Big issues

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve noticed an interesting trend — if trend it is — in my reading of late, and it is this. Many of the titles I’ve  consciously or unconsciously chosen seem to have an ‘issue’ at their heart, whether racism, feminism, authoritarianism, environmentalism or some other pressing concern.

Sometimes there’s more than one of these, implicit or explicit, expressed as a factor that one could call the ‘inciting incident’, or as an injustice simmering away till everything boils over.

So, whether the choice of title turns out to be conscious or unconscious two questions rise to my mind. One, is there a reason (or more likely, are there reasons) for this to be the case, if it hasn’t always been so; second, is it a trend other bloggers have noticed?

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While I’ve not in the past been shy of fiction with a message, the escalating events in the last few years, particularly since the arrival of Covid-19 but well before that, has perhaps alerted me to how much fiction titles don’t just simply tell a story — at a very basic level usually about individuals overcoming odds — but pin them to a worrying aspect about society or the world.

Let me cite one of the most recent books I’ve read, Jostein Gaarder’s The World According to Anna (2015). In this Gaarder wasn’t just telling a tale about timeslip or time travel but making an urgent point about the Anthropocene Era, a period when humans are damaging the world’s ecosystems, causing mass extinctions, and thus responsible for disastrous anthropogenic climate change. In Gaarder’s fable the author gives prominence to the amoral aspects of human behaviours and their probable consequences. In fact, nearly six years on from its publication, we now know that the last seven years have been the hottest since records began.

Not all authors headline their chosen issue. Margaret Atwood’s short story collection Good Bones (1992) has many pieces written from a feminist perspective, but there are also stories highlighting the onset of age, for example, or dealing generally with the human condition. Then there is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, written around the turn of the 20th century but, unusually frankly for the time, positing a woman’s eye view of relationships with men and people in general; a pity that her early feminism and even left-leaning views were later overshadowed by some less than pleasant views about some of her fellow humans, particularly Black Americans.

George S Schuyler’s dystopian satire Black No More (1931) focused on the problem of racism in the US in the early decades of the 20th century, imagining the possible changes in society if ‘Aframericans’ were able to change their pigmentation so that they would be indistinguishable from whites. His story showed that human failings were no different whatever one’s skin colour might be. However, rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman his early socialist and equal rights attitudes drifted in less acceptable directions in later life, making him for example a persona non grata among those canvassing for civil rights in the 1960s and 70s.

Two British authors contemporary with each other focused in their different ways on anti-vivisectionist sentiments. H G Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) dealt with the horror of experimentation on live animals to produce semblances of human beings. C S Lewis, in That Hideous Strength (1945) — which I’m currently reading — only included vivisection as a side issue (though nevertheless an important one) when one of the book’s protagonists comes face to face with a disembodied human head, kept ‘alive’ through biologists’ experiences of tinkering with the bodies of animals.

However, by far the majority of books I seem to be reading are about authoritarianism — its rise, its nature and its impact. Lewis’s novel touches on this (a further discussion of this will appear in due course) but it’s a theme that recurs frequently. An extremely worrying lurch towards regimes that favour dictatorships, fascism, repression and so on has been of course been evident in the last few years; Donald Trump’s rise and misrule was one of the reasons I paused in my read, back in 2017, of It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 prophetic dystopian novel, but Trump’s hijacking of democratic norms to seize autocratic power continues to echo to around the world, not least here in the UK.

The dangers of authoritarianism, whatever political shade it claimed to espouse, are revealed in many other moves and stories I’ve been reading. An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuściński (1963), short pieces about postwar Poland under Communist rule, are ostensibly focused on life in rural communities, but the shadow of central authority looms in the background. Meanwhile, One Billion Years to the End of the World by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1977) echoed the sense of unseen centralised forces controlling individual choices, careers, and indeed lives, but the authors cunningly implied those forces may be extraterrestrial, thus avoiding Soviet censure.

Doomsday Morning by C L Moore (1957) is in part a vision of early 21st-century America where a form of networked government surveillance is almost ready to go to the next level. Alternatively, Black Sheep (2014) by Susan Hill described the difficulty of escaping the social straitjacket imposed by being part of a close-knit community, in this case an isolated pit village where so much relies on the company who own the coal mine dictating working conditions, with policies which may or may not be benevolent.

I know there’ll be other issue-based novels reviewed here, including those that affect individuals, such as anxiety (as in Jan Mark’s Trouble Half-way from 1985) or bullying. But it’s the big existential worries that we face collectively — global heating, corporate greed, rapacious states, Big Brother tech companies and even our own elected governments — which I suspect will draw my attention in these times of Covid, corruption and climate crises.¹

I wonder now if what I’ve been outlining in terms of reading matter has also been the case with other readers. Have you noticed this? Or maybe not? Do tell!

© C A Lovegrove

¹ I’ve already posted about titles which may be related to the current pandemic and social restraints, in ‘Books in the time of Coronavirus.

44 thoughts on “Big issues

  1. Mostly, if you can tell the underlying theme of a novel, the writer hasn’t done a good enough job of making it an essential part of the story, and you are being preached to.

    Most people dislike that, rightly seeing it as an attempt to tell them how to think about the issue.

    But being a live human has an awful lot of themes connected to it, so most fiction is going to have that author’s worldview embedded in it.

    I assume that if it’s TOO subtle, readers won’t even notice (leading to MFA courses on discussing some theme in a famous author’s famous book). Balance. Subtlety + entertainment value. If you have a point, you don’t have to force people to see it.

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    1. I agree with everything you say, Alicia. The novel I’m currently reading is definitely a preachy story but I’m glad to note that not only are there more subtle points being made but that I’m largely entertained by the narrative.

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      1. As long as you’re being entertained – and the preaching isn’t too strident. You can always skim. Propaganda often comes in chunks.

        I don’t like many books with narrators, and found that Jonathan Kellerman always does a ‘stop and describe physically’ when introducing new characters – so I just skip that part.

        I write deep multiple third person pov, so have to find more creative ways to let bits of description in, but aim to make the characters the reader’s choice. Mostly things the other pov characters might actually think; occasionally a self-description with a reason.

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        1. As I’ve been trying to read this novel in depth, taking notes to express myself.precisely in a review, I’ve steeled myself not to skim the chunks of propaganda. But honestly,.Alicia, as the author’s mystical theology is so obscure I’ve found it tough going in places.

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  2. SF has always been a reflection and comment on our time. For me, it’s an essential element of fiction, just like a singer needs to feel the song‘s emotions because otherwise it would be a shale performance.

    Some authors are heavy-handed, transporting a message with a large hammer, others are more subtle. It’s not always a message, but it can be a defining topic (look for gender or feminism in Le Guin’s works).

    When you say that you see a trend in your reading, I assume that you became more aware and sensitive to these underlying themes. Just beware of becoming one of those highbrow critics who seem to write exclusively about them 😁

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    1. It’s not just that I’ve become more aware and sensitive to underlying themes, Andreas, but that the awareness has arisen or at least been heightened for me by this pandemic (has it not for all of us?) and by the man-made madness of the climate catastrophe combined with political and corporate malfeasance.

      I don’t think I much shied away from message-laden novels (and yes, Le Guin’s humanity, despite her often curmudgeonly way of expressing it, is at the root of most of her writing) but maybe I’m now looking for reassurance or strategies or reminders that our current collective madness is not a new phenomenon.

      But fear not, I’m not one of those highbrow critics, I do mix in light reading as a much-needed counterweight!

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      1. I tend to avoid novels touching pandemics. That’s different from CliFi which I like to read, eg KSR‘s Ministry for the Future. Similar for other near future SF touching civil rights or other critical topics. It’s only pandemic stuff that I avoid, maybe because it’s emphasized in every. single. day‘s news. Maybe climate change etc should be covered similarly by news, but that’s how it is. So, no pandemic books for me.

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        1. I don’t know about Germany but here in the UK the terrestrial television news does at least feature items on climate change when a scientific report is issued or an event like a drifting Antarctic ice shelf grabs the headlines but yes, at the moment the pandemic is mentioned daily so there’s no escaping it.

          As for either avoiding or seeking out pandemic fiction, that’s down to personal preferences of course, just as I tend not to make a beeline for CliFi titles. Apart form the Gaarder, the last novel I remember which touched in the subject was John Lanchester’s The Wall.

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          1. Oh, climate change IS addressed here, just not in the high frequency and intensity like covid. Newest trend is that they add something to the weather forecast a couple of times a week.

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  3. I think it’s a three-headed issue! Firstly, ’twas ever thus, in that most novels have a central issue (or more) embedded into their story. Secondly, the marketing machine has cottoned on, and publishers are blurbing the issues, putting triggers warnings on etc.. Finally it’s us, the reader, that has been sensitised to look for the issue(s) in everything we do by the never-ending stream of mostly bad news and social media. We’re all pessimists now. Cynic, moi?

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    1. “We’re all pessimists now.” I’m inclined to share that view, faced as we are with that never-ending stream you mention, all if us except those who put their heads in the stand or, by insisting their boozy parties were work events, remind me of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

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  4. As a lover of satire, and someone who studied its heyday in the 18th C, I can assure you that what you’re seeing in novels isn’t anything new. I think in some eras it’s hard not to try to write satire, although since 2016 it’s been hard to exaggerate enough to get any kind of point across so we get these kinds of pastiche stories in which the satire is not very effective.

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    1. Oh, I’m well aware that satire has been around for some time, Jeanne — The Satyricon has long been on my list for a reread, and the title rather gives the satyr/satire connection away! — but of course my angle was why I might be drawn to either satiric or direct commentaries on the big issues I identify.

      Having said which, my familiarity with 18th-century satire is woefully lacking, and perhaps an area I might explore some future time.

      I agree that since 2016, in the US and the UK at least, satire has been like water off a duck’s back in terms of lampooning and shaming a certain cadre of politician.

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  5. jjlothin

    Interesting! Thinking about my own reading trends, I guess I have a tendency to go for non-fiction titles when it comes to matters of ‘issue’ – eg, The Storm Is Upon Us, with its explanatory subtitle: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything …

    … Whereas when it comes to fiction … just finished a real page-turner about a morbidly obese man living in a tower block who’s about to be winched out of his flat and transported to a hospital for a leg amputation – when a zombie apocalypse breaks out!

    Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to find enough time for either.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An interesting topic, Chris, and I must admit I definitely seem to read more into the books I read nowadays, but that may just be me changing as a reader. However, I think I’m tending also to steer away from too many books that don’t seem to be doing anything more than providing light entertainment. Apart from when I need to switch off with a Crime Classic, I feel I need to read something of substance…

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    1. Yes, classic crime does appeal to me too when I’m in need of some distraction from ‘issue fiction’, that and classic children’s fiction. But the fact I do seek out intellectual stimulation more than light reading may reflect my own anxiety about the state of affairs we find ourselves in currently, almost as if I feel the need to be in a state of readiness for what may come.

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  7. An interesting discussion. Have to reflect upon it. I steer away from books with an overly determined theme, but also can’t abide books with unconscious class discrimination and racism, like many books written in the 1930’s and 40’s

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    1. I too find that period in literature very full of fiction making assumptions about the benefits of colonialism, male dominion and class which I’m uncomfortable with, and so try to avoid.

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            1. I remember seeing one or two episodes of the BBC’s The World of Wooster in the 60s, with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price as Wooster and Jeeves respectively, and I gather that critics thought they were better than the Fry and Laurie incarnations.

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            2. I have to report I have now watched a Jeeves
              and Wooster with Ian Carmichael and Denis Price followed by the same story ( Claude and Eustace and the stolen cats) with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Updated version wins hands down in my view. Both on YouTube so you check for yourself.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t consciously seek out books underpinned by a big issue but do tend to prefer those which do providing the author isn’t seeking to bang me over the head with their ideas. Are these kinds of novels more prevalent now?

    Part of me says no because issue based fiction goes back a long way even if these books weren’t labelled as such at the time they were originally written – I’m thinking for example of how Jane Eyre has been re-interpreted as a feminist text and a colonial text.

    But I’m also thinking yes because there seem to be more novels now that tackle racial inequality and climate change. Or is it that they are just not as subtle in their treatment so we notice it more?

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    1. It’s a mixed picture.I think, Karen, as you point out. I’m thinking of The Hate U Give or Girl, Woman, Other as very much issue-based (I’ve not read either, as yet, though) and undoubtedly powerful fictions in their own right; but is their impact any more than was, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I think I read as a kid in an abridged version) or 1984, which affected attitudes on slavery in the 1850s and the dangers of totalitarianism in the postwar period?

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      1. I’ve not read either but yes they do sound strongly issue based. We don’t know what impact they will have because of course they are such recent publications. We know they got a reaction but as for impact, time will tell.

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  9. I’m afraid I’m tired to death of authors thumping their polemics at me, barely disguised as fiction. It’s one of the major reasons I’m reading less and less contemporary fiction and enjoying what little I do read less and less too. Oh for the good old days, when authors told good stories and left it to the perceptive reader to seek out the lessons to be learned, if that’s their bag. Now I’m being told stuff that I read every day in the papers, have experienced or witnessed every day in my life and usually have a much deeper understanding of than the twenty-something author who thinks s/he’s earned the right to preach at me…

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  10. I like it when you can sort of insert your own issue into a novel, or at least, there are multiple possibilities. The marketing of certain novels as being “about” one particular issue is off-putting, and preachiness or overly simplistic arguments are even worse. I’ve only read two books this year but both could be read as addressing different issues, or none, that’s what I prefer (e.g. I just read Convenience Store Woman, you could read it as “about” loneliness or consumerism or autism or gender roles or feminism or just a weirdly compelling story!)

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    1. I’ve heard good things about Convenience Store Woman and yes, they often say it’s “about” this, or that, or the other, but my chief criterion is whether I myself engage with a work at whatever level or in whichever manner. And I guess that’s your criterion too! One of the books I’m currently reading could be said to be about many ‘issues’ — alienation, contagion, sexual preferences, war, illusion — or just a tale focused on a teen trying to gauge his place in a small community at a time when global events are changing society.

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  11. I’ve been able to read more non-fiction books on racial issues and equity because they’ve been published which isn’t always the case. So it has looked to some of my readers like I’ve suddenly got into a Black Lives Matter, post-George Floyd, liberal White lady reading list thing where the reality is I’ve snapped up as many books as I can, am now drip-feeding them through my blog AND I’ve always read really widely around race, gender, sexuality and class, but now I’m finding non-fiction analysis available where before it might have been fiction and memoir.

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    1. That’s good to know that books on these issues have always been on your radar — if and when they’ve been available, but I smiled at the suggestion that you might be labelled a liberal White lady with a reading list! It’s true though that it’s also been possible to find these issues.addressed in non fiction; personally I’ve found that the kinds of quality broadsheets I’ve tended to read did always have these kinds of analyses, even if tucked way into some obscure corner.

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      1. Yes, of course, I should have been more precise – there have always been SOME books of history/analysis (looking just at books), but not as many as there are now, for example Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder (2004), Britain’s First Muslims by Fred Halliday (2010), and Trevor Phillips’ Windrush (1999) (I could find some more but I’m upstairs and they’re downstairs and it’s chilly). And one of my blog readers does often congratulate me for broadening my reading in this way, which is sweet but also – nope, always done it!

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