Changing the Narrative: The Responsibilities of Writers in a Time of Crisis

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Writers have been and continue to be a voice of the people. In a time of constant communication, of instantaneous reactions via social media, one would think writers would lead the pack of dissent, of change, of the world around us. As Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview, “I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us.” E.B. White echoes this statement in an interview with the Paris Review: “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

Where are the literary voices in the wake of gun violence? Yes, there is outrage. Yes, there are arguments from both sides of the political aisles. And yet, we are still afraid to talk about it, at least on a nuanced level that it surely deserves. I’m talking about the response from writers.

Do we deserve to be quiet? Are we afraid of the financial repercussions of taking a stand? Are we afraid of the outrage on Twitter? The hate mail? Are we afraid of the power that our voices wield?

I was given a very simple task this morning. I was asked to find out the literary community’s response to the recent and horrific events that happened in Oregon or the overall issues with gun violence. I figured it would be easy to find the voices we hear so much from.

It wasn’t.

I immediately head to Stephen King. My own personal bias aside, I know that King is not known for standing pat on a myriad of issues. When it comes to guns, King makes sure he is heard. A short e-book essay, entitled “Guns,” was published soon after the shooting in Sandy Hook nearly three years ago. In it, he narrates the routine of how the media reacts to another shooting, he talks about possible changes in regard to gun control, the necessity of having the conversation itself, and his role as an author in all of this. Have you ever read his book Rage? No? Me either. That’s because he made sure it was no longer in publication. That’s because numerous gunmen over the years had copies of the book in their back pocket. That’s because there was outrage that he could have influenced them. King states he “didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgement it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do.” He talks about the delicate and deep issues included with the issue of gun violence. It’s a thoughtful piece, one filled with passion and anger, one filled with veiled disappointment that we haven’t done anything to change the situation we’re in.

This is one of the few substantial outlets about the issue, but the journey doesn’t end quite yet.

More recently, Don Delillo spoke of the issue at the New Yorker festival just last week and is quoted in an article by Vulture.com: “A gun makes it possible for the individual (a man, usually a young man) to make sense of everything that is happening to him either in three dimensions or in his mind. It gives him a motive. It gives him a sense of direction. And, it’s a substitute for real life, and it’s the way he will choose to end his life as well as the lives of innocent people.” Delillo, like King, has written about gun violence. Libra, his account of the JFK assassination, was the spark plug for his literary career. “That assassination was the thing that made me a novelist,” he said. “The power of it … I couldn’t come to terms with it.” This is an issue that is at the core of society’s soul. It’s one we struggle with. It’s one with clear questions and unknown answers.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a thoughtful mini-essay on her Facebook page about her thoughts on the shooting in Oregon, or her utter exhaustion of understanding the issue:

“I woke up yesterday to the delightful news that my book was a #1 bestseller, and went to bed heartbroken and shaken by the awful news of yet another mass-shooting in America.

I won’t be writing a political message here today. The internet is filled with outraged people arguing with each other this morning, and I can’t bring myself to contribute more argument to the world right now.

This morning, I’m just writing to say: I don’t know.”

Roxane Gay spoke out after Sandy Hook, in a short letter to President Barack Obama published by The Rumpus: “We are struggling to make sense. We are crying out for change, for a mental health care system that can truly help the people who soothe their inner torment by reaching for weapons of such destruction. We are crying out for gun control laws that, at the very least, make it more difficult for such tragedies to occur. We are sick with grief and smallness and fragility.”

There are quick responses here and there but nothing like I thought. Perhaps it’s a matter of my own high expectations. This isn’t just about “changing the narrative” as we like to say at Atticus, this is about the duty we have to be part of the narrative.

It shouldn’t be as difficult to find the literary community’s response to the recent (and unfortunately common) gun violence in this country. We, as writers and editors, need to do better.

Our readers deserve better.

 

Photo: GUNS WE BUY by Bob Travaglione

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About Author

Nick Sweeney's reviews have been published in The Summerset Review, Heavy Feather Review, Atticus Review, Yemasee, and Stymie.

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