All writers have an audience (whether writers like it or not). Within the audience are varying opinions (whether writers like it or not). It is beneficial for the writer to consider those opinions and write accordingly (whether writers like it or not). Yet, I was reminded by another writer yesterday that, while the opinions of others ought to be considered, the writer determines the character and characters of his or her story (whether the readers like it or not).
In his 1841 Preface for Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens addresses the criticism of his characters “chosen from the most criminal and degraded of London’s population.” He defends his purpose “when [he] wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” We might wonder why he felt the need to address the issue in the first place. He is Charles Dickens, after all. Which is why, when he takes to task other writers of his era (many of whom are confined to literary obscurity), it behooves writers and readers alike to pay attention. He provides a guideline for today when he says, “I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral, at least as well as its froth and cream.” All that readers consume should have such flavor: the “true-to-life” written in the best words possible.
I recently passed on reading a novel because of its deviation from this principle. The story-line was fresh and intriguing. I truly wanted to read more. But, when the language became increasingly vulgar and salacious, I set it aside. The author clearly understood the ambiance of quality writing and the delicacy of story structure. Yet, he resorted to being objectionably crude. As a reader, I was disappointed. As a writer, I was disgusted.
Writers can write about the reality of life without resorting to offensive speech (whether publishers like it or not). Yet, writers must reflect the whole of society–both sides of the issue–through the character and characters of their stories (whether readers like it or not).
As for me, I will take a cue from Dickens.
“It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts; the hope yet lingering behind; the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the dried-up weed-choked well. It involves the best and worst shades of our common nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, and apparent impossibility, but it is a truth. I am glad to have it doubted, for in that circumstance I find a sufficient assurance that it needed to be told.”