by Riley Redgate
Once upon a time, there was an author who cared immensely about the world around her. She spent massive amounts of time studying societal problems and potential solutions for those problems.
One day, she thought to herself, Ah-ha! I've got it! I will write a book based on the damaging nature of the patriarchy! It will be set in high school, and every high schooler who finishes it will be five times more knowledgeable about feminism than they were when they started. It will be perfect.
The book was terrible.
Sorry, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Really, though - I feel like everyone I've spoken to has read That One Book that feels like this, has read That One Novel that seems crafted only to Teach The Reader a Lesson about Life and Educate Them about Problems of Which They May Previously Have Been Unaware. (Dear God, that capitalization went on far longer than intended. Oops.)
There's a good reason for this, obviously. Issues Books, in my opinion, are infinitely harder to pull off than books that don't involve anything large and societal. After all, unless the readers are completely buried in the character's head, their natural inclination will be to attribute facts set forth in a novel to the author's knowledge, not to the character. If there is a character who's a clear Voice of Wisdom in the book, for example, the reader will see through that character as if they were transparent; the reader will assume the author's using that Voice as a mouthpiece - unless the character is well-crafted enough to be completely opaque.
In other words, Issues Books have to be even more ingrained in their own worlds than regular books. The characters have to be even more set in stone and clearly defined, so that a transgendered or gay character doesn't turn into The Transgendered Character or The Gay Character. The dialogue, above all else, must remain natural and delve only rarely into the realm of sheer explanation. Otherwise it will feel like two people parroting facts at each other. It might even feel like non-fiction, or simply a flimsy attempt at fiction.
Don't get me wrong: I love reading about social issues, and I love that authors are trying to combat ignorance through fiction. I'll be the first to advocate an increase in published works that tackle problems like racism in the modern world, sexism, rape culture, oppression of the underprivileged, etc. - the idea of raising awareness of these problems via a novel is admirable.
But building a novel around an issue rather than plots and characters has only one way to go: downhill. When it comes to fiction, I'm always looking for someone to attach to, rather than something. When we as readers lose the perspective of the individual, with his/her individual motives and problems and objectives, we lose any reason to keep reading the novel as opposed to, say, an article about the issue in question.
Also, I don't know why someone would want to reduce a character to a mouthpiece. Because one of the most powerful abilities of a novel is to personalize large-scale matters. It draws the reader into a state of empathy. Reading about the life of one specific drug addict helps explain drug addiction in general because it provides a vivid example of the lifestyle; reading about one bullied gay teenager shows in one story the cruelty happening in a million instances. Character-based as it is, fiction humanizes what we've never witnessed, or what we don't understand, and to ignore that capability is to disregard the strength and power of fiction itself.
In the end, I don't want to read an Issues Book. I want to read a book, and if it happens to involve Issues, so be it. But first make me care for the characters that populate the world, and for what happens to them. That's where the real strength in the story will lie.
Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a
bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in
Ohio. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.