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Vintage WD: What Is the Writer’s Social Responsibility?

Today is Election Day in the United States and marks one year before the highly anticipated, already contentious 2020 presidential election. So, when we found this article from our January 1970 issue, and recognized its continued relevance, we had to share it with you. Feel free to add your comments about what you think the writer’s social responsibility is (or isn’t), how it’s changed since 1970, and what you think it will be in the years to come.


By Norman Cousins, Writer’s Digest January 1970

The author, who is President and Editor in Chief of the Saturday Review came to that publication in 1940, four years out of Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining SR, he had been an education reporter for The New York Evening Post, literary editor then managing editor of Current History.

When I refer to the social responsibility of the writer, I do not mean to suggest that he must be preoccupied with urban decay, teenage acidheads, thermonuclear warheads, and population bomb. What I do mean is that the writer should try to keep his windows and his options open. That is, he should not separate himself from major social influences. Whatever his literary field or approach, he will be a better writer if he is properly sensitive to the principle issues of the times.

writer's social responsibility

An author—whether novelist, essayist, or poet—should write out of the richest possible mix: a mix that should by all means include a keen awareness of the main forces at play in the world. The writer’s mind is, or should be, a kind of burning lens that bends inward and brings to a white-hot focus a great variety of previously unconnected facts, experiences, and impressions. The wider the cone of rays he brings to that focus, the more heat, light, and penetrating power he is likely to generate.

To me, then, the sin is not failure to write explicitly about this or that major social fact; the sin is, rather, to be so completely unaware of the phenomenon’s importance that the question never comes up. It is also a sin, of course, to be perfectly aware of such facts, but to avoid them in one’s writing because the fashionable subject this year is something else, or because Big Brother does not want certain things mentioned out loud. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said it when he wrote, “As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of being judged not to have lived.” By this standard, a rather substantial number of writers are half-alive at best. A case in point: two decades ago the editorials of the Saturday Review protested the nuclear obscenity with especial emphasis on the emerging world arms race. In the late fifties, we turned to the appalling long-range effects of the worldwide radioactive-fallout drizzle from above-ground nuclear tests. It seemed to us that the life-substance of two great nations was being devoted to the Bomb. Grown men were mortgaging their futures to build elaborate mole-hole “shelters.” School-children who were subjected to Civil Defense war-drills were waking up screaming in the middle of the night. All this stuff was the stuff of tragedy and collective madness.

Yet it soon came home to us that relatively few writers were concerning themselves in print about the apocalyptic challenge posed by the Bomb and by nuclear power. I found, indeed, that some writers I knew felt we were becoming too “unliterary” because of our concern about the threat of fallout.

I might mention that one of SR’s major editors dissented strongly from my view, and we carried on a friendly joust in SR’s pages. His point, advanced with force and charm, was that none of us groundlings could ever know much about the Bomb and its possible spinoff problems. Instead of engaging in “hair-raising speculation” about fallout and such, those of us not at the center of government should, he said, “moderate their voices or remain silent.”

In my editorial reply I tried to make the point that “This is the time for audible warning … a time to split the sky with indignation over authorized madness, and the towering assault on human destiny.”

I cite the foregoing not to say I-told-you-so, or to say that the editor who differed with me was not a first-rate writer, thinker, and human being—for he certainly was all these. I cite the story, rather, because it illustrates several points about what I conceive to be the writer’s responsibility.

First, the editorial colleague with whom I disagreed believed quite honestly that a writer—a literary man­, that is—had no business bothering his head with “all that sort of thing.” To him, the Bomb was just another Blockbuster of a weapon whose disposition was the military’s province. He felt there was really no point digging into the question of whether testing might kill or deform babies, for if there was any such danger, the military would have told us so. I’d like to that this is now an outmoded view, but sometimes I am not so sure.

Secondly, and as a corollary, he felt that whole realms of social and technical ferment were out of bounds to the cultivated man. His human sympathies were broad by belletristic and the phrase “leave all that to the experts” about summed the matter up for him.

My friend’s mistake, I submit, was that he ignored the writer’s social responsibility: he failed to concern himself with a major social fact-of-life because his conception of literature’s role was, in this case, at least, too severely constricted.

There remains the other kind of default, which may well be an even great sin. Many contemporary writers are in touch with the vibrant social realities but consciously sidestep any mention of them in their writing. Perhaps it’s from simple fear of being called nasty names. Perhaps it’s because the writer has an eye on the lucrative “shock-market,” and feels “social” themes contain too much roughage for the average reader’s diet. “I’m eating my heart out over the world situation,” he will confide, “But of course, all that is death at the box office.”

The danger is that such a writer will backpeddle so far in his haste to avoid “deep” social themes that he will lose all connection with the recognizable human scene. This isn’t too bad, I suppose, if one is Wodehouse or Tolkien or Perelman, but most writers are not Wodehouses, nor should they try to be. Most serious fiction and nonfiction writers have been, I would think, men and women who cared strongly about the social-political life of their day.

At Least Awareness

Perhaps one reason for our chariness about “social responsibility” is that the phrase itself falls so strangely on American ears. The expression has a clanking sound to it, and is redolent of old-line Soviet novels about love among the Stakhanovites, or turn-of-the-century American tales about pluck-and-luck types who put their pennies by, and conquer the world of high finance. Maybe a better term for what I am getting at would be, simply, awareness of or openness to just about everything around us—the Bomb, malnutrition, and other social realities very much included.

Another approach would be to adopt Howard Mumford Jones’s terminology. He once said that a “useful” writer is one “who dwells in the public world accessible to anyone who can read.” If literature is not “useful” in this sense, Jones said, “it is likely to degenerate into an elaborate private game played with infinite relish by a selected few, but a game without general significance.”

Instead of attaining this “general significance,” too many authors nowadays, it strikes me, are writing out of their own egos instead of their consciences. Possibly they feel their egos are somehow coterminous with the whole human consciousness, and that this makes their writing universal. It succeeds only in reading like an exercise in Jungian solipsism—the novel thus becomes a mere spinning out of case histories. What we need are more writers who do not flinch from seeing themselves as spokesman for human destiny; more writers able to get outside the “castle of the skin,” and to concern themselves with the larger condition of man. As Emerson (dare one quote Emerson nowadays?) put it, “That is the vice—that no one feels himself called to act for man, but only as a fraction of man.”

But why, one may fairly ask, place such heavy responsibility on the writer? With a President and a Congress, and all the other paraphernalia of representative government, does the writer really have a hand in shaping the political and social man? Anyone who has been close to the Rotunda or any State capitol knows the unhappy answer to that question. The trouble with government is that there are too many hands on the lever—in fact, too many hands-on-hands. Some Presidents have tried to get around the pressures of office by using an ingenious system of dodges, stratagems, and pulls-and-counterpulls.

But such stratagems and fancy cape work just won’t work. In the end, the people begin to hold you to your word, and that seemingly wispy force, public opinion, prevails.

writer's social responsibility

If the past few years have taught us nothing else, they teach us that the writer’s real constituency is not men in positions of power but the American public, the writer’s constituency. This is an obvious post-1968 point, but it can still use stressing. Power was shaped and exercised, it was recently believed, through arcane manipulations at the top. The public and its opinions were regarded by most “in” folk in somewhat the same way that ponderous, puckish Herman Hickman, the one-time Yale football coach, looked on Yale’s graduates: “My job,” he once said cheerfully, “is to keep the alumni sullen, but not mutinous.” But as of the beginning of 1968, American public opinion came full size in the United States.

This is not without its effect on writers. The writer has already access to that newly emerged sovereign power, public opinion, and he is more than ever before a major figure in American and world society. He may not yet realize this home truth, or if he does realize it, he may feel uneasy about coming to terms with it. But like it or not, the writer will, in the years just ahead, become more and more of a force in our national life.

Rights and Responsibilities

writer's social responsibility

Needless to say, with such new power comes new obligations. Anyone who writes well but dishonestly will be like a child flipping levers at random on the command console at a missile base. More than ever before, a dishonest but superficially persuasive article or TV essay will have a perhaps unimaginably bad effect.

This would seem to suggest that our writers should do two things. First, try to take in as wide-angle a view of their times as they possibly can. Second, when they come to write of the things they know and feel, they will consult their consciences and not the box office.

writer's social responsibility

What we need today are writers who can restore to writing its powerful traditions of leadership in crisis. Most of the great tests in human history have produced great writers who acknowledged a special responsibility to their times. They defined the issues, recognized the values at stake, dramatized the nature of the challenge. In terms of today’s needs, the challenge to writers is to see themselves as representatives of the human community. For the central issue facing the world today is not the state of this nation or that nation, but the condition of man. That higher level today needs its champion as never before.

The danger so well described by the philosopher Whitehead—the danger that events might outrun man and leave him panting and helpless anachronism—is by now much more than a figure of speech. We have leaped centuries ahead in inventing a new world to live in, but as yet have an inadequate conception of our own part in that world. We have surrounded and confounded ourselves with gaps: gaps between revolutionary science and evolutionary anthropology, between cosmic gadgets and human wisdom, between intellect and conscience. The clash between knowledge and ethics that Henry Thomas Buckle foresaw a century ago is now more than a mere skirmish.

What is it we expect of the writer who is confronted with this sudden, severe upset in the metabolism of history? No single answer can possibly have enough elasticity to be all-inclusive. But we can certainly expect him to reflect the new spirit of the age, which points to the convergence of man. We can expect him to become the herald of world citizenship. We can expect him to narrow the gap between the individual and society. We can expect him to shorten the distance between individual capacity and collective needs.

Our generation lacks a philosophy of vital participation in the world community. How much emphasis is there on the most important science of all, the science of interrelationships of knowledge, that critical area beyond compartmentalization where knowledge must be integrated in order to have proper meaning? Is there enough of a sense of individual responsibility for group decision? Is the individual equipped to appraise the news and to see beyond the news, to see events against a broad historical flow? For ultimate objectives have suddenly become present imperatives; they will be faced and attained in our time or they may not be attained at all.

writer's social responsibility

These are vaulting responsibilities and the writer cannot be expected to assume the entire burden of human destiny. But at least those responsibilities offer something of a yardstick by which the writer can measure his own part and place in the total picture of our time.

Twenty-four hundred years ago, the world knew a Golden Age in which the development of the individual was considered the first law of life. In Greece, it took the form of the revolution of awareness, the emancipation of the intellect from the limitations of corroding ignorance and mental inactivity. Once again, in our time, there is within the grasp of man another Golden Age—if only he can recognize it and act upon it. And writers can chart the way.


If you want tips for writing about controversial topics in your fiction, check out this essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling novelist Bryan Gruley.


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The post Vintage WD: What Is the Writer’s Social Responsibility? by Amy Jones appeared first on Writer's Digest.

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About Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an author and blogger who helps writers become leaders through their best, most beneficial ideas. His books include Ignite Your Beacon, Writing Clout and Tomes Of A Healing Heart. For free downloads and weekly tips on leveraging your writing through realistic leadership, visit: BradleyJohnsonProductions.com