Can a story really change the world? Does a novel impact its reader’s life? Does what we write really matter?
These are questions we talk about at StoryStudio and ones I personally think about a lot.
Most of our conversations are focused on finding and telling the best story we can—no matter what that story is about or who will be reading it. Fiction by definition is “prose that describes imaginary events and people.” Hmm, if we think about it like that, it makes our writing seem more like our imaginary friend under the bed than an important story that elicits emotion and thought, and perhaps even action.
I must admit that when I first started writing fiction, “making it matter” was the last thing on my mind. More pressing was, “is it any good?” But once a writer builds the confidence she needs to realize that her ideas, her characters, and the questions she’s asking are valid, then a larger question emerges:
What, if any, is the responsibility of an author to use fiction to fight social injustice?
In light of the horrific murders in Orlando, the uncoated racism of Donald Trump, and the frank discussions we have all been having about the direction our country is taking, as writers we must ask what our responsibilities are. Must we write stories with the intent of fomenting positive social change? Do we value an Agatha Christie murder mystery less than, say, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
If we judge books solely on their subject matter, then perhaps some of us would value a book about racial prejudice more than books featuring polite poisonings in quaint British villages.
I do not.
Stories matter. Period. Whether for entertainment, education, incitement to action, or if the writer is politically motivated or emotionally overwrought, or even if a story is born from a game of words, all of our stories matter.
But I also believe that, due to the potent nature of a story and the power of a story well told, there is an important opportunity here. It is to use our skills as storytellers to help change the world.
There is a concept in contemporary Judaism: Tikkun Olam. It roughly translates to “heal the world.” The philosophy behind this phrase is that we must contribute acts of kindness to the world, in order to heal it (and some would say, to heal ourselves).
An act of kindness may be as simple as helping a neighbor carry in the groceries. In a broader sense though, this “act of kindness” can also be read as a responsibility to contribute what we can to our world. For us writers, this means using our skills and our passion to bring to light the stories of underrepresented people and issues.
There is no disputing that Agatha Christie was the master of the murder mystery. While she didn’t invent the genre (Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins did that), she certainly perfected it, earning the moniker The Queen of Crime. Her stories and her characters are great fun and no one can think of her Detective Hercule Poirot without saying it with a fake French accent.
Christie’s novels succeed because they engage our brains so thoroughly. We devour every fact and roll each innuendo around and around until we are sure who done it. Christie teaches us how to interpret a story’s details and inferences to solve a puzzle. We are a part of the conversation.
As an old teacher of mine used to say, the reader has to do some work.
Novels have readers work in many ways. Some novels require great imagination, such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. And still other novels require us to visit a time or place that somehow changed the course of history, such as Amitav Gosh’s Sea of Poppies.
But if readers are to do their work, then it’s up to writers to open up new lines of inquiry. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Jungle to Cry, The Beloved Country, to The Poisonwood Bible, fiction writers have used the power of story to change the conversation. The authors who wrote these books weren’t just telling a character’s personal story; they were forcing us to ask big questions. And that, in my opinion, is the mark of great writing.
Novelists don’t always know what chord or rumble or zeitgeist they might engage. That’s the potency of affecting social change through fiction: it doesn’t necessarily matter what the author intended. What’s important is the transfer of knowledge and power that jumps from the page to the reader.
I don’t mean to suggest that every novel must engage us on a social issue. But writing is a great tool, some might even say it’s a powerful weapon.
In times like these, we ask ourselves what we can do to make a difference. For a writer the answer may be easy: we must write about our worlds and how to heal them.