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Should writers foresee grounds for misconstrued glorification?

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
Recently I've read about Stephen King's decision a number of decades ago to let his 1970s book "Rage" go out of print after it had been associated with two deadly school shootings back in the 80s and 90s. These shootings, as well as a number of non-lethal instances were (as far as I found) carried out in a copycat style reminiscent of the way that the protagonist of Rage carried out his. Furthermore, the book was found in the possession of the perpetrators.

To be clear, I believe blame should be put entirely on the people who carry out such evil. Nevertheless, regardless of culpability, my question to you all is whether or not such a potentiality is something we as writers should foresee and counteract before it is too late? Should we foresee grounds for misconstrued glorification, even if such glorification is not at all our intention? And if so, how far do you think such foresight should extend? Regardless of your opinion on others' responsibilities, how much does this weigh on you individually? I hope this conversation will be fruitful and we can all gain some insight on this matter.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Things have changed a lot since the 80s. We're now saturated with cop procedurals and true crime podcasts, and the millions of ways to get away with murder that they get into. I think today most novelists are in the clear.

With one significant caveat, though. Novels can go into a lot of detail that gets glossed over in film. A home made recipe for meth or a bomb, for instance. You don't come away from watching Breaking Bad knowing how to make meth - just a vague idea about chemicals. But you could write a novel that goes into the specifics like a how to. I'd definitely be skeptical of publishing that.

*edit to add*

And, uhh..... issues of self-harm have a documented copycat affect, so it's important to be careful with those issues.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
That's good insight Devor. We're no longer the go-to form of entertainment and it's not so much any given topic that is the issue, but the detail in which that topic is described and is replicable. This makes the lives of fantasy writers a bit easier than their peers. A twisted individual can be "inspired" by Rage to do a shooting, but no amount of written wizardry will make a real-world human burst fire from their hands.
 

pmmg

Vala
You know....I am pretty sure I could figure out ways to kill people, and be sneaky about it, without needing to read some one else's how to. Which takes me to, I think maybe the readers Mr. King was concerned about were probably a little on the easy to influence side to start with. I dont think Mr. King bears any responsibility, but if I were him, I could see pulling the book anyway. (And maybe if he didn't, he would bear some responsibility).

I do think it is possible to influence people beyond the page, and that goes on everyday. A writer with some skill for it, probably bears some responsibility, if they set out with that aim. Do you suppose Mr. Tolkien or Mr. Lewis were hoping to inspire more openness towards Christianity in their books? and that Mr. Pullman was trying to pull them away?

I also think there is something to glamorizing behaviors that may start to resonate with some readers, and in resonating, amplify beyond anything any author intended (it maybe they did intend...), but still, I have to come back to the reader and lay the responsibility there. 4 billion people on the planet, some are just bound to take things in a weird way.

I dont know what Mr. King tapped into, but I can see a lot of this go on in our media everyday. I could rattle off a bunch of current hoax's I bet some here still believe and would say are true. (Maybe they can do the same for me.) However, I doubt very much that Mr. King was hoping cause people to shoot in schools. Unless any knows otherwise, I would absolve him completely of that.

I dont think this will be my problem though. I dont really have any pro-death messages in the story, or messages that would lead to bad things if people adopted them (least that's what I say and I swear to it.)

If I was writing a different type of series, such as Dexter, for instance, I might be a little more concerned with whether this was making it seem cool or not. I would hope to stay edgy, but still on the safe side of the edge. If I went beyond that, I would feel bad, and want it pulled. But you know...many do not share my values or sensibilities. Maybe some are even evil, and wont do such. What can you do? Is not the freedom to publish a greater principle than that of protecting against possible harm? I think it is. Even if some of them are schmucks.
 
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A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
I believe the answer lies in intent. Are we writing The Anarchist's Cookbook, with clear instructions as to how to create violence and mayhem? Or are we writing violent fiction? One... maybe yes, the author is culpable because they laid out the groundwork. The other, no. Reading about a dragon decimating a city will not make the reader a dragon. Or make them decimate a city. The reader has free will, and that is what we need to take into consideration. In the first chapter of our second book, someone gets eaten. Like, munchy crunchy eaten. I haven't heard yet about this inspiring any of our readers to om nom nom their college roommate. And if I did, I'd still be reluctant to take responsibility, because the muncher has free will.

We're just writers. We can't make anyone do anything other than think... and we should. Actions are on them.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I believe the answer lies in intent. Are we writing The Anarchist's Cookbook, with clear instructions as to how to create violence and mayhem? Or are we writing violent fiction? One... maybe yes, the author is culpable because they laid out the groundwork. The other, no. Reading about a dragon decimating a city will not make the reader a dragon. Or make them decimate a city. The reader has free will, and that is what we need to take into consideration. In the first chapter of our second book, someone gets eaten. Like, munchy crunchy eaten. I haven't heard yet about this inspiring any of our readers to om nom nom their college roommate. And if I did, I'd still be reluctant to take responsibility, because the muncher has free will.

We're just writers. We can't make anyone do anything other than think... and we should. Actions are on them.
Sure, but as I wrote earlier, that's also to do with the fact that no amount of reading about dragons will ever turn you into a dragon, nor make the decimation of a city or the "munchy crunchy" consumption of entire humans likely for a lone wolf to accomplish. When we ( in a general sense, so beyond the scope of our individual works) write about terrorism, organized crime, abuse, murder, assault, etcetera, this can very much be replicated. Now of course Pmmg is right as well that anyone who would be influenced in such a direct manner is going to be highly impressionable to begin with, but I don't see that as a point in writers' favour necessarily. A highly impressionable person is, I would imagine, typically also more likely to be swayed by an empowering narrative.
 
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A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
Sure, but as I wrote earlier, that's also to do with the fact that no amount of reading about dragons will ever turn you into a dragon, nor make the decimation of a city or the "munchy crunchy" consumption of entire humans likely for a lone wolf to accomplish. When we ( in a general sense, so beyond the scope of our individual works) write about terrorism, organized crime, abuse, murder, assault, etcetera, this can very much be replicated. Now of course Pmmg is right as well that anyone who would be influenced in such a direct manner is going to be highly impressionable to begin with, but I don't see that as a point in writers' favour necessarily. A highly impressionable person is, I would imagine, typically also more likely to be swayed by an empowering narrative.
Having no control over who reads our work and what they do with it, I don't see how we can be held responsible for being entertainers, which is what we are. Entertainers and questioners, but not the Thought Police.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
Having no control over who reads our work and what they do with it, I don't see how we can be held responsible for being entertainers, which is what we are. Entertainers and questioners, but not the Thought Police.
That seems rather black and white to me. Actively thinking "Hey, should I make this scene as detailed as I have? Would that have a detrimental impact?" is far removed from being the thought police. I don't believe that self-reflection requires a guilty verdict.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
That seems rather black and white to me. Actively thinking "Hey, should I make this scene as detailed as I have? Would that have a detrimental impact?" is far removed from being the thought police. I don't believe that self-reflection requires a guilty verdict.
Fair point.
 

Queshire

Auror
You can hardly be expected to be omniscient, but thinking about what sort of reaction you'll get from your writing is part of the job.
 

pmmg

Vala
I was omniscient once, but didn't know it. I should have used it better.

In a less long winded way, I think there are lines, and sometimes authors can cross them, and sometimes the readers take it too far. Isn't the rule something like 'dont be a dick?'. I think Mr. King was trying to not be that when he pulled his story.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I have a hard time thinking about how to think about what sort of reaction I'll get from my writing, because that would require me to look into other people's minds. I agree with Lowan on this: what matter isn't effect but intent. I can't control the former, but I'm responsible for the latter.

A couple of examples come to mind. One band I like is KMFDM. They have plenty of aggressive lyrics in their music (but you can dance to it). When Columbine happened, it was found that the culprits listened to this band and there was a period where the group came under heavy criticism. This was, imo, a classic case of the general public looking for a scapegoat (or, to be more generous, an explanation) and mistaking coincidence with causation. It's very much in the same vein as my kid went wrong because of his no-good friends. No. My kid *chose* those friends. We're all responsible for our own actions.

Another example is an obscure movie called Targets, from the 1960s. It's chilling, and it's also a more or less reworking of the University of Texas tower killings. Despite the violence of the times, that movie didn't lead to more university shootings from a tower. Or even more university shootings, if you leave out the National Guard. Why? Because it's not causation. People who do this sort of thing will gravitate toward certain kinds of literature, movies, friends, etc. Like seeks like.

No one today tries to claim that the unionist songs of the Wobblies was the cause of anarchist bombings at the start of the 20thc. It's plainly absurd to say the rhetoric caused the violence. But that doesn't stop people from trying to make the same argument with a difference set of actors and circumstances.

To come back to the OP, I'll ask a question in return: how can we as authors forsee and counteract? Given the range of humanity, the wide latitude for misinterpretation, and the wide variety of circumstances of the authors themselves, what specific steps might there be? I confess I can't come up with anything more than that if it offends me, if I'm troubled by it, then I find another way to handle the scene. As for the readers, I can't even begin to imagine their reaction; or, rather, I can imagine *every* sort of reaction. If I worried about that, I would play it safe and never write anything at all.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
I think beyond a certain bit of restraint in terms of details, and letting the reader know what they're about to get into before they start reading, the author shouldn't feel obligated or responsible to censor themselves for fear of what someone else does with the ideas the book brings up. Part of the reason is you can't stop the spread of ideas. If a bad actor is looking for inspiration to do bad, they'll find it in anything. This book, that book, it won't matter. They'll find a source.

Two people can read the same book. The A-hole can read it and use it as a reason to be a bigger A-hole. The kind person can read it and be inspired to be a better person. That's not on the author. It's about the baggage that each of us carries that we inject into that book.

I'm trying to come up with an example I've read, but the only thing that comes to mind is the Great Gatsby, which I haven't read, so someone correct me if I'm off base. But I've heard that some read the book and come away with the main character as someone to be admired, while others come away thinking he's an ass.

What we take away from certain stories says something about ourselves. Humans can do mental gymnastics to twist anything to mean what they want it to mean.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Define glorification. Do you mean glorification of violence, misogyny, racism, extreme politics or something else? Almost anyone can find a way to misinterpret something written, and I'm not sure we as writers can be expected to think of all the ways in which this can happen and then guard against it. More than that, if we're writing true novels then we should be exploring various issues in our writing and as such we can be expected to touch on some controversial or sensitive subjects. If we're to avoid some of these issues because our writing might be used to glorify some attitude or viewpoint then we're effectively accepting a form of self-censorship. Is that what we want? Where, for example, would that leave novels like Lolita or The Lord of the Flies? Or do we want to raise and discuss issues in our writing and let our readers take responsibility for their own actions? I think I prefer the latter.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I think that there is a difference between controversial material and incendiary material. We can gawk at Lord of the Flies Mad Swede, but similarly to the dragon I spoke of above, no amount of gawking will shipwreck a young reader on a lonesome island with a great number of terrified classmates. There is a functional difference between that setting, and the setting of Rage, which very much can be replicated.

It is nowadays commonly accepted that graphic depictions or descriptions of suicide can significantly motivate people with suicidal ideations. Similarly for self-abuse. That might not be causation, but it is a followable roadmap. I don't think it's a great stretch to suggest that the same is true with those people entertaining homicidal thoughts. Such thoughts often stem from a place of weakness, inability and mental instability, all of which make the person vulnerable to suggestion. Now surely, we can take the easy route and say "well they'd do it anyways", but I personally think that's more of a cope than reality.

Again, I think we're being a bit black and white here. Writing does not need to directly and solely cause something, to shape it and guide it. There's also a ground between caution and outright censorship. We can add preemptive content warnings, ensure that homicidal plans and actions in our fiction are not replicable, ensure that a troublesome character's actions and motivations are countered within the story, and that this character does not receive their happily ever after.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
Again, I think we're being a bit black and white here.

Yeah, I think there's two parts to the general conversation, which is cause and effect, but then generally supporting a harmful aspect of culture. The first post seemed like it was more about cause and effect (hence my answer above), while it seems to have broadened a bit since then.

We could bring in issues of diversity and the like, but instead I'll follow my previous example of meth and Breaking Bad. It isn't normal to watch Breaking Bad and think, "Meth is cool, let me buy and make and sell meth." But we could write a book on the topic that does harm. You could:
  • Give detailed instructions on how to make meth, or how to contact a dealer or otherwise break the law.
  • Write a story that makes meth users and dealers "cool."
The first is straight forward. You're telling people how to do something harmful, illegal, and dangerous. The second is extremely subjective. Not only that, but frankly the world is messy, and for all the harm that meth can do, there's a lot of people who encounter those kinds of drugs and don't have tons of negative experiences. God forbid, there are people who take meth, and in their world, it might actually be cool. Life is messy like that. It just is. So with the first, it's easy to see cause and effect. And with the second, I can tell you that I would definitely avoid it, but as a firm line or rule or whatever, I don't really have an answer.
 
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Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I had hoped that my sentence "To be clear, I believe blame should be put entirely on the people who carry out such evil." would be sufficient, but I should have further specified that I don't see a piece of media or entertainment as a cause, but it 100% can be a trigger, pathway or (accidental) guide. In the same way that one shouldn't judge a bridge-builder or an urban planner for someone jumping off a bridge, I think it's without doubt that a writer is not "guilty" of anyone's else's acts inspired by their works. Nevertheless, I think it is commendable and advisable for urban planners to place railings and safety nets, among other precautions. So too, I think it is commendable for writers to do the same.

But there's also room for push-back. If fictional criminals are stripped of all coolness and their actions are restricted to the milquetoast and banal, than that will likely make the work worse. There's a balance to be reached and I hope we can find some ways, in addition to the ones I raised, to reach them in a satisfactory way. As much as some may say "judge the perpetrator" I don't want to end up in a situation where that thought is a necessity.
 
It's a firm no for me.

Good writing evokes emotion in the reader. We have no way of controlling what the reader will do with that emotion. The only way then to ensure that your fiction is not used in some harmful way is to write bad fiction.

Fiction reflects life. And to make fiction immersive you need to make it believable, and draw the reader in. You can't write about a suicide / terrorist attack / killing and gloss over the details, or do it in such a way that it's completely unbelievable. It is precisely the details that make it a great read. The feeling that the writer actually knows what he's talking about. If you purposely change the details and zoom out when those details matter, then people will stop reading and start giving bad reviews.

Also, with 7 billion possible readers out there, it's impossible to predict each and every reaction to your fiction. There will be so many, that it's just impossible to make sure no one gets the wrong idea from your fiction. What is heroic to one will be stupid to someone else. Your take-away from Lord of the Rings could easily be that it's everyone's duty to destroy evil, that the end justifies the means, and that human lives are expendable. After all, the leaders of the west marched a whole army to Mordor, expecting to die, just to give Frodo a chance. But then what if you consider your president to be evil? Is it then not your duty to destroy him with whatever means you have available, ignoring the cost to human lives? Does that mean Lord of the Rings should not have been published?

Lastly I think that the relationship between behavior and media is way more complicated than people believe. I remember Doom 3, Carmagedon, and Unreal Tournament coming out. Media and parents everywhere were screaming that those games should be banned, since it would teach children violence and lead to death and destruction and the glorification of evil everywhere. We would end up with a lawless generation who would kill at random and all end up being satan worshippers. Following the idea that the content creators should have taken these possibilities into consideration, then these games should not have been created.

And yet, none of that came to pass. Millennials and generation X didn't end up more violent than previous generations. I don't think anyone decided to take their car and ran over random people just because they played a game. If then the most obvious examples of glorification of violence had no effect, then how are we to know what will move people? Humans like simple cause and effect. We see someone react in a certain way, and we want to point to a single cause. It just doesn't work that way, and people generally are much smarter than we give them credit for. And they can easily distinguish between fact and fiction (when reading a novel or playing a game). The actions of the content consumer then are not the responsibility of the content creator.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
If then the most obvious examples of glorification of violence had no effect...

I don't really want to get into it. But no effect on the level of violence doesn't mean they've had no effect at all. Video games are directly linked to widespread increases in anxiety and lowered emotional regulation, with violent video games contributing the most to the release of the relevant hormones with even short amounts of play. That isn't to say... well, I just mean to say that there are clear ways in which the media we produce and consume can cause harm, even if it's more subtle than what people expect.
 
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