A question for my fiction-writing readers:
Do you feel you have an obligation to address social concerns in your writing?
I’m wrapping up my line-editing, which means that my book is moving into the next stage, which also means that I’ve started to think about a new project. Often times, a new project percolates in my brain for months, if not years, before I am in a place that I can even start outlining the idea.
This is the space I am in right now.
The percolating stage. Smells strangely like coffee.
While bee-bopping around with different ideas, I read a post by writer Jeff VanderMeer about how writers who tackle near-future plotlines should make sure and address climate change. If you don’t know who Jeff VanderMeer is, he wrote Annihilation, which was made into a movie with Natalie Portman. Both the book and the movie are excellent (in slightly different ways), but they do address environmental issues.
If you, like me, started following him on Twitter after reading said book (or any of his others), you’ve most likely realized that he is an environmentalist. He tweets a lot about the work he does to make sure his yard is native to his area in Florida, as well as environmental concerns in general.
In one of those tweets, he addresses the need for writers to tackle climate change in their writing because climate change is a real and present aspect of life, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Which brings me to my question about obligation.
As writers, fiction writers in particular but any writer in general, do you feel that you have an obligation to address climate change in your work?
Or… fill in the blank with a current social issue.
Now, quick deviate… I absolutely realize that racism and sexism have been around for as long as the human race has been roaming the world taking land from people and trying to garner greater wealth (read: power). And there is some amazing works of fiction that deal with these issues throughout that time period.
Climate change is a bit of a newer issue and the issue that led me down this meandering path of thought.
That being said, all three are clear social problems.
Do we, then, as writers, have an obligation to address them in our fiction?
I’ve written about tokenism in the past and I am going to mention it a little here. I frequently read books in which there is a gay character or a character of color in the story, but the character has no depth. Rather, it is as if the author put those characters in the story to check off some metaphorical box.
Opinion alert! Opinion alert!
Now, in my opinion (ha!), unless you are writing a plotline in the faaaaar future (or a different planet, reality etc.) in which none of the -isms exist, you cannot have an above-mentioned character without addressing the social constructs around said character. It is reality. Sure sure, we write fiction (the very definition of fiction is ‘made up’), as such, we can make up whatever we want…
…but should we?
It is reality. Are we, as writers, required to address it? Do we have a responsibility to include social realities if we go down a path in which they are mentioned?
For instance, if I write a book set in the United States in 2045, do I have a responsibility to address climate change?
If I write in a gay character into a 1990s nostalgia book, do I have an obligation to address their reality at that time?
Personally, I absolutely believe I do have that responsibility, but why do I feel that way?
The job of being a storyteller is as ancient as racism and sexism. There have always been storytellers, always. It is a lineage stretching back millenniums. Within that lineage, there are truths and lies, and those stories that fall somewhere in between. There are stories that were once true, but now we know are false. There are those stories that have aged with us, universal language and universal understanding, and some stories that we now cringe at in horror, wondering how they were ever a reality.
Stories are an amazing reflection of the world we live in. In what is said.
And what is not said.
And that, perhaps, is where I land in this concept of obligation. As a creator, a carrier of this lineage, where is my responsibility in portraying our reality? And once that question is answered, what then, does that say about me as a storyteller?
I might have to mull on this a bit more.
But what about you, fellow writers? Where do you land on this issue? Do you avoid obligation altogether by writing things in which there is never a need to address one of the -isms, or climate change, or anything else?
Or. Do you fully tackle the issues because your work is about those issues?
Where do you land?