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The Writer's True Role

I wanted to attempt to tackle head on something which is usually skirted around in our society and in particular in groups of writers and artists who are trying to sell their work.

I’ve written elsewhere about how writers have grown up in a consumerist world in which their expectations are that as soon as they can get a book published, it will immediately sell and make them money. As I’ve said elsewhere, even if they are slightly more realistic about it, the general expectation is much the same and the objective almost identical: the exchange of their book or books for money.

In fact, it’s probably true to say that the stated aim of most writers is to sell their books. They are frequently puzzled when this doesn’t happen, and consider themselves ‘unsuccessful’ until it does.

What this means, when it’s broken down fairly brutally, is that the relationship that most writers seem to seek to have with their readers is a commercial one: they want the reader to enjoy the book, certainly, but they mainly want the readers’ money.

‘No, no, no,’ many will say, ‘that’s not true! I want the reader to enjoy my work, primarily.’

So which is it? The appreciation, or the money?

The whole discrepancy arises because of the way this society has trained us to think.

In the olden days - by which I mean several hundred years ago - human society was set up differently and had different priorities.

We tend to look back at the past and also to look down on it, superimposing our own priorities upon it. C. S. Lewis called this 'chronological snobbery'.

When we talk about ‘feudalism’, for example, the term itself passes judgement upon a time period by asserting that it was all about ‘feuds’ - conflicts between classes of people, all striving for superiority over each other. This is a modern concept. Back in the Middle Ages, the idea that one ‘class’ of people was in any way battling to subjugate another would have been regarded as nonsensical and even spiritually dangerous. Yes, broad groups of types of people existed - some farmed the land at subsistence level, some farmed for surpluses, tithes were paid to other groups to ensure that they fulfilled their functions, and the whole thing appeared hierarchical. Those higher in that ladder possessed more and had access to more in material terms. But the whole thing - the whole universe, in fact - was viewed in a way which made this model acceptable to all. A Great Chain of Being, said the prevailing wisdom at the time, existed, all the way from inert stones up to an ever-living and divinely energetic God. Into this chain, all beings fitted; everything had a place. The cosmos, viewed from the earth, was a vast and intricate dance of entities of various sizes, shapes and functions, and the lowest was just as valued for its role as the highest.

Nowadays, such a model rankles with the training which the modern world has given us: we want the peasants to 'have' as much as the upper classes. We even sometimes claim that this whole thing was an invention by those at the top of the ladder to suppress those beneath them. To suggest that somehow it was ‘right’ for some to suffer more than others offends our modern sensibilities.

But the mediaeval person had no such delicacies. What they had was the sense that, on a level of profundity entirely missing from the modern model, their place in infinity and eternity was secure. They were loved by an infinitely loving God and were to be rewarded with an eternal life, glimpses of which they saw on a daily basis, even within the suffering that they endured; they ‘fitted in’ in a way which is almost incomprehensible to the alienated modern mind.

Over a period of centuries, this model was eroded. Commercial relationships slowly replaced relationships based upon this sense of belonging. It became possible for individuals to interact with others outside a locally inhabited sphere; populations begin to move around on a large scale and the intimacy associated with the older world evaporated. Anything intangible was stripped away in various waves, called by names such as 'Reformation', 'Renaissance' and 'Enlightenment'. Much more could be said about this, but the upshot was that the modern world came to view success and survival in terms of amounts of money, and the bond between one person and another as much more governed by a transfer of material objects in exchange for cash rather than anything else.

This rubs off on writers.

What they are really trying to do is construct something, a work of fiction, which has potentially spiritual significance, and at least emotional resonance for another human being. But things have now been set up so that this has to occur in a virtual void: writings have to be done in isolation, packaged up as material objects, and transferred into space, to arrive in the hands of strangers. Part of that transference is a commercial exchange: the writer gets money for the book. The writer may never hear directly from the stranger into whose hands the book has arrived, except possibly through an anonymous review - the deep spiritual/emotional message that the writer intended may or may not have made its mark. The only discernible measure that anything has happened is the commercial one, the amount of money which ‘changes hands’ - itself a throwback phrase to a time when hands were actually involved.

What I’m getting at is that modern writers, through no fault of their own, tend to seek material gains as part of what they do, and to measure success or failure in cash terms. That’s completely ‘natural’ given the way this society is set up - but this society is set up on arguably unnatural foundations.

We deal with strangers rather than those who live next door or in the same communities; we know more about people that we have never met on the other side of the planet than we do about our immediate neighbours. And as writers we often strive to have powerful emotional effects on complete strangers while failing to notice the emotional needs of those nearest to us.

In pursuing cash, we can leave behind the wealth of wisdom and connectivity that still lingers in our close vicinities.

How then should a society be set up?

It doesn’t take a crazy survivalist to see that the framework upon which modern society is built is increasingly shaky and fragile. It doesn’t take an apocalypsist to fear that almost everything upon which we have become reliant could come crashing down around us with a minimal amount of disruption. Most modern societies are elaborate houses made of cards - a slight breeze and they will collapse. What would be left is the more local, more geographically real and tangible relationships which we cannot avoid because we are born physically upon this earth: our families and physical neighbours, our nearby communities, our local resources.

In such a collapse, the role of the writer and of the artist generally becomes vital in a different way: it’s a role to do with the preservation of beauty and sanity, and it becomes a core function of any society which hopes to endure. The campfire would make a comeback; rather than sending messages out into the void in the hope that strangers will receive them, the writer and artist would see them immediately reflected back in the eyes of those huddled around him or her.

As the world around us focuses more on faceless material interactions, the writer and the artist perhaps need to step up and recognise that their true measure of success is not financial but spiritual, and can be seen not so much in the bank balance but in the faces of recipients.

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