Social Commentary In Writing: Should We? Absolutely Sometimes But Perhaps Not.

Picture 92
Because I feel I’ve entered controversial territory here and want to keep the mood light, here’s this picture of me wearing a 1500s-era Morion helm. Again, the word is Morion, not moron. The moron would be me.

At some point, all writers grapple with the question of how much their writing should reflect on the world they live in. It’s all well and good to hash out the rip-roaring tale of Lieutenant-Commander Jack Carbide, Space Champion, as he battles the evil Decathlon Empire. But Jack’s quest to save the free people of the Concerto System from endless ten-event competitions has basically no bearing on our own world. As much as readers may enjoy Jack’s tempestuous courtship of the feisty Graphene Jones, their romance forged in the fire of the burning starship they escape over Tropia VI has no bearing on how relationships work in the real world. If it did, that would probably be better for all of us, but it doesn’t.

Now that I’m done giving someone the first pieces of their ridiculous parody franchise (you’re welcome), let’s get serious (ha, as if!). There are a lot of problems in today’s world, and as we tick off the ones everyone agrees on we find ourselves more and more focused on the ones that some vocal asshats just can’t get over. Smallpox? We inoculated the shit out of that thing. Okay, look, I know inoculations are given to people, not the disease, but that wasn’t the point.

In fact, infectious diseases have had a really rough century, and humanity’s reproductive rate has skyrocketed. In fact, it’s skyrocketed to the point where we’re starting to store people where we’re supposed to store oxygen, and now we need to consider arguments for fewer babies. I mean, it’s that or start indoctrinating our children in the Way of the Gun so we can go out and start a giant war as soon as we develop long-range interstellar travel.

On that note, we still haven’t shed our ideological predilection towards bullet-hell diplomacy. We might want to consider working through that soonish, but that just brings us back to the whole too many people issue.

Wait, no, I never said I advocate endemic warfare to control our population! Can’t we just have less war and vastly less children at the same time? How the heck am I even supposed to address all this- wait. Of course, I can use genre fiction! It’s almost like that was already the stated point of this article, isn’t it? Now then, another pause for frankness.

Plenty of realistic fiction novels spend their time shoving readers’ faces in their authors’ favorite shopping list of societal ills, and it’s generally a bad time for everyone involved. The author gets depressed from thinking about this constantly, the readers get depressed from reading about things they’re already experiencing, and then no one changes their thinking because all the people involved with the book signed on for an in-depth discussion of the socio-economic impact of the global marketplace on the employment prospects of Korean immigrants to Los Angeles MAKE IT STOP FOR SANITY’S SAKE STOP IT

I’ve never understood this. We’ve documentaries, ethnographies and exposes by the thousands, and some authors still seem desperate to force “real” suffering into their books. Why? Set against the  very flawed and very human subjects of works like Righteous Dopefiend and any one of a hundred documentaries on the Congo, realistic fiction conjures characters who are in every way less believable (because they’re not real people). When the heroin addicts in Righteous Dopefiend blithely inject heroin into lanced abcesses caused by injecting heroin, it’s tragic and disgusting and oh-so-raw because it’s real.

When Kit Miller gets high on LSD and cuts her wrists in Janet Morrison’s young adult novel Wrecked My Shit (warning: this entire example is fake), it comes across contrived and cynical. Kit Miller doesn’t really exist, even though she ostensibly lives in our world. When Janet explains in podcast interviews how these things happen to real people, a too-large part of my brain snarks back “Wonderful. How about I hear from one of these real people instead of you?” Janet then explains that she is such a real person, and I’m left wondering why this wasn’t just an autobiography.

But then there are all the gritty young-adult novels that cover the same material in a way that feels real. Their characters do seem like people, the kinds of people who I know have these struggles in reality, and it’s sobering to read them. Then I sigh, put down the book, and nothing changes. As good as it may be, the novel hasn’t really shaken up its presentation of the events I’m reading about. It mirrors reality very well, but it’s granted no new perspective.

The next day I pick up one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels, and around halfway through I have to go back a page because I realize she’s just made a commentary on gender identity. It came up naturally in connection with a hermaphrodite who’s been a major character for three books. In a completely fabricated universe, this comes across as the most natural thing. Of course a character who can be any gender at all would mention offhandedly that in its culture there’s nothing insulting about being called “it.” This is the future in a different star system, of course there’ll be these weird conversations.

It’s usually a few hours later, or occasionally a few days, that I’ll get to thinking more deeply about what I’ve picked up from that little passage. How the meaning we place on a pronoun matters as much as the meaning others give it, how easily the gender norms I take for granted could be blurred or blotted out by the march of time and technology. Even during my brief Republican phase (moving to The Whites, Whitesville, USA will do that to a friendless teen), fantasy and space opera served as a source of insurgent liberalism.

As much as I conformed to Conservative ideals in the classroom, and as ready as I was to defend my idiotic distortion of a worldview against “real world” sources, time and again I’d read something in genre fiction, agree with it because it was a different time and place, and realize when it was too late that I’d just been liberalized a little bit. All the tear-jerking biographies and the soulful documentaries and even the calm assertions of my parents didn’t do that. It took books that pulled me out of the world I knew to change my mind.

All of this sounds lovely. It’s also more than a little idealistic, and that’s because am overly idealistic. I’m not sure to what extent I was ever really Republican and to what extent I just wanted to make friends. I say real-world evidence didn’t change my views much, but honestly there was a serious dearth of it in high school. When I went to college for the first time and met a recovering drug-addict in the dorms and had to adjust to dozens of new people from vastly different walks of life, that’s what did it. Other humans were the deciding factor: that, and when I’m wrong I’ll admit it. It may take me a screaming fit of pure stupid and a day or two, but I’ll admit it and then I’ll change.

Genre fiction has molded my worldview significantly, but its influence is nothing on the experience of talking with other people. That brings me to this somewhat depressing conclusion: you’re not going to fix the world with a book. I do argue that genre fiction’s ability to defamiliarize ideas makes it a better medium for social debate that realistic fiction, which in this area has more limits than non-fiction and none of the same strengths. Even so, we’ll accomplish nothing by the written word. A book can’t confront a truly closed mind; films can’t draw in people who don’t want to see them, and I’m sorry but paintings and sculpture are by far the least helpful here. You think a violently racist homophobe is going to even look at that giant mirror-polished pyramid representing LGBT individuals from ethnic minorities? Fair enough, it’s shiny enough he might look, but damned if he’ll read the placard the artist put up.

Most social change doesn’t happen through art. It happens through people. Art can help to give the people who agree with you more ideas to draw on, so it’s by no means useless, but on its own it doesn’t have the power to change dissenting minds. Books have given me plenty to mull over, but it took other people to get me started mulling. Without all the fellow students and professors I’ve worked with in the last five years, no amount of enlightened reading would’ve budged my stubborn cerebrum in the slightest. Suppose you’re writing a piece about humanity’s first steps into galactic society.

You realize that you have a chance to talk about overpopulation through an avian species who have truly abandoned warfare. Excellent. That’ll help show your readers how many of humanity’s struggles are interwoven. No good place to talk about gender identity? Then don’t shoehorn it in there. That’s a worthy discussion to have, but if you ruin a good chapter with a forced speech about all love as equal then it wasn’t worth it. Your writing has to be good before it can convince anyone of anything, and even then nothing is guaranteed. Authors have made the same arguments about the equality of all humans and the evils of bias and bigotry over and over again for centuries. In exchange, we achieve a slow creep forward.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t address social issues, we absolutely should. By this, I mean that we absolutely should when the story we’ve written produces a good chance. All the time I spend talking about worldbuilding and detail isn’t just for aesthetics. A fully realized universe and set of characters will produce these issues naturally when the time is right, and that’s your best shot. When morals come up naturally, your readers will appreciate them as part of the story. No amount of flair will save you from preachiness, and here I’m speaking from experience.

If you just want to talk about social mores, just talk about social mores. When you promise your audience a rollicking steampunk adventure and then hand them a thirty-page lecture on diversity, even people who agree with you 100% are going to be put off. I feel I’ve had trouble explaining myself here, which is a bit pathetic after 1700 words, but here’s the gist: as a fiction writer you do have influence, but only when the time is right and even then only over some. So you have to be sure that you treat your social commentary as deftly and respectfully as possible. You don’t want to blunder into giving your opponents ammo against your cause, and it’d be even worse if you gave the people who agree with you the wrong idea.

Perhaps that’s the biggest concern of all. The relatively minor influence we have on people who disagree with us is completely counterbalanced by the overwhelming force our words have on our intellectual allies. You can’t be responsible for true fanatics, but you do have a responsibility to avoid creating them. If I seem like I’ve struggled here, it’s because I have. I’m trying to analyze the collective effect of literature and art on human ideology since before I was born. I’m simply not up to it, but I’ve done my best in any case. Maybe that’s why my message seems to shift so much; hell, maybe that is my message. “Do your best even if you’re not up for it.” Cliche but it’ll work. Besides, social change happens over such long periods of time and due to so many factors that I doubt an entire panel of geniuses could gauge it properly.

I guess we just wait on the AI Overlords to sort it out, then.


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