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When Our Fiction Impacts Readers’ Lives, by Jenn J McLeod

I have a dilemma I need to share. Something is happening as a result of my debut novel that is both overwhelming and humbling, but also a little daunting. Let me explain …

As authors, we can hope our stories entertain readers to the point where they might escape their lives for a few hours. Maybe (hopefully) readers even fall in love with a character or two. What I never expected as a writer of fiction was to feel the weight of responsibility I’ve been experiencing since my book came out last March.

I’m referring to when someone sends a personal email that tells me that, after reading and enjoying House for all Seasons, they’re contemplating a life-changing decision, with statements along the lines of: “I’ve decided I’m not happy being me.” …and… “I’m going to make some serious life changes.” Then this one… “I needed [character name] to make me see the light. I know now it’s not a train! I can do this.”

To those who don’t know me, I write contemporary Australian stories about coming home to the country. They’re family relationship/friendship stories – of self-fulfilment, rediscovery, redemption, etc – that I hope readers will relate to on some emotional level. Some reviewers have labelled House for all Seasons a drama. This surprises me. I like to think that some of the more humorous aspects, as well as the occasional quirky character, inject a lighter element to balance out the seriousness of the subject matter.

This is the fiction writer’s dilemma: We write fiction, but it can impact readers’ lives.

House for all Seasons is the fictional account of four friends, a country house surrounded by the past, and a secret that ties all four to each other and to the century-old Dandelion House back in their hometown of Calingarry Crossing. Yes, it’s realistic. Fiction stories have to be; authenticity is right up there on every publisher’s checklist. What if that realism, or a character’s journey and growth throughout the story, was to resonate so deeply and on such a very personal level with a reader that it influenced them in their real lives?

How should we as authors feel about that? Elated? Worried? Or should it not concern us at all?

I know we write fiction, no different to Hollywood producing action blockbusters. It’s make-believe. Right? Then an orange-headed maniac made up like The Joker bursts into a cinema in the USA and randomly shoots theatre-goers. In one online article that examined this tragedy, violent video games and incendiary song lyrics also came into question for influencing the perpetrator that night.

Of course, it takes all kinds to make a world. Authors have all kinds of readers reading their stories. What we write and how we write it should matter. Shouldn’t it? We should feel some sense of responsibility. Shouldn’t we?

Okay, so maybe you’re no Jodi Picoult or Patricia Cornwell and your subject matter, like mine, is not controversial (I certainly have no psychopathic criminals planning mass murders in my novels). I love my small town stories sprinkled with humour. Never did I think about this issue until receiving a reader email recently that was quite detailed and a little unnerving.

Should I think about the issue of the impacts my story writing might have on readers’ lives as I move into book two? It’s a story in which I look at teenage issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. It really is a happy story! Or perhaps I am being my usual control-freakish self and wanting to organise the world to make it a better place and for everyone to live happily ever after. What do you think?

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Jenn J McLeod’s author website: www.jennjmcleod.com

Jenn J McLeod’s bio page

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House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod     Half Moon BayA Distant LandRotten Gods by Greg Barron - Australian novelistThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. It is a daunting responsibility, Jenn and thank heavens you are not Jodi Piccoult (not a fan!). I guess the hope is that their decision works for them and they don’t hold you personally responsible if it doesn’t! Mercifully writing historicals I’m unlikely to encounter your problem – although I have had some similar feedback on blogs I have written.

    When my father was dying of alzheimers, my mother devoured every M&B on my shelves. She said they were her escape from the awful reality of her situation. Book are powerful objects, even those as innocuous as a M&B romance!

    September 18, 2013
  2. I think that, if our writing makes people think about things, that is almost always a good thing. And I also think that is where we should draw the line. Whatever their response is to what we have written, it is their choice, not ours. We cannot be responsible for the choices of others.
    Write what you need to write – as long as it is not advocating violence and other anti-social activities – and leave the response to the reader.

    September 18, 2013
  3. Thx for the comments. It is one of the many ‘interesting’ parts of this publishing journey! (and I so wish I could now edit that piece! Must have been a late-nighter draft!

    September 18, 2013
  4. This is something I brought up during a session at GenreCon last November – I mentioned Dennis Wheatley and the influence on those who liked to think they are dabbling in the occult.

    September 18, 2013
  5. Something I’ve learned while writing soap (and battling networks and censors over what stories we’re allowed to tell) and that’s every good story, well told, is a moral story. Inciting incident plus character and conflict equals consequences, and people relate to that. I think it’s wonderful that you have readers reaching out to share with you. Your writing and stories are deep enough to have the emotional impact you want. I think it’s a massive affirmation for your work, and encouragement to go on telling good stories. Bravo.

    September 18, 2013
  6. Words create, Jenn, not just a fictional universe that allows people to escape, but words can speak life and hope into someone’s life. Your experience is something we all should strive for –that our words speak encouragement and not just entertain.

    September 18, 2013
  7. Allison McDonald #

    I’m glad I’m not the only reader to have been personally touched by A House for All Seasons!
    Yes it’s a work of fiction that in part parallels my life experience, although I was not your recent correspondent. It’s also your profession and your passion, so to get this heartfelt feedback, well I can’t imagine how simultaneously gratifying and scary that could be. Hugs x

    September 18, 2013
  8. It’s hard to make a happy story out of suffering, but people can and do recover and go on to find happiness. Reading about similar experiences, fictional or not, can be a big comfort to a reader on that sort of journey. I understand your feelings of concern though.

    I have a character with a bad experience in her past and I wondered if I wasn’t making light of something that is too harrowing for many women. I didn’t want to be responsible for upsetting readers, that’s not what my books are about. So I rejigged the trauma, it’s still dreadful, but a lot less dreadful than my first take.

    My job is to provide intelligent entertainment and I hope I provide escapism from everyday drear. If I touch a readers life I’d be quite proud of that, like you should be. If they throw my book away because they thinks it’s garbage, well, I’d rather that than because I’d upset them.

    September 19, 2013
  9. kerriepaterson #

    While an enormous compliment that your book touched people so profoundly, I can see how scary that is at the same time. But like another commenter said, you are not responsible for the choices or happiness of others. (Something I am trying to remember in everyday life as well.)

    September 20, 2013
  10. Okay, so now I REALLY want to edit this piece. I am a little embarrassed by all your nice comments. What I hoped to achieve from this article (was not a big head!) was some reflection. Coming from a road safety education background, I have always considered certain movies and computer games as influencing driver behaviour. I hadn’t considered that literature could also influence behaviour in different, but also in less than positive ways.
    Does that sense? I love your lovely comments. I just wanted to clarify.

    September 20, 2013
  11. “literature could also influence behaviour in different, but also in less than positive ways.”

    I wonder about its power these days. A hundred years ago a painting could cause a storm of controversy. Not now. A book could have people thinking about issues only 50 years ago (Lady Chatterley etc). I think those days are gone.Just getting eyeballs to the page is hard enough now. These days it’s more likely to be an app, a series from HBO or Netflix or another technology driven creation – form not content. I’m generalising but you get my drift, I’m sure. One day literature may be like opera, subsidised entertainment for the elite, divine and utterly necessary in it’s uselessness, but a creature from a past when opera was the place to be seen and to see. ,

    September 21, 2013
  12. anitadresden #

    I don’t think it matters what genre we write in Jenn, there will always be an element of responsibility that is ours as author of a piece of work that the public sees. However I don’t believe that we are responsible for choices they (our readers) then choose to make.
    Let your conscience be your guide( no I am not a cricket) as to how and what you write. Good luck with no.2

    September 21, 2013
  13. As the others have said the reader is ultimately responsible for their own choices. I think what you have done in your writing is perhaps made some things clearer. They have read about characters doing things (making life changes) that they have been thinking about doing (maybe for a while) and you have simply given them a positive reinforcement.

    September 25, 2013
  14. donaldmcmiken #

    Excellent piece Jenn and insightful. You might like to look at Arturo Perez-Reverte’s, “The Painter of Battles,” where he discusses precisely this dilemma, though his context is war photography. Anyway it’s a damn good novel and worth the read.

    September 25, 2013

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