A writer of fiction must be brave. Now some of you will think this is a rather self-indulgent; bravery is the province of people who take on terrifying challenges. Firefighters are brave (of course they are!), not authors! Burning buildings versus blank pages, sure that sounds equivalent.
But … hear me out.
I’m going to suggest that telling the truth is terrifying to the vast majority of humanity, and the best writing is always concerned with the truth. I don’t mean the act of not telling lies; fiction authors are, literally, in the business of making things up; a lot of things; worlds of things.
However to tell stories that resonate with other humans, they must uncover both their own truths, and those of others. That, I contend, is a scary business: many of our truths are not things we want laid bare, even for our own regard.
Let’s start simple, and look at the creation of villains. No great literary villain comes absent of understandable motivation. Hugo’s Javert is born into bohemian exclusion, and in seeking to reject it becomes a legalist. Ultimately not a two dimensional evil-doer, his internal conflict, not the hero’s blow, is his undoing. Hugo reveals his understanding of such a mind, his apprehension of such a world view, when he creates Javert in ink.
Yes, but that’s impressive you say, that’s showing off, not being brave. Maybe, but I’m just getting started.
Let’s up the ante and look at American Psycho. Patrick Bateman’s brand of evil is entirely believable, and all the more disturbing for it. Easton-Ellis makes it seem not unreasonable to make the leap from shallow consumerism to sadistic murderer. There’s a lot of technically competent shock literature in the world, so what sets American Psycho apart?
Truth. Bret himself, far after the book’s massive success, revealed that the basis for the book was his own mental decline in the face of rampant cosmetic consumerist indulgence. It took guts to put that understanding on a page for others to read. It’s not that many of us who make small talk at parties based on our intimate understanding of psychopathic necrophiliacs.
That’s one type of bravery the writer needs, to be able to reveal the capacity to think, and understand, in ways that may be ethically and morally questionable. The name Edgar Allen Poe has brought shivers to generations of readers, and those who have only heard of him. The name, not only the books!
Moving on, there’s the bravery in revealing what you may actually think. Jim Butcher isn’t shy of showing off Harry Dresden’s enduring notice of female, anatomical, physical beauty. He has surely learned that this earns his some extended criticism amongst an unquiet bunch of his readers. Frankly, his books (which are fantastic, if you like fantasy ad you haven’t read them get on that!), wouldn’t suffer from less of it. He is, I’ve read, a male who has yet to reconstruct his attitudes towards the opposite sex, and that’s a kind re-statement. Still, he commits his ideas to the page, and basically says that’s who his character is, and it’s not to be apologised for.
Ok so he’s not Rosa Parks, fair play. Still there’s a level of boldness in standing by you write, when you know it might not be universally popular with your critics.
Moving to something entirely more profound we might look at The Golden Notebook. Doris Lessing didn’t only challenge the shape of the novel, she named menstruation as a topic people could openly discuss. That’s a horrible reduction of the seminal novel, where she also looks at mental health, and dares to suggest that women can, and should, openly criticise men. Basically, she published in the face of a mostly hostile establishment, and a society that didn’t talk about periods. You might name this having the courage of your convictions.
Maybe an extreme example would be Orson Scott Card, who, if you’ve had the bravery (haha) to read the “Ender” sequence of books, really doubles down on homophobia, as a virtue. Now, viewed from one view point, the one most of us are standing at, this is a stupid idea, and a testament to highly questionable beliefs.
All the same, he puts it out there, he knows there will be a strong backlash, but it doesn’t stop him.
I guarantee there are, and have been, authors with similarly dodgy ideas who preserve their sales and popularity by not putting them on paper. Orson may be an enemy of reason, but he doesn’t lack for a certain type of genital fortitude. If you find this distasteful, I’ll retreat behind Evelyn Beatrice Hall and drink some tea.
The final type of bravery I’ll cover is the bravery to look, and think about matters, that make most of us uncomfortable and unhappy. Solzhenitsyn, in Cancer ward 10, may well have been writing a masterful critique of Stalin’s USSR, but he was also spending a great deal of time considering a subject, I for one, prefer to think about as little as possible. There’s a fortitude of spirit required to translate feared disease into literary form.
We might, finally, pay a visit to Harper Lee, who, posthumously, hasn’t been given the kindest of reception for Go Set a Watchman. If you haven’t read this, or aren’t aware of the controversy please look away now.
Set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel takes Scout back home to Atticus, her great hero, only to realise his latent racism. I think there’s courage required to take a literary figure, beloved by generations, and then write your truth in opposition to that popular image. Critics questioned her soundness of mind, such was the approbation. Still, it wasn’t a lack of literary skill that created such a reception.
If Harper Lee hadn’t spoken her truth, no one would have cared nearly so much.
To close this short, off the cuff, and prompt-inspired piece: be brave authors, and tell the truth. I can’t promise you that you’ll end up a better, or happier person; I can’t promise you’ll end up un-criticised; but it’s the only way to truly make a reader care.