Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the idea of influence. Specifically, bad influence and dangerous influence, as in "That stupid, smutty, sex-filled, scandalous, swear-ridden book is a dangerous influence on our impressionable youth."
Obviously this kind of thing comes up a lot when you write books for children and teenagers (especially, I suppose, when you write books called things like the Seven Deadly Sins...), but it's really come to a head for me recently as I've watched several friends struggle with this kind of attack. There are obviously a lot of issues bound up in the question of book banning, censorship, corporate bias, book challenges, etc. And warning: I'm about to ignore most of them, because discussing them involves a lot more rage and analysis than I can tolerate on a Friday afternoon. (That especially includes the question of how gatekeeper types decide what counts as inappropriate/edgy/racy/immoral material, and the special hell I feel should be reserved for those whose underlying assumption is that a) homosexuality is evil or b) woman's bodies and sexuality are dirty.)
What I'm thinking about -- possibly because at the moment I'll think about absolutely anything as long as it has nothing to do with the book I'm supposed to be writing RIGHT NOW -- is what we mean when we worry about a book influencing a reader. This idea people have that reading about sex or drugs or violence is going to make teens want to pole dance for the boy next door, then do a line of coke and shoot him in the head. Or the like.
This idea that books can make you do anything.
My graduate school advisor (tiny digression alert) despised the word influence. As in, would not let us use it in writing or speech, under penalty of death. (Well, mostly under penalty of disapproving scowl, but that first year in grad school, we equated such things with death. Or at least expulsion.)
It took me a few months to figure out why the word so enraged him (and of course, by this point I was over my fear of the scowl and was saying "influence" just about as often as humanly possibly, because that's the kind of lovable gal I am). But one day I got to hear him give a talk (read: rant) about the issue, and I finally got it. His concern:
"[Influence] is a wishy-washy term that stands in for causal action when the author does not know what sort of action has actually occurred. In fact, influence has maintained its roots in the astrological notion of an ethereal fluid streaming from the stars and 'acting upon the character and destiny of men', as the OED puts it. In more modern terms influence becomes 'the capacity or faculty of producing effects by insensible or invisible means, without the employment of material force, or the exercise of formal authority.' So the word still connotes insensible emanations from outside sources."
The point, in non-grad school terms: When we talk about a book "influencing" a reader, we're acting like some invisible hand reaches out from the book, plunges into the reader's head, and starts pushing and pulling thoughts around until they fall into line. We're acting like an inanimate object can dictate human action. We're acting like when a person reads a book, they receive a telepathic message telling them exactly what the author wants them to learn from the book and exactly what they're supposed to do with that new information. And then they're brainwashed into doing it. My professor hated the word influence because it turns readers into puppets, and writers into wizards.
And (though sometimes, power-hungry that I am, this is much to my sorrow) that's just not how it works.
We all know words have power. We all know books can change minds and change lives. That books are, in some sense magic, and maybe writers are wizards, reaching through the ether to change the world. But: They don't get to decide what changes. As soon as they type the last word and send that document off to their editor, their power is gone.
Ultimately, the reader is the one with the power. The reader is the one who decides what to make of the book, what he or she wants to love and hate, believe in and refute, obsess over and ignore. The reader is the one who takes the mishmash of available resources -- pleasure books, school books, tv, teachers, parents, commercials, magazines (before they all went out of business), newspapers (ditto), blogs, friends, etc, etc, etc -- and decides what it all means and what kind of world he/she wants to live in.
Words have power--just not as much power as readers have. And when we start talking about books influencing children, as if they have no ability to pick and choose what they want to hear and what they want to believe (and anyone who's ever spent more than 5 minutes with a kid knows they're the best selective listeners of all time), we turn them into puppets. Dolls that we get to shape and move as we like.
Is it true that children are more impressionable than adults, that the things they read and see can have a bigger effect? Maybe. But my point is that they are still the ones forming the impressions. Acting like we know exactly what a book is going to do to them -- as if a book can do anything but sit there and be read -- may make us all feel better, because it makes us feel like we have the power to decide what a child will think or do. Like we can mold the person they're going to become into exactly the person we want them to be. It makes us feel like the "impressionable youth" are under our control.
But they're not.