I’ve always been fascinated by social and political commentary. Right now I’m (finally) starting up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, after staring at it on my shelf for much too long while thinking that “I really should read that.”
I blame college. I mean, really – why must it be so difficult to actually read a good book? Okay, sure, going to college full time and working 25 – 35 hours a week really sucks up the time. But trying so hard not to start reading books often resulted in me breaking down at 11 at night in a moment of weakness and buying the $1.99 book excitedly advertised by Amazon or an author I follow on Facebook. This was often coupled with the “just one chapter” promise to myself that was thrown out the window by chapter three. Instead of stumbling into work or class the next day sleep deprived and hung over, I would stumble into work or class the next day sleep deprived and emotionally traumatized from whatever I’d read last night.
Seriously, the Kindle app for Android was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Damn you innovation for successfully catering to my desires and getting me to buy stuff even when I shouldn’t.
(Sometimes my behavior reminded me of an addict’s. Oops.)
The point of this little rabbit trail of thought here is that I’m finally getting around to reading all those touted classics and dark social commentaries that I’ve been wanting to read since forever. In my moments of buying weakness, I can’t really say that a majority of the books I bought really required a high degree of, er, mental engagement. Good for me in that I could whip through them really fast and then actually get a few hours of sleep, bad in that it wasn’t exactly improving my writing.
Here I am starting to sound like a book snob.
Truth is, I probably am – not that you could tell that from my bookshelf and Amazon account. But I also want to mention something else: the Jungian idea that all literature in some way has a part of society it’s commenting on. This perspective basically believes that literature is society as a whole trying to work out its problems or issues that it’s struggling with. This idea completely fascinates me. If you pay attention, it becomes obvious that particular ideas or themes will seize the consciousness of the contemporary world of literature and own it for a while. Basically all this means that fiction is just a reflection of the “real world,” morphing as we as a culture morph, influencing and in return being influenced.
So, in essence, maybe all of us writers are really social commentators in some way or another. Or just a giant mob of disjointed thought trying to work out our issues. Either way.
Maybe not always, but I’ve almost always wanted to write novels with the aim of teaching people something. I can’t help but be frustrated and discouraged by the lack of intelligence and knowledge displayed by most of my generation (and even others not of my generation). Not only because it’s irritating, but there’s definitely something to the whole idea that democracy only works when you have a well-informed public.
My eventual solution to this was to teach people something in a way that they would want to hear it – through entertainment. Coupled with the fact that I couldn’t stop writing, it seemed the perfect plan.
(This idea is probably backfiring on me now since apparently no one reads anymore.)
It’s pretty easy to piss people off even when discussing the “classic” social commentary issues – feminism, racism, class hierarchy, etc. But perhaps that’s the whole point: literature doesn’t need to be perfect or completely correct, it’s how we struggle with ideas and issues and spark debate and mull over complicated subjects and build some sort of idea of what’s right, wrong, up, down, and sideways. Is there a “right” way to comment on society when there is some truth or lesson to be found in almost anything?
What are your thoughts on social commentary in literature? Is there a thread of thought what we as a society are working out, conscious or unconscious as it may be? Or is most (fiction) writing out there primarily for entertainment?