Monday, September 17, 2012

My Book Has Issues

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.

The end.

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.

Riley 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.


Paula R C Readman said...

Surely if you wanted to write a book about life's Issues then it would be better to write nonfiction. If you want to write a work of fiction that has a point to make it need to be done with a subtle hint rather that imformation overload.

Jemi Fraser said...

It's always about the characters for me too. A strong character pulls me in every time. I rarely (ever???) finish books written to educate me about an issue.

Sanny said...

Great post. In my mind the readers want to know more about the characters, if they aren't well created and believable, the story won't be believable, too. I let my characters go through tough times, having some problems they had to deal with, but it's always more about the characters than their problems. They are part of the story to challenge the characters, that the readers won't be bored. But the persons the story is about make the story, and are the most improtant. The readers have to feel with them, and only then they will think about the problem mentioned in the story. I love to write things that provoke thinking, like a story in another story, or a deeper meaning.

I think when the main character is natural, and could really exist the way he or she is in the story, people feel with her or him, and maybe start to think about what if they had to handle such a situation.

Dianna Narciso said...

Yes! I keep telling a good friend, struggling to write a book, that he must stop focusing on trying to convince the world of his message and start trying to tell us a story!

I feel that, since this issue is so important to him, it will be naturally embodied in the stories he tells. He needn't lay it all out. I don't want to read a lecture. I want to be entertained, transported, etc.

I certainly have issues. And I notice they are in all the stories I tell. I don't put them there. They are there because they are a part of me.

Great post!

Riley Redgate said...

Paula - Yeah, one would think! I don't know, though - some fiction I've read has been infinitely more educational than some non-fiction, because it stays in my mind longer. The sticking power, for me, makes fiction's "teaching" abilities almost stronger than NF. (This is probably because I'm massively ADD and have to take NF in small doses indeed, but you know. :P)

Jemi - Ugh, and it's such a shame when the book COULD have been good if it had just settled down and let itself care about its own characters a little more, you know? Frustrating. *sigh*

Sanny - Exactly! The empathy that fiction can draw from its readers creates a natural dialogue between reader and story. The Issue itself doesn't need to be explicit to be raised and analyzed.

Dianna - that's a great point. What we care about as authors will inherently translate into our work - or there wouldn't be any passion in the writing, heheh. If we focus only on our real-world concerns in the book, it'll just feel like an overload.

Jean Oram said...

The book totally has to be bigger than the issue. Because yeah, mouthpiece. Blech. And in YA? They can see that coming from 20 miles away.

Giora said...

Jean Oram invited us on Twitter to make a comment, so here I am. In my second YA ficion, PETRA, the teens talk about many issues. I view it as a realistic YA fiction. I think that girls are more likley to talk about issues in real life than about afllingf in love with a Vampire. They are trends in the publishing, and the time will come for YA fiction dealing with issues. Ofcourse you have to have an interetsing stroyline because it's a fiction first and most, but teens will like to read about issues also.