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?


  1. I think an author's overall value system is going to show through in the work, whether or not it's through the actions of individual characters. I just think that's inevitable for most people. That being said, there are a variety of human experiences out there and to my mind writers exist to show and reflect upon those experiences not pass judgement on right and wrong.

  2. My books do have a kind of message--not a command that I set out to impose upon readers, but a point of view, a theme that grows organically from the story. I've discovered that different readers get different messages from books, though. And readers are also entitled to disagree with a message or think that it wasn't delivered effectively.

    But for a reader to take a writer to task for the message or point of view is--futile? Beside the point? Readers often want writers to tell a different story from the one the writer actually told, but sometimes I think that's as futile as asking the writer to "be taller" or "be younger."

    But I think this is the realm where readers start to become writers. When I was growing up, I so often wanted a book to go differently--I wanted the sidekick to get the girl, or I wanted a certain character to live or another to get punished. And I became a writer so I could tell my own stories.

  3. As writers we should be able to write the stories we want to tell. As in life, everything is not always perfect or right, but if we are to portray lifelike characters then we have to make them real. The good, bad and ugly.

    I have already raised my children and I don't want to be responsible for anyone else's moral training.

    If you are reading something that doesn't sit right, put it down and find something that does.

  4. The author has to stay true to the character and the story--that's the only obligation, I think!

  5. Great post, Jenny! And what a well-thought out response you sent to that reader. I have to say I agree with you 100%. I write to tell a good story and be true to my characters and their voices, not to be someone's moral compass.


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