Humorist Finley Peter Dunne once wrote about the powerful influence of newspapers; that, among other things, they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “Mother” Mary Jones applied its usage to social activism, and others have applied it to religion.
My first introduction to the phrase came through my involvement in social activism as well, but I’ve felt that it was also a hallmark of good writing. Both fiction and nonfiction can deliver the punch of awareness to injustice and force us to face our fears and failings. Fiction has the power to make a reader reflect, reconsider, sympathize, understand, or even heal from one’s own situation. Fiction is even more powerful at changing our views than nonfiction, because when we read nonfiction, we guard our views. Reading fiction our guard drops as we become emotionally involved in the story.
I recently attended the book launch for an anthology in which three of my pieces were published. The event included readings by authors published within the book. The second writer introduced by the book’s publisher was Talyn Marie, who had two short stories included in the anthology.
Before Talyn began reading her story, “Norton,” she prefaced the piece as something that she wrote following the “write what you fear” advice writers receive. For example, Natalie Goldberg advises authors to “(w)rite what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” Undertaking the new role of mother was the seed of the Talyn’s story. Becoming a parent is both exciting and also fraught with fears.
It was a soft warning. The story, “Norton” is about a child molester as he pursues his prey. Deliberate writing set the scene as Norton executed his plan. As the story progressed, it became clear what Norton was about and where it was going. And it got deeper. The suspense grew as Norton closed in on a particular child he targeted. My wife sitting next to me, reading along with Talyn, closed the book. I heard a guy behind me say that he didn’t have to listen to this and left. He wasn’t alone. Even the publisher moved from his sitting position at the front of the room to the side, nervously wondering what he unleashed.
I, on the other hand, was riveted. Not just to the story, but to the reaction. It wasn’t that I sympathized with Norton (he does confront and is defeated by his own demon in the end), but by the power of the story. Talyn afflicted fear upon the audience seated within the comfortable confines of a yacht club. It moved people…some of them right out of the room!
Whether this story should have been read is no fault of Talyn’s. The publisher clearly had no knowledge of the content of the book he published, and failed to plan and vet the readers for its launch. Though there were five other authors reading their fine work, everyone present will remember the blizzard we drove through to attend the event, and Talyn’s story.
Good writing provokes. Julian Barnes wrote that “(w)hen you read a great book (or story), you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape…but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains, and truths.” Good writing can push us to think, to sympathize, to feel. It can take the reader to those uncomfortable places that are frightening to face, and places us before demons we refuse to admit exist.