The old truism about books changing your life is so embedded in our society that we take it for granted. And rightfully so. In hundreds of small ways, books change our brains, whether it be from increasing empathy, helping us escape from stress, or helping us learn. There is even the rare book that will change your outlook, or save your life. Even the books solely written for entertainment can lift you up on a bad day.
With this knowledge, there is no question of the power books hold. What a daunting task, then, to write a novel knowing that it will affect people. Every writer dreams of readers having a strong reaction to their book, of being told that a book changed someone's outlook, etc. It's one of the reasons why we write - to have an effect on our readers.
It's also why we spend so much on editing and beta readers. Before publication, a book should be as good as it can be, so many writers invest hundreds of dollars in professional editing to catch plot holes, typos, and other areas, and request beta readers to help them fix up anything that may be confusing or misinterpreted.
With that understood, there is one area of story improvement that is met with hostile resistance, where the idea of making a book the best it can be is thrown out the window, where even light criticism is met with hostility. This area is encompassed by any criticism related to a story having sexist, racist, queerphobic, etc. elements.
If a book contains an element that perpetuates racism, for example, a beta reader might point it out. Unlike if they point out a plot hole, the writer often reacts with rage and claims the defense of free speech. This is a consistent defense used for this area. Because the writer can technically write whatever they like, criticism is an attempt at censorship and destruction of free thought.
This idea may seem valid at first, unless we try to apply it to any other situation in literary criticism. Imagine if an editor suggested a correction to a plot hole, and the author responded that it was their story, they could do what they want, and by criticizing it the editor was attempting to destroy the first amendment. Obviously, this situation would be ludicrous. If anyone wrote whatever they wanted and if any criticism of this writing was ridiculed as censorship, the quality of writing would be unimaginably low. Publishing houses would have to publish unedited, low-quality manuscripts or else be accused of ruining the freedom of writers. And what would be the point of book reviews if any complaint about a story was censorship?
We can all recognize that this situation is ridiculous, yet for some reason we don't see it as ridiculous when reviewers who point out a racist element to a story are attacked as authoritarians. One might see the difference between these areas if it could be shown that racism, sexism, etc. is irrelevant to writing a story; that if a story contains these elements, it has no effect on the quality of the story, or on the world around it. Yet if it is to be believed that books have such a large impact, it is natural to extend this to areas that affect the marginalized.
Making a Story Accurate
Even if a story is fictional, it is greatly enhanced by accuracy. A writer wouldn't want to write an unimportant scene to break suspension of disbelief by being factually inaccurate. This is why we research, so we know how to heal wounds, how to survive in the wilderness, what different car models there are, what happened on what date, etc., to immerse the reader in the world. Not every reader will notice these kinds of errors, but those that do will be pulled out of the story, and it's best practice to get it right.
This idea naturally extends to people. If someone is writing about a particular culture, it is beneficial to them to be accurate. Reading articles and hearing from people of that culture can help you get this level of accuracy. It's even more important to do research when writing about people than objects.
If writers spend time researching any manner of things related to science, physics, and cars, there's no reason why we can't spend time researching a people group. That way our books can be more immersive and reflect life. But depicting a people group accurately isn't just about the story - it's about the ways in which stories affect these people groups.
Stories Influence Culture
As noted in the beginning, stories have great power. While stories reflect their times, they also have the power to shape those times. For many people, the portrayals of certain groups in fiction are the only exposure they get to that group. Many of us may not knowingly have met an autistic person, so if someone sees Rain Man as their example of an autistic person, they'll come away with the expectation that autistic people are genius savantes, an expectation which most autistic people can't fulfill and are set unfairly against.
One counterargument is that people understand something is fiction and so don't take it as the truth. While people understand that the story they see is fiction, so many elements of stories are true that the realistic parts can be taken as true. After all, most things about a story aren't fictional. The cars people drive, the physics of the world they live in, the way they relate to each other all come from reality (unless it's speculative ficiton, but even then there are many things which aren't made up). A story can never be completely made up - everything in it is affected by the world around it.
We have evidence to show that people are influenced by what they see in media and take it as true. For an infamous example, see the film Jaws. It's portrayal of a Great White Shark as a dangerous man-eater captured the public's imagination and had real-world consequences. Hysteria over sharks rose dramatically after the release of the novel and movie, and even today, decades after the story was written, the fear of sharks is inescapable. This misunderstanding leads to actual impacts for sharks, as people believe they are something to be eradicated rather than protected.
This situation extends to people. It is undeniable that culture hurts or benefits different people groups depending on how it's set up. And when discrimination and stereotypes abound in a culture, they will have a negative impact on the wellbeing of people. For example, when queer people are continually depicted as perverted child molestors, that idea enters people's minds and causes them to fear queer people. This can lead to the murder of queer people, or suicide. Suicide among trans youth is high due to the bullying they face, and this bullying comes about when people see trans people as something to be ridiculed. A story that ridicules trans people normalizes this idea, and makes it more socially acceptable, which leads to more bullying and thus more suicide. Taken altogether, the media portrayal of a people group can bring about cultural hostility toward them.
Not to mention the impact of the book on the people of a marginalized group who read it. A trans person already struggling to feel valued will see the message that they are worthless reflected in a book which portrays trans people carelessly. But if a book takes the time to portray them respectfully, they could find hope, even if their surroundings devalue them.
As a personal experience, it's very hard to find autistic representation which is accurate and respectful. When I finally did find this kind of representation, I finally felt understood, and was grateful that a book exists to validate my experiences as a human, not a stereotype.
A book doesn't exist in a vacuum, but actively is inspired by and contributes to culture. What is written isn't just for the writer, but for the world.
The Author's Responsibility
The author has great power to influence a culture. Alone, a book may not seem to have much power, although books like Jaws have singlehandedly changed the cultural narrative. But when in large groups, stories are even more powerful, If a narrative about a certain group and what that group is like is repeated continually, the dominant culture accepts it, and this leads to harm.
As such, with this power an author has a responsibility to be aware of the impact they are having. Once you put a book out into the world, it is not just your personal story, but a story that will shape people an the world around them.
We have a responsibility to take the time to write stories which will have a positive impact on the world. If we can spend time editing for plot holes, we can spend time making sure that a people group's portrayal isn't harmful. Just like an editor searching for confusing sentences, a sensitivity reader can point out parts of a book which are inaccurate or stereotypical. This improves the book, rendering it more accurate and believable. It also ensures the book doesn't contribute to a system which results in the disenfranchisement and death of certain people.
So write the story you want to write, but don't forget that stories don't exist in a vaccuum. They emerge from a cultural context, and they change that cultural context. And to pretend they don't do these things is to devalue the art of storytelling. Remember the power a writer holds, and use that power responsibly.