Writing as a Moral Act

My friend and Renaissance man Adam Reece passed along this intriguing post on the morality of writing from Caveat Scriptor. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the address for the original post.)  These excerpts come from a Wall Street Journal article by author Alexander McCall Smith on a writer’s moral responsibility to his or her readers.

The conclusion that I am increasingly drawn to is that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

The truth is that for many of us fiction is in some sense real, and that what happens to fictional people is, in a curious way, happening in the real world.

Although we eventually learn to distinguish between the world of make-believe and the real world, I suspect that many of us continue to experience fictional characters and events as being, in some way, real. This is because the imaginative act of following a story involves a suspension of disbelief, as we enter into the world it creates.

For the author, this sense that the reader has of the reality of the story has serious implications for how characters are treated in novels. It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint. A writer who told a story of, say, rape or genocide but did so from a neutral or, worse still, complicit position would be given very short shrift indeed. Readers and critics would be on to him in no time at all; indeed a book like that would be unlikely to be published at all. Why? If it is only a story, where is the harm?

Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because they become part of our cultural history. There never was an Anna Karenina or a Madame Bovary, even if there might have been models, but what happened to these characters has become part of the historical experience of women.

It can be very inhibiting for an author if he or she knows that what happens in fiction is going to be taken so seriously.

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2 thoughts on “Writing as a Moral Act

  1. I’m not buying it. Fiction is not moral… but it is emotionally charged.

    Seems to me, only thoughts and actions are moral, right or wrong. People are emotional. By and large, we make decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. This is why emotionally charged stories and speeches impact us so deeply, and sway our decision making in the future. So a very potent movie like Million Dollar Baby comes along and convinces the country that assisted suicide is a morally appropriate action to take.

    • Hi Toby,

      Yes, I think you’re right that our emotions are very powerful. That’s not always a bad thing, though, in my opinion — if you’re emotions point you in the right direction. Some philosophers argue that emotions are actually another way of knowing reality (for example, a feeling of disgust when a great injustice is committed). I think there’s some truth to that.
      I agree too that thoughts and actions can be moral or immoral. In the case of fiction (or any kind of writing), I guess I’d argue that the words and sentences are just the expressions of thought in written form, so that writing can be moral or immoral as well. I think you’re right, though, that we’re easily swayed by the wrong kinds of emotions.

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