Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

Social Responsibility of Novelists (Mental Illness)

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

This post is inspired by my annoyance at the misrepresentation of mental illness in a novel I am reading.

I assume most people read fiction for leisure. But I think it’s also safe to assume that we learn from reading that fiction, too, and that it’s some of the most interesting learning because you’re not really always aware that you’re learning, but it stays with you. Like, there was a time when I coincidentally read 2-3 novels in a row set in WW2. I have never studied WW2 properly in school (possibly because of shifting school systems several times) but I learned a lot about that period through those books. And movies, too, of course 🙂 It drives me crazy that something like the Da Vinci Code is half-truth half fiction, for example 🙂

Anyway, back to the mental illness thing. It’s such a hugely misunderstood and sensitive issue on society, that I feel really strongly about how it gets represented in literature. I feel the same about learning disabilities. I know from an English friend of mine who sends me her favorite UK newspaper articles that discussing mental illness is still an issue there. It’s much worse here in Egypt, but not a non-problem elsewhere.

So this novel i am reading. One of the main characters has a mental illness. Now, as someone who knows people with that illness, and someone who has read a LOT about that illness, and talked with others whose loved ones have it, I feel cheated by the way this novel treats the illness.

The author both exaggerates and diminishes the illness. I cannot claim to know all the different manifestations of the illness, but I know enough about it to feel the character in the novel is not behaving exactly as this mental illness is usually manifested. Nor do the caregivers around him seem to be treating him the way caregivers of this illness should (they allow him to transgress even when he’s not having an episode and behave really strangely when he is having one). What’s also weird is that they talk about how destructive the illness is to the person and those surrounding him, by focusing on the extremes that could happen, without recognizing how the micromanifestations of it have regular impact on loved ones. And one other character treats the whole thing as if it’s nothing (and not in a good way; in a kind of dismissive way).

It made me realize that if I don’t know the author and don’t know the illness, I would not know how credible the author’s representation of the illness is. And that’s dangerous, because it can reproduce social misunderstandings of mental illness, and it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal if people start talking about this illness based on impressions from fiction and think that’s what it is.

This all reminded me of the opposite situation. David Mathew, (who’s the editor of the Journal of Pedagogic Development, and a good friend) is also a novelist (his latest novel is Ventriloquists, which i got via Kindle Unlimited but have not started yet) and I was recently talking to him about how his study of psychiatry and his experience with prisoners all must really inform his fiction writing. It makes it much more credible to me. But I don’t know every novelist whose books I read. And i don’t know how much research or personal experience they have had with what they’re writing about. I sometimes research things that interest me, but I am sure there is a lot that I don’t and that I absorb uncritically, because, you know, I am reading the book at 2am or on a plane or to take a break from “work” or listening on audio while doing housework. Book clubs are great for helping one question certain things in novels, and I sometimes hold bookclubs with myself 🙂 But anyway…

Yeah. Mental illness. Please don’t write novels about it if you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Thanks.


8 thoughts on “Social Responsibility of Novelists (Mental Illness)

  1. Hi, Maha. I think you need to take a break from blogging more than once a day. When a librarian reads this kind of political correctness, it reminds me of censorship. Fiction is an art without limits. You cannot tell or wish an artist to have “social responsibility” unless you expect them to conform to your standard. Novelists are provocateurs and story tellers that often have to remind their readers that any resemblance to reality is coincidental, yet we all know that there are dramatic characters in novels which certainly remind one of reality or even an acquaintance. That is the power of art….to connect with your own inner self, and sometimes it grates or insults or angers. But we give the artist the benefit of the doubt. We can even argue about the definitions of mental illness in peer reviewed articles or textbooks, but stories simply do not have to be true to life, but true to art. Do you know about the one of the books that is banned in U.S. schools? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. This is simultaneously one of the greatest American novels of its time, and also a book banned in schools and school libraries because… its perceived use of racial stereotypes and because of its frequent use of the racial slur. But if you read the book, the tone and the plot are very anti-racist. Did Twain have a social responsibility to not use racial stereotypes in his novel? No, this is a work of art, and it works as art and certainly inflames the passions of many about injustice. Take a look at the list of good books that have been found objectionable by someone.
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, is on this list. It certainly portrays mental illness. Anyway, I enjoy so many of your posts and look forward to reading them. We are connected. CG

    1. Hi CG – thanks for this, and for giving me the example of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve not read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but was wondering about how it portrayed mental illness…
      You’re right. I had not thought of what I was suggesting as a form of censorship, or a restriction on creative license. How about a foreword or disclaimer? To let readers know the author is not representing mental illness accurately?

      But i have a question for you: you defended Huckleberry Finn not because you thought racial slurs are ok (tho in sociohistorical context they prob were ok at the time Twain wrote it, as Edward Said might mention) – you’re defending it because despite that, it has an anti-racist narrative. What if it had a KKK type narrative? Like, not to expose it as bad, but to really promote racism?

      I still wouldn’t BAN any book, because banning is not the solution to anything, and depends on the values of some powerful subset of society. But I’d definitely think it acceptable to take a book apart in book reviews and to study it critically and highlight areas we disagree with, etc.?
      So i agree with the idea of taking a work of art as it is, but also with critiquing it beyond what it is itself, if that makes sense? I think we can critique it on different levels? One of which accepts the author’s perspective and critiques the art. Another critiques its message.
      Like the movie Grease. I love the music and the dancing. I LOATHE the social message! I wouldn’t ban it or prevent my child from watching it. But I’d encourage a critical discussion of it. Same for “Beauty and the Beast”, “Ugly Duckling” – whose solution to ugliness is eventual beauty. Ugh. Sure, they have good-ish messages behind them, but in the end, the underlying message you get is that (physical) beauty DOES matter! Just not all the time 😉

  2. Thanks for what what I expected… your own re-examination and good counterpoint. Yes, we can debate and become passionate about art (books, cinema, poetry, dance, etc.), and certainly fiction survives or doesn’t on reviews and word-of-mouth (and blogs these days). So a book with a KKK narrator might startle or anger or draw sympathy from partisans, but I think many of us look for something we find that is authentic, connected to our experience, and well-written. Language on the printed page and how it becomes voice in our head is magic. So you can certainly critique or dismiss an unworthy book. Just don’t say “the author had no right or poor judgement to tell the story that way which does not agree with my understanding” especially something like mental illness, which has such a broad spectrum and competing definitions. I have no idea how much or little anyone else knows about encounters with mental health or mental illness. But if a book seems inauthentic, does not move you, suffers from poor writing, dismiss it for the evidence it presents.

  3. This is a good debate. I can’t hold myself back from asking what book you’re reading, Maha. I’m intrigued. Mentioning it won’t hurt because you’re entitled to your opinion.

    Is there really a social message in Grease, by the way? Other than the bad-boy-good-girl / good-girl-becomes-bad anti-Ugly Duckling narrative, I can’t really think of a ‘message’… Then again, I haven’t seen it for probably a decade or more.

    Now it’s time for me to put the bomp in the bompa-bompa-bomp. I have finished putting the ram in the ramma-lamma-ding-dong.

    1. About Grease… Yeah, I take issue with the ending. First, that he offers to change FOR her, she offers to change FOR him, therefore they decide they’ll both be “bad”, as if that was inherently “better”. Why is this bothering me? First, because the girl changes for the guy. Not a good message for girls, that they need to change who they are to please a man. Second, because the girl changes into a “bad” one – i can’t remember the movie either, to be honest, but they weren’t just rebellious teens, I think they were into dangerous racing and betting (i could be imagining this, but i got the impression of drugs… Even if not, the whole “giving into peer pressure” thing… I know it happens in real life, so maybe not every movie that has a story is perpetuating or endorsing a certain view? But it is, isn’t it? When lots of teens watch and idolize it? Again, not suggesting we ban anything, just saying…)

  4. Interestingly, I mentioned this to my wife a minute ago (by email) and she replied by saying that there was a report on the misrepresentation of mental health in the news. I can’t find the news article myself, but try typing ‘misrepresentation of mental health’ into a search engine and you get *dozens* of hits. Here are two that I found interesting:


  5. RE: Grease. There’s definitely a scene with racing in the street… or is it a reservoir of some description? I can’t remember drugs (though I don’t doubt it); there is almost certainly, if memory serves, a teenage pregnancy and I think an abortion.

    Come to think of it, it was probably more gritty than I gave it credit for! On reflection, it suggests (in my memory) more than it probably showed. Maybe I should watch it again and do a Zizek on it 🙂

    You must have forgotten to mention the name of the book you’re reading, Maha 🙂

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