Friday, December 28, 2012

Do Books Shape Your Actions And Do You Shape Theirs?

While everyone processed the news about the recent school shooting in Connecticut, one of my CP’s sent a distraught email about her WIP, which deals with… a school shooting.  Obviously her greater concern was with the victims and their families, but she also worried for the fate of her book.  This wasn’t from a selfish perspective, but out of concern that her words would lend further inspiration to a copycat shooter or open raw wounds for a country on the breaking point. 

My initial reaction was, “Wow, yeah, maybe you should change that plotline,” nevermind that even if she landed an agent and the book was acquired tomorrow, it likely wouldn’t hit shelves for several years.  Except the more thought I gave to that, the more I began to question my reaction. Books shouldn’t avoid tough topics, they should explore them, right? Her book wasn’t promoting school violence, but it did examine the incident through the eyes of the mentally ill MC, and it lent some insight into how he got to that scary place.  And haven’t we all been hearing that now is the time to have these frank discussions? Wouldn't exploring the scenario from inside the mind of the perpetrator allow a jumping off point for that discussion?

I live in a middle-class suburb where the majority of my neighbors are the same color, religion and economic class as I am.  My state even votes strongly in favor of one political party.  But when I read a book I enter the head, for a short while, of characters who are not like me at all.  They might be gay, bi-sexual, Asian, Indian, male, rich or poor. They might be terrible parents, cheating spouses, criminals, spies, heroes, or villains. And I learn something from each of them- even if it’s just a cautionary tale.  We inhabit the world of each book for a longer time and are often privy to the character’s innermost thoughts and motives in a way that other media can’t portray.  And for that very reason, books have the power to open our minds as they introduce us to people we might not encounter in our day-to-day lives.  

As much as we bring our own experiences to the books we read, sometimes the books we read bring themselves to our own experiences.

Some books shape my thinking in ways I don’t recognize. In other instances, I can pinpoint certain books that concretely shaped my real-life perspective.  MIDDLESEX  allowed me such insight into a transgender’s struggle that when my neighbor announced her sex change, I immediately had a reference point to guide me in being a supportive friend in a difficult time. The drowning scene in A MAP OF THE WORLD scared me so badly that I am now hyper-aware of the responsibility of watching someone else’s child.  Likewise, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN haunted me every time I would have to turn my back on my children in a crowded space, even for a second. I can absolutely say these books changed my reactions in each of those instances. 

What about you?  What books have shaped your perspective or changed your actions? Have any events in the "real" world shaped your storyline in your writings?


  1. Great post, Jen! You bring up several good points.

    When we get an idea, we have to run with it. Trying to predict a fickle market will only bring unmanageable stress. What's timely or uncomfortable today changes a year or even a month from now.

    Stories about difficult topics encourage frank discussions and help shape our opinions. When I work with students who have lost loved ones, I often encourage them to read stories similar to theirs. It helps them put their own emotions into words and see that they aren't alone.

  2. Wow, I had a Crit friend make me aware of the sensitive nature of the familial sexual abuse I touch on in my novel because of the recent news blasts of the Sandusky issues and how a lot of folks might react negatively to my novel because of these headline matters.

    I can understand where your friend is coming from and hope they continue to stay the course. You are right that the issues are things that should be addressed, the discussions opened and and debated in a healthy fashion that can move forward toward something that almost resembles progress. Books are a way to do that.

  3. As someone who is the "friend" of this post... ;) I've realized that sensitive topics even if they are hard to read about are IMPORTANT to be written about. (Hopefully that makes some sense!) I really think that a lot of difficult topics are hard to read but they're important. I remember all the books in school we read about the Holocaust or the Japanese internment camps - the violence and ridicule those people went through are indescribable to me and it was hard to read about it...but it was also important. If we don't write or talk about these things, then how will we as readers or our children etc. ever know about them?