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.”