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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The responsibility of writers

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for a writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

And . . . if you’ll allow me one more: “Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov.”

The Guardian has published the full text of an essay by Susan Sontag, extracted from the book, At the Same Time, which will be published by Hamish Hamilton on April 5. Sontag discusses the task of the writer, both traditionally and in our own time. This is essential reading for anyone who seriously wants to write fiction.

Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.

11 Responses to “The responsibility of writers”

  1. susan abraham says:

    Hello John,

    How are you?

    I have just been reading the late Susan Sontag’s fascinating, lengthy essay in The Guardian and popping into your weblog, you have mentioned the very same lines that haunted my mind.
    Her words bear room for much self-reflection even as she talked then about technicalities that made the novel what it was, compared the printed page to a computer and also reminded us of the wisdom to be had in the constant embrace of literature. Yes. Now I feel pretty wonderful about it all. Knowng that the learning will never stop. 🙂 .


    jb says
    : Hi Susan. Yes, it is a very insightful and probing essay. I was moved particularly, by her remarks on the proximity of good and evil, reminded me of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, (Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree).
    Also the comparisons between the narrative model in literature and the narrative model on tv, how the one involves while the other distances.

  2. susan abraham says:

    John, thank you for the reply.

    To add on a postscript, I found in Sontag’s essay, that when she spoke on space and time in a novel following a linear path, it had the reverse effect on me.

    I then saw different possibilities for a written story, deciding for a moment that space and time were immeasurable, could even be immortalised and this thought was exciting. Of course, this is madness and doesn’t fit in with any real logic except perhaps if one wrote fantasy. Maybe that was Sontag’s magic. Being a woman very much ahead of her time, she knew how to make her subjects adventurous and help a writer create a dream.

    Taking a reader as she says through space and time, is a wonderful inspiration in itself.

    But John, I found it a little confusing and hard to believe that television could breed indifference even as written literature helps
    us think on our feet.

    I got the subtle impression that visual media wasn’t really Sontag’s thing. That though it spread globalisation & blurred borders, it was still the novelist’s job to uphold a culture’s separateness & distinctness.

    I felt she was being particularly kind towards the novel that she now saw as an underdog in the face of a heavy Internet intrusion amongst other visual media. Which is all good and fair.

    But does it mean too, that to dismiss television is to dismiss films?

    For example, I wrote this article on my blog on how Ingmar Bergman‘s films had helped me with the writing craft. I was too young to watch his films in the cinema and so, saw them all on the telly. Screenplays like Autumn Sonata & Wild Strawberries promoted a powerful angst using minimal movement & words & this stayed a vital catalyst to me on the subject of a skilled & calculated dialogue for emotional plots.

    The films drew me right in John. Could they really have bred indifference even when in a strange way they have taught me how o write?


    jb says: It’s a pity we don’t still have Susan Sontag around to answer these kinds of questions, Susan. I must say, though, that I got the impression that she was talking about television rather than film. But there’s a certain kind of goodness and a certain kind of badness in all media. There are certainly many books that are not really worth spending time with.
    Qualitatively, it is a different experience being drawn into the world of a book, because there is only you, the individual involved, and if the book does its job it is the entire world. Whereas, in television one narrative model follows another in quick succession, and the experience is shared, usually, by others in the room. In addition a textual narrative invites the reader not only to interpret but to join in the creative process, whereas visual narratives ‘show’ us much more. In a book we can imagine what the characters look like, but in film we all know exactly what they look like.
    I agree entirely about the Bergman films, though. Some of my most memorable artistic moments were in those films.

  3. Debi Alper says:

    I’m so glad I saw this, John. Thanks. There are so many gems in this piece of writing and it speaks to us on so many levels. Fabulous …

    jb says: Yeah, Debi, it’s the highlight of this week, and probably of many more to come.

  4. Robert says:

    Worse still than “spiritual complacency or self-congratulation,” writing about literature can become a substitute for writing literature, a kind of artistic consolation prize. Still, looks like the kind of gritty down-to-earth stuff that only comes from a working writer observing her own process. Thanks for passing it on.

    jb says: It’s good to see you enjoyed it, Robert. One of the last things she wrote, by all accounts. What a great thing to leave behind.

  5. […] next is what John Baker calls essential reading for anyone who seriously wants to write fiction. It’s the full text of an essay by Susan […]

  6. I just wrote something about this topic. I have to take a look at that article.

    By the way, John, I don’t comment much but I think your blog is just great. I’ve found so many interesting things here, I keep coming back for more!

    jb says: It’s good to know that you’re lurking there in the background. Oh, and you’ll love the Sontag essay.

  7. Paul says:

    Susan Sontag’s essay was thought provoking, not only in its assertions, but also for what she left unsaid. She draws us into a debate on the future of the novel in relation to other media, by asserting largely, that it is unique and should remain true to its tradition. Yet at the same time she seemed to hint that change is inevitable – or am I reading it wrongly?
    The novel is destined to become increasingly isolated from other arts/entertainment forms, simply because it demands a commitment of time (in a seemingly time-poor society).
    Television, at its best produces thought provoking programmes that stay in the viewer’s mind, but the bulk of it’s content is about immediate entertainment, with the option to switch over if you don’t like what you see.
    Film and theatre are almost always, social events, that ask only a couple of hours of our time, but a novel asks for many hours spent in isolation with only the book for company.
    I agree with so much that she says, in terms of the author’s duty to produce a strong and engaging linear plot, but can’t the novel also borrow from film and television, in terms of multiple viewpoints, parallel story-lines, flash-backs and rapid scene changes? She seemed to be saying – No. Or have I misunderstood? Whatever else, it was a very well written and engaging piece, and makes a refreshing change from the debate about whether the future of novels is on the ipod, or in comic books.

    jb says: Hi Paul. Thanks for that. I believe that the novel does borrow from other art forms in exactly the ways you suggest. And I’m not sure where you feel that Sontag differs. In its relatively short history, the novel has changed considerably but mainly in relation to economising on the readers time. Dickens, much as I love him, would be encouraged to edit his narratives more stringently, were he writing today.
    And though the novel does, as you point out, require a commitment in time, we have become quite adept at putting down a long narrative from time to time, returning to real life to do the business, and then going back to the novel again.

  8. Paul says:

    John. I think I probably misinterpreted the following:-
    “To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.”

    I am also guilty of jumping on a personal hobby-horse.

    What I was trying to get at – rather badly – was the question that was left unanswered in Susan Sontag’s essay. So much time is devoted to debating the future of “electronic” books/comic books/interactive books; yet the “book-trade” seem to accept the stranglehold of supermarkets, excessive discounting, the decline in bookshops, extravagant advances and the death of midlist books.

    I don’t know much about the publishing industry, but it feels to me, to be curiously outdated and out-of touch. It concentrates on existing market demographics, rather than trying to shape and extend that market. Do they individually (or better still, collectively) carry out any market research? Do they market, the idea of reading, as opposed to individual books? Do they sponsor reading groups, in schools and workplaces? Do they collectively lobby for change? Do they try to forecast, and even influence trends? What about product placement (of reading) with public transport and holiday company advertising.

    It seems curious to me that “Richard and Judy” have done far more to influence reading habits and the size of the overall market, than the book trade itself.

    The one aspect of publishing that is extremely commercial is the industry that encourages people to write. But then the writer comes up against the Literary Agent, who moans about the size of their slush pile, but does nothing to influence it. Few of them have websites, they rarely update their entries in the Writers and Artists Year Book, all reserve the right to consider virtually every genre and they rarely give feedback – though that might actually improve the quality of submissions and reduce the size of the slushpile.

    Please delete this, if it is ouside the spirit of your blog, or if you feel it is just the ill-informed ramblings of a disillusioned, unpublished writer.

    jb says: On the contrary, I agree with most of what you say, Paul. The publishing industry is not about selling books. It is about selling commodities, selling ‘product’. Generally speaking it is not interested in the future but in short-term gains. Careers are made and destroyed by being aligned with a best-seller or a series of might-have-beens. There has to be a big new shiny thing (title) every week or so to keep the shareholders happy.

  9. write my essay says:

    Yes, I do agree with you. A writer should have the responsibility what he has been writing. It often found that a writer write something controversial for which the people got some unclear idea about the matter

  10. David says:

    Thanks for the link, I am thinking seriously to write fiction, I hope it will help me to decide.

  11. Shohel says:

    A writer should have some responsibility but the limitation should be considerable. A limit having no logic does not accepted at any time. However, thanks for sharing such nice article and your point of view regarding the matter. I appreciate it leaving no room to doubt.