Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

Fiction and Social Justice ~ Can They Coexist?


Should writers of fiction consider devoting their talents to portraying moral actions in the face of social injustice?

Does fiction have sufficient influence in readers’ lives to serve as inspiration for taking steps toward social justice?

I, personally, believe the answer to both those questions is Yes, though I deeply understand why many folks would say No

One type of No would come from fear, another from feelings of inadequacy, another from hesitation to expose oneself to criticism.

The most dangerous No would come from a belief that fiction is not the venue for portraying moral issues

I’ve written here before about writers taking social responsibility and making a difference in the world.

And, I’ve also indicated that making a difference with fiction doesn’t have to mean writing books that treat the reader like a moral whipping-post

Just for a second, imagine a world that’s swiftly unraveling itself, displaying multiple interwoven crises that all seem to be coming to a head at the same time.

If it’s assumed fiction has sufficient power and influence to move readers toward acts of moral courage; and, if getting a book published was technologically easy, would authors who devoted their art and talent to inspiring acts of social justice help that world in some way??

The fact is, we live in that kind of world and, I believe, fiction writers do have influence, and it is easier than ever to have things published

If you’re not one of the naysayers to fiction and social justice working together and you’d like a bit of inspiration to take up the challenge of integrating issues of the day into your fiction, watch this video of Jacqueline Novogratz talking about “Inspiring a life of immersion”.
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24 responses to “Fiction and Social Justice ~ Can They Coexist?

  1. Catana February 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Fiction has always had a strong connection to social justice, but times have changed. First, the overwhelming majority of people read purely for entertainment. Second, the chances of any such book having a significant audience are almost nil. Third, most of the social injustices are behind the scenes, partly because the mainstream media don’t bother with them, but also because they don’t impact on the lives of the people most able to be affected by novels. Fourth, the injustices are so complex, so tied up with multiple causes that solving any of them is impossible. Fifth, any forward movement boils down to tiny patches on a huge problem and is, more often than not, set back by various social or economic changes in the larger picture. This is not the age of Harriet Beecher Stowe. This is the age of the superbowl, or whatever it’s called.

    I know you don’t care for what you probably consider my negativity, so you can delete this comment if you wish.

    Like

    • Megan Payne February 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      If fiction didn’t work to change people’s views on things, there would be no serious acceptance of gay/lesbians. Acceptance is widespread among the young people because of fiction. We are inundated in cultural concepts in our fiction that were frowned upon in the 50s. Fiction enacts far more change than nonfiction, because people have their guard down when they’re being entertained.

      Like

      • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 9:21 pm

        Megan, I Love this sentence:

        “Fiction enacts far more change than nonfiction, because people have their guard down when they’re being entertained.”

        Like

  2. Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 12:01 am

    No, Catana, I can’t, in all justice, delete your comment; but, I will respond:

    1 – agree
    2 – almost agree
    3 – True but a good writer can uncover them and write about them
    4- I agree they are complex but not impossible of solution
    5 – Agree to a degree–should mention that the “quality” of solutions determines how well they work and last…

    Like

  3. lynnbiederstadt February 8, 2012 at 12:32 am

    AZ, I believe that we live our choices and that they inform our work. I’m interested in the notion of critical mass in popular culture…the ability of any art to transform from a micro to a macro scale. We act individually, create change from the individual up. Should ALL art be dedicated to a greater social good? I don’t know. But thank you once again for being more than just fluff in this space. Not a lot of sites make us think as yours does.
    -Lynn

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 1:56 am

      Thank you, Lynn

      BTW, I hope this post doesn’t give the idea that I think all fiction should serve the purposes of social justice………

      Like

  4. grahamwhittaker February 8, 2012 at 12:49 am

    The greatest novels deal with social injustice, Dickens, Orwell, et al, Of course they CAN coexist. But need they? In a sense this occurs naturally. The “sense” of the author will always reveal itself. All fiction is a revelation of human activity. If Henry: Portrait of a serial killer is examined, or de Sade’s Juliette, Justine and other works, they naturally expose a moral stance. de Sade for example exposes the inequality of the sexes at a time when women were chattels. The acts of the two sisters were acts of independence and assumption of personal power. (Making the author one of the first feminist writers). I can think of no great work that does not examine or portray social justice or injustice. Is your premise redundant then Alexander? (That was rhetorical because the answer is no it is not.) Pause for some thought I think.

    Like

  5. Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 1:59 am

    Right, Graham, my point isn’t redundant since I feel it obvious that the post isn’t a critique of past Great writers—more of a call to current Aspiring writers

    Like

  6. KS "Kaz" Augustin February 8, 2012 at 2:42 am

    Before I begin any novel, I first ask myself: what am I trying to say? That doesn’t mean my books are obtuse and lifeless (although I’m sure a few reviewers think so! lol), but it adds an extra element TO THOSE READERS SEARCHING FOR IT. I’m not about to beat a particular cause over someone’s head because, as a writer of fiction, I am there to entertain a reader first and foremost but otoh, I’m not going to shy away from issues I think are important, such as gender equality, definitions of terrorism, state-sponsored terror, morality in ambiguous situations, and so on. And, as a completely personal opinion, I find that SF is the best environment for me to do this.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 3:17 am

      Thanks for your comment, Kaz.

      My recently published book had to happen 12 light-years from here to make sure folks could handle the “moral lessons”—plus, I had to pay close attention to “balancing” the “viewpoints” of characters

      Like

  7. Simone Benedict February 8, 2012 at 3:15 am

    I guess you know me well enough to know my take on this post, Alexander. Catana’s comment holds much truth, especially the part about the readers’ awareness of the issues and injustice that happens behind the scenes.

    I was delighted to read your linked post from December (sorry I missed it then) and learn of the genre for NFAA. Documentary novel. I love that!

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 3:25 am

      So good to have you back here writing comments, Simone :-)

      Like

  8. Jane Watson February 8, 2012 at 8:44 am

    I find that a really well wrought piece of literature is like a deep pond in which a pebble of a story creates ripples of meaning which spread out in the reader’s mind as they read. In this way a work cannot just be about one individual it must be also about others and the wider world. Once you are engaging with the issues that confront the individual and their place in the wider world you engage in the morality and social issues of that world. A truly great work does that, in my opinion. It immerses you. I also feel that it is this ripple of deeper connection that readers *want*. Even Hollywood acknowledges this. This is why many filmmakers seek to find a mythology to inspire their work. This is why Christopher Vogler’s book, ‘The Writer’s Journey’, is regarded as such an important manual for film makers. In his book, ‘Story’, Robert Mckee talks about: ‘How should a human being live his life?’ as one of the prime drivers for telling stories. I have a book on my bookshelf called ‘The Moral Premise’, which argues that if a story does not engage what is right and wrong it will not succeed. The beating heart of any really great work must be how it engages in some way with how the world works and how it does not – ie how it addresses social justice. It is very frightening and difficult to do and the writer must be brave to do it but…they must. And… I think that the works that do this successfully *are* read and remembered.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      Jane,

      Love the pebble in the pond

      Your references to Vogler, McKee, and The Moral Premise are very welcome in this discussion.

      Admittedly, the readership of this blog, at least those who comment,is small and seems to reflect the principles you so ably champion.

      Still, there are many in the world who feel including judgements of morality in fiction is wrong—perhaps because they have a relativistic code of action that won’t bear the necessary constraints critically needed in a peaceful and just society??

      Like

  9. bonalibro February 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I believe fiction should have morality at its core, but it should not lecture. Instead, it should ask how the reader would deal with the moral dilemmas the characters find themselves in. Shakespeare is all about questions of morality and power.

    My novel, still looking for a real publisher, deals with issues of conscience and social justice. It is also very humorous, which helps relieve the reader of the feeling he’s being instructed.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      Thanks for sharing your use of humor to “soften the edge” of the lessons your novel conveys…

      Like

  10. barbarablackcinder February 28, 2012 at 1:29 am

    I concur that even the smallest pebble causes a ripple, and if combined with others can cause an even larger one. Hopefully this occurs more often than we believe it does. “Kaz” mentions how he takes a breath to decide where he wants his book to go, indicating his moral or ethical conciderations. However, I tend to write, knowing what I know, believing what I believe, and knowing that these things will come out as I write them. I can’t write in a hypocritical mode just to make a piece of fiction work, not even to play devil’s advocate if it does not result in a ‘karmatic’ turn of events to establish my own ethical and moral beliefs. A difference in technique, but also resulting in my intentions to cause a ‘good’ ripple rather than an evil one just as his will.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am

      Yes, Barbara, letting the “pebbles” of our values “skip” across the “pond” of our writing can induces “patterns” of “intentions” that derive from our deepest selves

      If you then translate the visual “patterns” into what we can “hear” the book “saying” to us about its building pattern, then you’ve formed a relationship with the book

      It “may” “agree” with what you hear and let you steer it

      Though, there are times it “senses” your intentions and argues for a different pattern, eh?

      Like

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