Let’s not sugar-coat it – the world is a ball of flaming rubbish right now. There’s the largest war in Europe since the 1940s, climate change is already causing havoc, and the rights of women and minorities are constantly being pooped on.
Since writers are a passionate bunch, we often feel strongly about social issues. And since we’re an egocentric bunch, we often feel like it’s up to us to solve the world’s problems. Lately, I’ve read a lot of fiction that engages deeply with social issues, and I feel like it can be divided into two broad but distinctive categories: Activism and Exorcism.
Activist fiction presents a shitty situation and says explicitly “This is not OK and we need to fight against it”. It often acts as a vehicle for the writer’s ideas about how to change things, and behaviour change in the reader may be a goal of the writer.
This type of fiction is more likely to name problems – it doesn’t shy away from words like “bigotry” or “privilege”. Characters engaging in harmful behaviour are more likely to be punished, or at least told off (or “called out” as the kids say). Activist fiction is also more likely to present potential solutions to problems.
An example would be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It’s also easy to find indie books that fit into this category, perhaps because profit-driven traditional publishers are more likely to shy away from overtly “political” books, while small presses and self-publishers can take more risks.
When done well, activist fiction can be genuinely empowering. As well as getting readers fired up, it can give valuable guidance on how to tackle problems. When done badly it can come across as preachy, or seem naïve if it presents overly simplified solutions as the key to solving all our problems.
There are activists and there are exorcists. Exorcist writers, rather than guiding readers on how to fight against injustice, are purging their own demons by putting their thoughts and feelings about an issue onto the page. Their aim is not to guide readers on how to think or act, but simply to bear witness to what’s happening in the world.
This type of fiction often explores social issues rather than tackling them head-on within the plot. There may be more moral ambiguity, with the protagonist experiencing different sides of a situation. Solutions to problems are likely to be incomplete or flawed. Exorcist writers tend to embrace the mess.
An example of exorcist fiction would be The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Though it’s beloved by feminist activists, this is a book about the system rather than fighting the system. Offred is an observer, recording the atrocities that surround her as she tries to survive.
When done well, this type of fiction can have a lot of power. By letting readers come to their own conclusions, it’s more likely to reach people across the political spectrum and those who are resistant to engaging with social issues. When done badly, it’s just bloody depressing – presenting a terrible situation with no clear path out of it.
Confessions of an exorcist
Although I read and admire many activist writers, I place myself firmly in the exorcist camp. I’m not well-educated enough on most social issues to confidently tell readers what to change and how to change it. I’m content with this and don’t feel any pressure to write more like an activist, as I believe the world needs both types of books.
However, recognising my style does raise certain questions that I need to consider. For example, am I “normalising” harmful behaviour if I present it in fiction without it being challenged? How can I hand power back to marginalised characters in ways that are believable?
Like most of us, I’m still figuring it out and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you’re a writer, would you consider yourself an activist, an exorcist, neither or both? And if you’re a reader, what do you prefer to read?