First, forgive me for being a little late posting my weekly discussion. This previous weekend I was celebrating my birthday and I honestly forgot to type a discussion up until right now.
Now, onto the discussion.
It’s no secret that I seriously enjoyed Mark Charan Newton’s books (my reviews of them can be found in my Great Index of Reviews). One of the big reasons I enjoyed them was because Newton applied a lot of real world problems, like sexuality, environmental and class issues, to his plots in a big way. I thought this was bold and I admired him for using real world themes in his books as it may help people think about these issues in a new way.
However, not everyone is a fan of authors applying real world themes to their books like Newton and others have. For example, some readers may feel that this is evangelizing beliefs or perspectives and not appreciate that interspersed into their books. Yet others may think that this is something authors can’t ever quite avoid adding to their work.
Thus, my discussion for the week:
Should authors discuss real world issues in their books? Why or why not?
Absolutely they should! Especially for things like sci-fi, where the premise is often "let's take this important real-world issue and then extend it to that absolute extreme and see how people would deal with that".
My only caveat is that the theme shouldn't outweigh the story. If you're going to do that, you should just write a non-fiction book about it. Stories that are intended solely for proselytising purposes are boooring and stodgy.
When I notice that a book seems to be addressing "current events" it pulls me out of the story, and I hate that. I feel almost like I'm being preached/lectured at. It's one thing if it's a 30-year-old book, that's usually fine. But if it's a recent book and the issues are fresh, I don't need to read a novel to get an opinion I agree/disagree with; I can get that online, or from TV, or friends and family.
That's not to say I necessarily dislike books that do so (Karen Traviss' Wess'har books, for example, have a very forceful environmental message, though it's still a fantastic series) but I'd rather they stayed away from that.
What I do enjoy is authors that explore the human condition apart from any single "hot-button" issue: what it means to be a human being and think, feel, believe, and relate to and interact with other human beings or aliens or God or whatever.
For me, there's nothing wrong with real world problems, as long as it feels genuine…by that, I mean if as an author I introduce an issue, it should drive the story in a natural way and not be a pulpit that pops up and then disappears.
An example of this would be Mistborn, where the entire story is about a revolt of the peasant class against an oppressive leader, his ministry, and the nobility. This class struggle drives the story – it wouldn't be as palatable if some character passing through the town saw it, delivered some monologue on righteous ideals or killed a few "bad guys", then walked away to the next part of the story. That smacks of preaching, and it's annoying.
Pages and pages of monologue extolling the virtues and philosophy of the author are also a turn-off…Terry Goodkind, anyone?
Ultimately there's a fine line that's not always easy to see. As a writer, if you are going to focus on hot button issues, you better know where that line is crossed if you don't want to alienate readers.
That said, for some people fantasy is an escape from the real world. Those people are not going to want to read about real world problems, so if a writer opts to write about real issues, the writer should accept the fact that those types of readers will be hard to appeal to.
I don't see why authors should not include real life issues in their books, as long as it is done with respect. After all, even if the book is fantasy, real issues will affect real people, including readers.
If you are writing about the modern day then modern day issues will crop up naturally where the plot touches on them. Forcing them in, or preaching, can take readers out of the story especially when it is completely out of character. One pet peeve of mine is when every character expresses exactly the same view: A character's beliefs need not be the same as the author's, and even on the same side there can be disagreements.
There's a fine line between discussing an issue and trying to convert people to your side of it. Inspiration from real-world issues and incidents often go into fantasy and other speculative novels, which can make it easier to present differing viewpoints on the issue without having people beating down your door and crying for your blood. It can make it easier for readers to get into the story when they can relate what's happening there to what's happening here.
I think what bothers me the most when authors do this, though, is what they do it, well, badly. When they veil something so thinly that the veil might as well not be there at all, or it's obvious that it's not a presentation of two potentially valid sides or even potentially interesting sides so much as a clear-cut, "My opinion is right and theirs is wrong." If I wanted to read that sort of thing, I'd go read political blogs.