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  • A girl reads in an aisle at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Falls Church, Virginia, August 24, 2010.

    A girl reads in an aisle at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Falls Church, Virginia, August 24, 2010. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 March 2015
What questions do socially involved writers ask themselves?

What do writers write? And in particular, what do left, progressive, and revolutionary writers write?

How can anyone possibly answer this? The safe approach would be to consult venues and periodicals, find an effective way to tally results, and report the findings.

I think that might avoid personal expectation biases, but an obstacle would be disagreement about how to categorize the items in the accounting. And it would also be a bit dry, I think, and would likely appear condemnatory of at least some materials surveyed. So I wonder if we can come at the problem from a different angle.

What questions do socially involved writers ask themselves about possible topics to address that would yield those same writers' choices?

Here is one type of question that could guide choosing topics.

What am I able to write that will convey to readers something useful for them to read for their pursuits of social change, which content, otherwise, they may not find elsewhere? What new information can I reveal, what insights can I formulate, what activist proposals can I offer, what worthy aims can I propose, that are not already widely agreed, and which could yield valuable gains?

 

Here is a second type of question that could guide choosing topics.

What can I write that will get published, that will make me look smart, and that will risk no possibility of embarrassing me? What can I write that nearly everyone who reads it will like not least because it repeats what others are already saying and, in so doing, shows that I too favor the acceptable trend?

 

I don't know that most writers ask themselves any questions when they take a walk, have breakfast, or literally sit at their keyboards preparing to write. But I think we can usefully ask, what if they did?

For example, if people you read asked the first type question, would they have written what they wrote? Conversely, if the same people asked the second type question, would they have written what they wrote?

If it turns out that the answer for some particular writer would be no they wouldn't have written what they wrote if they were concerned about the first type question, and yes, they would have written it if they were concerned about the second type question, would that demonstrate that the writer was motivated by the underlying values,  fears, or desires, of the latter type question? Or might it demonstrate, instead, that there is something about the available venues and periodicals that generated that inclination despite that writers would prefer to abide the first type question? Or might it even mean that there is something about the entire culture and disposition of contemporary activism that has this affect despite the fact that individually each and every person and institutional venue would prefer the first type motivations?

I hope it is clear that the issue I am investigating is not about individuals or even about particular media institutions. That a particular person or a particular outlet scores well (which is to say the first question better explains their choices) or scores poorly (which is to say the second question better explains their choices) is not the informative and productive thing to discover. The potentially helpful thing to discover is the balance for the entire accumulating wealth of materials generated by socially concerned writers. Is the preponderant motivation guiding most writing to provide what is needed to foster change despite that folks will often not agree with it, at least not at first, and despite that this route may involve making errors, or even looking dumb, or not being with the in crowd? Or is the motivation guiding most writing providing what is comfortable, safe, reputation enhancing, venue pleasing, easy to get right, conforming, acceptable, or any number of other possible criteria - each of which only by coincidence generate what is also optimal for trying to enhance social change?

I don't know the answer. But I tend to fear the balance may not be so good. You decide!


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