People who create media have a lot of responsibility to the public. They must be sure that what they are sending into the world does not promote unfounded hate and be sure, also, that the message they send out does not harm a group of people. For most of history, I’d wager, humanity has not followed these rules. Film, literature, journalism, and fine art are filled with examples of openly hateful rhetoric that have ultimately caused incidences of social disaster seen in history’s harsh treatment of less protected people. It goes without saying that we can do better. However, if we know what writers ought not to do, what then should they be doing with their writing? The question becomes one that asks whether authors are obligated to write to advance the social good or if they can simply indulge their own fancies. Obviously, there’s a market for both explicitly socially aware books and books that are written to be fun romps through a story, or half the inventory of books we read wouldn’t exist.
This question popped into my head while reading think pieces about the upcoming movie Crazy Rich Asians, which is based off of author Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name. Admittedly, this book, and his two subsequent books, rocketed to top 10 positions on my list of favorite books I’ve read. They’re beautifully detailed, delightfully tongue-in-cheek, shockingly mean at times, and extremely compelling even in the face of events to which no ordinary person can relate. That being said, though, it would be a stretch greater than that of the most supple rubber band to say these books entertain any sort of radical social awareness. As one might tell by the name, the characters and the plot circle around the lives of the filthy rich. The books are high quality beach reads, in my estimation. They’re a romp and a laugh for sure, but they don’t hold much social or radical substance. Contrast that with a book like The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, which tells the story of a girl forced to grow up quickly after witnessing the death of her unarmed friend at the hands of a police officer. This novel, aimed at young adults, discusses the various intricacies of race and social order that come into play in a situation where racial lines are so deeply drawn. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and it seems the daily stream of videos documenting the violence wrought against black Americans and other Americans of color, Thomas’s book is certainly salient. At times, I cried reading this book because I knew just how painfully true to life the events were for too many Americans. Just as Crazy Rich Asians pulls no comedic punches, The Hate U Give pulls no emotional punches. It makes the reader look at America’s reality and refuses to let them look away.
Has Thomas done her job as an author better than Kwan did his, though? Clearly, Thomas’s book is more true to the social realities of the world, but Kwan’s is a fun read. It’s also not as if Kwan wrote his book in ignorance. He readily volunteers that his roots are in the same upperclass Singaporean society that Crazy Rich Asians pokes fun at. E.B. White, author of such books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, once said, “Writer’s do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”1 To go just off of this quote alone, it would seem that the weight lies with the writers like Thomas, who look the gritty, unsavory parts of life head on and address all possible angles of the situation of the story. Kwan doesn’t do this in his most famous series. Indeed, the current issue with Crazy Rich Asians, as Warner Bros. releases trailer after trailer promoting the movie, is that the story glosses over the reality of life in Southeast Asia. In all its frivolity, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy doesn’t address these issues. The story centers upon its upper-class characters, with all their issues and inequalities discreetly in tow amongst all the absurdity of their gilded lives. The same could be said of a Tyler Perry film, though, or any number of books in the urban romance genre. The full scope of reality just isn’t there in a lot of these stories. For many people, though, these surface level tales are necessary enjoyments. Sometimes, we need to be able to enjoy a story without hashing out all the difficulties that crop up between characters and storylines.
Of this issue, E.B. White said the following in the forty-eighth issue of The Paris Review:
“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”
An author is not devoid of responsibility, which is true of any position wherein a person exerts influence through the work they send into the world. That being said, it is hardly fair to expect only revolution and societal critique from people who offer us their work. (Of course, I would hesitate to rule out Crazy Rich Asians as some form of critique. It’s too funny to deny it that label). As E.B. White said, writers should write what interests them, only, they should be truthful and compelling in doing so. I expect that authors will be genuine in their efforts and truly attempt to put out quality work. Beach read or unflinching critique of society, the least a reader can expect is genuine, honest work. So long as a book is a thing of quality, there seems to be no reason why people should not enjoy it. As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes readers need books that don’t remind them of struggle and sorry. At the time, I was referencing children’s literature, but the same holds true for adults.
1 Plimpton, George, and Frank H. Crowther. “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1.” The Paris Review, no. 48, Sept. 1969.
2 Title slogan attributed to French philosopher Victor Cousin