An Author’s Place

Do authors have a moral obligation to society in the subjects they tackle and the way they write about them?

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The following piece is based on my experiences and wonderings on morality in writing. I have no intention of telling people what to think or feel, but merely demonstrate how I came to the opinions that I have on such a topic. It also contains spoilers for Lila Bowen’s Conspiracy of Ravens.

As a conscientious writer, I am often at odds with myself and the stories that I want to tell. Often times I am quite stubborn in the belief that writing should be fun, and that not every story is or has to have social commentary. We can’t all be Orwell. Not everyone reads for a passive-aggressive analysis of society—in fact, most of us read to escape it.

Then, every so often, I face a memory of English Literature and Language in A-Levels, and the close dissection of excerpts of stories. We did this in history lessons too, and applied context to the information being provided. These stories weren’t social commentaries either, but they provided an understanding of how people thought back when they were written. One particular piece—with a title and author that escapes me a decade on—was set during the 1800s. The language used by the author, a woman (I recall), would not fly in today’s market, particularly the derogatory terms used for the Native Americans.

Yet, authors today can explore this language in their own work. Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures has derogatory terms for women and people of colour thrown about all the time, so what is the difference? Well, it’s the decidedly lack of indifference in the narrator. It is expressed quite clearly that these terms are racist, sexist, and downright nasty. They do not go unchallenged in the work. The main protagonist, Nettie, starts off with her own biases that are pulled apart and re-evaluated by her experiences throughout the novel.

Naturally, I tried to pull apart this unwritten rule of writing. One can write a racist character; but one cannot write a racist book. You can have a character that does not develop from their sexism or racism, who may not even get their comeuppance at the end of the narrative, but the narrative cannot remain neutral on it lest you risk seeming indifferent to it, or even allowing it. This can essentially be summed up with an often-misattributed quote:

“All evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

Cycling back to Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, I originally read it quite straightforwardly. It made sense for the narrative to be sensitive of the plights of women and people of colour, when the protagonist fits both these categories. However, the sequel—Conspiracy of Ravens—left a very bitter taste in my mouth for one very basic reason: an apathy to rape.

Now, rape is, quite understandably, a controversial subject in and around fiction. This is particularly how it is often used as a driving factor for a male protagonist to get on with the plot. Unfortunately, and quite insidiously, the rape in Conspiracy of Ravens is not framed as a rape to begin with, and later treated as a good thing by the protagonist.

Let me explain. The protagonist, Rhett (previously Nettie Lonesome), and his group accidentally cross the jurisdiction of a pagan god. Without discussing it, and without consent, most of the group come under the influence of the god’s fruit. An orgy ensues. The characters awake the next day without any memory, bar Rhett—who then proceeds to ponder on how great it was as he finally had sex with the guy he likes (who has no memory of the incident). The only woman, Winifred, in the group later becomes pregnant as a result, and she—strangely out of character—treats this as a good thing.

It is, however, confirmed that this was in fact rape in the sentence:

But what had passed in the grove hadn’t been choice, had it? They’d all been in the grip of a god, drunk on his wine and lost to his will.

Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen

Despite this, victim-blaming rears its head not four pages later, with Rhett pondering whether Winifred could be pregnant after the ordeal and deciding “The coyote-girl had more sense than that. Didn’t she?”

While the real world lacks perverse pagan gods demanding sex as toll, it does have date rape drugs and a continuous and contentious debate on whether one can consent whilst intoxicated. Bowen’s own target audience (16-25) is currently embroiled in an endemic of rape on campuses, with universities going so far as ‘demoting’ date rape from actual rape to ‘non-consensual sex’ and thus reducing the punishment of perpetrators to an honour code violation. Language is powerful, and so is a lack of it. A more thorough response to this can be found in Kelly Oliver’s New York Times piece, ‘There is No Such Thing as Non-Consensual Sex, Its Violence.’ Similarly, the Association of American Universities recently released findings from a survey of 150,000 students. Its result was more than one in five female undergraduates suffered from sexual attacks during their time at university, either through force or incapacitation.

Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author argues that one should not apply one author’s personal beliefs when critiquing a piece but, as previously stated, a piece of work can be used to explore the morality of the time. Bowen’s Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens, although set in a fictitious Texas, aren’t just demonstrations of the thinking of the period, but also an example of Bowen’s. She shows venom to one type of rape in Wake, yet her indifference to another in Conspiracy is indicative of the current climate on the subject as a whole. Not only because Bowen wrote the piece, but because this jarring side-story was not noticed or questioned by proof-readers and editors and made it to publication, suggests this is more normalised than one would assume.

Now, unlike the aforementioned ‘rape used to drive plot’ issue that fantasy has going on, this one doesn’t use it at all. It does not contribute to the plot, merely acting as a kind of side-quest, nor does it add to character development, other than undoing Winifred’s. She treats the surprise pregnancy as a good thing, despite previously stating, “I’ll not have them taking anything from me that I am not willing to give.” So what function did it serve? At first, I was unable to deconstruct this, until I recognised its similarities to tropes used in fan fiction such as ‘Sex Pollen’ and ‘Aliens Made Me Do It,’ with outside influences that remove inhibitions and force sex. Yet, this isn’t fan fiction. It is a sequel that undoes the message of the first.

Despite this, however, it pushed me into thinking about my own work. I might not have any control of how an audience interprets a piece of work, and Conspiracy of Ravens has drawn a wide range of reviews, from pretty solid five stars to some downright scathing ones from people who share my sadness. Though, this is fiction, as many people have pointed out to those upset by the inferences of rape, racism and sexism in novels. It isn’t real—except it is. The story itself isn’t real, and the characters may not be, but their experiences when stripped down to the core are. As I said before, we don’t have amnesia-delivering sex-god orgies, but we have drugs and people who abuse their power. Now, Conspiracy of Ravens was published long before the #MeToo movement, and so I do wonder whether it would have faced more scrutiny before publishing if it had been released after.

Should it have to? While I may not enjoy subconsciously connecting fictitious parallels with real instances, I cannot demand how a story is to be written. I can, however, choose how my stories are written.

I should state here that I don’t assume to believe that Lila Bowen believes that drugging people is okay if it means you get to sleep with the person you like. I have written things that I don’t necessarily agree with just to create a more multifaceted plot. While writing so close to Rhett’s point of view (who felt blessed by the event), it is very possible she did not realise that the book fails to pick apart his belief. It is also possibly he is challenged in the next sequel, but that is reliant on the audience reading the next book, and that is the issue with dangling such loose threads.

Am I, as a writer, a moral arbiter of society? I don’t know. Sadly, this is still a dilemma I face every time I write. However, I do know how I wish for my work to be perceived—not just now, but in the many years to come. At least, this is my experience with moral compasses in storytelling and remembering that, in the future, we as a society will be looking back on the works of the 21st Century and using them to question the morality of our time.

What kind of projection of our society will we actively and passively create with our work? Is that the real question we should be asking ourselves? Maybe we don’t have a responsibility for it, and it isn’t something that is forced onto us, but merely a result of creating the work that we do; a by-product.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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