Manifesto: a written statement of beliefs, aims and policies.
Author Joanne Harris (Chocolat Rector’s Wife; Blackberry Wine) has produced a writer’s manifesto. You will find the full document and an interesting article on the subject on The Guardian’s site here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/20/what-do-writers-owe-readers-in-the-digital-age-joanne-harris-colm-toibin-al-kennedy
There are 12 items on Ms Harris’s manifesto, dealing primarily with things like being honest in her work, and willing to walk on the dark side. For instance,
I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer…
I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places…
I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new – even if the things I try are not always successful…
Not to be unkind, but there seems to be some repetition, or at least overlap of ideas in these items. That’s not to say I disagree with them. Writers should be honest and true, though I would argue that being so despite fear, rather than acting without it, is the essence of real courage. Courage is, after all, what following the story and refusing to flinch requires.
These quibbles aside, I like most of what Ms Harris has to say. Writers should be honest and strive for excellence. We should be willing to walk in dark places, alone and trembling, perhaps, but still refuse to turn back. Sometimes writing is a struggle, but that’s never a reason to quit anything.
It’s when she wanders into territory that addresses her obligations to her readers that my red lights come on. Item number 10 says,
I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
Well, some of us tend to be aloof by nature. Not to mention, if I’m writing, I’m writing. Don’t bug me. I don’t want to come to the pub with you. I don’t want to chat about the chap up the street who just got arrested for owning multiple weapons (though I’ll happily do so when the chapter is done.) I definitely don’t want to get chummy on Facebook or twitter. Go away. I’m writing!
It’s very difficult for other people to understand what’s going on inside the writer’s mind. Hell, I have a writer’s mind, and I don’t understand it. It’s a temperamental beast. It needs a perfect balance of peace and stimulation, plus hourly infusions of tea in order to function efficiently. (I’m still experimenting with the mood-enhancement drug chocolate. A great deal more research is needed before I can determine its benefits.)
Most of us who create fiction would agree that we need time and quiet to produce our best work. Unfortunately, some people don’t seem to understand that. Or if they do understand it, they don’t give a toss.
I feel for American author Celeste Ng, author of Amazon’s book of the year, Everything I Never Told You. In her innocence, she tweeted, “Teachers, please, please, please don’t assign your students to email and author and ask questions. It’s not fair to us or to them.”
Sounds pretty fair, right? Except some people took exception to the polite request and replied that Ng was being selfish. “We buy your books,” seemed the prevailing mood. “You owe us every moment of every day of your life.”
People seem to expect more from writers now than they ever did. OK, Dickens might take issue with that, but it was his choice to churn out thousands of words a day for the serial market. At least he only had to contend with the letters of adulation; the crowds at his many public readings; and the demands of more, always more, from his publishers. He thrived on it (throve on it?) Were he around today, I suspect his tweeting would put Stephen Fry to shame. He’d blog incessantly. Get into social media wars with politicians and trolls. The man was built for social media.
The problem is, many writers have created a culture that has unrealistic expectations of writers. It’s not enough to write a good book, create interesting characters, or dazzling plots, you have to be your reader’s pal, too.
It’s my belief that the writer owes the reader nothing more than a good read. The best story he or she can create. The writer has rights, too. For instance:
The right to work on the story of my choice, no matter how commercial, literary, or daft it might be.
The right to be antisocial while I do so.
The right to chuck a story 50,000 words in, if I think it isn’t working.
The right to engage with readers in the time and manner of my choosing.
The right to ask for input and then ignore it.
I’ll think of more, but there’s a novel demanding my attention. Which reminds me of another right: the right to prioritise my work in the manner of my choosing.
As to our responsibilities as writers, I have to agree with Colm Tóibín. He says, “I think your main responsibility is to your sentences, to work as best you can. Everything else is secondary.”