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With great power comes great responsibility

Imagine this, if you will…

You turn on the evening news (or check Facebook or head to your favourite online news site or *gasp!* read a paper), only to discover there’s been another school shooting.

Many children were wounded, and a few died, including the killer, who was still a child himself. Later, when investigators search for answers, they find a copy of your book–which details a similar scenario–in the shooter’s locker.

Sad thing is, this kid wasn’t the first to find your work inspiring in the wrong kind of way.

***

Or, let’s say you write popular fantasy novels people can’t get enough of. One day, you come up with what you think is a really cool idea that borrows heavily from the traditions of a culture different from your own. When the story is released, you come under huge criticism. It turns out the people whose traditions you borrowed from are really upset. They feel you cheapened their beliefs and worse, marginalized them.

Overnight you’ve become the poster child for cultural misappropriation.

***

Maybe you’re a romance writer who gets this great idea for a bodice ripper about a married woman rediscovering her sexuality through an adulterous affair. Before you can blink, you’re getting hate mail from women who claim you ruined their marriage. Your book inspired them to cheat on their spouse, and now they deeply regret it.

What would you do if any of the above scenarios happened to you? (You don’t have to be a writer to play along.)

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately.

If I write a book about a serial killer, and the next Ted Bundy claims he got his twisted ideas from my novel, is it my fault?

No. Obviously that man was sick, and he probably would have taken inspiration from something else if he hadn’t found my book.

But what if three serial killers said I inspired them? Or five? Or ten?

At what point are writers morally responsible for how our work affects our readers?

RagebachmanWhen Stephen King wrote Rage, he was a high school student in the ’60s. He never imagined a world where the basic plot line of that story would play out in American schools over and over again.

But when King heard that four different school shooters claimed Rage inspired them, he immediately asked his publisher to pull the book. And because he is Stephen King, his publisher agreed.

In some ways, King’s actions backfired. As a result of the book going out of print, it’s now more sought after and first editions are extremely valuable, going for as much as $2000 on Ebay. Still, it’s probably a little more difficult for your average high school kid to stumble upon a copy. (Unless they’re capable of a five-second Internet search.)

I recently wrote about serial killer Robert Hansen, who was undoubtedly inspired by a little story called The Most Dangerous Game. Some of my readers commented that Richard Connell’s tale has probably inspired many murderers.

Yikes.

No one is going to take a writer to court because his or her book inspired a school shooter or a serial killer. (At least, I hope not!) We’re not legally responsible for how our work affects those who read it.

But are we morally responsible?

How would you react if the above situations happened to you? Did King get it right? Should J.K. Rowling apologize for deeply offending so many Native Americans, or is it better for her to stay quiet?

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45 Comments

  1. Avatar

    If someone who does horrible things is “inspired” by oranges, are we going to ban them? By definition, a mind askew will latch upon the things of this world in ways that are very different from most other people’s ways. It is what they do with that inspiration that matters next, and is wholly within their own control.

    Millions have been inspired by art of all kinds to create, not destroy. The original creator of the art is not expected to share in their accolades. Nor should he or she be required to somehow feel culpable for negative repercussions.

    A piece of art is a stone tossed into the water of humanity’s imagination; the ripples are how the water embraces it. They are the shape of the stone, but not the twin.

    Reply
    • JH

      Interesting perspective, Randee…but how would you feel if your writing inspired something like this?

      Whether personally responsible or not, I know I would feel horrible. I completely understand why King reacted the way he did.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in particular this whole thing about JK Rowling.

    Honestly, I get angry about all this.

    Fiction writers write fiction. Fiction writers write to entertain. Fiction writers write because they have something on their hearts. Fiction writers write because yes, sometimes they explore life through the lens of their writing.

    It’s not our job to preach or moralize or raise other people’s children. And if we were here to accurately represent everything as it truly was, we wouldn’t have written fiction.

    So it’s infuriating me that the same community (namely the tumblr community that I’ve been watching for the past six months or so) who INSIST that more characters of color should get written will turn around and attack a writer for trying to do just that.

    Would a person of color be able to better represent their own culture in their own words when they write? Absolutely. But then the readership would be more justified in boycotting the trade publishers they’re throwing their money at for NOT SIGNING MORE POC IN GENRE FICTION. But no. They will still buy only trade published books, never mind that 90% of the characters in it will be white because that is what trade publishing believes sells.

    As for my work being blamed for someone else’s transgressions. It’s a work of FICTION. It’s not life advice. And if someone can’t tell the difference, I’m pretty sure there’s a problem somewhere else. But yeah. People will always blame works of art because no one likes to admit to their own failings.

    I mean come on. Realistically? If a book really determines a person’s decisions without any other inputs, I’m going to go start writing a book immediately where Bernie Sanders wins and where Trump gets banished to an island with no outside contact. Surely we can make that happen? I mean. We trigger school shootings and ruin marriages just through the black magic of our words. It’s about time we used our powers for good. You know. Just for the novelty of it.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good points, Misha. I was wondering about some of the same things. Isn’t there a better target for their rage than J.K. Rowling? I honestly think people are going after her because they feel she’s powerful enough to change things.

      But that’s asking an awful lot of a single author.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        I agree. It seems to me that the certainty that she’d make money from “exploiting” their culture is the actual reason people are getting angry.

        So if I was her image advisor, I’d arrange for a percentage of her income from these stories to go toward uplifting and supporting these communities in a way that they seem fit.

        Reply
        • Avatar

          *see fit

          Reply
          • JH

            That is a freaking BRILLIANT idea!

          • Avatar

            I have them from time to time. 😛

  3. Avatar

    I’m not sure what I’d do. The human mind is a complicated thing. The goal of a writer is to awaken an emotional reaction.

    What if a reader accepts the prose as true to life? Relates so much that they see hidden messages between the lines or decide to reenact a scene. I can only image them living a nightmare or lost in mental illness. Either way, I don’t feel the writer/artist is responsible.

    The Beatles’ Helter Skelter did not kill anyone, Manson’s crew did.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      True enough, Anna. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
      • Avatar

        I’ve been thinking about this and I did have an idea I thought I’d share. There is room at the back of the book for a message from the author. Choosing their words carefully, and they could share their honest feelings about the events in the book.

        For example, My story is only an imaginary tale and I do not encourage or condone MC’s behavior. Blah, blah, blah…

        Reply
        • JH

          That’s a good idea too. Sad that we have to take that step, though.

          Reply
  4. Avatar

    I think we all have a moral/ethical obligation to everyone around us and in all we do. Nevertheless, each soul has freedom of will, each person responsible for and accountable for their individual actions and decisions. If some medium stirs something in a person that makes them yen to do something that is against their standards, morals, beliefs, or the law, that person has a responsibility to turn off that medium or remove themselves from it. Personal accountability for one’s actions is a very real thing,whether a person acknowledges it or not. In the end, we each have to answer for our own decisions and actions: the creator of the medium and the perpetrator of the crime.

    “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others.”

    There have been many yarns spun concerning Bonnie & Clyde, or Jesse James. Many portray them as some kind of hero. Some portray them as vile villains. One or two portray them as the sad, tragic mix they were. Perhaps the writer’s goal should be not to glorify the “bad” guy, to deal honestly with their subject.

    Bottom line, I think, goes back to that personal accountability: each writer must chose for themselves what they can live with, own up to, and answer to if need be. It’s a lot like life. Life & Faith in Caneyhead

    Reply
    • JH

      Good points, Barbara. Thanks for your insight.

      Whether or not the writer is responsible, and I’m leaning towards not–we’re creators of fiction, after all–I’d like to explore how one would feel in this situation.

      It seems to me we never know when something we create (or a simple Tweet) will cause a huge negative reaction. It’s worth thinking about and planning. How would you deal with it if it happened to you?

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I’ve been told numerous times my books only encourage things like rape and torture and young men will read my books and think it is ok to assault and rape women.

    To my knowledge no one has attributed their crimes to my books. I’d be upset sure, but I wouldn’t remove my books as a result. The world is filled with violent and over sexualized media both true and fictional. The only ones responsible for sick crimes are the ones actually committing them.

    I mean how many atrocities have been committed by people using the Bible or Koran as their reasoning?

    Reply
    • JH

      True enough, Tim. Still, it must be difficult to hear that kind of criticism. It’s a risk we take when writing horror.

      Do you feel King overreacted, then? Should he have left Rage on the shelves?

      Reply
      • Avatar

        I think he should have left it. I think even more so after the shooting. Not exploring that topic and not discussing it obviously hasn’t helped in the years since he’s pulled it.

        Reply
  6. Avatar

    An unbalanced person is going to be set off by anything – a book, a movie, a website. I remember in the 80’s bands like Twisted Sister and Judas Priest had to go to court because Tipper Gore blamed them for violence in youth. It never went past the hearings because you can’t blame a kid’s twisted actions on a song.
    Now, for me personally, I do feel a moral obligation, at least as far as sex and violence go. I also won’t buck my spiritual beliefs just to write the next best seller.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ah yes, and let us not forget when rock n’ roll and Elvis Presley were the work of the devil.

      Le sigh.

      Good point about moral obligations. I guess each author has to decide where they’re comfortable drawing that line.

      Reply
    • Avatar

      “I do feel a moral obligation, at least as far as sex and violence go. I also won’t buck my spiritual beliefs just to write the next best seller.”
      Thank you Alex. Well put, exactly what I wanted to say.
      Answering your question J.H I would feel awful, there is no way around it. I think about this all the time, and make sure that I am at peace with what I write.

      Reply
      • JH

        That’s very wise, Haneen. If you’re at peace with it, what others tend to bring to your work won’t bother you as much.

        Reply
  7. Avatar

    I agree with most of the other comments: idiots will do idiotic things and find any excuse to ‘justify’ their actions.

    Back to your original questions: if this were to happen to me, I’d feel scared and disgusted that my work would be associates with real-life crime. In King’s case, I would probably do the same, if only because the rest of the public needs to see you do something.

    In case of racism or cultural appropriation, the matter is a different one. First of all, I do write stories in different times, places and cultures, and I take the best care I can to be accurate and respectful within the means I have available to conduct me research. Nothing beats personal experiences, but aside that, even the best documented times/places/cultures will have variations and intricacies that are NOT documented. Or not documented correctly, for that matter.

    Sometimes a writer’s best efforts are truly the best possible, but as still condemned. The only other option in that case is to not write about anything but your everyday life.

    To make things more complicated, what is experienced as racism and cultural appropriation can be subjective. The use of certain words is universally racist, but depiction or descriptions may or may not be considered racist depending on who you ask. And for the record: I mean asking people from the ethnic group/culture involved, like the Native Americans in Rowling’s case.

    Who is complaining? Who is REALLY doing the complaining? The people you wrote about? In the case: pull it and rewrite with their input. Give them a voice and be open about that.

    Or is it social justice warriors who are complaining ON BEHALF of those people because they think a culture is being short-changed? In that case: let ’em rant. I’ve been on tumblr long enough to know that there is no satisfying sjw’s, so don’t bother.

    In all, an interesting topic of thought you stirred here!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Chris. I think your last question was rhetorical in nature, but I can answer it. In Rowling’s case, the answer is: both. The people complaining the loudest are Native American social justice warriors. I can see where they’re coming from, but would they have been happy with ANY white person writing about their culture? Questionable.

      I thought this topic was worth discussing, because I’ve been trying to put myself in the authors’ place and decide what I would do in their shoes. I’m still not sure. If it was a killer or a school shooter, I think it would be easier for me to shrug off, because obviously there’s mental illness involved. But, like you, I also write about other cultures–my current book features Native Americans–and if I really offended a lot of people of that culture, I’d be truly horrified.

      Rowling’s experience has inspired me to make sure I have some qualified beta readers lined up for this WIP.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    Oh this can raise all sorts of questions and issues. If I wrote something or did something that caused a number of people to do horrible things, I would think twice and , I would feel rotten! That being said, would I want my stuff pulled because of this fear that others will use it for destruction? No! This brings in censorship and I do not believe in censorship. It usually starts off with something that most people do find offensive but it never, ever stops there. It grows like a parasitic disease because a few people feel the power and want to control what others can read, write,see or hear. I remember when I was in High School, there was a bill that was trying to be passed to censor Margaret Laurence’s books to Huckleberry Finn! Due to the deaths of Wallace Reid (morphine), William Desmond Taylor(murder and still unsolved), Virginia Rappe (Fatty Arbuckle’s career destroyed) etc… the censorship board came into power with the movie industry and stayed for decades. Would I feel horrible and want to take my own books off the shelf, possibly but I would also know that kids will still find it. Psychopathic a holes, whether they are kids, teens or adults will do something destructive no matter what.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point about censorship, Birgit. If we start censoring books that may encourage bad behaviour, where will it end?

      I’d never thought about that angle. Thanks for addressing it!

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    We are responsible for our own actions and our own words. As are others. I reject “the Devil made me do it” or “my parents were horrible so I became horrible.”

    (Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884 into a family of lineage, wealth, and uncommon sadness. Alcoholism, death, demeaning insulting mother — all dominated her childhood. Yet she became a beacon of hope and compassion to all who knew her.)

    That said, I write of scrappers who overcome adversity with wit and humor to give a laugh or perhaps a hero to model after. I veer away from lengthy descriptions of blood or gore.

    An interesting post as always, Roland

    Reply
  10. Avatar

    We aren’t legally responsible and there are many criminals who claim books or entertainment made them do something and it’s pure BS. They are grasping for a way to get out of owning up to their crimes.

    So, are we morally responsible?

    Not sure we are. We can’t control what other people will do or how they will react. The most we can do is write sensitively on certain subjects and expect people to realize the biggest thing: IT’S A WORK OF FICTION AKA NOT REAL.

    Reply
    • JH

      True enough, Patricia. I wonder sometimes if people blame books or music just to escape responsibility for their actions.

      That said, if I’d been in King’s position, I would have felt horrible. It’s like he foretold a very ugly future.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    I’m sure I would be devastated if my work was ever linked to violence or even just vitriol, but when I calmed down enough to be objective, I’d know it wasn’t my fault. Each human is responsible for herself and the choices she makes. Inspiration for evil deeds is everywhere, if you’re looking for it.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Samantha! Our definition of what are evil works changes over time too.

      Look what people used to think about rock n’ roll.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    I was just reading about Robert Hansen in Ann Rule’s book “Don’t Look Behind You.” She didn’t tell the story as interestingly as you did, by the way. Anyway, I’m torn on this…because I just saw a story where a teenage girl was supposedly convinced to take LSD after hearing the Beatles sing about it. So should we have robbed the world of the Beatles’ artistry? There was a line in Scary Movie that went something like, “Movies don’t make psychos–they just make psychos more creative.” I think that’s true. The demons are there…and they’ll be there no matter what we write.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a great line, Stephanie…and thanks for the amazing compliment. I’m a HUGE fan of Ann Rule’s. She blazed an impressive trail for female authors. Before she came along, crime writing was for men.

      Hard to imagine now.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    That’s some deep thought. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I write and read fantasy. Even if someone is inspired to use their invisibility to pick pockets or fling fireballs at the archer loosing arrows, reality steps in and sets them right. I know I can’t summon water to blast a bad guy, but gosh darn it, I certainly pretend I can.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ha! Great strategy, Loni. You are (somewhat) protected by the nutcases with that choice of genre.

      But then again…look at the Dungeons & Dragons crimes of the ’80s, where kids believed they were actually their characters and murdered someone in the course of the “game.” Even fantasy has its weird following.

      Reply
  14. Avatar

    Those scenarios are an authors worst nightmare. I couldn’t imagine. I would feel responsible because it was my story, my characters, my words. But we have no control over what someone does after they read our stories, how they take it. I just hope nothing like this every happens to me. Or you!

    But you I do want that pencil gun. lol

    Reply
    • JH

      If I find it, I’ll get it for you. 🙂

      I hope it never happens to us either. We’re both sensitive souls. Who needs that added distress?

      Reply
  15. Avatar

    Our work is fiction. I don’t care how much research we do and how ‘real’ we make it sound. It’s fiction.
    People need to take personal responsibility for their actions. The words may have spoken to them, but they decided to act.
    No, King got it wrong. Don’t pull the book.
    Just because they get angry, doesn’t mean they can take it out on others.

    Great post!
    Thought provoking.
    Heather

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Heather! I appreciate the comment.

      I think you’re right about King. In the end, he only drew more attention to that book. But I completely understand his actions.

      Reply
  16. Avatar

    No, Rowling shouldn’t apologize and no, fiction writers are not morally responsible for someone taking perverse inspiration from their work.

    This whole culture appropriation whining needs to stop. It is but another way to censor speech and art and it’s detrimental to society. I do not condone any censorship. If something offends you, don’t read it.

    Those who claim a book inspired them may well have been inspired by those books but it’s no reason to act out. Whether the cheating spouse scenario or the homicidal one, those people made their own choices. Millions of people have read these same books and ya know what, at most they might fantasize about acting the part. The ones who act on it are responsible for themselves. It is their lack of control that is the issue, not what they’ve read.

    Reply
    • JH

      Bravo, Frank!

      Well said, as always.

      I do feel Rowling should have done more due diligence, but coming from the U.K., I’m willing to bet she had no idea what she was messing with.

      Reply
  17. Avatar

    Well this is a fascinating post and gives me lots to think about. I had no idea about Stephen King asking to pull Rage. I think he was trying to do the right thing based on who was using his book for inspiration. Writers can’t know who will read their books and how they will react. Thanks for giving me some food for thought today!

    Reply
    • JH

      No problem, Stephanie. I’m glad you liked the post!

      I’ve tried to comment on your blog, but I can’t seem to get the publish button to work, even after refreshing.

      The intent was there, though. 🙂

      Reply
  18. Avatar

    You pose very interesting scenarios. I had no idea about King’s book. In his case, it was a good decision, PR-wise. He has a lot to lose. Most of us don’t. As far as I’m concerned, fiction is fiction with regard to criminality. Unless you’re publishing a how-to manifesto of murder, you aren’t responsible for others’ actions. However, with regard to “denigrating” other cultures (not sure what Rowling did – I don’t read her), research, empathy, and sensitivity should be used to present fair depictions. Or writers can do what I’ve done and make up societies based on others, but without having to toe the pc line if you don’t name names. (The bloodwalkers in my book may be based on the Amish and gypsy cultures but are completely fictitious.)

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Lexa. In her “History of Magic,” Rowling referred to Native Americans as if they were one nation, which of course pissed people off.

      Then she described a few spiritual beliefs and traditions as magic, which really got their ire up. If you want to see what it’s all about, a quick search on Twitter will catch you up fast.

      Reply

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