And Elyse Fenton’s CLAMOR or Brian Turner’s equally amazing PHANTOM NOISE make for a fine starting point when talking about war literature. These people are intimately involved in the wars, and we should listen to them. But what you have to say about the Telling Project is exactly what I’m arguing for.

      I want writers to go out of their way to make themselves intimately involved in the wars—or other issues of concern. You are quite right to say that taking such a step makes writers stewards for the stories of people who may not be able to speak for themselves. But I ask: what higher calling could we aspire to? And, yes, I think such work demands higher ethical and moral standards, but journalists wrestle with these issues all the time. I think we can establish a writerly way of engaging the world without reducing it to literary confections. If we don’t at least try, I worry that the world eventually becomes divided into the realm of literature and the realm of things we think are too important to talk about in literature. That troubles me.

      I don’t mean to suggest that you should try to co-opt your cousin for art (or, worse, for some bogus lit-world cred), but I do firmly believe that your cousin’s suffering is a worthy subject for literature. And being a writer gives you license—and responsibility—to talk to him. You may be able help all of us understand our country a little better. You might also find a way to talk with your cousin about things you find painful to approach otherwise. Again, I’m not trying to offer platitudes here. A little conversation and writing aren’t going to solve his problems or make the world a peaceful place. But we’re in the business of focusing people’s attention on things they overlook and might prefer to ignore. If we’re going to open new worlds to readers, why not explore the things that matter to us most?

  48. Michael Copperman

      Well, I’m convinced– to “establish a writerly way of engaging the world without reducing it to literary confections,” and being sure that we don’t ignore what’s happening, or exploit it for “lit-world cred” is the sort engagement I seek (and, I think, the sort of engagement Roxane was speaking of when she wrote this post). I do think the difficulty lies in the “higher ethical and moral standards,” you speak of– what are they, how do they function, how fine a line is there between responsibility, culpability, and exploitation? Brian Turner and Elyse Fenton have a basis in experience, whether of being on the ground in the War or having a loved one abroad, and that experience and position enables them to reckon with those questions (and their work itself brings those conflicts out, uses that concern generatively). I suppose I’m also troubled if literature fails to engage the world, but I wonder if the particular places writers engage, and the formal modes of that engagement, aren’t necessarily idiosyncratic, particular, and personal, which is to say that inclination, experience, talent, luck, resources, time, inspiration, are hard to point toward an ‘issue’. I guess you’re saying writers should seek, regardless, and I respect that.

  49. Roxane

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, Ted.

      I did gather that your example of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was meant to be illustrative though I do think that something “worth reading,” is not an objective measure. Most writers, however misguided the confidence, believe they are writing something worth reading.

      As for signing away the right to speak on important, consuming topics, I’m not necessarily doing that though I absolutely admit I am daunted by trying to do such topics as war the justice they deserve. I am rarely one to let being intimidated stop me from forging ahead but it certainly gives me (and I believe other writers) pause, as we try to tackle these big topics that extend beyond the topics we normally approach in our writing. For me, writing this post was a means of starting to think through how to write about challenging global topics as I am knee deep in a novel about a very big, all consuming topic. It’s about not only imagining the unimaginable but finding the best ways to render those imaginings.

  50. NLY

      Since we’ve both proposed a number of different things independent of each other, and I’m not sure we can sustain all of them in a single conversation, I’ll abstain from most of them for the moment and just hone in on one idea. (also, just so we’re clear, as some of your statements at least seem to imply the possibility of this confusion, and I’d like to avoid it either way, I’m not a relativist)

      So I’ll keep this brief: 1. If, as I have said (though I have not said, to quote, that ‘all a writer is responsible for is writing’), the writer’s only obligation is to his vision (which is a poncy enough word, but the only word accurate enough to the task), and a writer’s confrontation with reality is to bring him closer to it, and his vision or sense of reality requires a totality which is inclusive of questions and concerns such as were raised in this article, then the writer who fails to have them directly or indirectly in mind has failed as a writer and a thinker.

      2. No writer is any more obligated to be good at their job than they are to be a good human being.

  51. I. Fontana

      but i’m too irresponsible

  52. deadgod

      Well, I’d meant to be saying pretty much the same thing, by way of the logical consequences of thinking it’s so! Perhaps if I ‘respond’ to your ‘responses’ I’ll have been ‘responsible’ for and to, at least, “clarity” – ha ha.

      (I will say that perspectivism, a limited or weak relativism, isn’t (or needn’t be) an absolute or strong relativism that assumes and concludes with ‘not being able to know or say anything’. Not sure what I said that’s relativistic – I’d have guessed that I didn’t/don’t say ‘I think’ often enough.)

      1. Agreed that a writer – and any agent, any praxis-er – is, in the everyday sense, “responsible” for the consequences in the world of her or his writerly attention to the world, and that not having that (at least potential) causality “in mind” – or denying agency of it out of hand – is a kind of “failure”. To be sure, most writers will push the possibility of a completely “inclusive” “totality” of effects that their writing is “responsible” for away from themselves – it’s too much to think about! – , but if one goes so far as to give a child a loaded gun, one can’t rationally “respond” by saying ‘well, I didn’t pull the trigger’. When one writes, one is “responsible” for and to the manifold of society that one enters by being read.

      2. Also agreed. – but I’m not sure how a conversation about “responsibility” is also a conversation about quality, and not simply about mindfulness, and you could also have said “any less obligated” (to foreground an inescapable ethical medium or ground or condition for possibility of action).

  53. deadgod

      a […] story about a woman who has to return to her family after surviving an experience they could not possibly understand

      Have you ever been kidnapped, Roxane? I’m guessing that it’s the kind of trauma that puts a curtain of kindly or cruel mutual incomprehension between survivors and the non-experienced, a veil that must threaten to envelop both the writer who’s ‘been there’ and the writer who hasn’t.

      What I mean is that, when telling and being told a story, “understanding” is not ‘knowledge from direct experience of all the roles’ or ‘knowledge with the non-perspectival certainty of geometric demonstration’, but rather, the softer claim of ‘knowledge by way of imagination‘.

      I don’t think Ted is right about the “unimaginable” – perhaps I’m not imaginative enough to see what’s gained by positing something that can only be referred to by way of its absolute absence of reference in the mind. “To imagine” is ‘to know fictively‘, or, maybe better, ‘to understand rather than to know’. – which, to me, is neither an easy nor a trivial feat, despite its surely being a constant, everyday activity.

  54. NLY

      (mostly I was just making sure we were clear about whether I was being relativistic, rather than you; I don’t know or think that you were, but I know that’s an association which, once in mind, could totally have warped any chance of our making sense of each other, and specifically you of me; bud-nipping)

      Well, since now we’re more clear on the ways we agree with each other, let me see if I can address the ways we’re missing each other. Let’s see, here’s a good place to start:

      “but I’m not sure how a conversation about “responsibility” is also a conversation about quality”

      Well, in as much as there was a causal link between 1 & 2, I was more or less saying that if one is doing one’s job as a writer, one is seeing and thinking of these things; therefore, doing your job as a writer is the equivalent of your behaving responsibly. The question then becomes–and I think this is one of our primary differences, here–whether there is in fact any obligation to behave responsibly, or be good at your job.

      And as near as I can tell, the answer is a resounding ‘not really’. Having a responsibility, or having something you are responsible for, is an obligation. In as much as there is a power dynamic in play, as you’ve sketched, there is a way to be responsible, here–but no actual obligation, contract, covenant, or agreement to do so. It is not implicit or inherent in the craft, because as near as I can tell there is no actual determinable (ie, practical) set of responsibilities. The idea is an ideal because it has no practical analogue, only approximations. Now, I think ideals are the ultimate guidelines, but they cannot (no matter how we may wish to insist it is so) amount to an obligation.
      Furthermore, beyond the immediate repercussions of doing or not doing one’s job (which could tax one morally and empathically), there is not punishment for failing at these supposed responsibilities.

      Basically, all I’m saying is that if there is in fact a true responsibility in effect here, from the get-go, then it is a very odd one, indeed, as it appears to have nothing in common with anything we usually think of as a responsibility.

  55. NLY

      (that you were assuming I was being relativistic, that is)

  56. I Have Become Accustomed To Rejection / My Problems are Petty and Absurd

      […] wrote an essay about the responsibility of the writer for HTMLGIANT I am pretty proud of and Ted Genoways even […]

  57. Links: Revolutionary Roads | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes

      […] Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and […]

  58. To Write As a Woman Is Political | HTMLGIANT

      […] is, if anything, toward writing politically. I started writing about this in my I Know Not of War post, how I generally feel I don’t know enough about some of these global issues to write on them […]