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An Aside: On “Issue Fiction”

As my regular readers know, in addition to being a novelist/philosophizer/incessant reader, I’m also trained as a sociologist. I’m very aware of the way that my social science background leaks into my writing: it affects how I construct cultures and characters on about a million levels. So when I first received an email about the Social Fictions series, I was very excited. This series frames itself as a set of novels explicitly designed for use in social science courses, giving students a less abstract way to grapple with major concepts.

I’m very attracted to this idea. I dream of someday teaching a sociology intro course framed around utopian fiction; I’ve thought about teaching a sociology of science fiction course since I first entered the discipline. So I went to the website and grabbed a preview for one of the books, RP Clair’s Zombie Seed and the Butterfly Blues.

And then my excitement started to wane.

To be completely honest, I can’t give a good review of the book: I didn’t get far enough to do so. I read the first ten pages and stopped, wondering if this author had ever written fiction before. The prose was clumsy, and the dialogue was stilted, full of exchanges like this one:

“How’s your head? Are you feeling okay?” Mona Barthes asked her academic advisor.
“I’ve had better days,” Delta answered and then followed by thanking her graduate advisee for the ride as she settled into the front seat of the little green Geo.

According to the promotional material, the book explores issues of violence (cultural and interpersonal) as well as the risks of disconnection from critical thinking. All great stuff; very important; well worth including as a theme in your book. But in the same way that writing about a popular topic doesn’t make your book good, neither does writing about an issue, no matter how much passion you have for the subject. Characters still need to be well-fleshed-out; settings still need to be coherent; prose still needs to read smoothly. If that part’s taken care of, readers will pick up the subtext on their own.

I thought of my response to Social Fictions when I read Mark Strauss’s post for io9 about a University of Vermont study of the effects of Harry Potter on readers’ political views. Political scientist Anthony Gierzynski found that Harry Potter readers “are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans. The fans are also less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration. Gierzynski says these correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses — controlling for other factors, such as parental influences.”

There are some caveats in the findings (elaborated on in the linked article), but it seems pretty clear that these books had an effect on some portion of their readers. And they are ALSO rip-roaringly good reads, with engaging characters and a strong plot (yes, the worldbuilding is sometimes a little shaky, but I’ll save that for another post).

I feel like this tip, of making your story a story first and a political message second, is important to remember for all of us seeking to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in our own writing. Because although I’ve been writing posts here for over a month talking about the importance of diversity in all its forms, I don’t expect I’ll ever write a story intended to show that “people from Group X can do Y.” I am making a conscious effort to include a more diverse population in my fiction, but I’m also taking to heart Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other (which I’ve quoted before): “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

If my years as a consumer of genre media and my admittedly-limited exposure to media studies analysis have taught me anything, it’s that just as social scientists tend to research issues that have personal resonance for them, it’s difficult for fiction writers to avoid bringing the issues they care about into their stories. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica is — among other things — about colonization, terrorism, and 9/11, while the current zombie flavor in postapocalyptic monster fiction might be feeding on people’s fear of real-life apocalypses like pandemics or global warming.

This is all great. I do believe that fiction can have a positive impact on the mindset of its readers.  I think the issues and morals and representations presented in fiction are incredibly important. I just hope that we as writers remember that for a story’s elements to have that sort of impact, people have to get drawn into it first.

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2 Comments

  1. I agree, you got to draw them in before you reel them out 🙂

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  1. Why I’m Writing About A (White, Cisgendered, Ablebodied Straight) Boy | Sociologist Novelist

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