Make no mistake, being open minded and living in a state of empathy is not about accepting wrongdoing and the evil wrought in the world. Living in a state of empathy has not only opened my eyes to the experiences of others, it has helped to set my moral compass. Trying on someone else’s troubles fosters a sense of fairness, and that’s just the sensibility that can result in a passion for justice in the world.
Writers are in a unique position when it comes to writing and justice. There is mounting evidence that fiction has a way of getting inside us, and once there, of making us see the world in a different way. And once we see things differently we are forever changed.
I would argue that all good writing, from fairy tales to novels to poetry, has an aspect of wanting to change the world for the better. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is to make us into better human beings. Many people have thought a lot more about this topic than I have. Check out Naomi Benaron’s excellent post about the place where fiction and social responsibility intersect for her.
Nobody wants to read a polemic (OK, most people don’t). This is the problem I have with Ayn Rand. Regardless of what you think of her ideas, her fiction barely manages to rise above her ideology. For this reason, I think her novels are just awful. The only people I’ve talked to who love her novels are already deeply invested in her ideas.
Even if you choose to create a work of art with an explicit message – if it’s really going to work, really going to embody the message, then the art has to come first. Consider the formal brilliance of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Look at Ramiro Gomez Jr.’s warm and clever use of throw-away cardboard paintings to highlight how immigrants are perceived by the mainstream culture around them.
No matter the medium, creating good art comes from a mastery of craft combined with an openness and fearless exploration of the world and the self. I believe that if you are truly expressing YOURSELF through your art – your sense of justice, your moral compass will be implicit in the art you create.
Personally, I believe that my job as a fiction writer isn’t to convince, but to examine. I believe that storytelling is the best at dragging things out into the daylight. If I turn my gaze on something dark, or write a villain with empathy, then what I believe about right and wrong will be expressed in the negative space of the story.
Speculative fiction, in particular, has a long tradition of writing for social justice. It’s suited to it, because of the way it can cross boundaries and explore future and imagined worlds. But don’t take my word for it — read around the genre to see how others write for justice.
Environmentalism among other things
- Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl, The Water Knife (This one’s forthcoming and I can’t wait!)
- Frank Herbert: Dune
Societies and dystopias in war and peace
- Robert Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
- Joe Haldeman: The Forever War
Gender, theocracy, environmentalism, capitalism
- Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale
For more strong women who use speculative fiction to take on multiple themes race, gender, environmentalism, and the ills of society in general, check out:
- Octavia Butler – see also Levi Dugat’s excellent post Science Fiction + Social Justice
- Ursula K. LeGuin
- Toni Morrison (who has never shied from using fabulist and speculative elements in her work, Beloved and Song of Solomon being two of my personal favorites)