Saturday, 30 November 2013

Should writers try to change the world? Or should we just shut up and write? Lari Don

It’s Book Week Scotland this week, and like many Scottish-based authors, I’ve spent the whole week (and this weekend too) rushing around Scotland sharing stories and chatting about my books.

But I’ve done other things too. I spent one of my Book Week Scotland days travelling to the northeast of Scotland, to the town where I was brought up, to take part in the campaign to keep local libraries open. (Moray council have recently relented, very reluctantly, to keep my home town Dufftown library open, but are still planning to close four others. So I visited one of them too, a lovely wee library in Rothes, where I met 50 local school kids and we all talked about stories and how libraries help inspire us. The kids were all familiar with and passionate about their library, and were gutted at the proposed closure. Here’s the notice. It’s closing TODAY. But the campaign to save it and other libraries continues.)

So, I went up north, and I told stories to kids in libraries because that’s what I do in libraries, and I got my photo taken and was interviewed by the press. And I hope that was helpful.

And this week, I’ve also started investigating a rumour about a proposal to cut the number of secondary school librarians in the city I now live in. If it’s true, then I’ll be getting stuck into that next week…

But I’m not just political about books and libraries. I campaign for a Yes vote in the independence referendum next year. I put out leaflets and knock on doors, but I also take part in debates as “a writer”, like one on Scotland’s future at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.

So, should I? Should I try to change the world around me, should I get involved in politics, when I’m just a children’s writer?

Why should my opinions be any more important than anyone else’s? Why should what I think about Moray closing libraries be of any interest to anyone, given that I moved away more than 20 years ago? Why should my opinions on school librarians be any more important than those of any other local parent? Why would anyone pay any attention to my opinions on Scotland’s future, any more than any other person living here?

My job is to make things up and invent happy endings. Why should anyone trust anything I have to say about the real world?

The answer is that of course my opinions are not more important or valid than anyone else's. However it might be easier for me with my “writer” hat on, to express those opinions and get them heard.

And perhaps a deeper answer is that artists of all kinds are experienced at “what if”s and imagining outcomes and creative original thinking, so maybe on big political issues we can lift the debate out of shallow ‘what’s in it for me’ waters and give a wider vision to the debate.

But here’s another question I rarely ask myself, but I thought I’d ask you: does a writer trying to change the world annoy or offend readers?

Most people might think writers have a professional knowledge of the value of libraries, so might forgive writers for being passionate about libraries, even if they don’t agree with us. But on more contentious political issues, where readers, publishers, booksellers, teachers and parents might have their own very different views, does going public with our opinions damage us as writers? Does it undermine our books and our relationships with readers?

Should I just shut up?

Personally I think that writers can do a huge amount of good – look at the money raised last week by the amazing Authors for Philippines auction – and that if we care passionately about something and if we can help raise awareness and get a bit of media coverage to help out other people who care passionately too, then it probably is justified. But I still don’t think my opinions matter more than anyone else.

And bizarrely I’m careful not to be blatantly political in my books! I suspect the underlying feminism of my collection of heroine myths, Girls Goddesses and Giants, is fairly obvious, but despite the Scottish setting of all my adventure novels so far, I've never mentioned Scottish Independence in any of them. I wouldn’t feel right using my characters (and readers) like that, in an artificial way that wasn’t part of the story.

So what do other writers, and indeed readers, think? Should writers try to change the world, or should we stick to creating fictional worlds? And has anyone ever been put off a book by the writer’s political opinions?

I’m off now, to draft a letter about school librarians while on a bus to another Book Week Scotland event. Happy Book Week Scotland, whereever you are, and please support your local library! (See, I just can’t shut up…)

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like you're going about things the right way. No one says you have to shut up, but to sneak your political opinions into a book, unless it's a book about politics... no. It certainly puts ME off a writer or, for that matter, an artist, and I bet I'm not the only one.

It's not that writers haven't done it before, whether it's politics or religion or something else. I just don't like being hit over the head with it, one reason why I'm not, for example, a huge fan of the Narnia books, though I recognise them as classics of their kind, and why I disliked a children's picture book everyone else was raving about, because it was hitting the reader over the head with a political opinion with which I agreed, by the way, I just didn't like the way it was done and didn't feel it belonged in that kind of book for children.

Andrew said...

Is silence about what is important to you really an option?

lily said...

Something that's very much on my mind too, Lari. I've worked as a journalist and in public health producing advocacy and behaviour change materials; both writing jobs which I thought were much more directly about 'changing the world' - not that I felt I did manage to change it much. Part of the reason I turned to fiction was frustration at not being able to properly explore what I thought were desperately important issues in the amnesiac world of journalism. But at the same time I share your reservations about literature becoming propaganda.

I guess you have to keep believing that the pen is mightier than the sword. I don't see why wondering whether your voice is somehow more valid than others' should lead you to question your right to speak out. All our voices are important. Perhaps you are fortunate that you have a way to express yourself (thought words) that others might not have. Use it, that's what I say (as Andrew asks, is silence really an option?) But use it honestly and responsibly.

I wrote an ABBA blogpost about a similar subject a while ago - in particular it was about readers becoming real-world activists. it was called 'read a book: change the world' - in case you're interested.

Lari Don said...

Sue - I totally agree about overstating politics and beliefs in books - I have a mixed relationship with the Narnia books for that reason, and I would hate to ruin a story I'm keen to share by shoving my politics on top. And I'm glad you think I'm going about it the right way - politics in real life, adventures on the page.
Lily - you are right, I am fortunate to be able to speak out to help causes I care about, and I'll check out your blog right now!
And no Andrew, silence is not an option, but probably overanalysing what I do as a writer is always a risk!
Thanks for your comments. Lari

SUNWAKE said...
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Alastair McIver said...

I think everyone ought to stand up for what they believe in, writers included. I think writing for children makes a difference, though, as you have to be extra-careful. Yet where do you draw the line? Should you avoid writing a children's book with a message about sharing? Or about tolerance? Should you avoid having same-sex couples in children's books? Or is the avoidance of it in itself political?

Roald Dahl annoys me a lot more than CS Lewis, perhaps because Lewis makes no effort at all to hide what he's doing. Dahl, on the other hand, never resists an opportunity to whack you over the head with his opinions on this or that, whether it's certain parenting styles, too much TV, or facial hair. He REALLY had it in for facial hair...

I think the rule is probably the same as the rule for everything else in writing: don't overdo it!