The duty of writers

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Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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