Compassion International

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Responsibility in Contemporary Fiction

“With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Strange that such wisdom should arise from a comic book. In reality, it did not. That proverb comes from a source of wisdom more widely acknowledged than Spider-Man, but more on that later. For now, let us focus on the truth of the phrase, and recognize its intrinsic irony: that the American literary community—the very community that popularized this proverb—cannot seem to remember it. 

What is this great power that our literary community holds?

It is that freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States—a great power indeed. And if art in its many forms is the application of that power, then surely the written word is one of its most potent variants.

What a person reads—in particular what that person reads habitually—has enormous influence over his or her thoughts and behavior.

Reading fiction causes the brain to simulate interaction with the characters via emotion and empathy, to the extent that one recent study showed that even a short story could cause a measurable change in the reader’s personality.[1] Reading a description or complicated narrative engages the brain in the same way as solving a puzzle.[2] Both have lasting effects, influencing memory, behavior, and psyche.

So, with the capacity to affect millions of real people all at once, and even change personalities, that marvelous power of the written word is far greater than any possessed by a comic book hero. Yet when wielded with selfish intent and without concern for consequence, that same power can and does degrade rather than strengthen the fabric of society.

Therein lies the responsibility.

Sadly, history and current events show that the American literary community has not handled this responsibility well. The steady increase of sex in literature, the increasing depravity in the manner that sex is depicted, and the degradation of the English language itself should give any literary historian or sociologist great pause.

Indeed, these trends have given historians and sociologists pause.

In 1959, noted Harvard literary historian Douglas Bush described the growing use of sex in fiction like this:

The exploitation of unadulterated sex should be called a new toy… If, a century from now, the social historian should read many best sellers of our time, he would be forced to conclude that male and female Americans of this period were wholly engaged in amorous and extramarital affairs, with incidental excursions into business, politics, war... The emotional and moral tension that might be set up by an effort at self-control hardly comes into the contemporary view of human nature.[3]

Bush’s contemporary, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, put it this way:

Not until the twentieth century did American literature become sex-centered and sex-preoccupied, and in its low-grade variety a sham for commercial exploitation. . . . Many of these authors display the erotic excesses and disloyalties of their characters as perfectly normal . . . By such treatment, modern literature disinhibits rather than wisely restrains lust. It undermines rather than vitalizes marriage and the family… it demoralizes rather than integrates the total personality.[4]

To be clear, neither Bush nor Sorokin spoke against the inclusion of sex in literature. Rather, they spoke out against the irresponsibility in how sex was treated and described in literature.

How telling that these respected voices sounded their warning more than fifty years ago. How prophetic!

Were they alive today, both men might observe the moral decay in American society with an air of “I told you so,” and Bush might point to E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey as the pinnacle of the trends in literature he wrote about.

Fifty Shades of Grey is undoubtedly influential. Despite nearly universal agreement in the literary community that the quality of its prose is poor, when ranked by volume of sales over time, it is among the top selling books in history[5]. And, as if to drive the point home, Time Magazine named E.L. James one of its 2012 Top 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Unfortunately, Bush’s imagined view of E.L. James’s work as a pinnacle of his literary trend would be optimistic. The sociologist Sorokin would argue that the trend had not peaked, but must continue. The many traditional and self-published copycats of Fifty Shades of Grey indicate that the book has set a new societal norm, just as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover did when it finally hit the British and American markets in the 1960s. Societal norms are not peaks, but new foundations, for good or ill.

With each new norm established, the literary community and the publishing industry must seek to shock the world again for the sake of maintaining relevance and profitability. Fifty Shades of Grey is merely the latest iteration of the cycle. It is by no means the peak or the end, and that is a disturbing notion. If overt sadomasochism is now “okay,” and the downward spiral continues, where will we be in another fifty years?

Profanity in literature has followed much the same course. 

Like sexual promiscuity and depravity, the more profanity abounds in literature, the more it abounds in society, and—again—the more it abounds in literature. It is another ongoing cycle.

At one time, a foul word in fiction might have served a useful purpose to create realism or emphasize dialogue and action, though there are many other ways to do both. The use of profanity was an artistic choice.

Today, however, profanity fills the page like so much spackling hastily pressed into the gaps of a poorly fashioned sculpture. It has become both expected and banal. Worse, with its commonality in mainstream fiction, profanity serves to degrade the personal and public conversations of society so that, as a whole, Americans are not as well spoken as we once were—another demonstration of the power of the written word.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Like the comic hero, we have the responsibility to use our power for good, rather than harm, to build rather than destroy.

Is there any doubt that depravity in fiction is destructive?

To argue that Fifty Shades of Grey and the many microscopic imitations shoe-horned into mainstream fiction for the sake of saleability benefit society rather than tear at its very flesh is to take a position of intentional ignorance. There is art, there is greed, and there is pure foolishness. Digging down to the raw truth of it, the latter two exclude the first.

With great power comes great responsibility.

If the literary community ignores its responsibility to society for the sake of one-upmanship, and the publishing industry neglects the same responsibility to society for the sake of the bottom line, then the weight of that responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual author.

Thanks a lot.

What a terrible conundrum. More than anyone in the literary community, individual fiction authors feel the pressure to use sex and profanity in their work.

In 2010, at a major literary conference in New York, mega-bestseller Ken Follett told a ballroom full of aspiring authors that they could not sell a novel if it did not include a graphic sex scene.[6] In 2013 Man Booker Prize winning author Julian Barnes noted that fiction authors feel “a commercial obligation to write in a detailed way about sex.”[7]

Thus, authors that refuse to depict sex in their books have been put on notice that their work won’t sell. Additionally, authors that refuse to use profanity in their work are mocked as lacking literary merit, despite having to work harder to create grit and characterization.

The pressure from the literary community and the literary market to abuse our power is real, so authors must make a hard choice to accept or shun their responsibility to society.

I, for one, choose to accept it. I might take a hit on sales. I will definitely take abuse from the critics. But I do not write for cash registers or reviewers.

I write for the man who seeks a healthy escape to a fictional world after a long day at work. I write for the woman who wants to block out the oppressive atmosphere of the coach section of a commercial flight. I write for the teen seeking a story that is a little meatier than a child wizard or a lovesick vampire, and seeking a hero that a kid can believe in.

With great power comes great responsibility.

No, this proverb did not originate with Spider-Man. Well before Uncle Ben, 19th century British politicians used it as a mantra. The Brits, in turn, adapted the sentiment from a world authority on wisdom. That authority is Christ Jesus:

Luke 12:48b (NIV) - From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

And to those other writers still on the fence about their responsibility to society, let me offer another quote from the same source:

Matthew 18:7 (NIV) - Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!

James R. Hannibal is a counterterrorism expert, former stealth and drone pilot, and the author of the critically acclaimed Nick Baron covert ops thrillers that are free of sex and profanity.

[1] Keith Oatley, “Changing Our Minds…by Reading Fiction,” Greater Good Magazine, reproduced online on (2 September 2009).
[2] Carole Jane Treggett, “The benefits of reading good fiction: Creative health and fitness for the brain,” (20 March 2012).
[3] Douglas Bush, "Sex in the Modern Novel," Atlantic Monthly 203 (1959), p. 73; quoted in "Sex in Contemporary Literature - The Line Between Liberty and Lechery" by Dr. M. Joseph Costelloe,
[4] P. A. Sorokin, The American Sex Revolution (Boston, 1956), pp. 23-24; quoted in "Sex in Contemporary Literature - The Line Between Liberty and Lechery" by Dr. M. Joseph Costelloe,
[5] Simon Rogers, “The top 100 bestselling books of all time: how does Fifty Shades of Grey compare?” The Guardian [news blog online] (9 August 2012).
[6] Ken Follett, comments to the audience (including the author of this blog) during a celebrity author panel at the International Thriller Writer’s annual ThrillerFest conference, July 2010.
[7] Hannah Furness, “Modern authors feel 'commercial obligation' to write about sex, Julian Barnes says,” The Telegraph [book news online] (5 March 2013).


  1. Keep fighting the good fight, Jim! Eph. 6:12

  2. Jim, this is very well stated. I have often thought that the written word is powerful and thus should be written only with the utmost care and integrity. Too many good novels are destroyed by too much sex and too many foul words. They don't seem to add to the story, but they seem to distract from it.

    Author's need to take responsibility for the effect that their words will have on young readers and old readers alike. I have heard it stated that foul language is the language of the uneducated. If that is so then we have an terribly number of uneducated people writing novels.

    Keep up the good work Jim.

  3. In Steven Lawson's book, Foundations of Grace, Volume 1, he states, in regards to writers, "His poisoned fountain pours out poisonous waters. Ecclesiastes 10:12-14, Words provide the outward evidence of inward corruption of the human heart." Page 155

  4. How absolutely true and well stated! I have not read Dr. Lawson. I need to pick up that book.

  5. Hi James. Amen to your excellent article! I work with Author D.I. (David) Telbat. I would say you two are definitely on the same page with your writing! He also feels you can have a great action/suspense novel without all the garbage. And according to his reviews, many are relieved to find them as well. Praise the Lord for your stand! We wish you God's best with your books. We'll be picking up a copy of one of them soon. (And thanks for subscribing to our blog!) ;)

  6. Very, very nice. Integrity should be at the center of everything we do. These days it seems to float on the winds of convenience. True strength of character is revealed when it stands against the current of trend. What a great blogpost. Keep it up!!!

  7. I will make this essay a must read for all of my students, not because I agree with everything you've written, James, but because your argument is presented in such a clear and convincing way. I've recently completed a YA contemporary about a girl who is cast as Jeanne D'Arc (Joan of Arc) the virgin saint and is challenged by boys to lose her virginity. My novel has sexual content but I would like you to read it. I feel including sexuality was necessary to present an honest picture of what young people (I teach middle school) are going through everyday. I would like your opinion of my work because you're the kind of writer and thinker who really understands that a teen needs a story a lot meatier than a child wizard or a vampire. James, would you allow me to send you and advance copy of Cease & Desist (A Love Story)? It would be an honor to have you read and blurb my book. Sincerely, Stephen Hurley

    1. Stephen,
      Please send me a note at