Through My Lens: A quarterly blog for Genre Talk
Lloyd A. Meeker
— Through My Lens is just that – a glimpse of my thoughts, questions and opinions about writing craft issues, conditioned by my idiosyncratic worldview, my tastes, my perspective, my sensibilities. You’re in no way obliged to agree with me. In fact, I’m very interested to hear other perspectives. I welcome any comments that stimulate civil discourse.
How Can Writers Change the World?
I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered December 7, 2017. The following is a paragraph from it:
“I woke up recently to the realization I’d been living for some years in a bubble. That I’d failed to notice the frustration and anxieties of many people around me. I saw that my world – a civilized, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people – was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined. 2016, a year of surprising – and for me depressing – political events in Europe and in America, and of sickening acts of terrorism all around the globe, forced me to acknowledge that the unstoppable advance of liberal humanist values I’d taken for granted since childhood may have been an illusion.”
That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it, that belief in the unstoppable advance of liberal humanist values has been unfounded? What if it’s true? What would that mean to writers like myself who have long believed I had some kind of right to safety as I wrote stories built upon those liberal humanist values? Would I keep writing those stories if it wasn’t safe to do?
Umberto Eco said the real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else. How many of us would keep writing our stories from prison, smuggling pages of the next manuscript out in the body cavities of visitors? Who among us would continue to write plays that voice liberal humanist values in the face of official censorship, job loss, and the threat of incarceration? Countless writers have had to create in such environments before, and are no doubt doing so right now, writing in secret, knowing the police might pound on their door at any moment. It is currently illegal to “promote” homosexuality in Russia. My books do that. There are those in this country who would love to see the same prohibition here, but we have different laws at the moment. Which can change. What if that person writing from prison had to be me?
That’s a terrifying thought, too.
Ishiguro’s remark exposes a soft enemy that had nearly lulled me to sleep — the gentle narcotic of presumed entitlement to live under just laws in an open-minded, intellectually honest society where critical thought is respected, truth is revered, human rights are secure, and eventually good always prevails. How often I have comforted myself with the thought, That couldn’t happen here.
Maybe such naïveté flourishes only in my homeland, I don’t know. But in the land of the free and the home of the brave, forces are now openly at work to dismantle the social contract between government and governed, to ignore the most fundamental human decency toward immigrants, to eviscerate public education, and to disavow the slightest responsibility for environmental stewardship. The President has accused the press of being “the enemy of the people” and his press secretary, even when confronted directly, refused to recant on his behalf. Think about that. The press, of which novelists are a traditional part, is the enemy of the people instead of a voice of freedom protected by the First Amendment. Let that sink in.
Eco also said, “Not long ago, if you wanted to seize political power in a country you had merely to control the army and the police. Today it is only in the most backward countries that fascist generals, in carrying out a coup d’état, still use tanks. If a country has reached a high degree of industrialization the whole scene changes. The day after the fall of Khrushchev, the editors of Pravda, Izvestiia, the heads of the radio and television were replaced; the army wasn’t called out. Today a country belongs to the person who controls communications.”
Published stories are part of the communications that can be controlled. Whose writing voice dares to shine the light of decency upon the poisonous, hypnotic narrative of would-be dictators?
In a presentation at the Writer Unboxed conference a few years ago, and subsequently in his books and workshops, literary agent and writing mentor Donald Maass has been asking the question: how do you want your novel to change the world?
This is not an empty question intended for genre writers prone to grandiosity. It’s not only possible to do, but an obligation. JK Rowling changed the world with Harry Potter, much to the discomfort of the religious right. Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury did. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters established an entire genre that continues to influence social evolution of western culture. So many others, all around the world.
Way back in junior high English class, I learned that there were three basic conflicts at the heart of any given story: man versus man, man versus self, and man versus nature. (Yeah, “man” – it was 1960 – before that particular liberal humanist value had broken free of its chains.)
Earlier in his acceptance speech Ishiguro talked about relationships, not characters, as being the driving force of a novel.
Although framed in terms of conflict, that’s what I was taught in junior high – even though I didn’t realize it until Ishiguro illuminated it for me: at the heart of every story is a person’s relationship to self, their relationship to others, or their relationship to nature. How can these relationships NOT address honesty, transformation, empathy, compassion, and social responsibility? That is what I must write about, regardless of political reality.
It may not come to pass that I put myself at risk of persecution as I work to change the world through my writing. I may be able to do my bit to change the world through my novels in comfort and safety. I would like that very much! But would I keep going if that’s not possible? I hope I would be brave enough but given the right pressures, being a less-than-honest coward might become very attractive to me.
In the meantime, we each write what we must. Readers may read to escape their world, but it seems to me that a writer must face the world with as much honesty as possible, especially when a familiar way of seeing the world bursts like a bubble, stripping us of comforting illusions about the inevitable advance of liberal humanist values. Honesty changes the world.
For myself, I strive in my current project to explore the challenges of self-destructive arrogance in societal relationship to nature, even as it becomes clearer by the day that in the volatile relationship between humans and nature, nature always has the last word. Always.
About two weeks after Ishiguro addressed the Nobel assemblage, I sat down to write my Winter Solstice poem for 2017:
The world holds its breath tonight,
waiting for a turning,
for the smallest sign of a turning,
in a prayer
for a turning.
Cherished illusions of decency
crushed under jackboots—
men marching down my street,
turning out lights,
Most Solstice nights I feel
more hope than this.
I’ve used that hope to fire
my little sacrament to hold
the link, alive, in me,
the flow between above, below.
Tonight the rite begins in grief,
more pure sans hope, fulfilled
just because it’s mine to do:
Soar far and high
to drink the light unchanging.
Drop down, far and deep to find
a darkness that is kind.
Where to Find Lloyd: WebsiteAnd can we just take a second to say: We are so lucky to have Lloyd and to be the beneficiaries of the brilliance he shares with us a few times a year. Thank you, Lloyd. We love you.
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