Disagreeing with Books: Writer Responsibility and Reader Accountability

“There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” –Oscar Wilde

By far, the blog of mine that has gotten the largest, most passionate and intelligent reactions has been “Why I’m Tired of People Ragging on Twilight.” Comments ranged: gleeful agreement and support of my guts in approaching such a volatile topic, carefully-worded debate, and emotionally-charged (dare I call them?) accusations. I disagreed with many comments, but I could see the logic and thought behind all of them. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the comments on that post, I think they’re well worth a read.

But one thing, the main thing, that I kept coming back to as I read these comments was the concept of censorship and author responsibility. No matter what someone’s thoughts were on the messages in Twilight, the end result was the same: holding Stephenie Meyer accountable for sending said messages.

Admittedly, there is a difference between censoring and judging... for most people.

I saw a contradiction there. Since I follow and am followed primarily by other writers on Twitter (who are unfailingly also readers), I tweeted the following:

@AnnieNeugebauer When you write a character, do you have them make the choices that “send the right message” or that they would most realistically make? Or do you only write characters who make choices that teach morals? And does that answer change if you write YA instead of adult?

All of the writers who answered chose “realistic characters” over “creating morals,” even for young adult books. And yet… so many people complain when they disagree with the message of a book.

The only explanation I could think of was that there is a disconnect between reading and writing. As writers, we all have different goals. Some people want to uplift and enlarge the lives of their readers. Some want to show life as it truly is. Some just want to entertain. And as readers, our wants vary too. We want to learn, be entertained, be challenged, and see ourselves deeply reflected in characters we love. Somewhere between the two, our expectations must shift.

So where’s that line? What changes between a writer and a reader? What are the expectations of both, and more importantly, who is ultimately responsible? And does the answer vary depending on the level of morality being challenged by a book? What about the type of morality? Wuthering Heights is often accused of romanticizing destructive love. A Clockwork Orange purportedly caused copycat crimes of rape and beatings. Lolita looks at the world through the eyes of a pedophile protagonist. And American Psycho was so controversial that Bret Easton Ellis received death threats over it (ironic, no?).

Droogs: product of literary genius, encouragement for young people to rape and murder, or source of awesome Halloween costumes?

How many people have these books negatively influenced? And would those people have made similar choices eventually even if they had never read the books? Of course, no one can know these answers.

Personally, I will never agree that writers are responsible for readers’ beliefs. That’s just how I feel. I am 100% against censorship. Now, that doesn’t mean I like the messages in all books. Obviously, I don’t. There are some themes in the Twilight series that I strongly disagree with. Just because I don’t believe the books should be censored or that Meyer should be held responsible for readers’ choices doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me that so many young women are possibly being influenced by her messages. It does. It really does.

And my answer thus far leans toward guardian responsibility: parents of young teens should talk to their children about the messages in the books. But what about kids who don’t have such involved, responsible parents? I don’t know. I’m really asking. It’s not an easy question to answer. Should all people be censored because some people might be negatively affected by something? I don’t think so, but I do feel sad for those young women (and men).

To equate (and perhaps conflate) one morally controversial topic with another, it’s sort of like the old saying, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” To which many have quite snarkily replied… but the guns sure make it easier. Ever tried pointing a finger-gun at someone and saying bang? Not quite the same effect. And yet the right to bear arms is one of Americans’ fundamental (though controversial) freedoms – one that I strongly agree with. So there’s a conundrum. I dislike guns, but believe in people’s right to own and use them.

Yeah... crazy mother fuckers with guns.

Twilight doesn’t cause young women to make harmful choices. I have to believe that. It is one of my strongest principles that young people deserve respect. Respect comes with responsibility. And I believe all people, even impressionable young people, must take responsibility for their own morality. You can’t blame your bad choices on a book.

But maybe I believe this because I am a writer, and I sympathize with authors who stand accused. What’s more, I’m a horror writer. I write about some really, really bad people. Perhaps one could argue that I’m simply protecting myself from potential future reader accusations. I want to be able to write about evil, deeply flawed characters, and poor choices without the burden of guilt riding me like the weight of the world. I think, to some degree, we all choose our morals based on what allows us to live the life we want to live. Maybe I’m just in denial.

What do you think? And do your opinions shift when you answer the question as a reader and as a writer? What about as a parent? Where, for you, does author responsibility end and reader accountability begin?

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  • Pegab

    Nice, thought-provoking blog. I came away with a reaction that is probably rather peripheral to your discussion. I am encouraged—even elated—that we are having this discussion about our young people, in particular. Are they actually reading enough that we feel the need to have this conversation? Please, please let it be so…

    • Thank you! And yes, I believe it is so. In fact, that’s what one of the commenters on the Twilight blog mentioned: no matter if you love or hate Twilight (and Harry Potter and Hunger Games), it has gotten a new generation of kids interested in books, and that’s something to be grateful for.

  • It is great that we have to have this discussion if there is an actual fear of kids reading so much that these stories might actually rub off on them!

    I think responsibility, as always, belongs with the parents and guardians not the creators. I’ve read a whole bunch of questionable stuff myself, stuff with gore, violence, maybe even (gasp) sex, and I’ve never been influenced to hurt anything or anyone. That doesn’t mean that someone can’t get an idea from reading or seeing something, but if they pick up the idea, then there was already an issue.

    I’ve managed to read and enjoy things I don’t like. I think these sorts of things invite discussion, which I believe is the purpose of stories.

    • I agree with you whole-heartedly, Nina. I read things as a teen that my mom still freaks out about, but not only did they not inspire me negatively, they inspired me positively (in my mind), as they are a big contributor to the writer I am today. I think even if you disagree with the message in a book it can teach you positive things. If nothing else it reaffirms your contrary beliefs.

      But I see so many people so EXTREMELY outraged over books that offend them, and I know there must be something to it that I’m not understanding. Maybe it’s an education level, or a parental thing, or a religious thing… I don’t know. But you’re right that discussion is important, so I guess it’s all a good thing when you look at it that way.

      • Pegab

        This is a good discussion. I don’t see censorship as a parental thing, but maybe I’m swayed by the fact that I NEVER told my kids they could not read something, just as my mom never told me. She registered her disapproval a few times, as did I, which is vastly different than forbidding them to. And, although some religions seem to lean more that way than others, I don’t really call it a religious thing, either.

        I believe it’s a “fear thing”, which is probably affected by upbringing, culture, religion, etc. but ultimately is born of fear. Yes, fear is born of fear and nurtured by fear. My personal beliefs are that fear is the origin of every negative emotion, thought, & deed. When people say “the devil” or “evil” or “mean”, I try to substitute the word fear (when I’m able). Dictatorships thrive on it and they also love censorship.

        • These are good thoughts. So what it is about Twilight, do you think, that’s driving that fear? Because it’s certainly at an unusual level.

          • Pegab

            Even though I’ve been crazy busy, I’ve been thinking about your question & wondering what the answer is. Fear of change, fear of anthing that’s not accepted mainstream, fear of our kids’ sexuality, fear of our kids thinking for themselves (differently than us), fear that our kids will end up miserable, fear of our kids not sharing our religious beliefs, fear of what others think of our kids? I honestly don’t know but, perhaps it’s sort of a vague collection of incoherent fears that if our kids don’t take an accepted & safe route through life they will be unhappy, unsuccessful, & burn in hell and fear that we were not good enough to raise “perfect” kids. Great blog!!

          • Good answers! And thank you!

  • Lura Slowinski

    Authors can’t be held responsible for how a reader reacts to their work. Readers will react in myriad, unpredictable ways, based on their prior experiences and the differences in their personalities. Someone may think Wuthering Heights promotes destructive relationships; I can’t find a trace of desirability in any of the relationships in that book. How can we hold Emily Bronte accountable for either of those? The work has to stand on its own.

    I think a lot of people do have trouble coping with the notion that there are lots of beliefs out there contradictory to their own. It’s easy for someone to say they’re opposed to censorship when discussing the things they like, but a lot of people would probably be okay with the censorship of a pro-KKK or pro-Nazi work. Being opposed to censorship means being okay with the theoretical existence of something you find offensive all the way to your core. It’s an uncomfortable balance.

    As far as the writing goes, I just want to write the story that’s in my head. And that story, for better or for worse, is going to be influenced by my moral code. I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

    • Censorship is easy to be against when what’s being censored is something you agree with, but your point about the KKK and such is a very good one. People want to have it both ways, but we can’t. Either everything is okay to share or someone must be in charge of censoring. And since that someone will no doubt disagree with what I think, my vote is solidly in favor of no censorship at all. Especially in books.

      I’ve heard and read a lot lately about authors’ morals influencing their books’ messages. Even Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel book, says that this a positive thing, not a negative thing. But yes, it can be quite annoying to see really popular books whose morals rub ours the wrong way.

      Great comments, Lura, thank you.

  • I was one of those who answered “realistic characters” and yet still ragged on Twilight.

    The problem for me with Twilight is that Stephanie Meyer *didn’t* create realistic characters or realistic situations. If she had, the book would have been infinitely more interesting to me, and quite a lot darker. I’m not saying it should have sent the “right” message or taught a moral – it’s that the relationship did not face realistic consequences for how destructive it was. Any girl in Bella’s shoes would have failed out of school, or actually killed herself, or actually been harmed or killed, but Bella only got everything she wanted. At the very least, it’s just annoying. At the most, it teaches young girls – and maybe even some women – the wrong things about how relationships really work.

    I wish I’d read Wuthering Heights so I could compare the two! I have read Lolita though, and that’s a good one to bring up. Even though it’s told from the pedophile’s POV, and he has certain ideas about his rights or wrongs, he’s always held to the realistic consequences of the world he lives in. He has to sneak around to be with her, he deceives her mother, he takes her on the run, and she is damaged by his actions. Alternatively, if the book had glorified his actions, they would have gotten married and lived happily ever after – ahem – like Bella and Edward, lol!

    There’s a big difference between writing about flawed characters that are held to realistic consequences, and characters that are not.

    But should she be censored for creating such an unrealistic romance? No, I don’t think so, at least not on a universal level. If I had a daughter, I doubt I’d tell her she couldn’t read the book, though I’d sure want to have a talk with her about it afterwards. I think, more than anything, I just really don’t get the mass appeal of the books. For as shockingly false as it is, why do so many girls (and grown women) love it so much?

    • I agree that the books would have been darker if Meyer had been more realistic, but I also don’t think realistic is what she was going for. I think what she was going for, 100%, was fantasy fulfillment. In fact, I think she used the unrealisticness of Bella’s fate to make her “message” more desirable to young readers. In short, I can see why the books bug you, but I think Meyer knew exactly what she was doing and I think she did a very good job of it. Which, incidentally, is why I think so many girls and women love it – escapism.

      A happy ending to Lolita? Now there’s a scary thought. Although, to play devil’s advocate, I do believe that Humbert Humbert gets away scott-free with his crimes. He doesn’t get Lolita permanently, but then again, he doesn’t even want her permanently. Once she stops looking childlike he thinks she loses her mojo anyway, so in reality he: abuses a child, kidnaps a child, has ongoing, forced sexual relations with the child for as long as he wants, kills the man who steals Lolita, and never gets in trouble (although he does get arrested for a traffic crime. Do you remember if they find out about Lolita?). I’m not sure those are such great consequences either.

      Damn, now I might have to reread Lolita too. =)

    • I agree with Annie on the Fantasy Fulfillment role of the Twilight series. I think because I think of them that way, I can’t believe that there is any young girl out there (except for an emotionally disturbed one) that will learn anything from these books. The girls who like these books are going to be ones who know exactly what the world is like and wish to escape it for a little while. So I also can’t believe the “these books are harmful” fear that many people say they have.

      Also, I do have to say that Twilight, even though it is more two dimensional than a book like Lolita or Wuthering Heights, there is still stuff to discuss with a young teen. I mean, Bella does get what she wants, but in the process she loses her friends and her family. So she still doesn’t exactly win in the end. And that’s something that can be discussed. “Would you give up friendship for love? Would you give up family? Is a relationship like this healthy?”

      The story doesn’t have to be good in the more traditional sense to start a discussion. But when people don’t like something, they’re less likely to trust the author and discussion clams up.

      • Dang. I wish I would have said all of that. 😉 I feel exactly the same way about the series being so obviously fantasy fulfillment that “life lessons” seems a far cry – although clearly not everyone else does. Very, very good points, and well worded to boot. Spot on, Ms. Martinez.

  • Amanda Myre

    Hi. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months, and I’ve been really enjoying it!

    As a writer (an as-yet-unpublished one), I do feel some responsibility for putting good messages out there, but on the other hand, I’m not downloading someone else’s List of Good Messages and trying to incorporate it into my writing. My writing is going to reflect my worldview and my concepts of right and wrong. How could it not?

    The same goes for Stephenie Meyer, only I greatly dislike and disagree with her values. I think her books have the potential to be actively harmful. I’m definitely a Twilight-hater. I read the series through out of sheer feminist indignation, in much the same way I read through the entire Iliad mainly out of shock at how awful all the “heroes” were. (Er, I also read books for enjoyment and stuff. Sometimes.)

    However, in a civilized society, everyone is entitled to express an opinion, and no one is entitled to shut anyone else up. I wish Stephenie Meyer hadn’t written Twilight, because I do think literature influences thought. That doesn’t mean I have the right to censor them, and I don’t advocate doing so. What I do have the right to do is criticize her books and point out the influence they may have on young readers.

    I would also say that I’m perfectly okay with getting flack for the choices I make as a writer. For example, I’m inclined to include queer characters and anti-religious attitudes in my writing. Some people may criticize this, or even call it harmful (if I’m even fortunate enough to be published!). That’s fine, as long as no one tries to censor it.

    • Hi Amanda! Thank you so much. I took just a quick peek at your blog and already see several posts I’m going to read when I get a chance.

      And as to the rest of it… yes, I agree with everything you said. Every single thing, actually, which is kind of weird. I’m at a loss as to what to say besides, “Yeah!” Including accepting judgment of my work before it’s even published. I think being writers is a big part of what makes us aware of the importance of preventing censorship. Not everyone thinks of it as a bad word, you know. But I’m with you. Thanks very much for your comment.

      • Amanda Myre

        Haha, that is a little weird, but also nice. I agree, being a writer does make you much more aware, probably because you’re always vulnerable to censorship yourself. I hope you enjoy the blog!

    • Amanda, I find your point really interesting, especially as how some others might someday find *my* viewpoints harmful or destructive to their children and/or society, lol! (Considering the things I write about, it’s very likely.) But it’s also true that morals and messages are highly subjective depending on where you’re coming from, and thus, censorship can never be fair.

  • Aww, well, I just never included my entire thoughts in my comment on that post. My main argument has always and will always be that the characters are FICTIONAL, in a very clearly provided fictional situation. You can’t blame fiction for people’s behaviour. It’s up to rational adults to have open, respectful communication with younger folk and express that fiction is precisely that.

    Naturally, since the comparison always comes up, is Romeo and Juliet suddenly a great role model provider? They kill themselves. C’mon.


    • I agree, Ashlee. I think that’s the key difference between novels and advertisements with supermodels who are too thin; one is served up as truth and the other is served up as fantasy. And good grief, who thinks Romeo and Juliet is a good role model? Good play, yes. Good role model… not so much.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Wow… what a thought-provoking post. As a non-parent, writer of adult fiction, I lean toward characters who make authentic choices. And since I haven’t read Twilight, I’m not in a position to judge. But I do believe that authors shouldn’t be lambasted for authentic fiction/characters. As you said, ultimately, people – even young ones – are responsible for their own moral decisions. But sadly, the parental guidance needed to establish a moral compass is often non-existent. I don’t think that kind of teaching is the responsibility of the author. And I’m not sure that books that DO teach morality – or better decisions – would necessarily sway a teen who lacks that moral foundation to begin with.

    • Thanks Melissa! I think you’re probably right about teens likely to be swayed. In that case, they probably would have been influenced by something else anyway, although, of course, we can never know for sure. I knew a few girls like that in high school, and I always felt sorry for them, but no one can go through life experiencing only positive influences. Thanks for your comment!

  • Follow Up Question: Writer Responsibility on a Micro Level.

    Do your answers change on a micro level? Here’s a specific example to clarify what I mean. In my horror manuscript, my main character Nick says (in the narration) that “he still felt kind of gyped.” As one of my critique partners pointed out, the word “gyped” is actually a derogatory term derived from the word “Gypsy.” Gypsies, in the politically correct world, are known as the Romani people, and they are a real ethnicity – common to popular misconception that a “gypsy” is anyone who lives a free, vagrant lifestyle. As you might have guessed, to “gyp” someone is to cheat or steal from them, which is a negative and unfair stereotype of the Romani people.

    The catch: I knew all of this when I had Nick say this. (In fact, one of my professors at UT, Ian Hancock, is actually one of the most preeminent Romani scholars in the world.) So I was very aware of the stereotype. Nick, however, is not. He’s a 24 year old guy who lives a pretty low-key life, and he doesn’t necessarily sweat political correctness. I had him say it because that was the most REALISTIC thing for him to say.

    But if we want the general population to become more aware of Gypsies as a people, we need to stop using negative phrases like “gyped.” So, on a micro level, should I go for “realistic” or should I try to set the example? For now, I’ve chosen realistic, but I’m still brewing over the issue. What do you think?

    • That is an excellent question, and one that I’m still unsure about in my own work. But I’m going to vote for realistic. If our fiction is supposed to hold a mirror up to real life, then people in real life are not always (or even usually) politically correct. I always feel a strange personal guilt any time one of my characters says something derogatory or ugly or mean, because even though some of them are things I would never say myself, they’re still coming from me. I guess, as writers, we are the mirror, and our writing is what we see reflected in the world. It’s the reader’s job to understand and accept that, I think.

      And if the reader wants to read about an alternate universe where everyone is perfectly kind and generous and everything is kittens and rainbows… I don’t know – is there a genre for that? lol!

    • And well, on the other hand, it really depends on the genre, doesn’t it? As we’ve discussed here with Twilight, some genres are not required to represent real life at all, so does that mean they’re less likely to portray realistic “ugly” characteristics as well?

      • That genre would almost certainly be called “butterflies and rainbows.” 😉 And I don’t know. A lot of people talk about holding a mirror up to the world in fiction, but is that always the goal? And even if it is, I’m not sure that means that every detail needs to be as realistic as possible, or even the plot (most books would be pretty boring if they had “realistic” plots”), but perhaps just the message. The take-away. It’s not an easy answer. I think every writer probably has to decide for herself what her goal is and how to best accomplish it.

  • Paula

    This is such a good topic !
    The best writers are blatantly honest, meaning they will at some point offend at least one of their readers. On the other hand, when I write I can’t help but worry about what my readers will think and how it will affect the more impressionable young ones.

    BUT in all honesty, I enjoy reading work by authors who aren’t as worried about that.

    I’ve never read Twilight but, I have to say that I think it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach morality and an artist’s responsibility to honestly portray the world from their unique perspective (even if that perspective is flawed).

    • Thanks Paula! I really like this: “The best writers are blatantly honest, meaning they will at some point offend at least one of their readers.” I think I might make that my new motto, actually. 😉 I, too, prefer reading the bravest of authors, which are generally at the highest risk of offense. It’s authors like that who inspire me to take the risks I take in my own work. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Regina

    Writers need to be free to write realistic characters and show realistic outcomes from the choices those characters make. Readers shouldn’t be assumed to be dull-witted. Even if a writer makes an evil character seem glamorous, if the outcome of that character’s bad choices results -as it normally does in the real world – in harm, then the writer is not negatively influencing the reader. On the other hand, if the writer glamorizes negative behaviors and shows unrealistically positive outcomes they may be doing a disservice to truth.

    A story (wish I could remember the name) about a pedophile teacher comes to mind. At the beginning of the tale you are impressed with the teacher’s devotion to his students until it slowly and horrifyingly dawns on you that he is identifying young boys he believes show “homosexual tendencies”, befriending them, mentoring them, and grooming them for sex. He justifies this behavior in his own mind in ways that make the reader squirm. But the real challenge for the reader comes mid-story. The mother of one of the boys being molested justifies the fact that having found out it is taking place she stands by silently, pretending not to know, and allows it to continue. She claims that the benefits her son is receiving from the relationship outweigh the damage done and at first her argument is so creepily convincing that for just one insane second you almost question your own natural aversion to what is taking place. Then of course the horror of it slams you in the gut, the devastating crime against this child can have no justification. No matter how they are explained the actions of the pedophile and the mother are evil.

    So simply glorifying evil is a sad waste of a writer’s talent and a reader’s time. But using literature to explore why people do evil, what constitutes evil, etc., has value.

    I do not support censoring adult reading material. Though I do support standards and labeling for the reading material marketed to minors just as there are standards and labeling on movies. A parent of voracious readers like mine can’t possibly read and discuss every book their child reads unless they stop doing all the other parenting duties required when raising kids – earning a living, keeping house, shopping, cooking, etc.

    p.s I reserve the right to have a different opinion in the future because, like my current novel, I am a work in progress.

    • Hi Regina! Thanks for stopping by. There are some really good points in here. Surprisingly, you were the first person to bring up book “ratings” as opposed to censorship. That does seem like it could be a viable alternative, although getting something like that into effect would be a massive undertaking. And you’re absolutely right: parents whose kids read prolifically can’t possibly read every book their child reads and still have their own life. An omission on my part, for sure. Once again, there are no easy answers.

      And yes, I think discussing “evil” through literature is important. The problem with that, some might argue, is that a tongue-in-cheek satire could be gospel and permission in the wrong hands. We can never control the way people interpret things. Great thoughts.

      Also, “I reserve the right to have a different opinion in the future because, like my current novel, I am a work in progress,” is my disclaimer for everything in life. 😉

      • Regina

        I have noticed some Indie writers are labeling their work for violence, language, theme, and sexual content; some are even putting minimum age recommendations on their work like game makers (“suitable for ages 16 and up” sort of thing). I haven’t noticed any publishers doing that yet.

        • Yeah, me either. I think they’re afraid that if they start, the public will love it and they’ll have to reprint all of their old books at great cost to them. That’s just a guess though. Or maybe they’re afraid they’ll exclude their younger readers and lose that profit.

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  • Cricket

    My father was a cop for 25 years as he always told me bad ppl will find a way to do bad things. And I’ve found I agree if there were no guns there would still be knives, rocks, random household items. A book, movie, or song isn’t going to make you do something or change your base core. It may touc on settings that’s already there, but that’s it. Humans love excuses, and that’s what it all boils down, in my opinion. People will find an excuse to do what they want. People who love to be sad, angry, happy will find reasons or excuses to do. It’s always there in them they’re just waiting for something to blame their actions on. Unless its a great decision then they usually want the credit for themselves lol. But I also believe that when it comes to YA that as a teen your base beliefs are already there, you just haven’t gotten as much of a chance to put them in effect. But we also know that young people are desperate to feel love and acceptance and are highly sexual craatures, ad with books like Twilight we have to acknowledge that there teens out there whom even if they dot agree with the message will try to follow the example to feel those things, but it still is their choice in the end, and maybe a lesson learned about following your own beliefs. Like when you asked whether to write to teach a lesson to be moral or to tell the truth. Don’t we learn the best lessons and moral points from making the wrong decisions and suffering the consequences?

    • That’s the big question, isn’t it? I don’t feel certain either way. I’ve seen very good arguments for both sides (that people will do bad things no matter what and that books can have a real impact on people’s morality), so I can’t say with certainty. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, to be honest, as it usually is.