Reflecting Or Influencing Culture

Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

So said Meghan Cox Gurdon in her Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible.”

Is she right?

Many authors when they discuss fiction appeal to the need for freedom to tell the truth about the world. But whose truth?

Not every teenage girl has anorexia or has been sexually assaulted. Not every guy cuts himself or runs away from home.

But some do.

Are their stories, then, the truthful ones to which all others must be compared? Or are the stories of greedy rich kids or fish-out-of-water newbies just as valid? How about the story of a happy little orphan girl or a Bible-quoting gang member?

I think most people would say that whatever is true to the human experience, across the gamut, should be considered as valid story material.

But when, I wonder, does reflecting culture — telling the stories of those we see in the world — turn into influencing culture?

I’ve said loudly, long, and often that stories, like all other forms of writing, communicate. Certainly entertainment is a big piece of the novel cake, but stories are about something and in the end say something about that event or lifestyle or world.

Could it be that in writing about the fringe behaviors of society, authors normalize those behaviors? Could it be that enough stories about cutting or sexual assault anesthetize our sensibilities so we no longer look with horror on these horrific behaviors? even though the stories do not hold these behaviors up as something to be emulated?

From Ms. Gurdon’s article:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.

We live in a copy-cat society. Two boys walk into their high school and start killing other students, and a spate of school shootings follows. And so with any number of other bad behaviors.

One could argue that kids will see all these things on the news or YouTube or hear about them in the songs they listen to, so books aren’t actually doing anything more than personalizing the pain, putting a face on the victims and those suffering.

In fact, author Veronica Roth (Divergent) makes this comment in her blog article “This WSJ Thing“:

You want to say, I want to protect my children from this kind of content? Then I say, I am happy for your kids, that they have a parent who is that worried about them. But when you say, these books are garbage and they’re damaging the minds of children? I say, the world is damaging the minds of children. Be more shocked by the world than by the books. [emphasis in the original]

Honestly, I suspect that how we view the role of entertainment in culture — as that which reflects or as that which influences — has a great deal to do with what we think should or should not go into that entertainment.

You thoughts?


  1. The question is (in other cases than these) whether the problem is prevalent, and whether it needs to be addressed. When it is widespread but NOT well recognized as a problem…. that’s Problem Time. You are talking about difficult issues, but issues that are not widespread. There ARE serious issues that need coverage.


  2. I see where visual media has started fads and trends, especially in the young, but have books?


  3. I read Gurdon’s article, printed it out, even highlighted a few areas.
    Yes I believe that society can become desensitized by seeing violence on television or reading about it in a book. I don’t believe that we agree that it is okay to be violent, but we don’t blink an eye or shrink back in shock like we once did.
    I know from my own life that because I rarely watch television (I’m busy reading), when I do sometimes watch tv I am shocked by what’s on it.
    I believe that freedom of expression is the main word here. Some writer’s want their stories published that depict all the raw and at times gore to be out there in our face so to speak. And if we don’t like it, they say it is freedom of speech get over it. Okay. But I don’t have to read it. I don’t believe in banning books, but I sure believe in exerting my freedom of not buying and not reading books I don’t want to.


  4. […] Not because Greg made me feel guilty, but because I’m seeing the discussion crop up on more and more Christian sites and I do think I may want to weigh in on some of those discussions. I may write a post one of […]


  5. I can go along with “whatever is true to the human experience … should be considered as valid story material.” But there’s a key phrase there: “considered as valid”. Not every “valid” story ought to be told; this seems to me to be yet another of those “everything is permissible; not everything is beneficial” issues, where we must avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of legalism and unrestrained license, or (so to speak) libertinism. If we are called to write, we are not to write for ourselves, for mere entertainment, or “for art’s sake”; we are called to write for the glory of God and the edification of our readers. We ought not to ask merely, “Is it true?” (even for the meanings of “true” that are relevant to fiction), but also “Is it helpful?”


  6. Jonathan, what an excellent comment. You are so right — this is a perfect example of the freedom the Christian has in which he should exercise wisdom. The “is it helpful” question is one that may be neglected by too many in favor of the “for art’s sake” stand.

    Your reminder of the position of Scripture is really helpful.



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