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?
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!
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‘.