Last week a friend posted a poem on his weblog that sparked a discussion in the comments of what a writer's responsibility is. Someone worried that a skilled writer could convince a reader of a viewpoint the writer doesn't hold. Or a reader might copy a villain because you wrote him too well. And someone else said that authors should only write stories that uplift people or else they're promoting evil in the world. Lastly, someone said writers are responsible for how readers respond to their writing.
I do think a fiction writer can convince a reader of a viewpoint the writer doesn't hold, if a character holds that viewpoint and is written convincingly enough. I also think a writer who writes an engaging villain can cause people to want to be like him in some way or other. Look at how many kids dress up as Darth Vader on Halloween. But you also notice that people aren't going around killing their subordinates because they didn't follow orders exactly and promptly enough.
The next comment is a bit tricky, because the person who wrote the original made it clear he was referring to a particular set of religious beliefs. I don't want to go into which religious beliefs because they're irrelevant to my point. My point is that the person was telling the author of the poem what he should write about. He felt he had the right to do so because they have exactly the same beliefs, which is an assumption I'd not make about anyone else. No two people, even if they attend the same church hold exactly the same beliefs, down to the smallest detail. Therefore, he was telling the poet what to write based on his beliefs, not on the poet's. Only the poet knows what he believes and whether his beliefs include the stricture on his writing that the other person wanted him to make.
More generally, I don't think anyone has the right to tell someone else what to write unless they're hiring the writer to write something specific. And vice versa--it's wrong for writers to write what someone else says is their duty to write. If they do, they're shirking their responsibility to themselves, because it shifts the responsibility for their words onto the shoulders of that "moral authority". Nope, I think writers must take complete responsibility for their own words. Take both the heat and the kudos for them. Write what they stand for, whether it agrees or disagrees with other people who infer that they must believe exactly the same way the writer does because he may have said something at one time the people agreed with.
The other side of this discussion was whether a writer is responsible for the response a reader has to his words. Words are powerful. And we choose our words to have an effect on the reader. A fiction writer is usually going after an emotional reaction, a visceral reaction caused by temporarily living in the world of the story. The expectation is that the reader will put the story down and go back to his everyday life. He may think about the story, talk about it with friends, but he's no longer living it. That's the reader's responsibility--to keep the world of fiction separate from real life.
I think we were given a brain to use it, both writers and readers. We're not supposed to just take life in and blindly accept everything. We're supposed to think about what we experience. Life might be easier if you live in a world where writers write only "uplifting" stories, because you'd only experience the small bits of life that person thinks are "good". But I think life is richer if we allow ourselves to embrace ideas that aren't our own. I think it's richer if we think about those ideas and weigh them against our moral code and value systems. That's how we grow. And I think "good" shows up in the most unexpected places--places you may never hear about if you stick to a restricted world, fenced in by rigid beliefs that don't allow you to question anything.