Propper Attribution

It has been a while since I have created anything to put here, and I find myself sitting at my computer typing this out with two confessions I would like to make. The first is this: My last post was on April 4 or something like that, which means it has been over a month since I posted, and that makes me sad. To the twenty-something people who have looked at my blog (12 of whom are probably definitely Russian hackers trying to hack my website) I am sorry. But also, life happens. So deal with it.

The second confession is that I am a monumental fan of a writer named Neal Stephenson. Massive fan. Probably more than is actually normal. Maybe more than is actually healthy. That part is alright though, I’m okay with that. It’s my life and I’ll cry if I want to. The reason that is important (the Neal Stephenson bit, not the crying part) is because it gives you, reader, a glimpse into why I was googling things relating to Neal Stephenson. Specifically, I was googling things in relation to his latest novel, Seveneves. It’s like Interstellar meets The Martian, but also it’s entirely unlike both of them, all the while written by a real writer. It’s brilliant. I was googling to find pictures that other Neal Stephenson fans more artistically gifted than Y.T. in the visual arts had drawn depicting things from the book. I can’t tell you exactly what I had in the search bar; it was some combination of “Neal” “Stephenson” “Art” “Seveneves” “CLANG!” and maybe some other words. The point is, I found this. (Click it. If you don’t click it the rest of this won’t make any sense. Go on, I’ll wait.)

Those of you with eyes can see what it says, and those of you with eyes connected to your brain are processing that and forming emotional reactions in your brain. Most of you are probably like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Neal Stephenson feels a particular way about government.’ That, ordinarily, would be fine. People can think what they think. People should think what they think. People should express what they think. However, because I am a massive Neal Stephenson fan, I know that Neal Stephenson didn’t actually say that. Technically, yes, he did. They appear in Seveneves. They are spoken by a character who is recounting something spoken by another character. Which brings me to my point.

How do you attribute stuff people say when they’re writing fiction? A lot of those picture quotes you see are things written or said by the people who wrote or said them, but when writing fiction, the characters in the novel don’t always agree with the personal views of the author. It’s not that difficult to simply attribute the quote to the appropriate character, and then attribute the whole thing to the author of the novel.

I’m going to use Ayn Rand to make an extremely idealized example of this. Ayn Rand wrote things in her objectivist bibl…I mean novels, things that contradict completely what her belief system was about. For instance, take this actual Ayn Rand quote about love: “If you loved your brother, you would give him a job he didn’t deserve precisely because he didn’t deserve it – that would be true love and kindness and brother hood.” Or this about the virtue of jobs: “If a man deserves a job, there is no virtue in giving it to him. Virtue is in the giving of the undeserved.” Take these quotes about science: “The entire history of science is a progression of exploited fallacies, not achievements.” “The more we learn, the more we learn that we know nothing.” “Do not look for ‘common sense’. To demand ‘sense’ is the hallmark of nonsense. Nature does not make sense. Nothing makes sense.” All of these appear in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and are things that are spoken by characters in the novel (usually to the protagonists). To simply attribute any of these quotes to Ayn Rand would turn her over in her grave.

The writers of stories, stories with ideas, need contrast. A good story (or at least one type of good story) looks at a particular problem or impasse from many different angles, and they portrays a possible outcome. The quotes above make Rand’s novels such spectacularly good examples of her ideals; by including the very things she set out to defeat, she achieves her goal through contrast. Yet her words are there, just waiting for some ignoramus to misplace them in a way that makes Ayn Rand seem entirely not what she was. This can be found in many places. Carl Sagan had characters that championed religion in Contact. C.S. Lewis’ White Witch. Good story tellers must do this. They must, like actors, play parts to give a fair representation of how society and humanity would exist in their fictional reality. They must write characters on all sides, any one of whom could be in opposition of the writer’s actual beliefs, or could be just slightly misaligned, or somewhere in the middle.

Ironically the writers of television shows and movies don’t have this problem. Everybody knows it’s the characters talking. There are loads of motivational posters with silly quotes from television shows, attributed to the character who said them. Nobody remembers the names of the writing staff of Parks and Rec, but everyone can say their favorite Ron Swanson line off the top of their head. Maybe it’s that people need their creative thinking done for them. When it’s an actual person acting out the part, it’s easier to distinguish between the real world writers and the fictional characters. When the burden lies with the reader to imagine it, for some, the line isn’t so clear. Some of you reading this are probably great readers, and would never commit such a felony as putting a literary characters quote on the internet without attributing them, and that’s great. To those of you who would do such a thing, don’t.

The characters in novels don’t necessarily represent the people who created them. Nor should they. If authors only wrote characters they agreed with, literature would be an utterly useless thing. There would be no great works of fiction, only fantastically boring tales of one individual driveling on about whatever it is they believe. And as you all are probably well aware by now, that’s what things like this blog are for.

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