The Writer’s Role in Society

For writers, self-doubt is something we’re all too familiar with.  It’s unavoidable, really.  Whereas most careers are built on concrete evidence and a clear end goal for each day, writers usually operate from a sort of murky, hazy subconscious desire.  Our goals are driven by a mysterious voice that sometimes chooses to speak to us… and sometimes doesn’t.

Really, it makes sense.  After all, a professional fiction writer is someone who gets paid to make stuff up.  It’s a thoroughly exhausting job that takes a long, long time, and usually offers the writer very little financial reward.  Writers aren’t writers because we desire worldwide fame and lucrative amounts of money: we’re writers because we’re passionate about writing, and because we have something we want to say to the world.

Nicholas Conley coffee dark

So, let’s ask the obvious question.  In a world full of such varied and highly essential careers as doctors, nurses, architects and police officers, why is writing fiction still important?

Put bluntly, what is the writer’s role in society?

This question goes beyond the simple entertainment value of a good story.  It also goes beyond the symbiotic relationship that’s experienced between a writer and his/her reader.  Not that this symbiosis is unimportant—in fact, for the writer and the reader themselves, that relationship is probably the most important thing—but it’s not what we’re discussing here.  No, our focus here is on what the writer’s role to society is.  What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can?


My answer is this: writers and storytellers are the individuals who have designated themselves with the daunting task of recreating the time, place, and characters of whatever era they live in. I feel that this is especially the case when it comes to fiction; while an encyclopedia entry about the 1990s might fill in the details, it doesn’t paint a picture.  A novel written during the 1990s, on the other hand, can definitively show the flavor of the time, the voices that were most important, and the subconscious fears that drove that generation’s actions.  The different fiction genres each demonstrate a unique facet of the writer’s society.  A horror writer will memorialize the discomforts of his era.  A science fiction writer will demonstrate that era’s views on technology, change, and widespread social issues.  A literary writer will display what mundane everyday life was really like. These genres, of course, can all be combined, mixed/matched, and so on.

By writing a novel, the writer acts to keep their era alive for future generations, so that our children and grandchildren can understand who we really were, and what we stood for.

However, there’s more to it than that.  Much more.  By nature, writers are teachers.  Again, writers write because they have something to say to the world.  They have a lesson to teach, a lesson so important to them—whether it be moral, intellectual, idealistic, or cynical—that they’ve sculpted an entire story for the sheer purpose of teaching that lesson.   To demonstrate this point, a few examples are listed below:

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the first novel to question the idea of creating life through scientific means.  While Shelley’s concepts have been used in millions of subsequent stories—from movies such as Splice to novels like Galatea 2.2—Frankenstein was the first novel of its kind.  The ethical quandaries that Frankenstein ponders are so troubling that we continue to ask these same questions today. As we, the readers, become absorbed in the story of Victor Frankenstein’s rise and fall, and then, as we find our sympathies slowly drifting toward the murderous creature, we are forced to realize that the act of creation is never the end of a process.  Once you have created life—presuming that the creation of life is the ultimate, perhaps even divine task—Shelley’s novel posits that you have the responsibility to care for that life, and by not doing so, you become responsible for whatever that thing you created turns into.


Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace, teaches us about the way that we use words and language to frame our society and our actions.  The novel questions the notion of free will, while demonstrating how one can use words to dominate other people; Wallace shows how well-constructed words can enslave one person to another person’s ideas, no matter how irrational those ideas may be.  Are we real people, or simply linguistic constructs, characters in someone’s novel?  Is there a difference between the two, really?  This is the question that Wallace’s protagonist, Lenore Beadsman, must ask herself.  As the readers of her story, we are forced to ask ourselves the same question, forcing us to learn more about ourselves in a way we would never dare to outside of the constructs of a fictional story.


George Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate dystopian masterpiece, is a story that has radically changed the way we think about society.  Yes, words like “newspeak” and “groupthink” have become part of our lexicon, but more importantly, what Orwell’s terrifying vision gave us was a terrible awareness of humanity’s own ability to crush itself.


Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes shows us that under the wrong conditions, knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Through an experimental scientific procedure, the developmentally disabled Charlie Gordon is transformed from a cheerful, kind bakery worker into a cunning, self-absorbed “genius,” and the result of this personality shift is gut-wrenching pain and isolation. In a society so driven by the pursuit of knowledge and interpersonal connections, Keyes makes us reconsider notions that we previously thought of as unspoken truths.

Questions. Plot. Characters. Morals. Story. Style. All of these things are tools within the writer’s cabinet, used—often subconsciously—to craft his or her statement about the world, and to reach the minds of others.  We write for ourselves, yes, but more importantly, we write so that our voices will be heard by those who desire (or can learn from) our message.

That is the role of the fiction writer.Photo from January 2010.

82 thoughts on “The Writer’s Role in Society

  1. As a first time, self-published novelist, I enjoyed and agreed with your post. I actually knew David Foster Wallace. I was a student of his when he taught at Illinois State University. What a mind. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  2. congrats on your progress with your second book! Funny you mention David Foster Wallace. I think I recently heard him referenced on the t.v. show “New Girl.” One of the characters was going on and on with a story, and another character called her David Foster Wallace. 🙂

  3. That was very interesting. It’s hard to tell why writers, singers, dancers etc are useful, but it’s more of an emotional thing. They do not save lives the way doctors can do. But somehow I believe it’s very important to have people that write and sing and dance and paint.
    What you say is very right. Books can really teach you something, or make you re-think some stuff. After reading 1984 I seriously started watching everything with ‘new’ eyes. Plus: if you read a book on a certain subject, you’re more likely to remember a lot about it. If you know what I mean.

    Either way, interesting post.

    • Yes, the powerful influence of art is something that definitely cannot be understated. Throughout my life, the fiction I read has always deeply affected my thoughts and beliefs; it’s hard to imagine who I’d be without it.

      While the methods we use to deliver our stories may vary – from campfire stories to books, cell phone novels to toilet paper books – what never changes is the importance that storytelling has on our lives, and the way that a story can reshape us.

      …and yes, that first time you read 1984 is definitely a game changer!

      • A life without fiction, hell no! As a child I was always reading. Now I’ve even got a course for which I have to read 10 books in 6 weeks. Though, but somehow it also gives a reason to read and that is nice.

        I must say I also think writing is a bit of a ‘selfish’ thing. I know I write because it pleases me. Like, I need it for myself. I don’t just write for other people.
        How’s that with you? You’re like a real writer, but don’t you somehow write for yourself as well?

        • Ten books in six weeks? Sounds great! I’m completely with you; I absolutely love reading, and I spent much of my childhood pouring through book after book – and I still do that, today. People who don’t read fiction are truly missing out on millions of other worlds.

          Now, as far as the selfishness of writing…

          Although the primary motivation behind my writing is to get my message out to the world, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s certainly a highly selfish element to it. Honestly, I believe that a writer HAS to write for himself/herself in order to produce quality writing; after all, if the writer doesn’t believe in his/her work, why would anyone else believe in it? Much of my writing is done for the purpose of working through my fears and insecurities, as well as defining my beliefs and shaping my philosophy.

          • It sounds great… as long as you don’t have to do lots and lots of other stuff besides that :).

            I agree on what you say about the selfishness of writing.It’s actually something you cannot do just for others, probably. And I think it’s a very good way of dealing with your fears and so on.

            I also think it’s brave to publish a book that’s so close to you and your experiences. You must have guts. But perhaps now there are people who can relate to it and who won’t feel alone (anymore). In that way writing can be very important. At least you give a way to escape reality for a while, and that is always fun I think :).

  4. Congratulations on completing your second novel! And thanks for this post. As a writer, I often question the worth of fiction and appreciate your eloquent reminder of its importance.

    • Thank you! Us writers have a notorious reputation for being overly hard on ourselves; after all, when a person devotes oneself to a brutally masochistic career like writing, how can that person not be plagued with self-doubt? Still, I do believe that it’s always healthy to remind ourselves why we’re here, and give ourselves a pat on the back for our efforts.

  5. This was a pretty profound post, despite being very direct and understated. I think you’re right, and despite our culture’s lack of appreciation or understanding for most writerly pursuits, I consider it a powerful vocation. I’m not fully sure if I’m a writer or not–an insecurity that I imagine many professional writers deal may with–but I still recognize the role of writers. If you haven’t read it, I think Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech as a lot to say on the subject as well.

    That said, thanks for coming by to like one of my posts and best of luck with the novel! It should prove rewarding, I hope. Cheers!


    • “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

      Oh yes, I love Faulker’s Nobel Prize speech; it’s quite a powerful statement.

      Thank you for the compliments! And yes, I believe that the insecurity you mention is very common; since it often feels as if we’re not truly writing so much as we are translating the words of a particular muse, it often seems strange to claim any sort of ownership over the work we’ve created. It doesn’t FEEL as if we created it, after all; it seems as if the story was already there, and we simply wrote it down.

  6. I am an Engineer by profession, but writer by passion..
    But having not published any books, having not been in the hall of fame- I am always questioned, “what’s the use of the empty words from your pen?”…
    I am yet to find my way, and yet to answer their question…
    But for a moment now, I can make those people read this.:)
    Thanks a ton for posting this marvelous piece.

    • Oh yes, the fierce, passionate hunger that drives all writers to create is difficult to understand, and even more challenging to explain to others. But to us writers, our proclivity for jotting down words on paper isn’t a luxury – it’s a need, as much a need as eating, breathing and sleeping!

      I’m happy that you enjoyed the post, and if this post’s existence helps you to explain your writing urges to others, well, that makes me even happier.

  7. Really interesting post, thanks. I think also that writing fiction is important because it is THE READING of fiction which i believe is something which helps us develop empathy and compassion. What, after all, enables us to understand that ‘the other’ is at the end of the day, someone like us, except that their circumstances, genetic, cultural, may have led them to different places, as well as fiction. The successful writer can take the reader into the heart, soul, thinking, visceral feeling of ‘other’, and maybe we then can walk for a little while, safely, reflectively, in the shoes of that other. The best writing presents us with the subtle complexity and variety of what it is to be human – even if what is being written about is set in a fantasy land peopled by talking saucepans! – because, after all the writer (at least so far) is themselves human, and their limitations are the boundless yet structured limits not of imagination itself- but of HUMAN imagination

    • Yes, absolutely. One of the best things that can develop from reading a lot of fiction is a greater sense of empathy. It allows us to really look deep inside the souls of other people, connect to them–and understand them. Great comment, and thank you for the excellent insight!

  8. Very nice post! That doubt is the scariest creature of them all! I think storytelling truly is important. It is after all one of the first forms of communication 🙂 But with all of the other story tellers out there, it is often easy to think we might not be worthy enough to be among them.

  9. You made some good points, but it’s my belief that often we ultimately don’t know the true reasoning behind our compulsions to write. The important part is getting out there. And we here at RoughTradeBlog wish you the best in getting your work published and read…

  10. LOVED THIS! Had to follow after reading! Thank you for visiting my little blog! Reeaally enjoyed this one. Am looking foward to reading more! On my way to work, but I WILL be back!

  11. I had to pat myself on the back since I had read all but one of these fine forecaster authors of what was to come. Loved them, too.
    Writers sometimes reflect current society and social morals. I like to hope they are our “conscience,” too. Great essay, N. Conley!

  12. You know, I don’t write fiction (I read it though) – I’m into poetry, but this makes complete sense to me. I suppose poets also have the same doubts, and function…we are all writers, after all. One just needs so many more words to craft a story/immortalize memories or moments/teach a lesson, than the other. (Now I am curious as to what lessons your novels pretend to teach…)
    I agree there is a “selfish” aspect to writing…that “need” to write…I think that’s where Passion comes from. A need to express, be read…a need for Connection. Com-Passion.
    What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can? (or any other artist, for that matter)
    THEIR story.
    Thank you for sharing yours, and congrats on finishing your second book. 🙂

    • “I think that’s where Passion comes from. A need to express, be read…a need for Connection. Com-Passion.
      What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can? (or any other artist, for that matter)
      THEIR story.”

      Love this.

      Yes, I think that poets, though they approach their craft differently, are driven by the same needs and desires. As you say, we’re all writers.

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your insights. Feel free to stop in anytime.

  13. I’m writing my second novel. It is a much harder task since I must use all the information and techniques that I learned from writing my first one. It can’t be as good. It has to be better.

  14. As an aspiring young writer, your words really inspired me. I included a couple of quotes from here in an essay my Language Arts teacher had me write – and what you said is true. Writers are definitely teachers, and the best kind of teachers – through books, you can learn what you want to learn the way you want to learn it. And writers are not only teachers, they’re artists, in the sense that their work can be interpreted so many ways. I think that it’s unfair that my teacher has taken the fun out of reading by forcing us to look for specific words, symbolism, et cetera in our books. Now people are basically just flipping pages to fulfill requirements, not even reading anymore. Wondering if you have any thoughts on that?

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this. I’m really happy to know that someone else understands why I think writers are so important to the world, and really proud of my dreams of becoming a writer. Thanks!

    • Margarita,

      I’m thrilled to hear that you found my words inspiring enough to include in your essay; thank you for that!

      I agree that part of the magic of books is how each reader is able to form a personal relationship with the story, finding their own meaning, and growing because of it. There is also a lot of research that has shown that reading fiction increases empathy by activating the brain regions associated with perceiving other people’s experiences. Interesting stuff, well worth looking into.

      In any case, you have much to be proud of, and keep your dreams alive. Thank you for dropping by, and I look forward to reading your writing in the future!

  15. So true on all points. Writing seems to get harder when money and deadlines and corporate meeting babble saunter in… Those things give the inner critic license to critique. Thanks for finding my blog. I’ll be following yours!

  16. These words are inspiring, I love it.

    But I have a question,, It a question that bothers me absolutely, It really does. And I will be glad If it could answered. The question: Do we have a great writer? And If we have, how do you suppose one.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    • Thank you for the kind words. As far as your question, if you are inquiring whether we have a great writer today, I’d say we absolutely do: not one in specific, but there are hundreds of authors out there who have encapsulated so many aspects of the increasingly globalized world we live in, in a vast array of intriguing, horrifying, and wonderful ways. So much good literature out there!

  17. “Orwell’s terrifying vision gave us was a terrible awareness of humanity’s own ability to crush itself.”

    I remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in about 1965. Even at age thirteen, I understood the gravity of what this writer was telling us would (and has) happened to our culture. I have not read Broom of the System, but your account of it makes me want to and the subsequent comments about its author make me really want to. Also, thank you for sharing this snippet from Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. Now I have to read that as well! Always, something to read. To comment upon. To ingest and assimilate. Experience. And then write about!

    Thanks this post about how it feels to write, about why we do it. It brings a certain solidarity to to those of us with a “compulsion to record everything on paper,” as Joan Didion would say. And thanks for stopping by #formidableWoman.

    • Thank you for this comment! Knowing that others connect to this post and relate to it makes this writer’s daily adventures in Fiction-Land just a bit sunnier. And yes, certainly make a point to read Broom of the System when you get a chance.

  18. Hi Nicholas–You make some fine points here on being a writer, and I’d add one: Some of us do it simply because we’re compelled, come hell or high water. Thanks for stopping by eve’s apple–and welcome aboard! ~Marisa (

  19. Many writers offer us readers a multitude of choices, freighting warnings, for the future and most if not all of these books are fraught with danger if we make the wrong choices: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Divergent, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Lord of the Flies, Handmaid’s Tale, Neuromancer, The Running Man, etc.

    But what happens when too many people do not read and the choices they make influence a future we have no control over?

    • Great points, scary truths. I think that the best thing we do can do, in this regard, is keep writing, keep speaking out, and do our best to help carve a better world out of the one that we’re currently living in. Even so, that’s no guarantee, but as long as we keep speaking up about the issues that matter, at least there’s a chance to turn things around; writers hold a huge role in potentially turning public opinion, especially on controversial issues.

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