As Authors, We Must Be Careful

In their book, The Myth of the American Superhero, John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett discuss something they call “the Werther effect.”

In the Werther effect a [reader or audience member] (a) experiences a work of fantasy within a secular context that (b) helps to shape the reader/viewer’s sense of what is real and desirable, in such a way that , (c) the reader/viewer takes actions consistent with the vision inspired by the interaction between his own fantasy and that popular entertainment. (Myth, 10)

In other words, the readers (or audience members) experience the story in a personal way and shape their opinions, beliefs and desires from these false experiences as they would real ones. For example, if there is a movie or novel that promotes war, the Werther effect would instill upon its readers/viewers this pro-war sentiment. The same goes for anti-religion or anti-establishment–through the Werther effect, any philosophy–even if not consciously propaganda–is absorbed and adopted by the readers/viewers.

The namesake for this effect comes from an eighteenth century author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a story about a young man named Werther. Now Werther was a romantic fellow who only had eyes for one woman–and she denies him. So he commits suicide. “Within a decade of this novel’s publication,” the authors explain, “it had become an international sensation.” (Myth, 10) Young people loved the book–they could relate well to the protagonist and his deep desires for another. In fact, they loved the book so much, they could relate to the protagonist so well, that they decided to immitate him.

They committed suicide.

“All over Europe large numbers of young people committed suicide with a copy of the book clutched in their hands or buried in a pocket.” (Myth, 9) Walter Kaufman explains.

That is why Lawrence and Jewett call their condition “the Werther effect.”

Every book–however cliche and contrived–has a philosophy to it. Harry Potter, among other things, stresses the importance of equality, The Dresden Files praises the strength and cunning of the individual, Beowulf teaches the qualities of a “good king”–no book is without its Philosophy. A good book, however, often creates its own Werther effect–the readers relate to the main character, live through the story themselves, and adopt the character’s own conclusions.

This is why we as authors must be careful.

Words are powerful. Powerful enough to destroy establishments, change cultures and take lives. We must be careful what we write, what we promote, in case our readers experience a Werther Effect when reading our work.

Poor Johanne Goethe was held accountable for all of his readers that committed suicide. Preachers, families, friends, all of them chastised him and threw the blame of these suicides on his shoulders. Goethe hadn’t wanted to promote suicide–of course he hadn’t–but it was his writing that twisted these youth’s hearts to the point of suicide. It was his writing. What a terrible thing to live with.

As authors we must be careful. We aren’t simply writing something we find “fun” or “interesting.” We are writing a scenario for our readers to live through, giving them a chance to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” They gleen their own conclusions, their own beliefs, from what they read, but we need to be very careful as to what we promote. We don’t want it blowing back in our faces.


1 Comment

  1. EFoley said,

    May 16, 2012 at 16:16

    Reminds me of a quote from Jerome Bruner:

    [T]he child does not enter the life of his or her group as a private and autistic sport of primary processes, but rather as a participant in a larger public process in which public meanings are negotiated. And in this process, meanings are not to his own advantage unless he can get them shared by others.
    Bruner, J. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 13.

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