If you’re seeking inspiration or you wish to find out more about the fundamentals of creativity, the writer’s role, and the importance of literature – try reading Jean Paul Sartre‘s essays, gathered together in a book titled What is Literature?, published in 1949. You can actually pick up some great advice from it, or it can give you a starting point for developing your own thoughts on the subject. We have outlined some of Sartre’s main ideas to help you gain a clearer focus when writing.
Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, novelist, political activist, and literary critic. In his essays (read the full book), he questions the role of the writer, as well as the purpose of writing, literature, and the role of the reader.
Sartre asks: why write?
What is the meaning of writing, and what is its purpose? According to Sartre, good literature should always be an instrument of social activism, or should at least inspire readers to take action. Those who say that being a socially aware writer is disastrous for the author and his work – seem to forget that all the great novels of Charles Dickens had a huge impact when they first appeared. Engaged literature is the key to successful and meaningful writing. It doesn’t have to solve a problem directly, but it shouldn’t run away from the time in which it is written. You write because you have something of value to say.
But, if it’s socially engaged – doesn’t it mean that it will have an expiration date, since it will only be of interest to those who share the novel’s time and circumstance? Sartre denies this and says that, if it is a work of great artistic strength, it will outlive future generations and serve as a historical witness. Sartre sends a message to future writers:
What aspect of the world do you want to disclose? What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure? The engaged writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change.
The intention of a writer doesn’t have to be fulfilled
All that has ever been written, has a certain meaning. Sartre points out that it is completely fine if the meaning turns out to be very far from what the author originally intended. That is where the reader steps in. Reading is a creative act, too. A reader will always complete the things that were left unsaid in the novel, using his imagination. So, a writer is just an accomplice in this process. If you notice that a writer tries to shake off the values of his epoch or ignores them completely, it’s a sign. It indicates that there is a certain crisis in literature, and therefore in society. A writer cannot escape his time; it is desirable for him to embrace it firmly, Sartre says. A writer is situated in his time, so his every word and every artificial silence in his work – has a special echo.
Literature that nurtures illusions is weak literature
Sartre discusses the way we understand the relationship between the individual and reality, that is – how we interpret our attitude towards the world. He speaks to those who truly believe that the great social problems and political issues concern each member of the community. He writes in the belief that we can no longer afford to ignore these problems, but it is necessary to face them. So, every member of the community should contribute as much as possible. That includes writers, too. One of the strongest parts of this essay describes how few became aware of their role in society and realized it as a necessity, back in 1930, as the structure of global peace fell apart. That was the moment in history when it became clear to people that the postwar years had turned into the prewar years. Others found relief in living in false isolation, until they were overtaken by the catastrophe they had previously denied and looked away from. Sartre takes Charles Bovary as an example, a character in a French novel who watched twenty years of his marriage disintegrate as he read the love letters of his wife and her lover. So, what seemed like twenty years of peace was actually nothing more than the overture to war. Literature should be a firm cornerstone that faces reality with courage, and in that sense – Sartre does not support the literature of escapism.
It is wrong for a writer to expect a certain profile of his future reader
A writer should always be aware that his works can be read by anyone. And he needs to write for everyone! If he is not honest when creating, his dishonesty will be felt and received badly by his readers. A writer should offer his ideas to readers, let them process everything and come to their own conclusions. A novel should work as a stimulus for action; Sartre suggests that it has to end in a provocative way. Still, nobody should write in expectation of affirmation, and nobody should expect to be read only by people who agree with the author. Sartre says that, if that were the case, literature would be pointless. Targeting your audience can make sense only in one case, keeping in mind the role of a writer: you, as a writer, must always write in an attempt to raise the intellectual level of your readers. You can offer them something they can understand, but also something that will challenge them, which will result in expanding their horizons.
Creating quality characters in one’s writing
The characters you create should be alive, of flesh and blood, not artificial and mechanical beings that simply mouth your words and thoughts. You should imagine real life situations, even recall social gatherings or conflicts, and simply write them down. Don’t be humble when creating them.
The role of a writer
When speaking about the role of a writer, Sartre says that a writer must find his true calling inside himself, and be aware of the impact he may have. He mustn’t be oblivious to his own worth. He mustn’t think: why should I bother, I will only have one or two thousand readers; he has to think: what if I write something that changes the world? He has to be aware of the power of words. Sartre speaks about a true writer:
He knows that words, as Brice-Parrain says, are “loaded pistols“. If he speaks, he fires. He may be silent, but since he has chosen to fire, he must do it like a man, by aiming at targets, and not like a child, at random, by shutting his eyes and firing merely for the pleasure of hearing the shot go off.
A writer can write for two reasons: he may perceive art as a means of escaping reality, or – he may look at it as a tool of conquest. If he can recognize the potential power of his words and if he dares to leave them at the pleasure of others – then he can truly call himself a writer.