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Response and Responsibility: Writers in Time of Terror

Image - iStockphoto: Natalia_80
Image – iStockphoto: Natalia_80

‘The Stocks of Gun-Makers Go Up’

In the wake of the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando Sunday morning, shares of Smith & Wesson jumped 7 percent in Monday’s trading session. Though the stock stabilized in Tuesday trading, it has nonetheless managed to gain 5.5 percent in the last five days of market activity.

This is Forbes staff writer Maggie McGrath [1] yesterday, June 16. She’s ready with the answer to the question I’ve just placed in your mind: Why would a mass killing make gun manufacturers’ stocks go up, not down?

It’s one of the more jarring market correlations that exists in finance: when a gun tragedy occurs, the stocks of gun-makers go up, because firearm enthusiasts rush to buy up that which they fear will soon be unobtainable as a result of tightened gun laws. Then, when gun control measures fail to materialize, the stocks go back down.

It’s not the purpose of Writer Unboxed to debate gun control. Nor is it our place here to ascribe motivations to armed assailants in highly publicized attacks.

Politics are not the issue here for us today, although they are for many in the United Kingdom, where official campaigning both for “Vote Leave” and “Vote Remain” has been suspended [2] ahead of the upcoming (June 23) referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. That nation is trying to get to grips with the nightmare of Labour MP Jo Cox’s shooting death yesterday (June 16) in Birstall, West Yorkshire, by a man witnesses say shouted “Britain first!” or “Put Britain first!” [3] during his assault. The organization Britain First [4] is condemning the murder.

Those who do discuss these events as part of our political life, may understandably be inflamed and focused on them. They might very well like to engage you in the debate. So compelling is the Orlando incident [5], after all, that Democratic members of the Senate have staged a 15-hour filibuster [6], ending it when Republicans agreed to hold votes on two gun control amendments. The UK already has tight gun-control laws, which is one reason the Cox shooting is all the more shocking there. It was a year ago today [7] that Dylann S. Roof allegedly shot and killed nine people in a church in Charleston.

Naturally, the public conversation is building. And even as we stand down from it here, we recognize its importance. However our nations work through their respective tragedies and controversies, these events and their impact are in our faces, as they must be.

What is our own “item of interest” here at Writer Unboxed is the question of response—of responsibility—in such critical moments, as writers.

The debate around gun control, whatever may be your opinions on the matter, gains traction with each of these unspeakable events. But so does the dilemma faced by many writers, especially in an era when a chatty public presence is something authors are expected to maintain on social media.

It’s my provocation for you today.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

‘Both Liberating and Anxiety-Provoking’

Journalists may be more acutely aware of the question of opinion in public settings than other writers. During election cycles, for example, newspeople who are working the beat—not as pundits who are hired to promulgate opinions but as reporters—are careful to try to keep their own political positions out of sight.

They do vote, at least the good journalists do: it’s just as much their duty as anyone else’s to do so. But you won’t know their vote, even though objectivity in journalism is a popular myth. The effort is not to be “objective,” which is impossible, but to be fair, by putting each side of an issue into view. Not always easy.

Until relatively recently, though, these were the challenges mostly of journalists; of corporate chiefs and investment figures; of classroom teachers who might draw the anger of parents for one stance or another. The new so-public life of writers has changed that.

Now, for creative workers and certainly for authors in the marketplace, the issue is becoming more, not less, tricky to navigate.

What do you do?

Avoiding religious and political issues in public is something many corporations’ administrations rigorously try to do for just this reason: they can run off business if one or another position is ascribed to them. Maybe in an ideal context, writers would do the same, right?—gliding serenely past the fray of the day, giving no reader a reason to shut a book, upsetting no follower with a “shocking” position on political realities.

And yet.

300 Fellow Travelers [8]Writers are our most eloquent speakers, at least writers of talent and skill are. If anyone can find the grace to say what needs saying when the depravity of human evil is revealed to us and our weaponry is turned on innocent people, shouldn’t it be good writers?

Potentially, these things can go far beyond what one “shares” on various social media, too. Where do you place the courage of your convictions in your work, itself?

Tonight in Cincinnati, a new opera gets its world premiere. [9] Based on Thomas Mallon’s historical novel Fellow Travelers [10], composer Gregory Spears’ [11] opera of the same name looks at the persecution of homosexuals in the 1950s Washington of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, when a sub-genre of the Communist Party “Red Menace” was the “Lavender Scare.” Gays were driven from their jobs, careers and lives wrecked. Greg Pierce [12] is the show’s librettist.

The resonance of this new work’s debut less than a week after the targeting of a gay nightclub in Orlando is inescapable. Commentary will include such lines as, “Where do these opera people get off messing around in modern-era politics?” Isn’t it right that the creative team that Spears and Pierce lead should produce this evocation of these issues?

And yet.

Here’s how a novelist friend has just put it to me in a direct message:

I got into uncomfortable political territory recently on Facebook. Someone came out and said she applauded me for saying my peace even though I was a ‘salesperson’ and could lose book sales over it. I think a lot of us feel muzzled, and breaking free of that to say what you what you believe, and what you feel needs to be said, can be both liberating and anxiety-provoking.

That gets it, doesn’t it?

When do you stay silent? When do you join the debate? And how do you feel about doing either?

About Porter Anderson [13]

@Porter_Anderson [14] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [15], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman co-own and produce @The Hot Sheet [16], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [17] in London. Formerly with CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media–he has also been a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [18] series. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com [19] | Google+ [20]