Of Smoke Rings and Authorial Responsibility

Patrick Rothfuss, author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, has done a live-streamed Q & A. I thought I would address the genuinely interesting question Rothfuss raises between minute 47 and minute 55 of the linked Q & A – the degree to which authors (and creators of art generally) have a responsibility not to “poison the minds” of their audience with bad ideas and unfortunate implications. Case in point, Tolkien’s portrayal of tobacco smoking (which Rothfuss gets to around minute 52).

To be fair to Rothfuss, the format of a Q & A does not lend itself to working through the complexities of this question – and it is a complex question. At one extreme you have the notion that works of art ought to promote only wholesome messages and ideas – which is, to say, moral censorship, either of the self-limiting variety, or in some officially sanctioned form, a la the Hays Code. While I am not going to accuse Rothfuss of subscribing to this sort of extreme position, I would hope that he recognises the danger of being “too” obsessed with authorial responsibility – stunted, dull art that refuses to push social boundaries, or at least situations where a creator is so afraid of criticism that they overcompensate with blandness. Then there are the subsidiary questions – who gets to decide if something is a bad idea or an unfortunate implication? Why must we necessarily conflate portrayal with advocacy? To what extent must a creator engage in Do Not Do This Cool Thing?

That said, Rothfuss does have a point – the other extreme has its problems too, even if (in my opinion), these are lesser problems than censorship. A situation where authors don’t at least think about the message they are pushing (and every story has a message, even a sub-conscious one) is a recipe for misunderstanding at best, and stirring up dangerous stuff at worst. One can portray controversial or negative material without glamorising it – indeed, I would argue that dealing with “damaged” characters in a way that allows us to understand them as people, without necessarily sympathising, is a key part of a writer’s job description. Stephen Donaldson explores Thomas Covenant as a guilt-ridden rapist without making Covenant’s crime “cool”. But what of stories where exploring the glamour of the dark side is actually part of the exercise?

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Stanley Kubrik famously ran into this problem when copycat violence (with associated “Singin’ in the Rain”) became an issue in the aftermath of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrik in response argued

“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life.”

Kubrik is broadly correct here. His film was not forcing reprehensible twits to go out and commit rape and violence. The fault can only ever lie with the perpetrators. But if a work of art feeds into pre-existing dark impulses in the human brain, I think we as creators need to at least be aware of what we are doing: books, films, et cetera, are a dialogue between creator and audience, so when the subject matter is sensitive, one ought to say what one means to say. As I have noted above, the constraints of a Q & A session aren’t helpful for Rothfuss to discuss this in detail, but I prefer to read his comments as a call for thought, rather than a call for self-censorship.

But what of Tolkien’s smoke-rings? What to make of Rothfuss’ insinuation that the “fun” portrayal of tobacco in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings makes Tolkien (indirectly) culpable for cancer?

The glib answer is to ask if The Hobbit promotes smoking, why then is Rothfuss himself reading the book to his three year-old son? If The Hobbit is so tricksy, ought Rothfuss to have waited until the son was of an age to understand that smoking is harmful – and if so, does this mean that parents like Rothfuss cause cancer as much as Tolkien? To be slightly less glib, there is also a reason for age limits on tobacco purchases. Rothfuss’ son may be fascinated by smoking at age three – there is no reason to think he will retain the same fascination at age eighteen, and an eighteen year-old’s decision to start smoking is much more likely to be influenced by social norms (and peer pressure) than his childhood reading material. Not to mention that, as Tolkien prefers the term “pipe-weed”, you might as well argue that The Lord of the Rings (inadvertently) promotes marijuana use, rather than cigarettes.

In truth though, I rather feel that Rothfuss is using a poor example for his thesis. Arguing that authors have a responsibility not to perpetuate harmful ideas is all well and good, but at the time Tolkien was writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there was comparatively little understanding of the health-effects of tobacco (my maternal grandmother was told by her doctor to take up smoking in the 1960s). As far as Tolkien himself was concerned, pipe-smoking was completely benign, and he had no way of knowing better – how, then, could he have known he was spreading a “bad idea”? Moreover, if one really wants to go after Tolkien for his portrayal of smoking, I would point out that he only ever writes it as a “fun” reflection of our mundane world creeping into fantasy. The Everyman Hobbits smoke, and those who have contact with them, like Aragorn, Gandalf, and the dwarves, smoke – but the more alien figures, the Elves, the Gondorians, or the Rohirrim, do not. Tolkien does not do what many films of his era did, and make smoking out-and-out glamorous or sexy – which, given the age limit on tobacco purchases, is a far more pertinent concern.

Ultimately, while I understand Rothfuss’ bemused concern at his three year-old finding smoking fun via Tolkien, I do not think this is really a matter of authorial responsibility. In an age where we now understand the health issues associated with tobacco, the social environment that once glamorised it has gone, and parents and guardians are much better equipped to cut the habit off at the pass. Tolkien’s treatment of the subject may have been a (very small) contribution to the more smoker-friendly environment of yesteryear, a drop in a dangerous contextual bucket, but it was a product of its time, produced by a man who didn’t know any better. We do, and, thankfully, no twenty-first century author is going to write smoke rings the way Tolkien did.

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