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On the responsibilities of writers: Responses to comments - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
On the responsibilities of writers: Responses to comments

 

Let us see if we can make further sense of the ongoing disputation.  (Or, as someone called it in an email to me, unaccustomed tiddle toddle and pibble pabble in Pompeys camp, given that the disputations is, by Cheshu, in the way of the disputations and discourses of Fluellen and Captain Macmorris, look you.)

 

Let us remind ourselves of just where we are and how we got to this point.  (I should have liked to have answered each comment individually, privatim et seriatim as your Uncle Stalky, who is a great man, should doubtless have said, but they have overwhelmed me.)

 

In metafandom, stellaluna_ posted a very well-argued essay on the responsibilities of writers.  Fortunately or unfortunately, according to taste, she said, or appeared to say, that it was the moral obligation of the writer quâ writer to assess her work, before publishing it, for what an RC might call ‘occasions of sin’ and what she denominated the ‘broader social issues’ of ‘unconscious and unintended assumptions regarding gender or race or sexual orientation / identity’.  What I called that proposition was, simply, Rubbish.

 

Do let’s be very clear about this.  Indeed – well.  One of the best epistemological methods ever devised is the System, as any Oxbridge person will recall it.  Since my controverting remarks were posted, I have corresponded with one of my favourite younger dons at Oxford, and there is no better aid to clarity than a Socratic dialogue with an Oxonian classicist.  What I ought perhaps to have more explicitly stressed in my original remarks, was that my primary argument with the maxim posited by stellaluna_ is this, That a proposed universal moral obligation that is prefaced, as this was, by the phrase, ‘As a writer, I’ve the following responsibility’, is different to positing a universal moral obligation that one has or is said to have as an individual moral agent, full stop.  The writer, as a human being, is a moral agent, and has the same obligations as all others, including kindness, avoidance of unnecessarily giving offence, and so on.  As a writer, however, his writerly responsibilities are superadded to these, and I continue to maintain that it is not anyone’s duty in her capacity as a writer to tick off boxes of who might be even inadvertently offended by something she writes.

 

Let me advert you to a few propositions:

 

If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.

Everything goes by the board: honor [sic], pride, decency … to get the book written.

 

And,

 

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all.

 

And, lastly,

 

Keats did not say, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’  Keats said the Grecian urn said that.

 

The first set of statements was made by William Faulkner.  The second aphorism is of course Wilde’s.  The third may be Eliot’s – Eliot regarded the lines as what Wittgenstein should have called a ‘meaningless noise’ – or it may be Paul Fussell’s: my memory these days is in a shocking state.  It is in any event very important.

 

Faulkner’s comments are – as one might expect – deliberately outrageous, puckishly provocative.  They amuse; they do not persuade.  (I may add that any poet who attempted, in the service of Art, to rob my mother, godmother, grandmothers, or aunts and great-aunts – for whom I rather suspect the collective term is or had been ‘a terror of aunts’ – should never have survived to write any odes, and might well have found himself, or the calcined ashes of his corse, in an urn, being written up by a newer Thomas Browne in a revised Hydriotaphia.)  In any event, I do not take that position.

 

Oscar’s observation is trickier.  What, precisely, does he mean by an ‘immoral book’ and what, by ‘a badly-written book’?  Can it not be maintained that a book that advocates evil courses is not so much immoral as such, as it is eo ipso badly-written?  Not being Stephen Fry, I cannot take it upon myself to say what Wilde meant with any absolute certainty.  What I can and do say, as several commenters to my remarks said as well, is that those who, for example, maintain the right of a writer to write confrontational works that disturb ‘the privileged’ or outrage any remaining Blimps and Bowdlers, who proudly claim the right and indeed the moral responsibility to ‘push the envelope’ (which has always sounded to me less revolutionary than something Postman Pat does) and write non-con, incest / twincest / Wincest according to fandom (and by now, there is no saving the fandom reputations of Gred and Forge), or indeed slash, cannot with any intellectual honesty turn ’round and say, Whatever else we do and write, let’s not be beastly to the Germans (insert group of choice here).  That position, even at Noel time, is Cowardly.  (Sorry, I really couldn’t resist.)

 

Now let us again look at the third of the critical propositions I have presented: Keats did not say, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’  Keats said the Grecian urn said that.

 

Amongst those who have disagreed strongly with my remarks are those who invoke the spirit of Roland Barthes and the ‘death of the author’ (hardly a novel idea, given that the New Critics had already skewered what they called ‘the intentional fallacy’).  My friend shezan characteristically dismissed the ‘Seventies chic’ of this argument from the death of the author, with all the impatience of a woman who is, in her life outwith fandom, rather a formidable French public intellectual and political journalist, amongst other endeavours, and a classic sample incarnate of the classical French tradition of letters.  For myself, I am not altogether certain that, as niennah maintains, ‘the author is dead.  Barthes killed him’: although any Briton retailing a budget of stale news has been reminded that Queen Anne is indeed dead, and Canadian humorists (there’s an oxymoron for you, some would say) reminded 1970s New York upon every Saturday night – live – that the metabolic processes of Generalissimo Francisco Franco had ceased, the Creator  seems to have survived Nietzsche, and The Author, that Tolkienian sub-Creator, seems likewise to want a good deal of killing, having more lives than Rasputin’s cat.  But let us for a moment agree Barthes killed off the author.  More specifically, let us assume that Barthes were correct, and the intent of the author is not merely irrelevant, but ultimately unknowable: ‘Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero…? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know….’  Were that so, were it that the intent of the author is not merely irrelevant, but ultimately unknowable, then we are all of us – GMW Wemyss, stellaluna_, all of you – wasting our breath, reduced to so many unwindowed monads in the literary equivalent of a solipsistic and Berkeleyan universe.  Kill off the author and posit a text that has only the meaning assigned to it by each successive reader, and we have no authorial responsibility to discuss.  In any event, on that view, the late lamented Author and his estate cannot, surely, be held liable for the perceptions of any reader who may find in the orphaned text some ground of offence. Certainly it makes moot the specific examples of bad literature pled in aid by threeoranges (damn it, now I’m humming Prokofiev). 

 

Of course, this is simply not the case.  The question is, rather, who is speaking: the author, the narrator – who, as all fans of Agatha Christie will recall, is not the author and may not be reliable, as was so in the case (wait for it) of the murder of Roger Ackroyd – or a character other than the narrator?  It was not Keats who maintained, I remind you, the equivalence of truth and beauty; rather, Keats maintained that this proposition was put forward by the maker of the urn (a Greek, presumably, although it may well have been Josiah Wedgwood, which would, actually, explain a great deal as regards Tony Benn, and indeed young Hilary Benn).  (Points to those who can spot a connexion between Tony Benn and the novels of Dame Agatha; as you doubtless know, or as the lovely Samantha will remind you, points mean prizes.)

 

Metternich, when told that another statesman had unexpectedly died, mused, ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’  There is, obviously, a sense in which it is always the author who is speaking: this is after all why we are discussing what are and what aren’t the responsibilities of the writer as a writer.  Yet it behoves us also to ask, What did he mean by that? 

 

It has been argued – by niennah and others – that everything a writer does (or indeed anything that anyone anywhere at any time may do) is inherently political, even in choosing to write in what I, quoting Dorothy L. Sayers – we do seem to be relying upon the members of the Detection Club a good deal, don’t we? – referred to as ‘the best possible English’; this is, I am afraid, arrant nonsense.  It is of course tied up with the whole redbrick SCR obsession of ‘privilege’ – I am being quite deliberately provocative here, for a purpose that will emerge – a topic upon which I have dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy before.  (Use the ‘essays’ tag if you must know when and how, I cannot, I’m afraid, be arsed just now to look out the URLs.)  This concept of ‘privilege’ is a tricky one, as witness the ‘your privilege is showing’ exchange between darkrosetiger and nimnod in the comments: on whichever side of that subject one may stand, the exchange seems to be the perfect instance of two people proving one another’s points to the other’s satisfaction.  The fact of the matter is, the purpose of writing is communication.  If the demotic is the superior mode to effect that purpose, get stuck in.  If, contrariwise, the Queen’s English is best fit for purpose (and it commonly is, innit, mate?), hew to that.  And this is something that may vary from work to work, from paragraph to paragraph, indeed from sentence to sentence. The ‘best possible English’ is simply that that most clearly and effectively communicates one’s views, although I should argue for an æsthetic component as well.

 

Now.  To that deliberate provocation, supra.  Am I ‘privileged’ in the sense in which some academical persons use the term?  Curiously, I initially typed ‘some’ as ‘ome’, which suggests a part of the answer, if you recall Julian and Sandy at all, from Round the Horne.  For of course, ‘ome’ means ‘man, male person’ – which will immediately be greeted with cries of ‘privilege’ in a sense other than that known to Mr Speaker – yet it means ‘man’ in a very specific, ah, tongue.  In short, that’s your actual Polari, right there.  ‘Privilege’ in the sense that politicised academics use the term is dodgy when applied to any actual ome or palone.  Certainly, someone who – to use a term that has cropped up throughout this debate – unthinkingly or unconsciously speaks (inevitably condescendingly) of redbrick and plate-glass universities, is displaying the ‘privilege’ – in the sense at issue – of his own ancient foundation.  Yet, as Tom Bombadil might ask, who are you, yourself, alone and nameless?  Assume you are a product of the public schools – in the British sense, mind – and Oxbridge, and male to boot.  Indeed, let us make the proposition as extreme as possible: Eton and the House.  This will immediately place you at a certain level on everyone’s ‘privilege’ scale (and you’ll be resented accordingly, I may add, and quite right, too).  But is that the whole of you (‘and what a whole it is’)?  What if, in addition to being an Old Etonian and a Christ Church man, you are also, for example, gay?  And, what’s more, are a person with Asperger’s syndrome?  Are you privileged?  Are you as privileged as you were initially presumed to be?  Or perhaps you belong to a group that quite correctly is regarded as having been disadvantaged in the past and persistently so even unto this day: you are a woman, you are a person of colour, you are Jewish.  Yet you are a writer, an author, in fact, you’ve a university degree, you’ve economic security.  There is a very fundamental sense in which everyone who is participating in this debate is privileged as a matter of course, economically, socially, and otherwise, as having internet access and the ability to string together a sentence and post the damned thing.  At what point does this calculus of privilege collapse beneath its own weight?

 

What is more, I confide that there is a difference, both practical and moral, between the uncritical assumptions of a writer who ‘unthinkingly or unconsciously speaks (inevitably condescendingly) of redbrick and plate-glass universities’, and the deliberation of one who deploys the mode of speaking for effect, as for example to illuminate a characterisation – including (who is speaking?) in indirect quotation or as a narrator-character.  What does she mean by that, we ask – or ought to do.  What if she has chosen to write, in first-person, the noisome thoughts and doings of a racist (classist, sexist) character precisely in order to expose the banality – and ease of descent into – evil, and has chosen for effect and better effectiveness not to bludgeon the reader over the head with a didactic moral triply underlined?  I advert you the exchange in the comments between beccaelizabeth and the_gentleman (hullo, Tom!).  There are yet many who would see Nabokov banned; there are, alas, students even now recoiling from Dean Swift’s modest proposals.

 

Let me take another example from the comments, an approving one, by calligrafiti:

 

I love it when others write up my own opinion on matters better than I ever could. My inner Wilde can simply point and say, ‘What she said,’ and then I can go back to nursing my head cold.

 

The assumption in fandom – the default assumption – is that fen: readers, writers, and Annoying People Who Do Meta: are women.  Setting aside the numerous fen I know who reject that binary assumption as regards sex (or, as they tend to miscall it, ‘gender’), the fact is that not a few of us are blokes.  Is this a ‘privileging in fannish space of women over men’, and if so is it to be resented, and is it even if not to be resented some lack of moral fibre in making the unconscious assumption?  Of course not.  Yet this is where arguments such as that made by stellaluna_ in her essay and in the comments to it far too easily lead.

 

At what point this calculus of privilege collapses beneath its own weight, is, perhaps, more unanswerable than what song the sirens sang and what name Achilles bore amongst the women (bugger.  Now we’re back to Browne): I cannot say.  What I can say is that it is not answerable by the method posited, as a universal moral obligation of writers quâ writers, by stellaluna_.  If nothing else, her remedy tends to end by privileging the privileged as arbiters of the competing claims of groups asserting a lack of privilege, colonial administrators arbitrating between the subjects of the sirkar in the days of the Raj: vide my discussion with nextian. 

 

I am old enough to remember a time before the appropriation, not to say snaffling-up, of the term ‘privilege’ by the faculty of English language and lit., when it was used with some precision by scholars in speaking of Djilas and the nomenklatura, or of Catholic Emancipation.  Allow me to submit, with respect, that one might do better than to trust authors to judge of privilege. 

 

For example, take an elderly woman – we may call her Mrs W – who lives, with her redundant husband and extended family, in a series of tied cottages.  Herself intensely respectable, she is also aware that preserving the respectability of the family as a whole is vital, for she can and will be turned out if there is too much scandal within the family – and the younger members are increasingly scandal-prone.  Difficult as it may be for Westerners to imagine, she and her family are literally disfranchised, and indeed not allowed, by law as well as upon pain of dismissal, to voice political opinions at all, much less to vote.  They are even prohibited by law from changing their religion, upon pain of dismissal from what employment they have and eviction from their council housing.  The ruling class has in the not terribly distant past connived at the judicial murder of one of this elderly woman’s ancestors and the dispossession of others, her own uncle included, on political and sectarian grounds.  She has access to state healthcare and numerous benefits, and her material standard of living is envied by the less fortunate, yet, is she oppressed?

 

Or, again, take a man – ‘Mr J’ – who is himself part Turkish, was born abroad, is married to a woman whose mother is a Sikh, and supported himself by journalism before becoming involved in politics and eventually becoming mayor of his beloved, but not native, city, where he remains a regular object of highly personal abuse on the part of his political enemies.  He was born with severe deafness, which was later corrected medically, but which clearly affected him and the man he has become.  How far does his privilege extend?

 

Now, compare these to a woman of the same age as our Mrs W who is one of the richest people in the world, and who even so has never needed to pay for anything in her life out of her own funds; who is literally privileged, as entitled – and she has a title – to social and indeed legal deference in her own land and abroad (and gets it); who outranks her husband and is head of the family.  Or to a silly ass of a clubman of Mr J’s age who is commonly dismissed by all those who know him – and he is internationally famous – as ‘simply Eton, Balliol, Bullingdon Club, and publicity stunts’.  Is this latter woman more privileged than Mrs W and Mr J and indeed the silly ass of a clubman?  Is the latter more privileged than Mr J?

 

I trust you will have anticipated the point.  Both the story of Mrs W and that of the rich, titled lady are perfectly fair descriptions of Her Majesty the Queen.  Mr J and the idiot clubman are both the same man: Boris Johnson.  (Those of you who suspected that Mrs W might perhaps be, in part, modelled upon Laura (Mrs Geo W) Bush, are to see the Headmaster, as your papers have been shown up for special commendation.)

 

I must tell you quite frankly that I do not believe in granting the responsibility of a moral arbiter to writers as such, when we have seen exchanges here that betray a belief that tu quoque is the same thing as QED; that show proponents of the ‘death of the author’ and who hold it a fallacy to speak of authorial intent, advocating that authors be held responsible for the messages found in their texts; who wish to have the utmost freedom of speech and publication for slash, non-con, chan, incest, and rape-fantasy fictions whilst demanding a moral litmus test be applied to root out any elements that might be read as (even if intended for effect and to warn dramatically against) racism, sexism, or heteronormativism (a point very well made by elspethdixon in the comments); and, particularly, who justify the application of the test for nasty isms on the ground that, in the current oppressive, patriarchal culture, this is redress.

 

That, of course, is a ground advanced by numerous commenters, notably alixtii.  Implicitly, also, alixtii and others, in advancing that ground, are saying what is explicitly said by starlady 38, that ‘the onus is generally on writers to be something like the ethical clairvoyants of their time, condemning the same ills that history later had to correct’.  If only they would do!  If only they could do.

 

But let us remember that what we are discussing here is a proposed universal moral maxim applicable to writers peculiarly as a burden of their craft.  Surely the hallmark of any element of a philosophia perennis is its universal applicability, not only across situations and cultures, but across time as well.  We are all of us in an intellectually useful state of perplexity here, searching for answers; I make no claim to be Maimonides, yet I do anticipate that I can guide us at least partway towards rather greater clarity.  If – you will all surely agree – a maxim is one of temporary applicability, it is rather situational than universal.  And what we are in fact here confronting is, simply, chronocentrism. 


It often appears that the complaint that thought is still shackled by chains riveted upon us by Dead White European Males goes mainly to their deadness.  But universal maxims are valid universally no matter how hoary with time they be or who first set them down: the laws of thermodynamics, after all, were as valid – across time and, so far as we yet know, even across quanta – had they been newly discovered by a Xhosa shaman or discovered three hundred years ago by a Buddhist abbess in China, quite as much as their having been begun to be developed by Sadi Carnot in 1824, if that’s the case.  (I make no claims to boffinhood.)  And of course I am a believer in universal moral laws (for example, not threatening visiting lecturers with pokers.  Or, in the case of card-sharping American professors, with poker): a posture you will most of you almost certainly deny, but from which in fact you are arguing.  Chronocentrism is the self-congratulatory fantasy that our age is superior to and the capstone of all others, the crowning point to which history has been slowly and imperfectly lurching, such that the common views and prejudices of one’s own set are the final realisation of morality and unimprovable.  It is the cast of mind that, quite frankly, ensures that writers especially will never be, as a class, ‘the ethical clairvoyants of their time, condemning the same ills that history later had to correct’: indeed, paradoxically, that pious hope cannot reasonably be held by any of you who have argued that the present oppressive structure has trammelled us all in unexamined assumptions and All That.  The most you lot can then say – without a shred of evidence save you appeal to a universal, natural moral law – is that some Inner Light assures you that your subset of ‘minds liberated from the oppressive entanglements that bind everyone else’ are alone visionary and correct.  At that point, of course, for all that you may be right, you are speaking of the primacy of individual conscience and precisely not positing a universal moral precept.

 

What is more, insofar as you do in fact believe that our age is superior to and the capstone of all others, the crowning point to which history has been slowly and imperfectly lurching, I, like Noll Cromwell, ‘beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.  For example, I should wager a fair sum – in guineas – that you most of you believe that abortion should be available upon demand on the sole discretion of the expectant mother.  Fair enough.  Granting that male sexuality – female sexuality appears to be more fluid – currently appears to be genetically predisposed if not genetically determined, and granting that it is quite likely that within the decade this can be determined before the fœtus is born, can you not see that within forty years, say, a newer generation will look back at that position as something morally akin to eugenics and forced sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, as thousands of embryos are aborted in the mother’s unquestionable discretion lest they be born as gay men?  I don’t for a moment imagine that those of you who are women and write slash regard us, gay men, as mere disposable lay figures whom you may use without our consent to point your morals and adorn your tales; therefore, you must either rethink your proposed universal maxim and set limits upon it, or admit that it is not a universal, but rather a situational principle that must and may be altered with the times and the passing of events – which I think elspethdixon and alias_sqbr would agree. 

 

In any event, the common failing of falling prey to chronocentricity suggests why it is that the poets and writers who set up as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ are simply, as the rector remarked to Gervase Fen in Crispin’s final detective novel, ‘grinding out unacknowledged legislation’; and I for one prefer rather more transparency and representation in my legislators (which does rather explain my disdain of the EU and of Labour old and new).

 

Now let me return to a point made by, amongst others, threeoranges, alias_sqbr, and dharma_slut, that sexism, for one, weakens a story.  I think that generally true, with the caveat that sometimes the best writing for the purpose of crying down any ism may use as a device a narrator or point of view character or situation – a matter rather of theme than of plot – that appears at first glance to embrace the ism being condemned.  The danger the writer then faces is that a reader may not twig, or give the work a second glance.  Yet sexism is simply bad writing: it renders the world and the characters in too few dimensions.  If, however, we admit that it is bad writing – in the technical sense – to render the world and the characters in too few dimensions, then we are forced equally to oppose any suggestion that, say, one’s villains mayn’t be made three-dimensional for fear that a tale intended to provoke the reader to virtue, will rather seduce her to vice, or for fear of someone’s taking umbrage.  Making certain that the heroine gets all the best lines lest someone say, ‘your privilege is showing’, is dramatically cack-handed and results in something as wearisome as most of the plays of Geo Bernard Shaw.

 

Finally, a few words regarding Kant, Aristotle, neocons, and the status quo.  At the risk of trespassing somewhat upon shezan’s province, I can say with some assurance that the neoconservative movement and its members are not proponents of the status quo.  They are after all neo-conservatives, people who came to conservatism from a very specific background, primarily that of having been ‘red-diaper babies’ who later gathered in contentious groups in various New York university halls arguing dialectically and opposing Marxist orthodoxy from what began as a largely Trotskyite perspective.  More broadly, as the term is used today, they are the inheritors of what in British terms would be the Liberal Imperialism of Lord Rosebery and the American tradition of interventionist Wilsonian Progressivism.  They are in that sense your mirror images: an elect dedicated to making the world anew, by example and where necessary by force, in a more liberal and progressive image, and the status quo be damned.  Equally, I am safely on my own ground in submitting that the Stagirite was hardly an advocate of the unchallenged status quo, and very firmly upon my own ground in denying the imputation that the Chicago School in classical liberal economics – the monetarists included – advocate anything less than a revolutionary engine of change and betterment, that being the whole justification for capitalism in the view of the Vienna, Chicago, and Virginia Schools of political economy.  Certainly the neoconservatives ought not to be considered as a part of the Chicago School: most are more interested in international affairs and all are more or less uninterested in economics as such: and it would be silly to suggest that the lights of the Vienna-Chicago-Virginia tradition, such as Mises and Coase and Lord Harris of High Cross and Keith Joseph and Milton Friedman were in any sense either maintainers of the status quo or neoconservatives.  I was there for the Thatcher (and Reagan) revolutions, and know whereof I speak.

 

As to Kant and the imperative, Tom has answered well enough for me.

 

There.  It’s only a start, but I think it does meet most of the major points that have been urged: save to reiterate that on prudential grounds also, as several commenters have noted, one must be very chary indeed in any action or maxim that might result in even self-censorship, lest actual censorship – particularly of derivative works, existing in a legal twilight – come in by the back door.

 


 
ETA: With permission, I pass on an excellent point made by my friend the Classics don: there is a risk that by putting the onus on the writer - Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls, Our debts, our careful wives, Our children and our sins lay on the king!  We must bear all - the reader is encouraged to abdicate moral responsibility. 

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Comments
fpb From: fpb Date: December 21st, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
One small point before I re-read and think carefully on this. The narrator in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD was reliable down to the last detail; there has never been a novel in which we had so little that was even dubious, let alone subjective, in a first-person narrative. The name of the game is that the READER is unreliable. It is the ultimate in "how the Hell did I not manage to see that" - except that Dame Agatha did it again and even better elsewhere.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 21st, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

In one sense, perfectly true, as ever.

Yet suppressio veri, to quote King and Prout, is surely as 'unreliable' in another sense as is suggestio falsi?
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fpb From: fpb Date: December 21st, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sexism may produce cliches, but so do the various assumptions involved in modernism. And they are the more dangerous for a writer because they lead to applause from a certain kind of brigade, so that bad writing is received as both good and morally uplifting. The danger to writers today is, as it has always been, consensus; not any specific ideology, but whichever ideology is most popular with reviewers and editors.
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shezan From: shezan Date: December 21st, 2008 05:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love you. That is all.

(and really, we ought to put a face to one another's witterings next time I'm in Blighty... which should be around 2:00 pm next Wednesday, until Sunday afternoon.)
fpb From: fpb Date: December 21st, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

off topic

I know I have said it before, but I cannot get over how funny I find that icon!
starlady38 From: starlady38 Date: December 22nd, 2008 03:46 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm having really strong deja vu at the moment, and I can't think why.

Leaving incidental sensory delusions aside, I want to extract several points in response. I think it bears reiteration, lest I be misunderstood, that the writer's role as (should-be) ethical clairvoyant is most commonly projected backward onto him (and rarely her) by later generations. Else why condemn Mayakovsky, why debate the ethics of Kundera's alleged collaboration, of Gunther Grass' participation, of Shostakovitch's dimunization? [Forgive me that last one, I have a weakness for ascending tricola a la Cicero.] I think stellaluna's original impetus may have been linked to this very prevalent conception of the writer's role; she seems to be projecting this societally-imposed onus onto her own work. All well and good; that's her right.

What concerns me on further consideration is the possible underlying disputation over the power of stories (which sounds horribly trite just typing it, but that's truisms for you). It seems to me that stellaluna believes very much in fiction as a normative influence on its readers; from my own experience I would not say she's wrong. It seems to me that you're coming down more on the side of Wilde and ars gratia artis. which I also support. But I don't think either proposition can survive without the other, or ought to attempt to do so.
elspethdixon From: elspethdixon Date: December 22nd, 2008 04:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm trying to think of a response that doesn't simply consist of pointing at the screen and going "words are pretty," and failing.

you must either rethink your proposed universal maxim and set limits upon it, or admit that it is not a universal, but rather a situational principle that must and may be altered with the times and the passing of events

I'd say that it's a universal principle that trying not to hurt your readers or send socially harmful messages with your writing makes you a nicer person, and that thinking about the potential impact of your work on your readers and whether it's really going to send the message you want it to send is something all writers should do (if you want your writing to send a message of female empowerment and it actually reeks of sexist steriotypes, or you want to present a respectful look at a particular culture and are actually misrepresenting it, that's a legitimate writing-quality issue -- your writing isn't sucessfully communicating what you intended it to communicate, or your research was not in-depth enough), but not that writing that has a positive social impact is necessarily better as literature than writing with a neutral or negative impact. Uncle Tom's Cabin was instrumental in popularizing the abolitionist movement and ultimately ending slavery, but it's not exactly going to win any literary prizes, whereas Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will is a gorgeously shot, incredibly effective piece of cinema with a truly abhorent message to it (the fact that it's a documentary about how great Nazism is doesn't mean that it's not brilliant -- it's part of what makes it so disturbing to watch).

My experience is that people want universal rules/laws/advise/principles ("What should I do/not do to be a good writer/a good fan/a good person/not end up on unfunny_business?") but half the time people in fannish debates are speaking past one another, or have totally different definitions for the same words. Even amongst a group of fans who all agree that it's only polite that writers should warn for stories that contain non-consensual sex, there will still be about six different theories of what does and doesn't constitute "rape/non-con/dub-con/whatever."

That, and there seem to be two sets of principles existing in conflict, the "artistic freedom" principle and the "social responsibility" principle. Kind of like the warnings & labeling debate ("My story can't be pinned down by labels/warnings would spoil it" vs. "it's the kind and polite thing to do") except about Real Life issues that have consequences somewhat more significant than "I might accidentally read something with a ship I don't like in it."

At the end of the day, very few truths are actually universally acknowledged. I don't know about when it comes to writing, but in real life, I am going to haul off and completely lose it the next time someone seriously and with great sincerity informs me that the traditional definition of marriage has always been between one man and one women, and that marriage as an institution has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Except I'm pretty sure that if I sarcastically asked them if they wanted to go back to the traditional classical Roman model where citizens couldn't marry non-citizens, someone in California would think it was a good idea and start revising the state constitution to ban marriage to Mexicans next.
dharma_slut From: dharma_slut Date: December 24th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC) (Link)

Quite so.

I don't actually see where "artistic principle" and "social responsibility" conflict each other all that much. My idea of how the world ought to be might not exactly match yours, or OP's, and it might not be the whole, but it's certainly part of my artistic vision.

And it's funny to me the way OP quotes Oscar-- who wrote, let's face it, some of the sweetest, most sentimental of tales of his time, Salome notwithstanding.
ceitie From: ceitie Date: December 22nd, 2008 07:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I will freely admit that several parts of this argument are over my head, but what the hell, I`m going to give it a shot anyway.

1. The moral obligation of the writer quâ writer to assess her work, before publishing it, for what an RC might call ‘occasions of sin’ and what she denominated the ‘broader social issues’ of ‘unconscious and unintended assumptions regarding gender or race or sexual orientation / identity’.

My issue with your arguments on this point is that you don`t seem to be taking into account the ``unconscious and unintended`` part of those assumptions. After reading stellaluna`s essay, and rereading the paragraph is which she lays out her version of a writer`s responsibility, what she seems to be saying is that a writer should look over his or her work to make sure that he or she haven`t included any biases *that they didn`t mean to*. This is a fairly different concept than policing one`s writing and censoring it so that it fits the prevailing norms of political correctness for that`s writer`s time, place and culture.

Since you agreed in other comments that awareness of the contents and subtext of one`s writing is a good thing, I`m not sure how that translates into writers becoming moral arbiters. There`s nothing in stellaluna`s essay that says that written works have to, or even should be, politically correct, but rather that the author should take a moment to look at their work in context. How their work will fit into that context, especially since, as you pointed out, that context is always changing, is entirely up to them. stellaluna is advocating awareness, a broader lens. She doens`t say anything about making writing conform to fit that lens.

2. To borrow a phrase from my(not very impressive *g*) literary canon: Privilege. I do not think that word means what you think it means. I thought your examples of the Queen and Boris Johnson to show the difficulties of measuring privilege were both funny and thought-provoking. I do think that your conceptualization of privilege as a form of calculus is a problem, because that`s not how it works. It`s not, ``Okay, so you get five points for white skin, but then you lose two for being bisexual, and another three for being poor, but then you gain five for being male, bringing your total to...`` Because, yeah, as you pointed out, that`s dumb. And it doesn`t work. Different privileges, or lack of them, aren`t a balancing act; having one doesn`t cancel out not having another. They exist simultaneously, so the Queen can have less privilege because she is disenfranchised, and unable to change her religion, and can be bashed for being old, and a woman, while also being incredibly privileged because of her class, wealth, and status. Playing the game of ``who`s more privileged? Who`s privilege beats who`s?`` is pointless and disregards the way in which privilege works in society.

You`ve probably heard all this before, but whatever. Thanks for providing me with lots of interesting, well-written reading tonight.
carmarthen From: carmarthen Date: January 4th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
After reading stellaluna`s essay, and rereading the paragraph is which she lays out her version of a writer`s responsibility, what she seems to be saying is that a writer should look over his or her work to make sure that he or she haven`t included any biases *that they didn`t mean to*. This is a fairly different concept than policing one`s writing and censoring it so that it fits the prevailing norms of political correctness for that`s writer`s time, place and culture.

THANK you for putting this so clearly. Basically "I didn't mean to!" is a lousy defense that indicates the writer isn't bothering to think about what she's writing. I don't think suggesting that authors should mean what they write is a terrible thing.
alias_sqbr From: alias_sqbr Date: December 22nd, 2008 08:03 am (UTC) (Link)

On privilege

I didn't use the word "privilege", and it's possible that the people who did used it in the way you describe, but in my experience "privilege" (in an anti-racist etc context) is not a single linear measure. Because, as you so exhaustively showed, this makes no sense. It's infinite dimensional, with a different dimension for each dodgy power imbalance in society, and one may be privileged along one axis and not along another. In the context of any particular power imbalance those who are privileged with respect to that imbalance will have a different POV to those who are not (ie as white woman I am privileged wrt race and have to keep that in mind when dealing with race issues, but am less privileged wrt gender. If I got into a complicated race-and-gender discussion with a non-white man we'd both have to keep both axes in mind) . When people describe someone as "privileged" in a non-specific way (which imo is lazy terminology unless it's very clear what you're talking about) they generally mean "privileged along a whole bunch of relevant axes". I go into it more here.

nb am planning on responding to the "I'm sure alias_sqbr would agree with this" bit, but the combination of your somewhat opaque writing style(*) and the complexity of the subject mean I'm having trouble deciding if I do agree or not, and if not why.

(*)As someone who's been employed and trained to teach complex subjects to a variety of audiences, I'd favour a clearer, simpler style with less obscure references. Of course, it's your lj, and being understood may not be your primary objective...

Edited at 2008-12-22 10:01 am (UTC)
nextian From: nextian Date: December 22nd, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: On privilege

^ What she said.
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alixtii From: alixtii Date: December 22nd, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
The writer, as a human being, is a moral agent, and has the same obligations as all others, including kindness, avoidance of unnecessarily giving offence, and so on. As a writer, however, his writerly responsibilities are superadded to these, and I continue to maintain that it is not anyone’s duty in her capacity as a writer to tick off boxes of who might be even inadvertently offended by something she writes.

I'm perfectly willing to let non-human writers off the hook. But insofar as human writers are human, their basic human(e)ness still brings with it certain responsibilities which still apply when writing, just as a stock broker doesn't get to stop being basically human when she is trading stocks, no matter how useful or beautiful that trading may be.

What I can and do say, as several commenters to my remarks said as well, is that those who, for example, maintain the right of a writer to write confrontational works that disturb ‘the privileged’ or outrage any remaining Blimps and Bowdlers, who proudly claim the right and indeed the moral responsibility to ‘push the envelope’ (which has always sounded to me less revolutionary than something Postman Pat does) and write non-con, incest / twincest / Wincest according to fandom (and by now, there is no saving the fandom reputations of Gred and Forge), or indeed slash, cannot with any intellectual honesty turn ’round and say, Whatever else we do and write, let’s not be beastly to the Germans (insert group of choice here).

I don't see how that follows. Harming the patriarchy is good; harming the oppressed is bad. The moral responsibility to do the former and the moral responsibility not to do the latter represent the two sides of the same coin. We're not moral relativists here; some things are evil and some are good. How is that not obvious?

Setting aside the numerous fen I know who reject that binary assumption as regards sex (or, as they tend to miscall it, ‘gender’), the fact is that not a few of us are blokes. Is this a ‘privileging in fannish space of women over men’, and if so is it to be resented, and is it even if not to be resented some lack of moral fibre in making the unconscious assumption?

I'm a man who celebrates fandom as a female space in a patriarchal male-dominated culture which needs them all too badly. In the feminist utopia female spaces will be a thing of the past, since so will the hegemony they are set up in opposition with, but alas that time has not yet come.

What I can say is that it is not answerable by the method posited, as a universal moral obligation of writers quâ writers, by stellaluna_.

The claim itself is comprehenisble to me, but I don't see the argument. At most I see that you've demonstrated that it's insanely difficult to figure out what is morally required, which I thought was obvious from the get-go.

If – you will all surely agree – a maxim is one of temporary applicability, it is rather situational than universal. And what we are in fact here confronting is, simply, chronocentrism.

I'm confused. Universal principles should be applied situationally insofar as we, in time, can ascertain they're nature. We're human; we screw up a lot. This is not particularly shameful. My ethical principles may not be the utterly-perfected set, but they are the set which comes closest insofar as I am able to ascertain, and I am thus able to use them normatively across time and history.
alixtii From: alixtii Date: December 22nd, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

Furthermore

It was never my position that true ethical clairvoyance is required; I take it as a given that an author's work, if it is given sufficient distribution, will have negative effects that she did not anticipate and that she is not morally responsible for those effects. But that doesn't mean that no anticipations are possible either; I can, for example, have a pretty darn idea of what effect my 'cest fic will have within the queer female femslash community, which is to some small degree (I don't overestimate my value) help people who historically have been sexually repressed to indulge in those drives in a safe setting. I simply ask that an author make a good-faith effort to attempt to make such predictions, and not remain willfully ignorant to the ways that privilege work in her world, and I will happily absolve her of anything beyond the point.
batyatoon From: batyatoon Date: December 24th, 2008 05:41 am (UTC) (Link)
... So you have no idea at all who I am, and it's more or less mutual, but a friend linked me to your LJ by way of metafandom and I think I am now utterly intrigued. Would you mind terribly if I friended you?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 24th, 2008 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, not at all.

One need never ask.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 25th, 2008 04:07 am (UTC) (Link)

For the sake of accuracy

"They are even prohibited by law from changing their religion, upon pain of dismissal from what employment they have and eviction from their council housing."

What the Act of Settlement specifically prohibits is that neither the monarch, nor the monarch's heir, may be or may marry a Roman Catholic.

Princess Anne, Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, their spouses and their children, could all and any of them become Catholics or marry Catholics, with no effect on their "employment" or any grace-and-favour houses they may live in. All that would happen would be that they would cease to become eligible to inherit the throne.

Elizabeth, Charles, and William may not become Roman Catholics (and WIlliam may not marry one, or, one supposes, register a civil partnership with one) but they are at perfect liberty to change their religion to anything but Roman Catholicism.

" Difficult as it may be for Westerners to imagine, she and her family are literally disfranchised, and indeed not allowed, by law as well as upon pain of dismissal, to voice political opinions at all, much less to vote. "

Very difficult to imagine, since it's also pretty much entirely untrue. The Queen can't register to vote. You may be right that the immediate heir also can't, though I think that's tradition rather than law. The Queen is perfectly entitled to voice political opinions - she's just only supposed to do so at her private meetings with her Ministers, not in public. I'd certainly swap the right to say what I liked in public for the right to immediate access to Cabinet Ministers in private. The Prince of Wales is not under the same restriction except by strong tradition. Any other member of the Royal Family is as entitled as anyone to register to vote and to express political opinions if they have any.

Yonmei
yonmei.insanejournal.com
alias_sqbr From: alias_sqbr Date: December 29th, 2008 09:56 am (UTC) (Link)
So I keep wishing this reply would get better but I think it's all my brain is going to give me.

admit that it is not a universal, but rather a situational principle that must and may be altered with the times and the passing of events – which I think elspethdixon and alias_sqbr would agree.

I agree that ones morality is somewhat contingent on the time, society, etc you live in (how contingent is something I struggle with: both complete universalism and complete relativism lead to conclusions I can't accept). But again, I think we have two issues here:
1) Is it immoral to do X?
2) If it is, does a writer have a responsibility to make sure their work doesn't encourage/endorse/exhibit X? (as much as any writer can make sure of this)

The answer to (1) is somewhat of a personal opinion, though I think people have a right to tell people off who they think disagree (ie, to give an extreme example, when X=murder)

But all I think stelluna is arguing is for (2), on the assumption that the people reading her blog already agree with her that racist stereotypes etc are a bad thing.

Also:
The way I see it, there are two sorts of people who disagree with me:
-People whose morality has a truly different base. Hard to argue with this sort, though it can be done if both are willing to imagine things from the others POV.
-People whose morality has a similar base but has led them to different conclusions. These can in theory be argued with, so that either they bring me round to their way of thinking or vice versa. When I argue about racism etc it is with the purpose of persuading people that my POV is a better reflection of our shared underlying moral principles.

I do not think my POV is the best possible, far from it, and I am always open to being persuaded to a better. But obviously at any given time it is, in my opinion and experience, the best I have encountered so far.

Now let me return to a point made by, amongst others, threeoranges, alias_sqbr, and dharma_slut, that sexism, for one, weakens a story

I'm pretty sure I didn't say that. As it happens, I do believe it, so I'll let it pass :) (I'm a bit touchy about having things misattributed to me due to bad experiences in the past)

Or have I missed your point?
alixtii From: alixtii Date: December 29th, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Beautiful reply!
frogfarm From: frogfarm Date: January 5th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm just ecstatic at finding a fanficcer on LJ who understands the distinction between Chicago and Austrian. It's like finding a second redheaded Jewish lesbian.
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