The Lightness of Gold

Do artists owe a duty to speak true things? A complex topic in itself, but more complex is whether that duty takes precedence over selling work.

The rather spiffing Austin Hackney made several interesting comments in response to last week’s post on avoiding gendered language: among them that authors need to consider commercial realities, but also need to consider the impact of their art.

I try to do good with my books as in all things. However, even if an author doesn’t want to think about the “message” of their work, any random person bears responsibility for their words, so it seems hard to challenge the assertion authors bear a responsibility to write more than merely unconsidered entertainment.

A more interesting question is whether and to what extent that duty overrides the best commercial strategy.

On the face of it rejecting the tropes, symbols, trappings and such that debase others is virtuous; whereas, selling books is not. Thus, especially for those who feel that art should be divorced from money, an author should do the right thing not the one that sells books.

However, virtue is about acting as well as believing. If no one reads a book, is the perfect message within achieving anything?

If changing from a cover image utterly free of possible discriminatory symbols to one that echoes the least troubling of possibly biased genre symbols increases sales ten-fold, it also increases the visibility of the otherwise utterly positive representation ten-fold; so, is that apparent nod to commercialism more or less virtuous? What if the change would increase sales a thousand-fold?

What if not struggling against gender bias in language quite so hard gives a piece of prose a fluidity that draws the reader deep into the book; so deep they live the message rather than reading it?

I have no secret formulae for balancing market choices against socially progressive choices, for judging whether X people experiencing a mildly positive narrative is better than Y people seeing a radical narrative; I don’t even know if there are any.

But, I suggest that writing a book that might sell doesn’t of necessity make you a sinner, a reprobate, and a devil’s pawn. Or, to paraphrase Neal Stephenson: if you’re worrying about betraying your virtues, it means you have some.

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