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The Writer’s Role

E.B. White, noted author of Charlote’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style, answers a question on the role of the writer in a society that has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology.

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.

When asked if media such as television and motion pictures have had any effect on contemporary literary styles, White responds:

Television affects the style of children—that I know. I receive letters from children, and many of them begin: “Dear Mr. White, My name is Donna Reynolds.” This is the Walter Cronkite gambit, straight out of TV. When I was a child I never started a letter, “My name is Elwyn White.” I simply signed my name at the end.

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