The pen is mightier than the sword. At least it used to be. Today I’m not so sure.
Writers and other lovers of literature often speak of the power of words. My editor has stated, “I have always believed that good writing and clear communication can change the world.” My own noble ideal of writing is “changing the world one mind at a time.” That said, I am repeatedly reminded of how difficult that mission is.
The Facebook Factor
Persuading people is hard. One reason for this is because we have so little practice. I blame social media.
Consider the way we typically use Facebook. Pew Research tells us that Facebook had a billion users in 2014, and that the median number of Facebook friends per user was 200. I’m right in there with 215. Like most FB users, I’ll occasionally publish an opinion as my status update. Maybe it’s something like “Guns are not the problem; evil is the problem.” Those of my 215 friends who are Libertarians, Conservatives, avid hunters, or who are licensed to carry a firearm for self-defense will “Like” my post. They’ll make supportive comments. They may share my post. But what about those of my friends who hate firearms, who think that only agents of the state should possess them, and that society would be peaceful and peachy if we’d just eliminate civilian gun ownership? My post makes their blood boil.But they won’t debate the issue with me, because that’s considered poor Facebook etiquette. So they will just ignore it. And that’s assuming they even see it in the first place. Because the more often I post things they disagree with, the more likely they are to “unfollow” me, so that my posts no longer show up on their news feed. And I do the same thing to people whose posts disturb me. After a while, our FB walls only have content from people who think like us and agree with nearly everything we say. Our status updates are greeted with automatic affirmation (86 people Like this) and little, if any, dissent.
Look at your own Facebook wall. Do the posts all take the same tone on the news of the day? Do you see an even mix of liberals and conservatives, or is it all one or the other? Is it the same small circle of people commenting on each others’ updates? If so, you are preaching to your personal amen corner and have shut out everyone else. You can proclaim without having to persuade.
Writing a book is not like posting to social media. When I release my novel, it will be read by (and maybe reviewed by) people who are not in my FB tribe. Many of them don’t think like I do. They have different life experiences than I had. They come at things with different beliefs, different assumptions. They won’t automatically affirm everything I say. They may not even understand what I’m talking about.
Imagine a 25-year-old white male from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, is discussing policing issues with a 25-year-old black male from a housing project in South Philadelphia. What are the odds of Grosse Pointe guy convincing South Philly guy of the proposition “all policemen are heroes”? I’d say they’re about the same as the odds of the inner city man convincing the wealthy suburbanite of the proposition “cops are the enemy.” These two come from such different worlds and have such different experiences that neither can really imagine what leads the other to think as he does.
I like to imagine that both of them will read a copy of my novel. I ask myself: What preconceptions and assumptions will they harbor that might make them resistant to the messages I am conveying? And what preconceptions and assumptions did I bring to the writing?
What I Learned From an Editor
There is a scene in my current book where one man dies at the hands of another. (I’m deliberately being a bit vague here to avoid spoilers). The death is presented as a justifiable homicide. My editor asked me to focus more on how this character felt about having “murdered” someone. My initial reaction was to hit the roof. “Murdered? What are you talking about? No one was murdered. All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders. The legal definition of murder is an unlawful killing. The moral definition is the deliberate killing of an innocent. This was neither. If the killing was ruled justifiable (that is, lawful), and the deceased was not an innocent, then it was not murder, either legally or morally. That’s not a mere technicality. If you doubt this, ask a combat soldier how many enemy soldiers he’s “murdered.” I was angry on behalf of my poor slandered fictional character.
After I calmed down a bit (you knew writers get emotionally invested in the worlds and people they create, right?) I began to realize I needed to revise the text some. Yes, the editor was wrong to label the scene as murder. But she can’t be the only person on earth who thinks that way. Think of all the picketers holding “execution is murder” signs at rallies against capital punishment. Whether the death penalty is right or wrong, execution is by definition the state-sanctioned (that is, lawful) killing of someone who is not an innocent. It cannot be murder. But the protesters feel that it is, dictionary definitions notwithstanding.
If only 3% of my readers conflate the concepts of homicide and murder, and I sell a million copies of the novel, then 30,000 people will judge this character to be a murderer. That’s a problem, because I want readers to see him as one of the good guys. So I have two choices here. I can “unfollow” my editor and forget about the opinion she expressed. Or I can write the scene in a way that attempts to persuade readers who do not hold a view that I take for granted: that someone who kills because he is in imminent danger of death or grave bodily harm at the hands of another is not a murderer.
As a novelist, I don’t do this through polemics. I do it through storytelling. The problem is that people with different core beliefs will react differently to the same story. A scene involving a pleasant police interaction with the public might seem perfectly believable to the man from Grosse Pointe. But it might seem like fantasy to the man from South Philly. It is hard to foresee every potential difference of perspective among readers I’ve never met. It’s not usually easy to discover the reasons for other people’s assumptions. Many people never try. That’s why we talk around each other, and even shout each other down, over Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Bruce Jenner, climate change, same sex marriage, income inequality, NPR, the NRA, and a thousand other things. Shouting people down is fine if my goal is to look tough in front of a mob of my supporters. Talking around people is fine if all I want to do is post memes on Facebook for my tribe to Like so I can feel validated. But if I am trying to persuade people to my point of view, I have to do the hard work of uncovering and examining their most deeply held convictions. Only then will readers reconsider those beliefs. When that happens, the pen is truly mightier than the sword.