An Amazon reviewer of Breaking Dawn, inside a passionate one-star review, explains how the problems Bella faces in the series get resolved in the end and then says, "So, girls don't worry. If you have problems, they will ALL work out. Is that what the author wants to tell her fans?"
Let me clarify that I don’t mean to criticize this particular reviewer or anyone who had problems with that book. I just find this example particularly fascinating and relevant to this discussion.
First of all, as a writer, I never sit down with a story and think, "Let's see, what do I want to teach my fans today?" Now some authors and some books force a message into the book, wrap a moral inside a story and kind of cram it down your throat. These books never work well. (I believe Stephenie Meyer is not that kind of author.) Any message that comes out of a good book will be the reader's call. You read the story, then your understanding, experience, and current need tells you your own personal message. Some might argue that “if you have problems, they will all work out” is a wonderful moral for a book. Others might argue that it’s unrealistic and too pat. It really depends on our personal experience, doesn’t it? Perhaps this reviewer has a current need to have a story express the devastation of life, the out-of-control destruction and confusion, and Breaking Dawn didn't do that for her. There are plenty of books out there that will deliver that message. Breaking Dawn isn't one. The reviewer had a very important, personal reaction to a story that is entirely valid for her, but be fair, it's not going to be valid for everyone. Your needs and reaction are personal--it's unrealistic to expect a book or author to deliver exactly the story you wanted.
Now trickier, I think, is answering this question: Is an author responsible for the morals a reader, especially a young reader, takes from her book?
I can say, I never write toward a moral. But then again, some writers do I read a fantasy trilogy a few years back. The first book was magnificent. But in the third book, I was shocked by how the author so obviously gave a moral to the story. It was a moral that I didn’t agree with, but even if I had, I’m very put off by a novel that asserts any moral. It wrecked the story for me. Later I read an interview with the author where he admitted writing the trilogy with the intent of teaching children about the dangers of x. This was shocking to me, and I think it’s rare. Most novelists are slaves to the story. It’s hard enough to write a book, let alone try to craft what it will mean to every reader and how it should instruct them how to view the world and live their lives. Nevertheless, I know that some writers do write toward a moral.
But whether a writer intends to moralize or not, are we responsible for any morals readers take from our books? I don’t know. In one way, I think writers who write for children especially need to be aware of what we’re saying and take care. On the other hand, I know there’s no possible way I can account for every way someone reads my books.
This has been on my mind recently as I’ve been writing this new book for adults, The Actor and the Housewife. The story centers around a married stay-at-home mother who meets and forms a friendship with a married male actor (and FYI, it’s not an austenland sequel, though it employs a similar narrative style). One of my early readers was concerned about the premise. Am I advocating friendships of married people of opposite genders? Am I encouraging behavior that can lead to adultery? Isn’t that dangerous? I took those concerns very seriously and thought and struggled with them for months. And ultimately I realized that I’m telling a story, and a story needs obstacles and problems. As a writer, I’m never trying to tell anyone how to live or even trying to make statements such as “friendships between married men and women are good!” As a writer, I’m trying to come up with an interesting story, and this story about two very opposite people (opposites in profession, belief, lifestyle, as well as gender) who somehow find common ground was fascinating to me. I’m interested in the characters and their journey, not the summation (I despise writing book summaries, avoid writing my own jacket text, and duck out of ever saying what my books mean). I write the story--the reader decides if there’s a moral. The moral the reader takes may be something about the importance of friendship, and they’ll decide that I am a like-minded and respectable person. Or the reader may read a different moral, such as “married men and woman should risk their marriages in order to be close pals,” and if they disagree with that idea, they could get offended (and write me angry emails). I had to come to the conclusion that the only way to prevent anyone from being offended by my books was to stop writing altogether.
Is J.K. Rowling teaching children how to be witches and wizards? Does Harry Potter encourage children to use swords and hide them in hats? Create secret societies in schools and defy authority? Set up elaborate pranks and drop out of school? Or is it just a story?
Is Stephenie Meyer telling girls that they should fall so deeply in love at age 17 that if their boyfriend leaves them, they should try to commit suicide? (and imitate the events of Breaking Dawn, which I won’t enumerate for spoiler reasons.) Or is it just a story?
Let’s assume that Rowling and Meyer are not moralizing but telling a story for entertainment. Are they still responsible for whatever morals a reader chooses to take? If a boy who read the Harry Potter series decides his principal is evil, sets off fireworks in school, and drops out to start a joke shop, is it Rowling’s fault? If a girl who has read Twilight is so distraught about a break up she attempts suicide, is it Meyer’s fault? (What if the girl has read Rome & Juliet too--is it also Shakespeare’s fault?)
Is the book powerful in and of itself, the carrier of a message that can change a reader’s life? Or is it just a story, and the reader is powerful by deciding if and how the book might change her life?
I think those who worry about what morals these books teach young people can sometimes sell them short. I don’t think young readers believe that they should emulate everything a character does, even if they identify with the character. I believe that they read a book, understand that it’s fiction, and take what they need from it. This doesn’t give writers for young readers free license to write dangerous and damaging stories, but I for one am not comfortable assigning where those lines are that we shouldn’t cross. I’ve talked about this before, but all I can do is try to live the best way I know how, and hope that as I try to write good stories that please my internal reader, good things will come through for other readers.
I don’t have absolute answers to these questions. But when I read, I try to assume that the other author, like me, isn’t trying to cram in a moral, but just trying to tell a story. And the power of moral is in my hands as the reader, whether to just enjoy the ride or find some nugget of truth that I can apply to my own life. For me, this attitude has created less stressful and more honest reading.
So the moral of this story is, when you assume, you turn the end of a verb into two pronouns. Or something. I’m interested in your thoughts on this sticky topic.