Causes in Fiction

With Labor Day just past and the political season heating up, I thought I’d revisit a topic I made a post about in June 2010, on EQMM’s forum. For many people Labor Day is now nothing but an end-of-summer day off with great back-to-school sales, but when it was created by the union movement at the end of the nineteenth century the reason for the holiday was clearly understood. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, parades whose purpose was to show “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” were held in many municipalities.  A hundred and thirty years have passed since the first Labor Day celebration, which was held in New York City under the sponsorship of the Central Labor Union. By 1894, the idea had caught on enough for the first Monday in September to become a legislated holiday in many states and, by act of Congress, in the District of Columbia and American territories.

The cause of labor may seem a nearly universal one—aren’t most of us workers of one sort or another?—but I wonder if such a holiday would gain traction in the political climate of our time. You have only to think of the causes of the recent recall election in Wisconsin to be reminded that labor unionism is one of the political hot buttons of the current election cycle. Which brings me to my topic. Writers, including genre writers, tend to write, in one way or another, about issues prominent in the societies to which they belong. Sometimes those issues are front and center in their work; sometimes they are part of the incidental background detail.

Fiction writers who write with the conscious purpose of furthering a cause are nothing new. Sometimes the literary value of such writers’ work can be separated from their success or failure in creating societal change, as with the great novels of Dickens. Sometimes, as with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel (or story) may achieve profound and lasting importance because of its power to effect change and yet not withstand artistic criticism.

Mystery writers in particular have tried, through art, to further their share of causes—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. Andrew Vachss, a legal advocate for children, has devoted his fiction-writing career to raising awareness of various forms of child abuse; John D. MacDonald was considered by many readers of his Travis McGee novels to be a crusader for the environment; more recently, the Sookie Stackhouse books of Charlaine Harris have been praised for containing a message of tolerance, especially towards sexual minorities. The list goes on.

If a cause is present in a work of fiction, it works best for me if it’s presented in a way that sets it above partisan politics. However, as our society becomes more and more polarized—with cable talk shows seeming to find a partisan slant in just about everything under the sun—it’s becoming more difficult to avoid offending some camp or other. This often presents difficulties for me as the editor of a magazine with a broad readership, especially since our primary purpose is to entertain and not to engage in polemics.

In the days shortly after 9/11, I got into an interesting correspondence with an author I highly respect about a story whose purpose was clearly, and very explicitly, to offer an impassioned critique of a law that had just been passed by Congress. The author’s view was that it was my responsibility to publish the story, as long as it stood up artistically. But as the editor of a magazine that hosts a readership with very diverse backgrounds and opinions, I felt it was, on the contrary, my responsibility to keep politics, as far as possible, out of our pages. And in those days of high emotion, to do otherwise was certain to anger some readers to the point of canceling subscriptions. Were we a journal of news or opinion, I would have seen my responsibilities differently, I’m sure.

But of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, is it? If one were to strip away from almost any work of fiction everything that could possibly be controversial, the author’s passion would go with it. Fiction necessarily (even inadvertently) presents points of view that aren’t going to meet with universal acceptance. But fiction also has the unique potential to show readers things they might not have seen before, where no amount of discussion or argument could. Charlaine Harris’s books are a good example: Readers who love her characters and see for themselves a parallel between their circumstances and those of sexual minorities in the real world may take away from the work something they could never get from debate about the latest proposition or law. If a work of fiction can influence through what it shows us, without comment, it has a better chance of finding a home at EQMM than a story that champions a cause by putting arguments into the mouths of its characters.

Janet Hutchings

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