I’m fascinated by the Chik-fil A controversy because it spotlights an issue perennial to the world of writing stories. As a writer, what do you do with topics that might offend your potential readers?
Literature is full of books that people find offensive, have found offensive, and will find offensive. I’m sure you can think of a dozen titles that fit that category before you have time to take off your hat and sit down.
I’m not saying, mind you, books that are offensive, but books that people find offensive. There’s a big difference between those two things. Offense needs two things. It needs the reader’s perspective and it needs some sort of striking stone found in the story. The reader stumbles on the stone and, voila, you have sparks. The more necessary of those two components, however, is the reader’s perspective, borne out by the fact that what is offensive comes and goes with the times, as changeable as quicksilver. That underscores the primacy (and frailty) of human perspective in this matter.
Orwell’s 1984, for example, will not be offensive to a schoolboy forced to read it in 21st century America (though he might be irritated by reading it due to the lack of pictures and the fact that he’d rather be texting). However, someone with socialist tendencies or someone having enjoyed a long life as a faceless bureaucrat might very well be offended by the implications in Orwell’s story.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will not be offensive to a modern literature major. No, they will happily plow through and write their essays analyzing it from a Marxist perspective or through a comparative Old Testament lens. In the past, however, the book was found highly offensive by the business and farming communities of the west, particularly in the Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up and derived so much of his perspective on the role of the worker in society.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses? Not at all offensive to someone from the west (unless they are the sort who choose to be offended when others are offended), but highly offensive to devout Muslims. Offensive enough for a fatwa to be placed upon his head.
The examples are endless.
A writer who wants to sell books is a businessman, just like someone who sells chicken sandwiches. The highest priority a writer has is to write a good story. This priority is precisely the same for the sandwich fellow: make a good chicken sandwich. The writer, if he believes in integrity and honesty, is going to write the best story he can, a story that is honest within itself, that does not pander, a story that is, above all else, dedicated to plot and characters who are true to themselves, regardless of whether they are the villains or the heroes. The same goes for the sandwich seller. That sandwich had better be the best damn sandwich he can make, with the best ingredients.
Considering potential offense in a story is a natural reaction for writers. I’ve stopped, mid stream, and thought about it. However, that’s a sure and quick road to a bad story. Story will stumble, weaken and fail if the writer piles on the weight of trying to avoid offense, trying to second-guess what group out there will be offended by this or that. At any rate, such divinations are basically impossible. Did Mark Twain imagine that Tom Sawyer would someday be abused and censored for the offense that certain people nowadays find in its language?
The more sensible course is for the writer to stay true to what he believes. Write faithfully within that philosophy, honor story and do not pander one’s writing to those who might be offended. If every writer wrote with a wary eye for offense we would soon have a world with no fiction.
Now, once the story is done and published, must the writer keep his mouth shut in public and on the internet and never say boo about any issue, cultural, political, or otherwise, in order to not offend any potential reader? I suppose so, if he wants to. But it isn’t necessary. It isn’t required. He still has the right to voice his opinion about the elections or the Israeli-Palestinian situation or veganism or the latest Hollywood film or whatever. Granted, he might offend and lose a potential reader, but that’s his choice. That’s both of their choices.
So what about the chicken sandwich seller? Granted, he might say something that will disturb certain eaters of chicken sandwiches. Is he beholden to them to say only things that are pleasant to their ears? No. Are they required to buy his sandwiches? No.
Furthermore, if the sandwich seller says something or the writer writes something that does not fit neatly into the worldview of certain sandwich eaters or readers, does that automatically equate to hate? No, it does not. More often than not it simply means disagreement. Just like there are many different sorts of sandwiches and stories in the world, there are just as many different tastes and perspectives and views.
We would all be wiser to not be so quick to find offense in what we hear or read or see. Regardless of what we believe, if we are not willing to see the wisdom in defending the chicken sandwich maker’s right to state what he believes, then what will happen on the day when we say what we believe and it is met with scorn and hostility? At any rate, if we are all so quick to offense, we might end up doing ourselves out of enjoying a tasty sandwich or a good story.
Myself, I would very much like to eat a chicken sandwich right now, but I’m afraid I’m so ill at the moment that even one bite would have disastrous results.