Beyond the book? The full question is weird on its own, but its premise is doubtful. I mean, once it’s a book, then it is what it is, right?
But the question changes dramatically when you just focus on the nouns.
Start with “authors”—does the question include all authors: novelists, nonfiction authors, essayists, bloggers who write less than 150 words per blog, tweeters (who don’t know how to write, much less edit), op-ed writers who write to opine rather than to inform, cartoonists whose illustrations are often deeper than their prose, judges on appellate courts? In just this short sampling of authors, the answer could be yes, maybe, sometimes, rarely, or no.
Ethical responsibilities? Doesn’t the first word limit the second? Does the question mean “ethical” in the philosophical sense, or is it an effort to advance a cultural or socioeconomic position? Would the answer be different if the author were a lawyer for a nonprofit company giving advice about medically assisting hurricane victims, as opposed an author writing ads for semiautomatic weapons designed for use in faraway autocratic regimes? What if the author is writing about an American President without knowing anything about America’s long, complicated history on foreign policy issues? Would it matter if neither the author or the American President had no experience and very little understanding on those issues?
Perhaps I’m over analyzing and missing the whole point of the question by picking on its innocent words. The question isn’t mine. It originated on a blog called “For readers By readers.” Importantly, the question was raised by a reader, not an author. In my opinion, it’s a well-organized blog with thousands of opinions, responses, reviews, for both authors and readers. The reader, after posing the question, gave what turned out to be a tentative/subject-to-change answer: “I’m guessing that the vast majority of you answered this question the same way I did for a long time, with a fully articulated, deeply resounding NO.”
But that answer turned out to be a shell, when once pried open, turned to MAYBE, which at the end of her thoughtful response became YES.
Here’s the MAYBE part of the reader’s assessment. “Personally, I am adamant about protecting an author’s creative freedom. I generally do not believe that authors explicitly owe individual readers anything outside the book. And I have read numerous objections to this idea of authorial responsibility beyond the book with the admonishment that perhaps authors will stop writing about characters of other races, sexual experiences, etc. But you know, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for authors to think good and hard about what it means to write about people of color, about people of different sexual orientations and practices, about people of different cultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds. Just as I don’t think it’s a bad thing for readers to approach these stories mindfully. How can mindfulness be a bad thing, especially when we’re talking about commercial work aimed at yielding economic profit?”
After citing examples, and posing dilemmas and conundrums, the thoughtful reader reached YES. “Even if an author does not believe that s/he has any responsibilities beyond the book, I would suggest that when an author endeavors to represent the experiences of another group, particularly a historically disenfranchised group, and further, if an author aims to suggest membership in that group through a pseudonym, then the author should be prepared to meet the criticism of readers who do believe that the author has some off-page responsibility, either to them, to the genre, to the marginalized group, or to society at large. And if authors do not respect that readers may buy the full implications of what authors are presenting to them for purchase, they risk losing the respect that those readers have for their work.”
In reading the reader’s entire answer, two things became obvious. First, the reader was an author. Second, the reader went from NO, to MAYBE, to YES, based on the concept of “appropriation.” It means many things to many authors and readers. Essentially it is the effort by an author to appropriate or populate his or her book by presuming to know the culture, gender, sexual, political, mental, or psychological positions or actions taken in the book because the author is from a different culture, gender, sexual, etc. than the main characters or the narrative arc in the novel being debated.
I write nonfiction, fiction, biography, legal analysis, op-eds, and highly opinioned essays. My answer to the question posed above would be different in each venue. I’ll limit my answer to fiction because it’s simpler there. In fiction, I owe my publisher and my reader the best book in me when I write it. I don’t travel back in time or speculate about the future. I just make the story up. My narrative voice has to rise or fall on its own merit. Sometimes I appropriate characterization, dialogue, or issues from what I’ve read in other books. I am guilty of having limited insight into issues of gender, religion, politics, or sexual preferences. I am also settled on maintaining an ambivalence with the hyper-activity around appropriation or identity writing in fiction. I feel differently about my nonfiction books and am especially on alert when I write op-eds or essays that tip-toe into the identity wars in today’s America.