Is it OK to Write?

In an article I first read in "Aeon Magazine" (March 2014) Rhys Southan raises a subject that is hard for me to ignore. He wants to know if writing makes the world a better place. He puts the question more generally: “Is it OK to make art?”

And in the next breath, he answers his question: “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you probably don’t make the world a better place.”

How can I possibly answer this question? The obvious answer would leave me up the creek. Down the drain goes the past 20 years of my life.

But really what can I do now at the age I am to improve the world? I taught for many years and I thought I was doing something worthwhile. I did laboratory research all those years whose results I thought might clarify an idea or two and later, field research I thought might in some small measure conserve energy resources.

As I think back on this work, I have to admit none of this research made the world a better place. It is rarely cited in the journals and even it is, it might be read by a half dozen students, at most.

The question, (“Is it OK to make art?”) was posed by Southan as he was about to finish a screenplay he was working on. He decides to travel to a retreat in East Devon with a few other friends who happen to be members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism (EA). They tell him its goal is doing as much good as you possible can.

So like Southan, I begin to wonder if anything I’ve written has done any good and by “good” I mean reduce hunger, eradicate disease, improve the world, that sort of thing. Of course it hasn’t. Southan begins to think the same, as he realizes Effective Altruism’s goal threatened to undermine the very purpose of his trip.

“As EAs see it, writing scripts and making movies demands resources that, in the right hands, could have saved lives…From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children.”

As I become more and more unsettled in reading this article, I recall something Henry Perowe said about reading great novels in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday.

“Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.”

I wonder what Tolstoy or Flaubert would say when asked if their novels made the world a better place or if literature, in general, benefits humanity in any way. Yes, novels may be a pleasure to write and an equal pleasure to read and once in a while enhance the coffer of authors.

Perhaps a few readers were able to make a major change in their life after reading a novel and some may have no doubt learned something or chanced upon a truth that led to a fruitful line of inquiry. But beyond these few individuals, how might literature make the world a better place, as the Effective Altruists ask?

When I was a young man, I learned about an oath that every Athenian male swore to as they graduated from the Ephetic College that was required to become a full citizen of classical Athens. Among other things, mostly military matters, you pledged, “to transmit this city, not only no less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

I’ve never forgotten that oath, believe it applies widely, and now, in the context of this article, feel that at least in terms of all I’ve written, none of it leaves the city or any other part of the world, any better than I found it.

Once in a while a novel will be written that really does make the world a better place for a wide segment of the population. Upon Sinclair’s The Jungle is the one I recall most vividly. I led to a radical change in the meatpacking industry in this country and subsequently to the Meat Inspection and Food and Drug Regulation Acts.

And Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with promoting the abolitionist cause and all that ensued from that. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln is said to have declared: "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (I also think of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which isn’t a novel, but none-the-less played an enormous and continuing role in promoting the environmental movement.”)

And while John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, may have wrestled with the life of impoverished families in the Great Depression, nothing much changed in the life of the poor as a result of it. I don’t know of any novelists today who are writing about the plight of the poor.

At the end of his article, Southan admits he, along with everyone else, could do more than they currently are. “For now that will have to be my justification. I’m not ready to give up writing. I’m not ready to take up some high-paid job that I’d hate in order to reduce the world’s suffering. Maybe that will change.”

My immediate response is: I doubt it will. I suspect every writer will continue to write, as they always have, regardless of the compelling goals of Effective Altruism. Novelists don’t write books to change the world. Why they do is another matter.