Flesh and Fangs: Risk and Ridicule in Writing

October 30, 2006 § 3 Comments

The best literary works result as the author risks criticism, ridicule and judgment by taking a position and voicing that position. This naturally builds a relationship between the author and his work; the author’s work and the audience; the audience and the author. The writer’s position dares a reader to form an opinion and as a result the piece becomes interactive, living, breathing and alive. The position an author takes creates the opportunity for risk; it adds a quality of humanness to what was only words and paper.

An author’s thoughts of this or that can give words teeth or better yet fangs and the paper a complexion. I find that the greater the risk and the more dangerous the position the more significant the overall effort, which is fairly obvious. In the exchange between the writer and the audience the audience is often engaged and pushed to form an opinion, which also opens the door to disagreement. The author’s position divides an audience creating poles of opinion about a given topic. Although, top-notch writing employs risk in the author’s position, it is great writing ability that allows the author to bring the audience back to a common ground and reintegrate the many formulated opinion, that is a sign of good writing. Frankly I think when an author avoids risk by making a gutless claim he or she is proving themselves pusillanimous (pusie) and untrustworthy…

In controversial writing an author’s position may divide the audience, which is the case of Wa Salaam and other blogs. However, controversy also inspires comments, dialogue and discussion. This is good for blogging particularly for blogs such as Wa Salaam because providing a forum for discussion is the underlying reason for this effort. The risk an author takes when offering a position on a given topic may add or destroy the authors credibility, so in choosing our positions we must choose wisely.

For example I read a book by Stephen “Suleyman” Schwartz entitled, “The Two Faces of Islam” (I wrote an article about this called “Islamic-fascism… Oh Brother“) where the author offered a position that was such a turn-off that I literally never picked the book up again and I’m sure the same has happened for me and this blog. When I write I often consider how a controversial topic should be presented for long hours and at times I’ve chickened out of offering a risky position for fear of turning the audience against me. But risk, good or bad, guarantees some kind of excitement for the reader.

For instance, in Jon Krakauer’s, “Into the Wild”, he talks about himself as a troubled teen. Then he goes on to describe his personal problems with his own father making comparisons between himself and the main character in the story. Krakauer then puts himself and his credibility on the line by exposing a part of his own life when he admits,

“I felt oppressed by [my father’s] expectations. It was drilled into me that anything less than winning was failure” (J. Krakauer, Into the Wild)

Later in life, Krakauer relinquishes his anger, coming to the inevitable conclusion of every one-time child turned adult, the realization that our parents, these larger than life personalities that influence our lives with seemingly infallible ease are actually very human and imperfect (148). Krakauer makes this connection when he addresses his audience with heartfelt sincerity as he writes,

“Two decades later after [realizing my father was human] I discovered that my rage was gone, and had been for years”

This passage lends a very touching and personal side of the author to the audience. Krakauer, may have introduced himself into the story to develop a symbiotic relationship between he and Into the Wild’s main character Chris McCandless, (also a troubled youth who felt oppressed by his father, as he struggles to forgive his father for past misdeeds and adulterous ways) however, it exposed personal detail of the authors life which is now public knowledge, published in print and available for comment.

So how do you know when your material is too risky? Great writers strategically place a well-developed opinion into their work, creating tension between their readers and the story. The ability to measure what level of risk your audience will find acceptable should be understood by the author. The writer needs to have a sense of who will be reading his or her work. That way a writer can appropriately introduce shocking material without going overboard and making people dislike the piece all together.

The type of language used is a significant factor in the acceptance and rejection of material. Very offensive language can be used in order to create a sense of realism to a written scene, however it can also turn once-loyal readers into hate-mail senders. Some material just won’t fly with everybody; the bottom-line is that with any written effort you must understand who your audience is. To illustrate this I would like to discuss an author named Jamaica Kincaid, an Antigua-born woman who writes very provocative and political novellas. Kincaid authored a book called, “A Small Place”, in this book she talks about the tyranny of British Colonialism and the bizarre result of its influence on the Antiguan people. The book begins making charges against the ignorance of “white tourists” in a very general sense, so that practically any person of Anglo-European decent would fall under the umbrella, which are her claims. These claims bring attention to details that may not have been considered by her audience otherwise, as she implies that the tourists don’t care about how the people of the small South American towns suffer. Kincaid gives the implication fangs when she writes,

“You [white-tourists] have brought your own books with you, and among them one of those new books about economic history, one of those books explainin how the West (meaning Europe and North America aft its conquest and settlement by Europeans) got rich: the West got rich not from the free (free–in this case meaning got-for-nothing) and then undervalued labour, for generations, of the people like me, you see walking around Antigua…” (J. Kincaid, A Small Place)

Somehow, Kincaid was able to shoot-off offensive material like this and have her audience happily take it in the mouth and swallow it with a smile, perhaps because it is truthful, honest and deliberate?

In summary, I feel that taking a position gives meaning to an author’s written expression, otherwise there would only be vague and arguable possibilities. Taking a position allows the writer to narrow the piece down to a comprehensive argument. Whereas without taking a position you could go on-and-on about the possibilities of a given topic, completely losing your audience as well as confusing them. That is why the greatest authors are the writers that risk criticism, ridicule and judgement by taking a position. I was inspired to share this piece which I wrote years ago while at New York University because of Osama Saeed’s recent post entitled, “Time for Muslims to start writing“. Osama is right, Muslims do need to start writing however, I think he was making a case for Scholarly works. But the premise is the same even for blogs and the consideration of position and risk in articles for socio-political blogs is just as important because ultimately as a reader all of the possibilities are to vast to be contained in a post and the writer’s position gives a realistic opportunity to agree or disagree.

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§ 3 Responses to Flesh and Fangs: Risk and Ridicule in Writing

  • Abdur Rahman says:

    Salaams,

    A great post and a true one! Your experience certainly resonates with my own. In my own case, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry and it’s certainly a risk putting it out there for public consumption. But, it’s a worthwhile risk.

    As for Muslims writing, again I agree. The more voices, the better.

    Abdur Rahman

  • […] I recall my 7th grade English teacher named Dr. Faber at Valley Forge Middle School in Stratford, PA. Dr. Faber was at the time the smartest person I had ever met, and still to this day even being surrounded by scholars and ‘academites’ of every variety, she remains one of the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Dr. Faber was the only grade school teacher that I had ever met that truly had a polished and sincere respect for the art and science of writing, I believe that she instilled the same values in her students which for me resulted in a few essays and blog posts such as, Flesh and Fangs: Risk and Ridicule in Writing, a recent article posted on this blog. These essays and articles receive a very mild amount of attention but the feedback is positive and I owe Dr. Faber some credit which is why I am mentioning her, because she knew the value of writing and shared her knowledge with her students. […]

  • […] Abu Sahajj presents Flesh and Fangs: Risk and Ridicule in Writing posted at Wa Salaam. […]

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