How to Do Things with People who Aren't: The Moral Responsibility of the Author


Thursday, April 16, 2009, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Location: Sackler Auditorium, 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Speaker: Alexander McCall Smith, Novelist, and Emeritus Professor of Medical Law, University of Edinburgh

Alexander McCall Smith delivered a witty, conversational, and fascinating lecture to a full auditorium in the Sackler Museum. He began with an example: During a recent book tour event in Sydney, two young women approached McCall Smith to have their books signed. One soon indicated that she was worried about a new romance between two characters in the book. When McCall Smith inquired as to why, he was told: "It's going nowhere." When he said that he thought it was actually going rather well, the woman replied curtly: "It isn't."

This story brings to light two features of the relationship between authors and readers. First, it shows the extent to which works of fiction become real in the minds of readers, as evidenced by the fact that they discuss the events in the books with the same or almost the same degree of involvement and level of passion as if discussing events in the real world. Second, it shows that authors are likely to be quickly disabused of the notion that they can control the destiny of their characters with impunity – especially if they are writing serial novels. Indeed, the very romance for which he found himself criticized that afternoon in Sydney had been the result of pressure from other readers, who had "hounded" him until he took the hitherto platonic relationship in a romantic direction. These features of the author/reader relationship led McCall Smith to think about the moral responsibility of writing fiction. What duty does one have to the fictional characters one creates, and what duty does one have to one's readers?

McCall Smith observed that although fiction is made up, people do not always consider it "just a story," because they see it as expressing a moral point of view. This belief has played a role, he noted, in debates over such books as Huck Finn and Lolita, but McCall Smith also cited two examples from his own work. First, in his Scotland Street novels, the narcissistic character Bruce at one point makes a reference to how his hometown of Crieff, a small village in Scotland, is an extremely boring place suitable only to go home and die in. A local member of the Scottish parliament took offense at this and demanded an apology from McCall Smith himself. Second, in the Isabel Dalhousie series, Isabel gives up rather quickly on breastfeeding, since she finds it uncomfortable. McCall Smith found himself criticized by the president of a major UK breastfeeding group for encouraging bad behavior, and he was asked to recant that part of the novel.

McCall Smith was not very sympathetic to these particular objections to his own work, but he argued that they gesture to an important thought, namely that, regardless of how the author sees his own intentions, the act of writing fiction is one rich in moral implications. The main reason for this, McCall Smith argued, is that although fiction consists of made up stories, it invites the reader to respond as if it were real, to imagine himself as present, witnessing something, and to respond emotionally. Indeed, the writer's success is measured by whether he can get the reader to shed tears over tragic situations, to laugh over humorous ones, to frown with concentration over puzzling ones, etc. For McCall Smith, given this power over readers, the novelist, no less than the non-fiction writer, is subject to a prima facie duty of care for the audience.

McCall Smith would return to this notion of care at the end of the lecture, but, before getting there, he turned to two issues raised by the character Bertie in his Scotland Street novels. The first Scotland Street novel was first published in daily serial form, and McCall Smith noted that since he didn't know where the story would go when he was starting to write, many new characters "walked in" over the course of the writing. One of the  most popular characters proved to be Bertie, a six-year-old boy with an ambitious mother who had already made him learn Italian and the saxophone. Bertie has attracted a strong following among readers, and McCall Smith has, as a result, found himself under a lot of pressure to change Bertie's situation. Some readers have even accused him of cruelty for keeping the unhappy boy eternally in the same situation, not even advancing past the age of six. And yet McCall Smith rejects the solution proposed by some readers – to dispose of Bertie's mother – on that very ground, thinking that it would be cruel to take Bertie's mother from him, despite her faults.

This situation highlights two special features of novels being written in serial form. First, it indicates their power to intensify the relationship between author and reader, because the reader acquires an exceptional sense of investment in the story, given his knowledge that he might actually be able to alter its outcome. And, second, it shows how the serial novel raises especially saliently the moral relationship between an author and the fictional characters he creates, given that his control over their fate is put into even starker relief than is usually the case.

By way of conclusion, McCall Smith suggested that the relationship between reader and author is best viewed as one of friendship. When we see a book, it invites us to enter a conversation with a voice, and if we're going to spend some time with that voice, McCall Smith argued, we expect certain things of it, certain of the duties of friendship, including responsiveness. It is precisely because of the moral proximity between author and reader that disagreements about what is owed can so easily become intense.

The lecture provoked a number of interesting exchanges between McCall Smith and members of the audience. For instance, Joe Mazor asked whether there is any duty for a fiction writer to offer books that show viewpoints not otherwise represented by existing literature. McCall Smith was inclined to think so, and he applauded the recent focus in moral philosophy on an expanded view of moral duty, one that takes account not just of acts, but of omissions. For instance, if a writer sees a certain group of people living cramped, unfulfilled lives but the existing fiction about that group portrays them as blissfully happy, then McCall Smith thinks there may be a positive duty to show readers a different view. While McCall Smith believes that there is always room for light fiction, there must be authors willing to hold up a mirror to unfortunate times. Conversely, McCall Smith is sometimes accused of adopting an overly optimistic view of life, particularly when writing about Botswana. However, he thinks he can justify his stance, because there are so many other authors writing on the pathologies of sub-Saharan Africa, so McCall Smith sees his work as a corrective.

Arthur Applbaum pressed McCall Smith to say more about how it might arise that an author could have a duty to give readers what they want. Why not just say to some complaining readers that they should simply grow up? McCall Smith indicated agreement with Applbaum's general position, saying that it would be impossible to construct a general duty that authors have to please their readers, and that fiction would be quite boring if that were the case. But McCall Smith nonetheless likes the notion of moral proximity, drawn from tort law, to indicate that in some situations, there can be a duty of care, even though the people involved are prima facie strangers. McCall Smith also noted that an author can be drawn into a relationship with a country as a whole, and that he has found himself in this position with respect to Botswana. He feels keenly aware of the powerful position he occupies in shaping views of that country, and the duty of care that corresponds to that power.

Elaine Scarry asked about McCall Smith's relation to his characters, regardless of whether readers were complaining or not. For instance, McCall Smith knows that Bertie is troubled by not getting older, but he has indicated an unwillingness to change this. Yet, he won't kill of Bertie's mother, since that would trouble Bertie. How, Scarry asked, do McCall Smith's characters debate with him about what he's doing with them? McCall Smith was not sure that he conceives of the relationship in those terms. While he is certainly aware that his characters develop in ways that are of their own making, and this might be construed as their way of addressing him, the idea of a conscious debate with his characters did not resonate with him. This could be because his subconscious mind is the source of so much of his fiction: McCall Smith writes in a state of mild dissociation, meaning that things happen on the page that he had not deliberated about. In one instance, a character became depressed over the course of one page, yet McCall Smith had never planned for this to happen. Indeed, he remarked to laughter, he found himself "extremely surprised."

Michael Nitsch, Graduate Fellow in Ethics 2008-09

See also: Ethics