Like Tobin and Lauren, I agree that what we believe, our world views, our way of understanding people, can't help but leak through into our stories and structure them, whether we want them to or not. And that this is a good thing. There's a reason we want to read books written by human beings, not robots or board room committees. I like my world views. I approve of them. I'm thrilled when I hear a reader has taken good from my stories, that their life has improved somehow, that they've become more tolerant of others or of themselves, that they've thought through questions the story posed in a positive way. This is great! However, what I keep coming back to is I cannot control this nor do I seek to. I cannot force this. I cannot write from a teaching place if I hope to create an effective story. This knowledge may matter more to writers than to readers, but I think it's important to acknowledge.
Like Mette, I lament that some readers interpret this leakage of personal beliefs as an AGENDA on my part. I don't think I have an agenda. However, like Lauren, I do have wishes for the world that leak through and I'm not a bit sorry if readers adopt them. Some beliefs I notice perpetually in my stories are that I believe girls are awesome. I believe boys are awesome too. I believe everyone has unique talents, some they're not aware of yet, and many that won't show up on a No Child Left Behind test. I believe that we can all make choices. I believe there are many ways to look at one idea. I believe our relationships with other people are the bedrock of happiness. Even with all my awesome beliefs in my quiver, I couldn't write a book trying to teach these ideas. That would fatally wound the story. And since I don't make an effort to "teach" these things, it's possible a reader won't take these things away from my stories but something else entirely. And that's okay. Whatever a reader gains from my stories on her own will be much more powerful than whatever I could try to teach.
I've said this before, but when people praise me for the positive influence my books have had in their lives or in the lives of kids, I'm grateful, but I think they're giving me way more credit than I deserve. The reader is an ENORMOUS part of this interaction.
Megan Whalen Turner added in a comment on the last post, "I wish I'd had MT Anderson on hand here in Pomona when I was going around and around with Roger Sutton trying to illuminate the difference, if there is one, between telling the reader what to think about something and telling the reading something you'd like them to think about. Both are attempts to guide world-building, but the underlying assumptions are very different." It's this elusive difference that I feel is SO important to a writer during the process and can be important as well to a reader in understanding that process and the responsibility of the writer.
Like Brandon, I believe characters need to have their own moral compasses. Of course, their moral compass may not be the same as mine, as Mette points out. For example, Enna and Isi, despite their friendship, see the world very differently, and I decided as an author to stay out of it and not side with either of them! (I try never to get between those girls.) Brandon notes that themes naturally occur as you write, but an author forcing them kills the story. It's rare, but some authors openly do that, and I feel like I can smell an agenda on a story. Even if it's one I agree with, I hate that. Totally takes me out of the story and make me suspicious of every word. Just tell the story and trust me, the reader, to come away with what I need!
I would argue that the very essence, the purpose, the power of of fiction is NOT to teach meaning. It's to tell a story. A good story is full of questions, of different kinds of characters, of incidents that weave together to make a whole. Through the journey of the story, the reader finds her own meaning, and it's such a unique experience, her journey and understanding will be different than any other reader's. The experience must be different than that of non-fiction or there's no reason for it. A fictional story about rape or loss or growing up should not provide the same experience as a text book or information pamphlet. It should not seek to. A fiction story has to let go, not hit every bullet point, not attempt to cover every aspect of the topic and make sure everything is crystal clear and unable to be misunderstood. A fiction story has to trust the reader to attach her own beliefs, understandings, needs to the story to make it a complete experience.
I have a six-year-old son who I keep from reading certain books and watching certain movies he is not ready for. I believe in a parent's understanding of her own child's readiness. But I do believe that for the most part, kids take what they need and what they're ready for. I know many of you disagree with this, and maybe someday I'll change my mind, but that is my belief. I have 7 and 8-year-old readers of the goose girl who claim it as their favorite book. They can't possibly get out of it all that a 15-year-old or an adult might, but they absorb what they need and can handle. This does not mean that I'm going to write erotica for preteens. That would be stupid. I listen to my own internal reader, a combination of myself now and all my younger selves, to guide what stories need to be.
Like Janette, I'm uncomfortable with stories that depict young people doing potentially harmful things without what seems to me a natural exploration of consequences. I was not sexually active as a teenager. I've seen first hand harsh and life-changing consequences to friends who were sexually active as teens. Sometimes they truly didn't understand all the implications of their actions and twenty years later still mourn their behavior. But like Holly, I'm keenly aware that what one reader might find uncomfortable and unrealistic is absolute reality to another. I believe that an author can't control the many ways a story is read and received, and so their responsibility must be to their own internal compass and to the characters, and cannot be to every individual reader. At least a teacher in a classroom can see her students and knows something about them--their age, their geography, and often their personalities and backgrounds. A writer has endless potential readers we know nothing about and cannot control. How could I possibly write to every reader? How can I determine what each reader who might read my book might need to hear and might be mature enough to face? I've learned from hundreds of reader reactions that most everyone feels that their own standards of right and wrong are somewhat universal. They're not. What seems like flagrant irresponsibility to one person can be honesty and power to another. As parents, we cannot put our own morals and beliefs into the hands of an author or rating system. Only we can set that standard for ourselves and teach our children how to set their own.
Like Ann and Mette, I worry that some readers (parents) expect all my characters to be model persons and only do what I'd want my own child to do. That would take away the power of the story and the whole reason for books. I think it's a mistake to assume that anything a character does in a book is approved and encouraged by the writer. Heck, I don't approve or encourage many of the things I've done in my life. Hopefully I've learned from them and am a better person for it.
Like Holly, I believe in the importance of many stories, including some that some readers aren't comfortable with. And in the magic of stories that allow teens to figure themselves and others out.
I've heard from many parents that they trust me as an author, that they feel safe giving my books to their children because they trust I won't write anything inappropriate. I know many of you want me to say that I believe an author must be responsible for every word they write, every story they tell. That those who write for young readers have an obligation to make sure they're not being irresponsible with the stories they tell. But I can't say that. It would be dishonest, because it's just not possible. If we required that of authors, there would be no more books. As a writer, I can only be responsible to myself, my internal reader. I try to live a good life, to keep an open mind, to keep learning, to seek to understand people, especially those different than me, and hope that my own life and understanding comes through my stories in a positive way.
Stories are powerful, and their power comes from their openness. They should be easy to enter. They reach us more profoundly than can a lesson or a list because they allow us to insert ourselves, apply our own experiences and beliefs. The more work the author does to prescribe what a reader should take from the story, to micromanage the message, to assure the reader takes nothing from the story but what the author judges is safe for them to take, the less power the story has and the less a reader can change from it.
So let it be written, so let it be done.
Anyhoo, in conclusion, books are cool. Thanks to my awesome author friends for taking the time to share their insights. You're cool too. So be cool, commenters, and give us your own awesome POV. And next post, I'd like to open the can of worms that is the theoretical book rating system, as I think that's an interesting topic with so many opinions!