Social Commentary and the Kindle App

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?

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About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. My characters are pretty much always clamoring for attention in my head, and if I don't listen to them, they plague me with insane dreams and nightmares until I start writing. I also raise dairy goats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. My debut novel -- an alternate-history fantasy -- it set to come out in 2018, probably Fall time. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

4 responses to “Social Commentary and the Kindle App

  • mbone07

    I think there is a question of subgenre when it comes to the issues that are discussed in fiction writing. The trappings associated with the worlds that fit into a specific subgenre are better adept at exploring different thoughts and concepts. You can do different things in Scifi than you can with High Fantasy because the scope of things is different. Economics and ruling structures will look really different in a land with kings and close territories in comparison to world governments and massive industrial complexes.

    I think a lot of the commentary on society in fiction is in the ‘givens’ of the setting. Are the family associations based on the nuclear family, multigenerational families, etc. Are any fictional races treated with stereotypes and are those expectations pervasive through their culture? Assuming a modern, mundane setting what character traits are exemplified and lauded? An author can present an argument about a social construct simply by including or removing it from their setting.

    As a last thought in this ramble, I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong way to comment on society. There are different degrees of being polite about it. There are approaches that are going to be more compelling or more likely to be accepted by the public discourse. You could make a case that an organization like the Westboro Baptist Church is making a stance on social issues even if their message is rejected by a large portion of the population. You can attempt to present an opinion on society in anyway you want, but the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are going to be influenced by a long history of decisions and opinions that are varied between economic/generational/lifestyle boundaries.

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    • aspirationsofflight

      Ohhh you have several good points here. I hadn’t been thinking so much about how different genres convey different kinds of commentary better than others, but that’s very true. It also seems nearly impossible to really separate our own history and socialization from what we were trying to convey; though that might would work out considering we’re probably trying to convey what we know. I wonder if, continuing with Jungian theory, people will become upset or disinterested by ideas that are “outside” the current social consciousness that an individual lives in…for example, the social consciousness of a different culture, dealing with different things.

      The degrees of being polite is an interesting idea. I was reading comments on another blog debating the pros and cons of using a pseudonym in a world where a writer often has to have another job to make a living, and how what you write can result in you being fired if your boss takes offense. Someone commented that “he” just walks a fine line and attempts to be as polite as possible without compromising the idea he’s trying to get across. I think I might end up being in this camp – but there is a decent part of me that thinks some messages have to be portrayed pretty harshly (at least at first) in order to get attention from an apathetic world.

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      • Doomfunk

        I could see disinterested being more accurate in that regard. For example, the continuing conflict in the middle east. It has had a psychic weight to the general American populace to varying degrees as focus has shifted too and from the region. When the government draws attention to it via announcement of plans for the region and when local news in the area becomes relevant to the American populace such as with the workings of ISIS pop up, it reenters the social consciousness and collects psychic weight. When events are, for lack of better phrasing, at the perceived norm for the region the attention of the American populace shifts to more immediately relevant interests. It becomes a zero sum game of social awareness.

        I did take a refugee lit class while I was at PSU which explored that ‘outside’ space of social consideration. That outside space dehumanizes those in it. There is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights put forth by the United Nations but ultimately there is a lack of power to enforce those rights. Without power to enforce the UDHR, it really leaves it in the hands of regional government to do so but that sort of thing takes resources. The process to return to the identity of a citizen in comparison to a refugee quickly becomes a resource and connection game as well. My grandmother was a refugee who had to flee Spain following the Spanish Civil War and fled to France. She then had to flee France because of the rise of WW2. The biggest reason that she was able to come to the US is because she already had family over here that she could stay with. I’ve seen the ship manifesto for when she landed on Ellis Island and there wasn’t a single person on that listing that wasn’t educated. The vast majority of them were also in professions that were white collar. Doctors, physicians, engineers, merchants, and teachers. There were a few house wives listed as well which I would assume were joining family that had gone ahead.

        I would argue that there are indeed some messages that do have to be depicted in a harsh fashion, but even then what does that harshness invoke? Is it because it is a call to emotion? Is the messenger trying to shame the listener into their way of thinking? Is the messenger just laying it out like it is because of ignorance? Is it because the messenger has new information that has somehow escaped the world but now, with this information, can bring light into a dark place? Persuasive speech and the harshness of the message are tools that create certain effects that work on certain receiving groups. As it currently stands, there are no truth and beauty bombs.

        Also, don’t mind the change in handle. Part of my ongoing cleaning up and unifying of my online presence. And I blame you for any further attempts at blogging since it’s regained psychic weight as we’ve discussed it.

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  • Do Writers Have Unconscious Telepathy? | Aspirations of Flight

    […] I started wondering about the idea of a social consciousness. If you’ve read my posts before (here!), you know that I’m rather a believer in the Jungian idea that society works out it’s […]

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