Should we believe everything we read?

So here’s a question for you. How likely is it, do you think, that either Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelson (both of whom have portrayed serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter) actually approve of – or even yearn to – murder someone and eat their liver with some fava beans and a glass of chianti?

If you’re inclined to answer ‘Not terribly’, then we’re on the same page.

Now consider this. How likely is it that the creator of Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris, actually approves of – or even yearns to – murder someone and eat their liver with some fava beans and a glass of chianti?

Again, if you’re inclined to answer ‘Not terribly’, then we remain on the same page.

(A caveat. I suppose it’s within the realms of possibility that these three men in fact do approve of and yearn to commit  the above-mentioned atrocities, and have sublimated the desire through vicarious, fictional means … but I confess I’m feeling doubtful on that. And even if it were the case, vicarious is better than actual, yes?)

Anyhow … the reason I raise the question is because sometimes we readers seem to think that if an author writes something in one of their books it means that’s what they truly believe in real life. So if someone writes a book in which one character gets her jollies murdering babies, or people of a different religion or race or sexual orientation, then clearly they think it’s a fun way to spend the weekend, too. Or if they write a character who rapes the wives, mothers, sisters, of the men he’s defeated in battle then obviously they’re endorsing and celebrating the crime of rape.

And yet, if at any time either of those imaginary books was turned into a movie or a tv series, nobody would blink an eye at the actors portraying those characters or assume that those actors endorsed the actions or beliefs of the people they were pretending to be. I mean, does anybody really think that Charlize Theron is playing herself in the movie Monster?

Why is that, I wonder? Is it because we – as an entertainment-consuming culture – don’t question the separation between actor and role? And is it because the written word still carries so much weight, so much inherent authority, that we automatically, even instinctively, assume and/or believe that the person who wrote the words is revealing some kind of inner truth about themselves and their own codes and beliefs every time they publish a book?

For my money, the answer to the first question is yes, absolutely. And it’s also yes to the second … and that’s where we run into trouble. The bottom line is, there’s no hard and fast rule. Sometimes the writer really does believe and approve of the words coming out of her characters’ mouths. Sometimes a writer’s characters are stand-ins for themselves. But it’s only sometimes. Not always.

It’s widely accepted, for example, that Ayn Rand’s books are a dramatised expression of her personal beliefs. It’s also widely accepted that the same can be said of George Orwell. In fact that there are many writers whose books and/or characters are vehicles for personal social, philosophical and political points of view. You could even argue – and I would – that Nora Roberts’ work is an expression of her belief that love and marriage and family are essential elements of a fulfilled life.

But where, exactly, do we draw the line on this? If a writer tackles a subject or creates characters that are confronting, aggressive, violent, selfish, vicious, bigoted, hateful, obscene, heretical, anarchical or just plain unpleasant: are we, as readers, to assume that these are values and behaviours of which that writer approves and wishes to champion?

George RR Martin, author of the internationally popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, has been accused in some circles of supporting paedophilia because one of his female characters is (to our modern sensibilities) very young when she’s married off. Can this possibly be true? Or is it more likely that Martin, a serious history buff with many many years of serious research under his belt, has simply borrowed a sociological fact from the past and incorporated it into his fiction?

It should come as no surprise that I’m absolutely sure the former is nonsense and the latter explains his reasoning. And it concerns me a great deal that the accusation could be made in the first place. Really? Is including something unpleasant in a novel – be it the marriage of a teenage girl or the burning down of a village or the use of government or military power to silence opposition – inevitably and always tantamount to endorsing it? Or the fact that those acts within the context of the narrative aren’t condemned means the author is actively promoting them?

Surely the answer to that has to be no. Because if it’s yes then writers as a group are in serious psychological trouble! I mean quick, lock up Michael Connelly and throw away the key! And Jonathan Kellerman! And Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton and Stephen King. And as for Quentin Tarantino, well … with that man free to roam the streets is any of us safe?

Yes, I’m being facetious. But only a little bit.

I know, I know … there is a consistent theme with these writers, in that good usually wins out over bad, and a turbulent world is set to rights by the end, and therefore it might be fair to assume that they’re expressing their own world views. But that’s not always so. Sometimes in their stories good doesn’t win at all, or only wins a little bit, or loses more than it gains even though technically it’s won.

So what does that mean? If the good guys lose, does that mean the writer believes in and celebrates the triumph of evil? If the world he writes about is a grey shadowland of moral and ethical compromise – think John Le Carre – does that mean he believes that absolute moral clarity and conviction don’t exist? If there is no happily ever after ending, does that mean she rejects the idea of happiness?

Well … sometimes it does, yes. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the writer is merely playing devil’s advocate, exploring different realities, creating a villain or villainous circumstances against which his heroes can’t prevail, in which terrible acts are celebrated as just and right, in order to experience a different truth  … and sometimes that really is what the writer believes, and the story she’s telling is in fact a thinly-disguised treatise illustrating her own beliefs and philosophies.

So how do we readers know what to believe? How do we know what’s true about a writer, and what’s pretend? It’s tricky, isn’t it? The truth is, writers do reveal themselves in their stories – even the less complicated kind. Themes emerge. Ideologies and philosophies shine through. Could anyone doubt that JK Rowling believes in the power of love to transcend evil, or the dangers of corruption and absolute, unchecked authority?

Or is that simply what she wants us to think?

Here’s the thing. Any writer can tell a story with themes and a narrative that support the exact opposite of what they personally hold dear – just as a vegetarian actor can play a character who’s an enthusiastic carnivore. Or vice versa!  Storytelling can deal in truths … but it can also deal in lies. Or at least in pretend and make-believe.

And I have to tell you, that’s a big part of the fun. Ask any actor – playing the villain is nearly always more of a buzz than playing the hero. Villains are liberating. Like it or not, they are. Sometimes it can be so wearisome, being good all the time. Sometimes there’s a part of us that just wants to let rip. Indulge the dark side. Think only of ourselves for a time. Is that admirable? No. But it is totally human. And here’s another thing – being bad isn’t the only liberation. Just being someone else for a while – the plain girl who gets the handsome boy, the underdog who saves the day, the shy kid who lands the lead in the school musical and blows everyone away with their amazing voice – is so much fun! Why do you think so many people go into acting?

But what about the nastier stuff? Where’s the payoff for that? Well, sometimes the dark side needs to be explored. Sometimes a writer wants to examine and dramatise the underbelly of humanity. Sometimes, drawing from human history, the underbelly wins. Or seems to win. And sometimes a writer wants to experience that, investigate that. But that doesn’t mean the writer agrees with or approves of that underbelly environment or the people who populate it, profit from it. Which means it can be dangerous to assume that a writer who spends time in the dark side is a dark person who celebrates the dark.

It’s the same with individual characters.

The thing is, storytellers are actors too. Novel writers play all the characters in their books. And while some of those characters might be a bit like them, some of them won’t. In fact, some of them will be nothing like they are. Which would be the point of writing fiction – the entertaining type, at least. In that kind of fiction you get to be someone else for a while, you get to dream and pretend and have adventures. Just like an actor.  And even in the fiction-as-morality-and/or-cautionary tale  stories, there’s still an element of escapism. And there will still be characters in there that don’t embody the writers’ personal points of view – and characters who are reprehensible, evil, who like to cause pain and destruction.

But again, it’s a big mistake to assume that those characters are espousing the writer’s beliefs. And assuming that writers and their work are mirror reflections of each other, that a man who writes about a rapist  thinks rape is okey dokey or a woman whose female protagonist hates men must be a misandrist – well, it’s faulty thinking.

It seems to me that a writer must be free to explore all kinds of stories, all kinds of attitudes and scenarios and viewpoints – even if they’re confronting and unpleasant – without fearing they’ll be unthinkingly criticised for believing what their characters believe or supporting those characters’ less savoury actions because readers assume that there is no difference between the story and the storyteller. Surely we, as readers, can separate the two, just as we keep separate an actor and the role he or she plays.

And if it should be that there’s stuff in a story we don’t like, philosophies or politics or language or religious opinions that offend us, and it seems fairly clear that the writer is on board with them … so what? Aren’t writers entitled to their own opinions, their own philosophies, their own points of view? And aren’t they also entitled to explore those opinions and so forth in any story they choose to write? Without the people who disagree with them trying to shut them up, shut them down, make them go away for the crime of seeing the world differently?

I think it’s crucial we answer yes to that. Because if we don’t, we’re endorsing a totalitarian view of the world. And totalitarian thinking leads to the death of creativity … and freedom.

And that would be a crying shame.

You see, I believe in freedom of creative expression. I believe art must wither and die in an atmosphere of fear, of social, religious and political repression. I believe that the reading public decides what works and what doesn’t. And I reject, utterly, the notion that one group of people has the right – or the wisdom – to arbitrarily decide what is and isn’t good enough or acceptable enough or safe enough or ‘right’ enough  for the public to read. I reject the idea that fiction can only be interpreted as a kind of litmus test of the writer’s world views, and is an infallible barometer of what those views are. People aren’t that simplistic. Writing isn’t that simplistic.

The greatest danger to the future of writing is that writers end up silenced, intimidated, too afraid to write their stories because someone they don’t know might not like what they’ve written – or misread, misinterpret, what they’ve written – and respond to it by setting up a witch hunt to ruin them.

I don’t want to live in that world. I believe there’s room for all kinds of stories and all kinds of storytellers. And even if a writer writes horrible things and believes the horrible things she writes, I believe it’s vital that she not be silenced, that she be free to write and believe them – because the alternative means that one day someone might decide to silence me.

2 thoughts on “Should we believe everything we read?

  1. Absolutely!! I enjoy writing and I sure as hell am nothing like most of my characters. I enjoy exploring some dark stuff, but that doesn’t mean I agree with any of the sentiments that my characters portray. How ridiculous to accuse Martin of such a things!

    • It’s a very peculiar phenomenon, this notion that whatever a person writes in a story must be an accurate reflection of their personal beliefs. It does bamboozle me how people can’t understand the notion of writing fiction. And I do get cranky when it leads to unfair accusations and public slandering!

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