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Who’s Serving Who?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

It puts me out of step with my generation, but while I love Bob Dylan’s lyrics and music, I just don’t care for his performance. The rare exception is Gotta Serve Somebody, written in 1979 during his born-again phase.

His stripped down, through-gritted-teeth short range vocals are perfect for the cynical message:

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls…
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you may even own banks.

but you’re gonna have to serve somebody

The Devil or the Lord?

When the blues girls join in the background, mid-second refrain, there is a steady, rhythmic groove that underscores the repeated message: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you came from, where you’re headed and what you do, your labor, thoughts, ideas and energy serve someone else’s interests. As Dylan sums it up “It may be the devil, or it may be the lord.”

The song has been getting a lot of play on my mp3 of late. Its simple message has been very clarifying. In political debate I find asking, “Who does that person serve?” cuts right to the point.

Does that elected official serve constituents or an insurance company’s profits? Does that commentator serve the hundreds of thousand of people who just lost their jobs or their network advertising goal? As I watched some of the coverage of Teddy Kennedy’s final journey I thought perhaps this was one of the last public figures about whom I felt the answer was “He tried to serve the people.” He had flaws, of course. His work touched my life directly, e.g. female, unmarried me could get credit in my own name before the age of 25 because of legislation he influenced.

Who Do I Serve?

It would be lacking in insight not to turn the question on myself. Who do I serve? I write fiction. I serve my muse and my readers. I also work for my publisher. I serve the publisher’s interests in putting books into reader’s hands, and a widening gyre of stakeholders in that process, including the authors. Since I’m one of them, obviously I serve myself. Since I feel that we are providing entertainment that readers want, and many find crucial to their lives, I feel good about who I serve in my working life.

As is usual, I tend to take more cynical maunderings and find ways to apply them in practical or humorous terms. It takes the sting out of them, and gives me a way to move forward with what I need to do. Yesterday, as I was writing, I was midway through a scene when I paused and thought, “Does this have a point?” (Usually, my even asking means the answer is no.) When Dylan popped up on my mp3, there was the right question to ask myself: Who did this scene serve?

In a well-crafted novel, every character and every scene has to serve the master players: plot, theme or setting. Best if they serve more than one. The trouble with my scene was that I needed the minor plot point, but after that moment, the rest of the dialogue and action served nothing important to the novel’s craft. It was a scene a seasoned reader would quickly sense she could skip.

I don’t want readers paying for pages they’re not going to read. Even in eBook formats, where pages don’t have the same cost, I don’t want a reader to spend time picking and choosing. As one of my editors consistently points out, “who cares?” is a question to be applied to every sentence, every paragraph, every scene.

They Have to Earn their Way to the Page

I hum along with Bob Dylan, asking all my scenes now “Who do you serve?” If it ain’t the plot, the theme or setting, they are outta my book. I’m not sure if it’ll prove to be an effective way to examine my work, but it’s getting me through the first draft and this season of dispiriting public debate.

Copyrighted material.