E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer

What is the author's debt to society and how does he repay it?

Jill Krementz

Today, I'm headed to Columbia to take part in a symposium on the future of journalism—a subject that feels at once on some great cusp and under the weight of a myriad conflicting pressures. It prompted me to revisit one of my all-time favorite Paris Review interviews, a 1969 conversation, in which the great George Plimpton and sidekick Frank H. Crowther interview E.B. White. White has previously voiced strong opinions on the free press and, of course, the architecture of language, but here he shares some timeless yet strikingly timely insights on the role and the responsibility of the writer:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of "responsibility to society." As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness than would never have been acceptable in White's heyday. What standards and expectations we adopt and instill in writers and publishers today will "inform and shape life."

When asked how he sees the role of the writer in an era "increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology"—bear in mind, this is 1969—White answers:

The writer's role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In 'The Ring of Time,' I wrote: 'As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.'

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.

I love this notion of a custodian, or secretary, or interpreter, of culture. Though the word "curator" is tragically flawed, the ideals at its heart—to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why—remain an important piece of the evolution of authorship. What White describes as the role of the writer is very much the role of the cultural custodian today, in the broadest, most platform-agnostic sense of the role possible.

But perhaps most brilliantly, in one swift sentence White captures everything that's wrong with the sensationalism that permeates media today, from the HuffPostification of headlines to the general linkbait alarmism of language designed to squeeze out another barely-monetized pageview:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.