The Common Good
November 2006

From Imagination To Action

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | November 2006

Can fiction be a vehicle for social change?

Gus Traynor never wanted to be an interior decorator. But this financially strapped Alaskan newspaper publisher, the lead character in Marjorie Kowalski Cole’s new novel Correcting the Landscape, was worried that an interior decorator is what he had become—what with needing to write stories that made his town “look good to itself.” “I suddenly saw the danger that all my words over these years amounted to nothing more than, say, a tablecloth,” he says.

If this kind of journalism is akin to pulling a tablecloth over a town (or a country) so that it looks pretty, then writing socially conscious fiction is something like cleaning out an old barn and sifting through the trash and treasures one finds there.

Novelists in the United States who dare to sweep the barn rather than spread the tablecloth—who examine social and political problems rather than conceal them—often find their work viewed with suspicion, says Barbara Kingsolver, author of acclaimed novels such as The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees. Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which is awarded biennially to a first novel that emphasizes issues of social justice, as a way to counteract what she calls a “phobic feeling about socially conscious literature from the literary gatekeepers” in the United States. “Trade publishing has become more commercial and money-driven than ever,” Kingsolver told Sojourners in a recent interview. “In some ways, commercial publishing has become like the movie industry—no one wants to take chances, and everyone wants to do what was popular last year.”

Even if it’s not popular, sorting through the unresolved issues that history hands new generations should be central to writing fiction, says Cole. Her Correcting the Landscape, which won the 2004 Bellwether Prize,is set three years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and hundreds of years after the onset of erosion of Native cultures, yet both disasters play out in the lives of Traynor and his fellow characters. “American literature contains our goodness and our grief, as a people,” says Cole. “I’d rather not get away from these realities by narrowing my scope and writing tight, tiny, safe stories or keeping my fiction on a leash.”

The Bellwether Prize, which consists of $25,000 and guaranteed publication through a prominent publishing house, is the only major North American literary prize that endorses the category of literature of social change. Internationally, the Nobel Prize for Literature often celebrates authors who write in this vein of social critique: Think Nadine Gordimer, Miguel Angel Asturias, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “Readers the world over look to writers as cultural bellwethers,” says Kingsolver. “They look for leadership from writers in terms of forming the questions and putting a face on social justice.”

The American literary scene, on the other hand, has a “very strong bias against the literature of ideas,” explains Peter Kerry Powers, chair of the English department at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College. Russian novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka have been “much more willing to write fictionally about ideas,” Powers says, adding that societies in which war and material impoverishment have exacted a greater toll tend to produce writers who emphasize such issues in their fiction. “Art becomes a way to mediate the terror,” is how Nigerian novelist and poet Chris Abani has described the process of writing under an oppressive regime.

THE ROOTS OF U.S. publishers’ reticence to print overtly political fiction are deeply embedded in the history of the 20th century. Kingsolver dates the literati’s jitters about writing and publishing such books back to the 1950s, when McCarthyism dictated that “art and politics had to get a divorce.” Modern fiction’s anxiety about wedding art and politics can be traced back even further, according to Powers, who has written widely about multiethnic American literature. Up until the 1920s and 1930s, when writers such as John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell began describing the lives and oppressions of the working class, “most people thought of art as a completely separate realm from the everyday,” says Powers. Even as white writers such as Steinbeck and African-American writers such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison addressed social and racial injustice through their fiction, the dominant literary mode remained the domestic novel, which “looks at the complications of individual lives in relation to other individuals,” Powers says.

Literature that overtly connected individuals’ lives with political and social realities gained momentum only in the 1960s and 1970s, when the black arts movement and second-wave feminist movement exploded. Best-seller lists were front-loaded with romances and Westerns, and most literary novels managed to remain apolitical, but books such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room were connecting character and plot with larger social and political forces. While not constituting a dominant literary movement, writing about social issues and the academic criticism of such writing became an “extremely important strain in literature and talking about literature in the last 40 years,” says Powers.

So whose fault is it that the décolletage-baring and code-cracking crowd still hogs the top slots on best-seller lists, rather than the writers of literature of social change? Some blame politically engaged writers themselves, who—even in a world ravaged by war, hunger, and disease—make writing about such issues inaccessible or elitist. Others blame major publishing conglomerates—what Kingsolver dubs the “literary-industrial complex”—which assume Americans don’t want to clutter their beach bags and bookshelves with tales of social injustice, ecological decline, or political corruption. Then again, perhaps the fault lies with North American readers, who—like the toddler who requires a two-inch trench between her mashed potatoes and her peas—want our politics forked into newspapers and our pleasure spooned into fiction.

Blame and glory can never be neatly assigned, of course. And lest we fall into a two-kingdom notion that frothy pulp fiction sells and serious novels of social change don’t, it’s important to note contemporary titles in this vein of social critique that have gained both critical acclaim and wide readership: Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, and The Bean Trees, by Kingsolver, to name a few. In addition, even commercially popular books that lack overt political critiques often speak profoundly to issues of social conscience. Still, the Bellwether Prize’s claim is hard to dispute: “Social commentary in our art is frequently viewed with suspicion.”

That suspicion, according to Kingsolver, is largely due to the curse of the P-word: propaganda. Some writers gladly accept the label and rename it a blessing; W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1926 that “All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” Others, like Kingsolver, prefer a little more nuance. “Propaganda tells you what to think. Art invites you to come and visit a place and see what it means to you,” she says. The presumption that “if you address matters of social justice and imbalances of power, then automatically your work becomes propaganda” is a false one, says Kingsolver.

SO, DO WRITERS need to be careful that the aesthetics of their fiction don’t buckle under the weight of some larger agenda? Most people remember novels that read like one part story, three parts sermon (Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes to mind, as does a contemporary apocalyptic series that shall remain nameless). Gayle Brandeis, winner of the 2002 Bellwether Prize for The Book of Dead Birds, says that if a writer allows political issues to arise naturally from the narrative itself, such fiction won’t be didactic. “In fiction, I want [social] issues to emerge from the characters and setting rather than impose them in an unnatural way. I think such issues are much more resonant if they’re woven into the fabric of the story,” she said from her home in Southern California.

Only the most egotistical—or naive—writer harbors any grand delusion that his or her work is going to alleviate poverty or end a war. Every so often a novel such as Émile Zola’s Germinal, which described the horrific working conditions in the French coal mines in the late 1800s and is often attributed with increased sympathy toward workers’ rights, contributes to direct social change. But change usually occurs at a sluggish pace, and being clear-eyed about that fact is important, according to Cole. “I don’t have any reason to suspect that facing these things in our literature helps us actually solve social or political problems,” she says. “I think it makes for better literature—that’s all.”

Yet it’s hard to argue that fiction doesn’t carry the power to change minds and engage hearts, even if it does so one reader at a time. “Fiction takes a person on the other side of the world, someone who is the potential enemy, and brings that person into your home and your emotional life,” says Kingsolver. “You see the details of her life, and that makes her your intimate.” In so doing, she says, fiction “creates empathy for the stranger, which is the opposite of war.”

If fiction fosters the imagination, and a good imagination leads us toward empathy, and empathy steers us to action, then perhaps fiction and social change are only second or third cousins, rather than distant relatives. “Empathy begins with a fictive act,” is how David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and The River Why, put it in an Orion magazine essay just before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. “Christ’s words ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. … Christ orders anyone who’s serious about him to commit this ‘Neighbor=Me’ fiction” until Christ’s words are turned into reality.

This “Neighbor=Me” fiction can be a threatening read even to those who claim to be peacemakers, but it’s especially unnerving to those who build wars on the equations “We=Righteous” and “Neighbor= Terrorist.” It’s out of fear of this fiction that the United States, through its policies and invasions after Sept. 11, “forces literature into a dissident position,” writes Duncan.

If his claim is correct—that writing socially conscious literature is now a subversive activity in the United States—then perhaps writers are becoming increasingly emboldened by their marginalization and attentive to the exemplars of great protest writing around the world. In fact, Kingsolver predicts that readers will soon have no trouble finding U.S. novels that hinge on the invasion of Iraq. “It takes a while to process something as big as war,” she says. “Art takes time, and novels take a lot of time. But I believe that they [anti-war novels] are coming.”

Such novels may not ever muscle a place for themselves beside the thrillers and romances in big-box bookstores. Yet good books don’t need to be blockbusters to work their slow, quiet art of creating empathy for the stranger and even inspiring action on the stranger’s behalf. In this way, literature of social change echoes the great narrative of the Christian faith: a Word softly, humbly, becoming flesh.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, is a writer, editor, and mother of three young children.

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