by Will Viharo
The short, easy answer to that loaded question is, “no.”
The more honest, much more complicated answer, which requires elaboration, is “it depends.”
Since this is a blog, not a tweet, we’re going with the latter option…
In my previous column, I discussed the issue of “political correctness” in fiction. As a pulp author specializing in exploitation (with emotional depth and psychological complexity, I should add), it’s something I’ve deliberated myself, opting not to censor myself simply to appease easily offended sensibilities.
But most writers of both fiction and non-fiction grapple with the need to directly confront important social issues dominating current new cycles, especially in this contentious political climate.
Of course, all political climates are contentious by nature.
You don’t have to be a politically oriented person or writer to incorporate topical subjects into your work. And even if you’re strictly going for sheer entertainment, you can still subliminally slip in a “message” regarding any particular controversy raging in the news, but cleverly disguised as fiction.
“Submitted for Your Approval…”
This is what many, many science fiction writers like Kurt Vonneget, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick, and television pioneer Rod Serling often did when earning a buck in their chosen trade. Their books were often dismissed as disposable pulp when they were first published, but are now regarded as literary classics.
The Twilight Zone continues to capture our collective imagination in reruns, challenging our definitions of morality and yes, social responsibility under the cloak of dark fantasy. Gene Roddenberry also created an entire universe of characters and worlds populated with progressive ideas (and technology), along with the monsters, aliens, and green space babes. Star Trek is currently celebrates its 50th as a major cultural influence.
Sans the socially relevant and continually resonant subtext, many of these works might not have enjoyed such enduring popularity, well into the future they only speculated upon.
So back to the question: as an artist, are you obligated to provide social commentary in your fiction, especially if its main purpose is escapism?
Of course not. But adding a dimension of humanity to your work will not only increase its potential for a positive audience reception upon initial release, but gives it a chance to seep into the general consciousness and perhaps one day achieve a kind of “immortality” due to the fact is it timelessly relatable, even for future audiences.
The degree of social consciousness evident in your work may, or may not, directly impact its cultural relevance. Conversely, if you turn your art into a preachy, subversive soapbox limited to a narrow, divisive viewpoint, you may wind up alienating much of your audience as well.
It really comes down, as usual, to your individual goal as an author. And you may have different objectives for different projects. Changing the world might be too lofty an ambition for someone just trying to eke out a meager living with his or her craft.
Also, you never know what will suddenly capture the zeitgeist. That’s almost always an accidental phenomenon, whether it’s Star Trek or Pulp Fiction or Breaking Bad or Mr. Robot or even Fifty Shades of Grey. In each of these cases, the creators weren’t shooting for posterity per se. They were just being true to themselves as artists, and in so doing, inadvertently hit a very lucrative nerve.
Basically, their timing just happened to be fortunate, something no one can really control. But their commercially creative efforts were frontloaded with a keen, shrewd awareness of their current cultural environments. They had their artistic fingers on the general public’s pulse, feeling something down deep beneath the surface of society that perhaps even most of their audience wasn’t fully aware of until it was exposed in an explosively popular piece of pop culture that inspired trends and imitators.
Not every creator will enjoy this type of massive success. But if you restrict yourself as an artist, never daring to stretch your own boundaries, you won’t ever be in the position to achieve true and lasting greatness. If that even matters to you.
Your call. No right or wrong answer. What was the question again?
“No Man (or Woman) Is An Island”
So again, back to the question of the day: do you have any social responsibility as a writer?
No. At least not in the sense of it being an automatic obligation (whether it’s necessary simply as a citizen is likewise your decision). But you do have a responsibility to yourself. And that obligation is simply defined as conscientious self-awareness.
If you really want to make a lasting mark on this world, and inspire or even enlighten total strangers with your work, pretending we’re not all connected on some level is not the way to go about it.
Acknowledging both our similarities and our differences as fellow Earthlings lets readers of any generation know you’re one of them. Or us, I should say.