Are Writers Role Models?

burroughsThe University of Kansas recently acquired several items from the estate of William S. Burroughs, including the working materials for Last Words. This is a major deal for the University. The journals will provide a great source for scholars researching Burrough’s work, and will bring attention to the university. Burroughs lived in Lawrence for the last fifteen years of his life, and this would seem like a significant local connection.

Burroughs is a polarizing figure within literature. Some critics considered him a genius and others considered him a hack. Regardless, he influenced a variety of artists, including writers and musicians. When I read the press release, I was excited for the University. Even though Burroughs is not in my area of literary scholarship, I was excited for Lawrence.  While the attention often goes to basketball this time of year, Lawrence has a thriving arts scene that includes the literary arts. We have several writers groups while most communities are lucky to have one. Besides Burroughs, Lawrence has been home to several prominent writers, most notably Langston Hughes. I filed the news away under the “Cool…good to know” section of my brain, and didn’t think much of it until a letter to the editor in a recent edition of the local paper.

The letter attacked Burroughs on the basis of his drug use (he did), shooting his wife (he did), and being homosexual (he was, as if it really matters). The letter stated that Burroughs was not a role model, and as such his life and work should not be celebrated in any way. Woah, hold on there, Skippy.  Of course Burroughs isn’t a role model. My problem isn’t the criticism. It is the idea that he should be a role model in the first place.

Writers have a long tradition of being amoral assholes. It’s okay. The same could be said with people in any field, and I mean ANY field. Before anyone starts declaring their superior morality in terms of political ideology or religious beliefs, I would invite them to do a little research about what politicians and religious leaders have done. Writers have been known to be odd. There is a great book called Writers Gone Wild that chronicles all the craziness. None of that changes the books. When we look at a literary career, the work has to stand on its own merits.

Writers are not meant to be role models. They are meant to write books. Orson Scott Card is a homophobe, you say. Ender’s Game is brilliant, I say back.  William Peter Blatty went a bit overboard in his religious rant about Georgetown. I don’t care. The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror novels ever written. James Joyce was an egotistical prick. Dubliners makes its own case. Dickens was a dick, but he was a genius that transcended genre. Would anyone want Bret Easton Ellis as a role model? They are all literary influences. They are writers, not Cub Scout leaders. (I strongly urge you not to Google the transgressions of Cub Scout leaders. You don’t want to know.)

As a father, I am a role model for an audience of one, my six year-old boy. As a writer, I’m no one’s role model. My characters are often listless, broken people. They do horrible things, often times to horrible people. They don’t learn from mistakes. They are selfish, paranoid, and dangerous. They never act in the best interest of themselves or others. Yet, I like to think I am a nice guy. Does it matter? You either like my writing, or you don’t. To quote the wordsmith Charles Barkley (or Nike’s ad execs), “I’m not a role model. “

Admire writers. Please admire them. Admire their work, and their abilities as artists. Don’t assume that because you admire their work that you will like them as a person. The writer and their work are not the same thing. One should not be taken into consideration when evaluating the other. If you don’t want to support an artist because of his actions, that’s fine, but a crappy person doesn’t necessarily make crappy art. We should be able to celebrate Burroughs’s work and influence without condoning his mistakes. As a city, it would be best for us to remember that, lest we look too closely at some of the other names on our street signs and park trails.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

1 Comment

  • Andrew Putnam says:

    I’ve read about people impressing a character’s persona on the author many times, but I’ve never really thought about that applying to me before. My favorite stories to write are ones with deep moral conflicts. It’s unsettling to think that I’ll be judged based on what my characters do and vice versa.

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