The Responsibility of Fiction
I've been thinking about a passage from Fundamentals of Fiction Writing by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman. He was the editor of Adventure, back when Adventure was awesome.
It isn't revolutionary, but it has helped me coalesce some thoughts on my responsibility as an author & editor. Not that I have much reach, but I want what I do publish to be of value.
Fiction is more than a reflection of the times; it is a builder of its contemporaneous thought and morality. If I were asked to name the five greatest influences upon the character of a people I should most emphatically include fiction and it would be nearer first than last among the five. Watch its effect upon your child. If you are of analytical turn, seek far back in memory for the origin of your own ethical standards and ideals, or for the influences that strengthened or weakened them. Watch the mass of people respond to the standards held up by fiction—and by the drama, motion-pictures and other forms of art. Do not swallow the excuse that they “only give what the people demand”; those of you on the “inside” will know better.
I know the defenses offered for the picaresque story. I am familiar with the plea of “art for art’s sake.” It seems to me mere idle talk. Art is for life, not life for art, and if art, however justified by its own laws, pollutes the soul of a people, then the cause of that pollution should be wiped out.
Realism and the spread of knowledge can justify a picture of life as it is, though too often the author’s real interest is not in the reality of what he presents but in its ugliness. An author is justified in using fiction as an instrument against what he sincerely believes mistaken morality, though his own morality is impeached if he ventures his dissent without most anxious consideration of the seriousness of what he is doing. But there is no excuse whatever for presenting ugliness as beauty, crime dressed in honor, vice as admirable, crookedness as amusing, rottenness as normal, evil as good. He who makes a criminal a hero is playing with hell-fire, if I may use so old-fashioned a metaphor. He who writes a story of crime triumphant is a debaucher of public morals. He who presents, however bedecked and disguised, a parasite, a fop, a hypocrite, a brute, a crook, as admirable as a dry-rot in the heart of the people. He who fills his stories with sex, not for the purposes of honest realism but for the sake of sex-exciting more nickels from human beings, is far lower and less courageous than the pimp.
I can not ask you to accept my point of view in these matters, yet, because of the broadcast, invidious evil involved and because the morality of fiction seems a thing seldom touched upon by text-books, I do ask that you weigh your responsibilities.
I hope that I have largely been successful in promoting good morals in my publications.