Writer or Teacher?
I received an email from a reader recently taking me to task over one of my books. The reader, a sophomore in high school, was “deeply, deeply disappointed” with one of my books (she had read two). It wasn’t the characters or the relationships that disappointed her, she pointed out, but rather something that happened in the story – a character has an abortion. She said she felt that I was “condoning teen sex.” She pointed out that “lots of girls read your books, and look to them for guidance with boys and teenage life in general.”
I immediately emailed her back thanking her for her email and saying that every reader is entitled to her opinion. However, I don’t feel it’s my job as a writer to teach morals (that’s a parent’s job). And while I respect her right to have an opinion on the story line, I’d ask that she also respect my right as a writer to tell the stories I want to tell. I didn’t start writing books to be someone’s moral compass.
I don’t write instruction manuals, they’re stories. They have characters. Those characters do things I would never do and they’ve done things I’ve never done. Who am I to preach anything as right or wrong? I’m not an authority on rightous behavior. We all have our own barometers for what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
I’ve read a few comments about the abortion in this book and they’re all tinged with some degree of moral outrage. Other comments about the story don’t even mention the abortion but talk about the relationships instead. I guess the degree to which that event impacts the reader’s opinion of the book has to do with how they feel about the issue. While I don’t see myself as preaching the pros/cons of abortion in this book or putting forth any opinion what so ever, I guess the fact that it takes place and the character isn’t punished afterward might be perceived as saying, “Hey, it’s fine, no big deal.” I can’t believe that any reader would take that away, as the character was deeply impacted by her decisions even if she doesn’t persecute herself afterwards.
A few years ago I was visiting with Judy Blume at her house on Martha's Vineyard and she talked about being, "one of the most banned authors ever" (FOREVER was the second most challenged book of 2005 according to the ALA -30 years after it was first published.) Judy's books always incited outrage by dealing with issues that were happening in kids' lives even if those issues made people uncomfortable. It didn’t change what she wrote about or the characters whose stories she chose to tell. And an entire generation of young readers embraced her honesty.
I’d hate to have public opinions on “issues” change how I write - or how any author writes - or what we write about. While, yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, I believe that authors are writers first. Let parents handle the morals lessons.
What do you think? Are writer’s expected to provide a moral compass or teach “acceptable” lessons to readers? How do you see your role as an author?