Social Issues in Fiction: Activism vs Exorcism

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?

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – Renaissance Reader

Woop woop, I met my goal of 10 historical fiction books this year, which means I’ve reached the “Renaissance Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The five hist fic books I read since my last reading challenge post are:


True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

I picked up this book after enjoying the film adaptation. While I’m well aware that THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER, I must admit that it took a while for me to warm up to this book about the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

It’s written in long, rambling sentences to reflect Ned Kelly’s lack of formal education, and this distinctive style means it’s not always a smooth read. It’s also difficult to discern the thoughts and motivations of other characters since the reader is kept totally in Ned’s head. Luckily it has enough action, humour and Huck Finn-ish charm to reward perseverance.

Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

Another historical novel based on true events – this one follows a teenage pickpocket as he ends up on HMS Bounty before the infamous mutiny. John Jacob Turnstile is spirited, funny, complex, and generally great company. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the rest of the characters.

JJT gets bullied relentlessly by the uppity crew of the Bounty, which makes for depressing reading. But arguably the biggest stumbling block in this novel is the portrayal of Captain Bligh – I couldn’t understand JJT’s loyalty to him because he seems like kind of an arsehole. Judging by the mutiny, his crew would agree!

Sailing by Orion’s Star by Katie Crabb

Nautical setting aside, this was a very different read to Mutiny on the Bounty. Rather than a typical swashbuckler, it’s a story about found-family that follows a diverse group of characters as they deal with the restrictions society has placed on them. Some lose their way, while others rebel in spectacular fashion.

The writing is sometimes overwrought, but hopefully this will be less of an issue in the second and third parts of the trilogy, as Crabb gains confidence in her characters and the relationships between them. The story is so genuinely affecting that there’s no need to over-egg the pudding.  

The Pup and the Pianist by Sara Kjeldsen

A pattern emerges! Nautical fiction might seem a bit niche, but I don’t see how anyone can resist a book with a beautiful old ship on the front cover, beckoning the reader to run away to sea.

In less than 100 pages, Kjeldsen crafts an intimate epic of war, young love, and the struggle to survive, as an English boy and a French boy find themselves washed up on The Galapagos islands. An uneasy alliance eventually softens into a tentative romance, but don’t go expecting a happily ever after.

The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is such a well-known historical fiction writer that I was expecting to be blown away by this. Objectively speaking, I can see what all the fuss is about. The historical detail is rich, the pacing is exemplary and the court intrigue is, well, intriguing.

Subjectively speaking, I think there are two reasons why this book didn’t wow me. The first is my squeamishness with all the “wooing” of adolescent girls by grown men. The second is that the central characters are so well known, the author’s personal interpretation of them can be a little jarring.

Like most English schoolkids, I learnt of “Bloody Mary”, burning Protestants at the stake, and “the Virgin Queen” ruling England well and wisely. So it was odd to see Mary presented as a sympathetic character and Elizabeth presented as a scheming flirt. In future, I’ll go for hist fic books about invented characters, or ones I can’t remember from history lessons.

Have you read any of these? And what hist fic books would you recommend?

A Sneak Peek for “16 Flavours of Ghost”

Here is a little sneak peek of my new poetry chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost.


The Ghost with a Thousand Suits

Workdays: Dark grey suit, wool tie

Weekends: Cords, jumpers, jeans

After I died, I decided to get a piercing.

Set my heart on a big, Roman nose with a ring

through the right nostril.

Slipped into that youngster and wriggled

his fingers. His skin was like soft leather gloves.

Maybe it should’ve felt wrong

to push my face into the mask of his skull

and peep out, but I did it anyway.

My new nose caught the light.

I went to bars I’d always avoided

and moved through the crowd,

body to body, borrowing

tattoos of tigers

hair in great spikes and waves

black nail polish


Each outfit had something new –

an unfamiliar ache, itch, gravity.

A way of being looked at.

A way of growing, shrinking, swelling, tensing

under different pairs of eyes.

Now and then, I take a moment

to dance badly in booze-laced flesh.

I am sweat-drenched, ecstatic.

I have never been or seen so much beautiful.


I hope you enjoyed that. Many of my ghosties are pretty much the same person in death that they were in life, but I also liked the idea of someone being liberated to try things they’d always feared – in this case, experimenting with appearance and perhaps exploring gender identity.

If you would like to read more about the post-death shenanigans of my sixteen spooks, I am selling chapbooks to anyone with a UK address for £8 (postage included). You can message me on Twitter @corastillwrites if you’re interested.   

My Poetry Chapbook “16 Flavours of Ghost” is Published

You may remember that back in May, I was cautiously excited about having my chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost published by Lapwing Publications. The big day has arrived and my ghosties are now out in the world!

If you fancy reading a lovingly crafted collection of character poems about a spirited (sorry) bunch of dead people, you’re in the right place. ‘Super Ghost’, ‘Glitter Ghost’, ‘Thief Ghost’ and all the others are eager to meet you and share their stories of life, death, and life after death.

I have some author copies, so if you are in the UK and would like to buy a copy for £8 (postage and packaging included), you can message me on Twitter @corastillwrites.  

Ranking the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ Novels from Worst to Best

Disclaimer 1: I’ve only included the Anne of… books, and not Rainbow Valley or Rilla of Ingleside, since these are more focussed on Anne’s kids.

Disclaimer 2: This ranking is based on the musings of a fannegirl (me) rather than a thoughtful exploration of literary merit.

Disclaimer 3: SPOILERS AHEAD!

#6 – Anne of Ingleside

The sixth book is going straight in at sixth place, because unfortunately Anne has become a bit boring. She’s sniffy about who her kids hang out with, she pities women who don’t have children, and she doesn’t write anymore. She has become, in the words of Bridget Jones, a “smug married”.

So maybe it’s a good thing that the book spends so much time focussing on Anne’s children, who are every bit as prone to dramas and misadventures as Anne once was. Another thing that bothers me, however, is the absence of true friendship in the book. There’s a lot of focus on how much nicer Anne’s kids are than other kids.

#5 – Anne of Avonlea

I have no real gripes about Anne of Avonlea, but I do find it one of the less memorable books in the series. Anne works as a teacher at her local school before going to college, and there’s a pleasantly wistful sense of a girl who’s all grown up, but hasn’t yet ventured out into the world.

#4 – Anne of Windy Poplars

By modern standards, Anne seems ridiculously young and underqualified to be the Principal of a school, but this is rural Canada in the early 20th century so maybe the schools have, like, 30 pupils. Anyway, Anne throws her heart and soul into her work like she does everything else.

This book employs a familiar but charming narrative device of having part of Anne’s story told through letters to her fiancé, Gilbert Blythe. The letters veer from matter-of-fact, to poetic, to a wee bit risqué!

#3 – Anne of the Island

Friendship is one of the central themes of this series, so it’s a joy to watch Anne go to college and live happily (but sometimes chaotically) with three other girls. Her new friend Phil is one of my favourite characters because she is simultaneously a genius and an airhead. Also, Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde don’t need no men and are raising twins together.

#2 – Anne of Green Gables

The one that started it all by introducing readers to the imaginative young girl sent to live at Green Gables. This is Anne with her rough edges intact – hot-tempered, stormy-souled, and always making mistakes.

The first book also introduces a number of themes that run throughout the series, such as embracing the natural world, and finding love in unconventional families (Anne is raised by siblings who basically adopt her by accident).

#1 – Anne’s House of Dreams

My favourite book in the series was a delightful surprise because I thought it would be my least favourite. As a woman who doesn’t want marriage or babies, I thought this would be the point at which I lost interest. But Anne’s newlywed happiness is the genuine, giddy, infectious kind, and when tragedy strikes it hits like a sledgehammer.

This book also has something that none of the other books have – an absolutely batshit, telenovela-worthy subplot involving a friend’s unhappy marriage and a dude getting a hole drilled in his skull. You have to read it to believe it.

So there’s my personal ranking of the Anne books. Feel free to disagree, agree, rant or rave in the comments!

Poem – ‘Hold On’

It’s the middle of summer and I’ve just enjoyed a solid week of gale-force winds and heavy rain. So here is a poem about the depths of winter.

Hold On

There’s a cookfire burning somewhere

under this dirty fleece of snow.

We ration, we nibble each brief, bitter day.

We chip our teeth on icicles

and the long dark dries to swallow

our inedible stories.

The sky is full of bright snakes,

striking at cheeks and hands, fangs

filled with a soft death.

Old scars burst.

Fine limbs waste.

But under the tarn’s lid of ice

we hear all the elves of spring singing.

Summer lives in the sweat

of splitting wood.

Sometimes our very bones glow,

sending sparks to our eyes

and heat to the tips

of our fingers, to be passed

to those who need it.

Why We Need Stories About Queer Friendship

LGBT+ romance is, thankfully, becoming more mainstream in fiction. But when it comes to stories about besties having adventures together, queer people are frequently side-lined. We’re often shoehorned into the role of the straight protagonist’s “gay best friend” rather than having our friendships with other queer people explored and celebrated.

Why exactly does this matter? I can think of three reasons immediately, but I’ve no doubt there’s a million more. Add them in the comments if you think of any!

We need more than one type of Happily Ever After

Historically speaking, LGBT+ characters in mainstream fiction have not been a happy breed. These characters were likely to wrestle with angst about their identity, face a lot of ugly prejudice, and possibly die an early, tragic death.

Queer romance provides an uplifting, light-hearted antidote to all this. But if the only happy stories about LGBT+ people are romances, this implies that the only way to be happy as a queer person is through romantic partnership.

Plenty of LGBT+ people prefer to remain single, and those of us who aren’t interested in traditional monogamy deserve HEAs too! Love that comes from acceptance and belonging is just as important as love that comes from attraction, and should be celebrated just as much.

It’s an opportunity to celebrate queer culture

If you’ve ever been to Pride, watched a drag show, or spent any time in queer spaces online, you’ll already know that LGBT+ culture is vibrant, diverse, and generally awesome. But when queer characters are shoved into the “gay best friend” role, this culture is often presented in a cartoonish way, or completely ignored.

Queer culture comes from groups of LGBT+ friends hanging out, having fun, and getting creative together. Stories about queer friendship are an ideal way to embrace and celebrate this culture in all its colourful glory.  

It’s a way of combatting myths and prejudice

Because queer friendship is under-explored in the mainstream media, it tends to be poorly understood. This leads to a bunch of myths and misconceptions. Some are old and tiresome, like the idea that gay men can’t love each other platonically. Others are new and dangerous, like the idea that trans teenagers are peer-pressuring their friends into transitioning.

Friendships among LGBT+ people can be as complicated and full of drama as any straight friendship. But most queer people – particularly those without supportive families – view their friendships as a crucial source of love, understanding and happiness. By recognising this in fiction, we can help challenge bigoted narratives.

If you’re keen to dive in to books that centre queer friendships, here’s a list to get started with. And if you have any recommendations of your own, please leave them in the comments. Happy reading and happy Pride month!

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – Victorian Reader

I’ve read five historical fiction books so far this year, which means I’ve reached the “Victorian Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The three that I’ve read since my last reading challenge post are…

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

Yes, it’s a YA horror novel, but it also counts as historical fiction since it was published in 2002 and it’s set in the early 1970s (judging by the references to the Vietnam war, bell bottoms, and Cat Stevens).

If you start this novel expecting a sapphic Twilight, you’ll be in for a surprise. It’s more like The Bell Jar with a supernatural twist. It takes a deep-dive into the mind of an intelligent, troubled girl, and explores her obsession with a classmate whom she suspects of being a vampire.

It’s intense, thoughtful, occasionally over-intellectual, and it wholeheartedly embraces ambiguity. Is Ernessa really a vampire? Is the narrator having a nervous breakdown? Is she in love with her best friend? Every question is thoroughly explored, but never truly answered, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school.

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

This “remix” of Little Women (Authors are always remixing and retelling and reimagining, and never admit that they are literally publishing fanfiction) imagines the March sisters as four newly emancipated Black girls in the colony of Roanoke, North Carolina. The civil war is raging around them, and they are determined to build lives of their own making.

Being a white girl from Britain, I’m pretty clueless about African American history, and this was an eye-opener for sure. Racism and the after-effects of slavery impact every aspect of the girls’ lives, from Bethlehem’s health to Joanna’s writing career. This makes for a very different story to Little Women, as the “burdens” the girls carry are external rather than internal.

It’s not a perfect book. The male characters are thinly drawn, and a few inevitable anachronisms creep in. But it’s full of love and rage, and a true celebration of sisterhood. Two more things I loved:

1. Joanna’s portrayal as asexual/aromantic. These words aren’t used of course, but it’s made clear in conversation with Meg and in her relationship with Lori. As an aro-ace woman I usually have to seek out representation, but to find it right there waiting for me in a character I’ve always identified with felt like a gift.

2. The last line. OMG, you’re gonna cry (happy tears).

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Edie, this starts out as an evocative, unsentimental picture of life in rural England in the 1930s. It’s also a comedy of manners, with city slicker Connie being entertainingly clueless about the realities of rural life.

But about halfway through it becomes something different and more unsettling. People who seemed harmless are suddenly a genuine threat. Quaint traditions like witch bottles take on a new significance.

Maybe it’s just because I read the two close together, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities with The Moth Diaries. Once again, the protagonist is a thoughtful teenage girl of ambiguous sexuality and wobbly mental health. Once again, the lines between natural and supernatural blur. And once again, antisemitism rears its ugly head.

So, quite by accident I’ve ended up reading three female-focussed coming-of-age stories. I feel like I should balance it out with some stories about old dudes. If you have any historical fiction recs where the protagonist is an elderly gent, please leave them in the comments!

Hello to New Work, Goodbye to Old Work

Guys guys guys I have exciting news! My chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost is going to be published by Lapwing Publications – a Belfast-based publisher that specialises in poetry. No idea when it’ll be available yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

16 Flavours of Ghost is made up of “character poems”. Each one is from the perspective of a different character, and while they’re pretty diverse in terms of background, occupation and identity, they one thing they have in common is that they’re all dead.

These ghosts are a spirited bunch (see what I did there?) who each deal with the afterlife in their own way. A busy woman develops a new relationship with time, a thief takes advantage of his invisibility, and an elderly man finally lets himself experiment with his appearance.

As thrilled as I am to be getting published by Lapwing, there’s a note of caution mixed in with the excitement. Last year, Dancing Girl Press published my chapbook Monster Hunting for Girls (Ages 8-14). I didn’t receive my author copies, and people who tried to buy it told me of ridiculously long waits and receiving copies with printing errors.

I hoped this was a temporary blip. It’s not easy running a small press, and rough patches happen, but other poets and purchasers have confirmed that the press just isn’t functioning adequately. I’ve taken the chapbook off my “Published Work” page and won’t be encouraging people to buy it anymore, because I don’t want readers wasting their money.

I’ve also had to take my novella The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg off the Published Work page, as it can no longer be accessed. The online magazine it was published in, The Fantasist, is now defunct and links to the stories no longer work. It’s a bummer to have one of my longer works disappear like that.

This is one of the issues writers encounter when publishing with small presses. Sadly, not all of these presses thrive. Still, large publishers and self-publishing have pitfalls of their own, and I’ve come to accept that there’s no easy way of getting your work out there.

Onwards and upwards my lovelies! I’m excited to see my new chapbook in print, and I’m keen to hear what’s going on in your writing journeys. Feel free to share any writing news – good or bad, big or small – in the comments.