Sunday, February 28, 2016

Authors Revered, Authors Reviled, and Lessons Learned

Writing a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is a combination of commitment, ambition, knowledge, skill, and creativity. Publishing that book is an act of courage, of nerve and probably idealistic naiveté, at least for the first few books. Then we start to figure it out.

This week, one of my favorite authors of all time passed away, the reclusive Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird inspired a love of reading and writing that hasn’t dwindled over time.

Also this week, one of the most despicable human beings to come out of Canada, (yes, we do have them) also published a book. Notorious serial killer Robert Pickton apparently wrote a book from his prison cell, managed to get the manuscript smuggled out of Kent Institution (a maximum security prison), find a Colorado publisher, and another individual put his name on the cover. I won’t mention the title, but I will say that this pathetic excuse for a human being lived not far from where I live and the feelings about his making money from his crimes have upset a lot of people. So much so that Amazon pulled it down after one day. As the CBC article notes, Pickton wasn’t the first Canadian criminal to write a book.

There are other examples of reviled writers. I read an article this week about Salman Rushie whose book The Satanic Verses still incenses followers of Islam so much that, 27 years after the book’s release, there is a renewed call for his assassination. A Guardian article reports that people have already died or faced serious attacks because of that book.

And remember James Frey of A Million Little Pieces, fame who was subjected to public humiliation by Oprah Winfrey’s TV after confessed that his memoir was mostly made up?

At some point in their writing lives, many authors need to deal with ethical and censorship issues. Certainly, all published writers have to face the ramifications, good or bad, of making their books public. I don’t want to get into lengthy debates about these things in this blog, but I do find myself thinking about them, about when it’s okay to publish something controversial and when it is wrong. How far do we go to defend freedom of speech? When do we draw a line in the sand and say enough already…you can’t publish this or that because of what you’re saying or who you are.

I never believed in book banning or censorship, but this week I’ve realized that I’m drawing my own lines in the sand, and that I’ve been self-censoring for some time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the people mentioned above is that publication means that somewhere out there, someone will read your work and that they’ll love it or hate it, or misinterpret it, or misunderstand it, and might even raise a how-dare-you uproar. Like I said, publishing takes courage and nerve. Personally, I also think that it should require some common sense. What do you think?

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