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.

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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?

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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.  A literary writer, of course, will display what everyday life was really like.

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

But 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 – be it for moral, intellectual, idealistic or cynical reasons – 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 2.2Frankenstein was the first novel of its kind.  The moral questions that Frankenstein ponders are troubling, 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 – creation of life being the ultimate, divine task – you have the responsibility to care for that life, and by not doing so you become responsible for whatever that thing you’ve created turns into.

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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.

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George Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate dystopian masterpiece, is a story that has radically changed the way we think about the government and our 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.

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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 blissfully unaware bakery worker with an IQ of 68 into a cunning genius, and the result of this new intelligence 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 our message.

Photo from January 2010.

Photo from January 2010.

So, with all that said, time for some big news.  I’ve finally completed work on the manuscript for my second novel!

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods.  Not quite yet.  While the exhausting first part of the process is now complete – and by first part, I mean writing and editing the whole thing –  this only means that it’s now time to, you know, get the novel out there.  Publication is a  very lengthy, detailed process, so it’ll be some time before any future updates on that front.  But as soon as news is available, I’ll definitely make sure to keep you guys updated!

Anyway, I’ll tell you one thing: I’m excited as hell.  While writing my first novel, The Cage Legacy, was certainly a heartwrenching experience – an experience that took many years, as detailed in my post “Why I wrote The Cage Legacy” – I can honestly say that the hard work that went into writing novel #2 has actually managed to surpass that of the first.  The creation of this new novel has been, by far, the most challenging, ambitious and emotionally-draining writing experience I’ve ever had, and I’m proud of what it’s become.  I can’t wait to share it with you guys.

-Nicholas Conley