Writers around the world have always been in the forefront of the fight for freedom of expression. Here in the UK, of course, we have that right, enshrined in the Human Rights Act and article 10 of the European Convention. Which means that as a novelist I can write whatever I want. Can’t I?
The thing is, though, that with rights come responsibilities. I was brought up on the feminist writings of the 1980s (Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings and others) which critiqued the traditional, liberal, rights-based ethics with which we are all so familiar, proposing that the moral regulation of human conduct should be founded less on individual rights and more on a recognition of community, of interrelationality, of responsibility: a so-called ‘ethics of care’.
Oops, slid into lecture mode there for a moment. I can hear you muttering: what on earth has this stuff got to do with writing commercial women’s fiction?
Well, freedom of expression means that an author is free to write about whatever characters she chooses, and to endow them with whatever views and attitudes she wishes. Besides which, we have to be true to our characters, don’t we? We have to reflect the world as it exists. A novel is not a soapbox.
But my personal version of the ‘ethics of care’ tells me that the flipside of freedom of expression is responsibility for what we choose to express; that as writers we have a duty to think about the potential impact of our work on those who read it. Societal attitudes are influenced not only by upbringing, family, friends and workmates, and by the news media, but also by the ambient culture: by film and television, and by the books we read.
It is for this reason that, speaking personally, I would never write a character who held views which were intolerant (racist, sexist, homophobic…) and who did not have those views challenged before the end of the book.
Even though much of my work is romantically themed, I would never write a story in which a female character relied for her self-worth, her entire happiness, her 'redemption', upon finding a man. I would not write a moody 'alpha' hero who is mean and even cruel but whose meanness is portrayed in a sexy light – even though there are whole swathes of genre fiction pedalled to young women which are based on precisely this scenario. I would only ever write female characters who are strong and independent and follow their own ends, and are in control of their sexuality.
These decisions are entirely personal – just my own individual choices. I'm not saying other writers 'ought' to make the same decisions. But we are all responsible for the stories we elect to write. They do not arise in a vacuum. And for me, although the way I write about the characters, interactions and relationships I portray is dictated (I hope) by being truthful to my characters, my choice of story is to some extent prescribed by my personal moral politics.
Does that make me peculiar? Very probably. But this is me trying to be honest about a difficult subject.
Rosy Thornton is a successful, talented writer of Women's Fiction. Do visit her website here.