Blog 28. Socially Significant Fiction

Entertainment and significant fiction

Much commercial fiction is pure entertainment. That’s ok; we enjoy being entertained.  However, fiction offers a marvelous opportunity to be more significant, to explore social issues, leaving the reader changed as well as entertained.  Fiction can show a social issue in the setting of the story in the background canvas across which the plot moves.

In Blog 27, I outlined a few things that fiction must do, how fiction must be written.  Here, I’ll discuss what fiction can show.  The newspaper tells you about social issues (well, these days the news is more about spectacular events than issues).  Fiction can show you, give you a mental experience of living through the action. Life is a collection of experiences, and fiction can offer you an experience.  If you remember the details of a book, chances are it depicted a social issue.

What social issues can fiction show?

Any widespread problem, like poverty or injustice or plague or systemic crime. A problem is where reality is greatly different from the commonly shared ideal. In fiction, problems generate interesting tensions where satisfactions would make dull reading.

Note that a widespread social problem is a systemic situation-it affects most of the society, and in turn the people affect the situation-whether or not they realize it. The problem affects society which in turn supports the problem. My flat tire is not a systemic problem-unless the Rubber and Rubbish Company has a monopoly, everyone has flat tires, and the company pays politicians to maintain its position. That’s feedback.

Many crime or horror novels portray individual crimes, each crime based on one person’s motive. These stories do not involve the entire society. In contrast, systematic crime is not one bad guy against the detective. It’s many actors generating a self-perpetuating criminal situation that is maintained by the society. Bad cops on the beat, taking payoffs to run a protection racket, is a systematic issue. The network of illegal drugs in the U.S. is a self-perpetuating criminal problem, affecting the wider society by inducing other crimes to generate money for drugs. The drug problem would persist without any individual drug dealer or addict.

What impact can fiction have?

Fiction can bring conscious awareness to a situation that is repressed, not recognized, or culturally ignored. Fiction can point to the proverbial elephant in the room. Culture is a set of rarely written rules that describe an ideal society. How to meet and greet. (You shake hands, not hug a person at the first introduction.) How to buy and sell. How to set the silverware on the table. What is fair. What is justice. These are unwritten expectations. When reality differs from the shared ideals, the society has tension. Fiction can bring the gap between the real and the ideal to consciousness. Harriet Beecher Stowe brought the gap between freedom (the ideal) and slavery (the reality) to awareness. The civil war is sometimes credited to (or blamed on) her fiction.

I invite you to my guest post regarding significant fiction on Terry Odell’s blog, appearing on September 24, 2013. I’ll be answering questions and responding to comments throughout that day. Terry’s blog appeals to writers and fans, because she reviews techniques for good writing and realities of forensic work. And she offers recipes for foods to delight the reader.