The Social Importance and Relevance of Fiction
Guest Post by S.R. Staley
I often like to have book outside my normal reading genres somewhere nearby to keep my reading fresh. Often these are titles from nontraditional and independent presses because the traditional presses often miss good material and stories. I often find these books outside the mass market inspiring for their unique perspective. More often than not, they also remind me of larger issues that fiction authors routinely tackle. Such is the case with Death Spiral, a recently released science fiction novel by CL Gregoire.
Death Spiral, much like the best fiction, is a novel for its times, chronicling the journey of a Jeremiah Dodge as he attempts to broker a treaty between Earth and a friendly alien race before an apocalyptic invasion by a competing alien race, the Greys. Dodge is forced to confront his own deep-seeded Christian convictions, doubts about the truth of his childhood, cynicism about modern democracy, and personal commitment to the greater good at tremendous personal cost. Anyone who has been following modern politics, particularly the emergence of the Tea Party and modern conservativism, will see the parallels. While Gregoire’s debut novel is not perfect, I found the story and characters engaging and highly relevant. In fact, it serves as important window into the sentiments of a growing element of modern society (whether one agrees with it or not). And in this sense it shares an important feature of literature that endures.
Authors can sometimes get so engrossed in their own stories and characters that we forget that our literary contribution often rests on our work’s social contribution. We can’t just have textbook character arcs, formulaic plot points, or the satisfying conclusion. For our stories to have currency and permanence, they have to relate to the tensions, conflicts, and dramas that our readers also feel and struggle with. That’s how we create the visceral connection that builds our audience.
Jane Austen was one of the great novelists, but her books continue to be taught today because they serve as a window into pre-Victorian England and they provide social commentary on basic human traits such as prejudice, nobility, honor, and integrity that are relevant today. Even the authors of so-called “pulp fiction” or “escape literature,” often dismissed by the literati in places such as The New York Times, grounded their stories in real-world dilemmas, aspirations, tragedies and triumphs. Horatio Alger, Jr became an indelible literary figure in the “Gilded Age” of the nineteenth century because his stories featured “rags to riches” stories that reflected the individualism and scrappiness that were core elements of early American culture. Entrepreneurship—pulling oneself up by the bootstraps—was often a core element of these stories because they spoke to the hopes and dreams of a rapidly urbanizing population transitioning away from the farm and onto the factory floor. Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey didn’t just write entertaining stories of the Old West. The perceptive reader will also see their characters grapple with fundamental elements of the human condition, including courage, racism, personal accountability, failure, and perseverance.
Fiction, in the end, is much more than stylistic elements we are taught in workshops and in the classroom. The best fiction, even historical fiction, forthrightly confronts the issues of the day that tear apart, unite, and complicate society and human relations. Moreover, these issues are as complex as the individuals that make up society itself. Sometimes, picking up the novel outside the mainstream, is a cogent reminder of the primacy of this fundamental element that links the literature that lasts.
SR Staley’s (www.srstaley.com) young adult novels A Warrior’s Soul and The Pirate of Panther Bay feature kick-butt characters forced to confront life changing decisions as well as the often not so pleasant consequences of their actions. His third novel, Renegade, will be published this fall. You can follow him on twitter at @samrstaley.