Should Books Be Written on Soapboxes: Social Responsibility & Literature

As someone raised in the Midwest, I learned at a young age not to discuss sex, politics, or religion. While I’ll gab about the former with the right people (and after a glass or two of red wine!), I tend to avoid politics and religion. From a cultural standpoint, I learned by example that discussing these issues seems pointless and sometimes rude. How can I, as one little person, cause any real change in the world? Why waste my time trying to alter someone’s mind on such divisive topics? What does someone’s political affiliation or religious beliefs matter if they’re a good person?

protestFrom a personal standpoint, I feel I have no right to discuss these issues. Since I don’t have a political or religious association of any kind, who would take me seriously? How can I ensure the information I learn is even factual? And, given how much I hate conflict, why open myself up it?

However, with the current state of the world, politics and religion are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. And perhaps rightly so. Between the radical propositions made by President Trump, Alt-Right/Nazi rallies (a phrase I never thought I’d type in present-day context), and devastating climactic events, politics and religion arise in nearly every conversation. And as I sit there, mouth clamped tightly shut while friends and family members rattle off their views and theories, I have a realization.

While I don’t often voice my views on contentious issues, I’ve written them into my books.

In the Desertera series, I’ve woven in several topics I care strongly about — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. I advocate for a positive view of female (and all) sexuality. I grapple with the de-criminalization of prostitution (an issue I’m still uncertain about). I support homosexuality by making it a non-issue in society (except for where it prevents the nobles from having biological heirs). I condemn classism and social stratification. And, especially in the final books of the series, I’ll warn the reader about climate change.

Listed bluntly like this, I marvel at my boldness. I do have opinions — quite a few that would shock my fellow Midwesterners — but I’ve made them more palatable, I hope, by lacing them in fiction. And I’m not alone. Not by a long shot.

Most of the literary fiction I studied in college contained moral or political messages for the reader. Many of my author friends use their writing to advocate for causes or social issues. Hell, Science Fiction as a genre basically serves as a warning from the future (it’s one of the reasons I’ve always been attracted to it). You’ll find the same agendas in nearly every form of artwork at nearly every stage in history.

This brings me to the crux of this article: As an author, do you feel a social responsibility to stand on your “soapbox” in your writing? And as a reader, how do you feel when authors “preach” a message within a novel?

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer.

On one hand, inserting your views into fiction can be a noble endeavor. It gives readers with similar views a safe place in entertainment. It allows readers with different views a chance to consider a new perspective without being personally attacked. And it offers you, as the author, to remain at arm’s length from the topic.

On the other hand, shouldn’t fiction just be fiction? In a world where the news constantly showers us with depressing topics, our social media feeds fill with contention, and our dinner table conversations get usurped by arguments, we need a break. Isn’t it just as noble for books to offer pure entertainment and unbiased escape?

I go back and forth on this issue a lot.

As a writer, I do feel an obligation to make my fiction meaningful. Though, I don’t always agree with myself about what is “meaningful.” Sometimes, I want to use my fiction as a platform. Other times, I just want to offer my reader that innocent escape.

Same goes for when I’m reading a novel. Mostly, I appreciate when an author attempts to make me think deeper — so long as she writes in way that feels respectful to me and doesn’t belabor her point. Though, other times, even the slightest hint of an agenda will make me cringe and wonder, “Why can’t I just enjoy this story for the story’s sake?!”

Maybe it’s about choosing which type of author you want to be, or which type of writing is right for each particular story. Maybe it’s about knowing what your ideal reader expects. Maybe it’s about striking a balance between theme and entertainment. Maybe it’s about being sneakier, having your cake and eating it without the reader even noticing you baked it.

My specific answer keeps changing, based on whether I’m writing or reading, the story itself, the mood I’m in, even the day (it’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on 9/11). But my politically correct, moderate, agnostic answer remains the same: as long as the author respects the story and the reader, that’s what matters most, soapbox or not.


What do you think? Do authors have a responsibility to advocate for their political/religious views in their fiction? As a reader, do you expect a “message” from the author, or are you only looking for entertainment? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

 

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10 thoughts on “Should Books Be Written on Soapboxes: Social Responsibility & Literature

  1. R. J. Nello says:

    Great post! I feel all fiction must take from life somehow. Writers cannot duck social and political questions entirely because to try to do so makes their fiction, I feel, come across as timid and unrealistic. That said, most readers naturally don’t care about our personal opinions; and in writing I tend to see mine not as mine anyway, but as those of the characters offered as need be within the story. Overall any social/political statements – whether overt or subtle – should I feel slot in neatly and conform to the tenor of the tale. If you come across as mounting a soapbox simply to mouth your views, that will turn off quite a few readers. They don’t need that, or want that, from us. My goal is to lead readers to think and to entertain, not to try to compose a political pamphlet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate M. Colby says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts! I hadn’t considered how our characters’ opinions might convey statements of their own, and I wonder what other writers would have to add to that idea. I definitely agree that writers should never sound “preachy” with any social/political statements (whether they be their opinions or their characters’ opinions). Also, your comment about reader expectations really speaks to my internal (now external) debate. It seems most writers feel an imperative to make statements with their fiction, but do our readers actually care or expect us to do so? Maybe we’ll get a non-writer to weigh in later! Lol

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Whitney says:

    In light of recent–horrible–events, most admirable writers have told their followers that one way to combat hate, discrimination, fear, and ignorance is to pour your thoughts and stances into writing, so right now, I’m totally fine with people putting their two cents into their novels. I agree it should be done in a encouraging and empowering way, rather than pretentious and preachy.

    I think you handle this topic very well, and it’s something I want to include in my writing, too. Sheesh, if Nazis get to scream about their freedom to proclaim their love for white supremacy and white washing this nation, I should be allowed to call their bullshit in my fantasy novels. I’m past the point of being dainty and polite, as you can imagine. 😉

    I also think we have an issue with tone policing that makes it hard for people of color to express their opinions and relay facts about racism. It seems like if you’re a white conservative (at least the noticeably bad ones online), you can denounce what people are saying because they’re “angry,” “divisive,” “bold,” or “loud.” It’s the false notion that people will listen to you if you present the facts in a lovely package with winks, sugar, and throwing yourself under the bus.

    I think you largely agree with me, so I’m not attacking you, but I’m definitely passionate about voice and representation. In our fears of not wanting to offend our readers or followers, we (generally white, privileged people) indirectly tell minorities and oppressed groups not to speak at all. And that’s something I won’t allow any longer.

    Like

    • Kate M. Colby says:

      Ah, Whitney, I was hoping you’d chime in! I have so much respect and admiration for your passion and advocacy. Don’t worry: I do agree with you, for the most part, and don’t feel attacked at all. I admit I’ve been worried about offending readers in the past, but as events escalate around the world and I’ve grown more comfortable with my own beliefs, I’ve become less concerned about that. I think the next step for me is asking these questions and figuring out how to maintain the right balance between advocacy, inspiration, and pure entertainment in my writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Whitney says:

        Hahaha, I’m glad that I’m predictable in that regard! 😀 I think the formula of advocacy + inspiration + entertainment will be different from novels and blog posts/social media presence. I will definitely be saucy online but reign it in for my novels. Like, I’d like to do it the way you do it: make it pretty clear, important to the narrative, and still pretty inclusive.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. leathehatless says:

    As long as it fits the story, religion and politics will be inevitable. Being a huge part of modern society, it’s impossible to escape it in fiction. What can happen is how deep the author is willing to go. As long as it makes sense, I think they are aloud to express their believes.

    But, if such believes are controversial, they must be ready to face the readers that are becoming more and more conscious to themes and representation of certain people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate M. Colby says:

      Thanks for your sharing your thoughts! You’ve brought up a great point for authors: if we are going to express our person beliefs in our fiction, we better be ready to defend them. I think that’s another reason why we need to think carefully about the larger themes in our fiction and how we represent them.

      Like

  4. gumersindo says:

    It seems most writers smell an imperative to cause statements with their fable, but do our readers actually caution or expect us to do so?
    I think you largely match with me, so I’m not attacking you, but I’m definitely passionate about phonation and representation.

    Liked by 1 person

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