Monday, 13 March 2017

Writers as Social Activists

While some may argue about whether or not writers should engage in activism, I believe that whether we want to or not, we already do.

Jane Goodall put it beautifully: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What we write to entertain people probably has a greater impact than most people's daily lives, so our responsibility to decide "what kind of difference [we] want to make" is greater.

Sometimes it can be very difficult to choose a cause. We have starving children, tortured dogs, mass shootings, police shootings, child brides, genital mutilation, honor killings, slavery, suicide bombings and a dozen other horrific situations, each of which is bad enough to make any decent human being want to drop everything and go rescue the victims.

If we choose a cause that is already well-publicized, then our job as activist-writers is to cut through the paralyzing "there's nothing I can do" mentality that pervades our culture. We can emphasize practical, reasonable, sustainable ways that everyday readers can help.

In other cases, public awareness is a worthy goal. Most grocery shoppers had no idea how dangerous the meatpacking industry was before Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1905. I personally became aware that slavery is still a problem in America through Peter C. Bradbury's 2013 novel The Innocent Children.

I think the greatest challenge comes when a cause is well-publicized but the real-life villains creating the suffering have managed to capture public sympathy. For example, if you could write a book and go back in time and publish it in Germany, how would you attempt to prevent Kristallnacht? Similar problems abound in our own time, so the question of how to open the eyes of everyday readers is an important one.

I think it's useless to try to change people's minds. People who are easily swayed are not the ones we want to reach, because they'll change their minds back again as soon as they turn on the TV. Here are some tips I've picked up from reading some effective--and not so effective--activist fiction:
  • Don't preach. If your novel is a soapbox, then it's not a novel. Wayne Dyer's Gifts from Eykis may make some excellent points, but it's an entertainment flop. It sells because he already had a following from his nonfiction books, which means he's preaching to the choir.
  • Educate. Use your fiction to introduce readers to new situations and perspectives or ones they may not otherwise think about. Show them what life is like for those affected. But don't be melodramatic or exaggerate. Do your research and create an accurate portrayal, or your efforts could backfire. If there's more than one side to an issue (and there almost always is), use subplots to show them fairly.
  • Your book can be about the cause. Next by Michael Crichton is about gene-related ethics. It's a gripping novel and a powerful argument for his position on the issue. Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to write about losing a child, but Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced her and many others to make a stand against slavery.
  • But it doesn't have to be. M. Joseph Murphy's books fight anti-LGBT stereotypes simply by
    including very relatable non-straight characters in a genre where, even now, that just isn't done. Four or five books about what it's like to be gay probably wouldn't have the same impact.
  • Ask questions. In my opinion, the highest compliment a reader can give me is "Your writing made me think." Change, as the Buddhists so eloquently remind us, must come from within. No matter how much we want to, we cannot make the world better by changing even one person's mind. But we can start a dialogue. We can bring up questions that inspire people to think.