Writing, Self-Obsession, Responsibilities

A couple of interesting articles caught my eye. First is this post by Rick Gekoski, who discusses how writing brings out the worst in him:

I fiddle about, rewrite and reconsider, and go back to bed an hour later thoroughly stimulated, dissatisfied, and unable to sleep. I read for another hour. The next day I complain that I am tired, and show all the signs of it: irritability, abstraction, and a tendency to fall asleep on a sofa at any time, including when I am being spoken to.

There’s something to be said for the tendency for delving too deep in these dark arts to bring out the more negative aspects of human character. Self-obsession is a dangerous path. Writers have to put up some kind of wall around them, for the preservation of their mind to get the job done, but that can quite quickly become a fixation with their own self-worth.

The Internet doesn’t make things much better, especially given the saturation of social networks with writers and writers-to-be (which I don’t mean negatively; that’s just the nature of things these days, though I do pity new writers struggling to make a splash). Everyone’s competing for attention, with little to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. (I’m stunned the number of times useless writing advice is recycled.) All of this can exacerbate the diva-like tendencies of writers.

I rather like this bold statement that Mills & Boons is to blame for sexual health problems, including:

unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancies, unrealistic sexual expectations

That’s a reasonably large list of issues, but I think there’s a point to be made there. Again I like to ask, do authors have some kind of responsibility here? Even if authors are writing mindless-fiction, there’s no need to write mindlessly. It’s a similar notion to the one about using regulation to make the pornography industry use condoms, so as to promote the use of safer sex.

This doesn’t stop with real-world books, but fantasy fiction, too (though I suppose romance fiction is a fiction of fantasy).

Personally, when the occasion presents itself, I do think writers should have some kind of self-awareness over such issues. I was conscious, when writing Brynd’s scene in City of Ruin, that he ask for protection, because to promote unprotected sex between men would have been a ridiculous thing to include. Maybe it’s a generational thing, too.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I think I miss all the important political/social subtext of your novels. I’m far too busy squeaking delightedly about giant spiders or enjoying the story.

  2. Well, giant spiders FTW, obviously! I think I’m also concerned with dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, in case anyone checks. 🙂

    But also, because it all contributes to that social fabric of arts and entertainment that collectively influences a lot of people.

  3. That Mills & Boon article was quite funny, in my opinion.

    It’s a classic case of misdirecting the blame. You cannot blame a series of throw away books for people jumping in the sack with each other and bonking to their heart’s content, nor for the problems faced afterwards. Why target Mills & boon, and not the arguably more prevalent and in-your-face attitudes of Women’s TV, such as soap operas? There’s no embarrassing fumbling around with condoms, no boxes of them on the bedside cabinet and so forth. To the best of my knowledge, Bridget Jones’ Diary didn’t have a scene with Colin Firth stammering his way through a pharmacy to buy a box of condoms either.

    Western media, and perhaps even our culture itself, seems to treat sex as a minor thing. Yes, it’s incredibly natural and nothing to be ashamed of (Try telling me that… Ahem), but it’s a big thing and can cause so many problems. Many sitcoms, US or otherwise, have female characters who go through men like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s seemingly acceptable to show that. Male characters are the same, too (Joey from Friends, anyone?), so it’s not just a single gender thing.

    If you look at the Telegraph’s article, it has a spokesperson for the publisher who states that many of the authors do include contraception into their writing, although I cannot vouch for it myself:

  4. Of course you can – it’s about accepting that when you write something, and it gets read by a lot of people, you have some kind of responsibility to be in control of what you write.

    You can force people to be responsible for the shit they peddle – just like newspapers.

    Soap operas have for years dealt with contemporary issues – it’s just that you don’t get to the sex bits that gratuitously on soaps because they’re before the watershed.

    And yes, there are many other things in culture to keep in mind, but this is an article on a book blog talking about literature.

  5. In WISE MAN’S FEAR, the sexually “liberated” Adem civilisation doesn’t use protection because, as they argue, since they’re having sex all the time, they’re very careful.

    Makes sense to me.

  6. Really? That’s one better than claiming pulling out just before the finale equals safe sex.

  7. you are also not supposed to kill any one. yet there are a lot of people killing in fantasy books. so what now? exclude this? tell the reader that killing is wrong?
    also: in a medieval fantasy setting there is also often a medieval mindset. which makes us appreciate the story more as it seems believable. there is a common ground. now, if you read such a novel and characters start talking about protection and safer sex in a modern way, that would be ridiculous.

    but it’s funny. all kinds of people get killed, mutilated, crippled, burnt…whatever. but someone mentions sex in a america, everybody goes crazy.

    anyway: readers are not babies and authors are not the parents.

  8. also: the ADEM in The Wise Man’s Fear believe that man are not connected to pregnancy. it’s solely the women that create children. this is their belief as you could call them a “primitive culture” (a difficult term anyway).
    and they don’t argue about protection as it is not their belief that men are able to create life.

  9. Yona – by your logic, if indeed you’re making the assumption that all fantasies should adhere to Dark Age principles, perhaps you’d like to add all sorts of extreme racial prejudices, violence towards women, as well as writing only about white men slaughtering those with darker skins?

    Good luck with getting that past a publisher. We don’t live in the Dark Ages.

    Of course, people do get killed a lot in fiction. Steven Erikson does a tremendous job of maintaining a huge death toll and showing you how awful it all is. In the hands of good craftsmen and women, this is understood.

    As for your incorrect assertion that sexual protection is a modern thing – the first known condoms were used by Egyptians nearly 3,000 years ago, which nicely predates your Dark Age sentiments by some millennia.

    Don’t forget, you’re writing fantasy, you can do anything you want – you’re utterly responsibly for what you put down on paper, and any inherent prejudices you have will be shown to the world.

  10. Mills & Boon are responsible for what they publish, yes, but they’re not responsible for the actions of their readers. If someone cannot distinguish between romantic fiction and reality, then why should Mills & Boon or other romance publishers take the blame for that? Looking at the M&B I got for my mother as a joke, it clearly states that the book is fictional – Albeit in a roundabout way.

    People need to be held responsible for their own actions in the same way that M&B and its authors need to be responsible for making clear that the books they publish are fiction. They are not responsible, however, for what their readers do. If they were, would you have an M&B representative stood by the bed to dispense condoms as and when they’re needed?

    Heh, this reminds me of the story where a woman claimed that 3D porn made her pregnant.

  11. Those values by publishers, then, shows the same type of ignorance of those pornographic film makers who choose to ignore using protection in their films; it glamourises unprotected sex and sends that far and wide as a socially acceptable act. No different.

    Mindless fiction need not be written mindlessly.

  12. protagonists in steven eriksons book have sex, and there is never once a word lost on protection or safer sex whatever. just saying, if you want to bring up this example.
    if there are characters in a book that just don’t care about such things, then so it is. of course it can be done and if it is done in a good way, i say: way to go. but it is immoral not to do it.
    i did not say that protection was a modern thing, i said that it would be strange if they talk in a “modern way” about it, as we do. as it would be strange to talk about protection and sexual diseases with someone from the 1960’s , way before aids. they would not talk about this in the same way. however, invent a mortal disease in a fantasy world, and make protection a topic. that would be a good idea. but if there are no diseases known to the reader in the secondary world, then why should the characters bother?

    “perhaps you’d like to add all sorts of extreme racial prejudices, violence towards women, as well as writing only about white men slaughtering those with darker skins”

    thats still happening in many fantasy books. i am not saying it is a good thing.

  13. Sorry, but I have to react to this.

    First of all: the statements in the original article were made based on a survey that used a sample of 48 books published 15 years ago. Considering that there are over a hundred books in the romance genre published each month, that should give you an idea on the scope and reliability of the study. Today’s contemporary romances have no unprotected sex — not because the authors feel responsible for their readers, I think, but rather because attitudes towards sex have changed significantly.

    However, what I find the most disturbing is that this kind of patronizing concerns — that romance readers will get “the wrong idea” about this or that due to their choice of genre — gets trotted out every now and then, and nobody (well, outside the romance community, obviously) finds it particularly problematic. Why is it that nobody wrings their hands over mystery readers who might get the idea that all murders are solved, and that old ladies make better investigators than policemen? Yet women who read romance are treated as if they had less brains than an average carrot, and that seems all right.

    Having a foot in both SFF and romance fields, I find this kind of blanket statement infuriating. The fact that they are usually made by people who have never in their life read a single romance novel make it even worse.

    Otherwise, yes, I think writers do need to be self-aware. But that applies to writers of poorly researched opinion pieces as well. (I’m referring to the original article, not your reaction to it. Although it wouldn’t have been difficult to find romland’s corrections, either.)

  14. Do we have a responsibility to be aware of what we’re writing? Absolutely. Do we have a responsibility to write ‘the right message’? No, I don’t think so.

    There are a million ways to do it (writing) wrong, but only a handful ways to do it right. Just as demographic, morality and fans cannot dictate a story, neither can responsibility (perceived or real). The story must be what it is. If we start looking at our finished pieces and saying: “But does this meet my responsibilities as an author?” the floodgates open. At best, we’re ham-handedly cramming values where there is no call for them. At worst, we’re creating ‘a very special episode’ of Alf in book form (that reference might be lost on British readers, but the gist is pretty solid).

    Does that mean what we say is meaningless? Again, no. But I don’t think it’s in our hands and I don’t think it’s something we should strive to make at the fore of our stories. A good story is a good story. The rest will follow.

    The self-obsession thing I won’t go into because oh god

  15. I think that some overall context of the treatment of the romance genre is very important in this whole ‘romance is fostering irresponsible behaviour’ discussion. It’s that last bit of the piece you’ve quoted that tips me off that this research (which as several commentors elsewhere have noted is very selective) may not exactly be trying to negotiate biases as fairly as possible. It would take me a long time to pass on the context that the romance genre exists in, but if you think of it as typically beset by some similar snobbish charges to the ones sci-fi or fantasy can face from critics and remember that women often find areas of reading that are marketed towards a traditinal idea of femininity, or are largely consumed by women policed by critics ‘for their own good’ you might get a general idea of what’s behind the link between romance novels and claims of ‘unrealistic expectations’. Singling out Mills and Boons romance as the cause of sexual health problems also seems a highly suspect tactic to me (why not all romance which would introduce much more complexity into the picture? why not all novels since so few contain mention of protection?)

    As for whether romance novels should be including mention of protection as a move towards more socially responsible writing well, the idea that all kinds of novels, including romance novels might want to include those kind of references doesn’t seem an outrageous suggestion. I think until now putting on a condom has been deemed one of those real life areas where a judgement call is made as to how much real life detail a reader needs to hear to follow a story (most writers don’t mention every time their character goes to the loo for example, readers just assume they do or don’t think about that area). But obviously sexual health choices have much more import and could stand to be mentioned I’m sure they’re mentioned in teen novels where sex takes places, so why not in adult novels?

  16. Regarding the romance thing, as Milena said above the study the Guardian article is based on is flawed and based on a very small sample of books, most of which were published before AIDS was a big topic. Never mind that books were mostly published in the US, where the safer sex discussion was delayed because of the political climate at the time.

    There have been a couple of rebuttals to that study and related articles from the online romance community. See the posts at Teach Me Tonight, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Linda Holmes at National Public Radio.

    I must confess that as someone who came of age during the AIDS epidemic romances set and written after the late 1980s that do not feature condoms irritate me, especially if the heroine makes a big point about how she’s on the pill (to regulate her periods, because good girls don’t prepare for sex), so the couple can have sex without worries – and I think, “And what about STDs?” Though that sort of romance is getting increasingly rarer, thank goodness. Never mind that condoms won’t even preclude the popular surprise pregnancy stories, because condoms can break after all.

    Besides, as Jodie and Milena have pointed out, the romance genre is usually singled out for scorn and ridicule, largely because it is a genre mainly written and read by women. Comparatively few SFF novels mention safer sex and birthcontrol at all and yet no one worries about the sexual health of SFF readers. Nor does anyone say that SFF or crime fiction give their readers unrealistic life expectations, but those poor romance reading women have their relationship expectations unreasonably raised by their genre of choice. Romance readers, including those who occasionally dip a toe into the genre like me, have heard it all before and they are sick of it. Particularly because most people who make that claim have never even read a romance novel, at least not one published in the past three years.

  17. I just wanted to add that you actually did address the safer sex issue in City of Ruin but that’s still the exception. Plenty of SFF does not address the whole safer sex/contraception/birth control issue at all. And those books that do tackle the issue are mostly by female authors, you are actually one of the comparatively few male SFF authors to address it.

  18. Thanks for the comments here, and appreciate the corrections on the original piece of research. Hands up here for not following it up in much detail myself – if I’m honest, I was mostly interested in the potential for a debate on the merits of responsibility.

    But I’m certainly glad many of you have looked into this in a lot of detail! Thanks for the extra links, too.