From Imagination to Action: Can Fiction Be a Vehicle for Social Change?

Article excerpt

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. …