Social Responsibility in Fiction or Trying to Avoid the Creation of Pabulum

Several years ago, on the 35th anniversary of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, I reviewed the book, glowingly. It’s a classic and I adore it. But one of the reasons I adore it is that it disturbs me in a very real way. There’s no gore and no physical violence that I recall. It’s not a crime novel. It’s about a mean old woman looking back at a mean and ill-lived life and so it’s out of the norm. Which is what I said in this review. That people aren’t always comfortable with being shown less than pretty pictures. To a lot of people, art needs to be about kittens and soft touches and sunsets. They know how to process the feelings those things evoke. But when disturbed by something, they read it as something different. Not something good. And, in my review, I said, “The Stone Angel is a disturbing book.”

I got a lot of mail about that review. Many people took what I said to mean that I felt The Stone Angel was a bad book. Which is never what I said. Disturbing and bad are in no way synonymous.

So what happened to us as a culture that we ended up thinking that? That we need protection from that which doesn’t caress? More: that words or images that are not easily recognizable as conventionally pleasing and beautiful should be suspect. That if we have to hunt for the beauty -- if it’s not on the ground at our feet waiting to be stepped over -- it isn’t really beauty at all.

My job as a writer does not include making sure no one is either offended or distressed. (In fact, that sounds like a sure-fire recipe for making pabulum, does it not?) And it has nothing to do with writing crime novels, but writing in general.

I’m not suggesting that there is a should here anywhere. Fiction should provoke thought. Or fiction should make one feel or think a certain way. But, at the same time, fiction isn’t required to fulfill a certain social or political scorecard. I mean, it’s all right if a novel does those things but, as a reader, I don’t have to stand in line for my turn at it, if you follow.

There are a lot of books. There needs to be: there are many kinds of reader. We have different tastes, thank goodness. We need many different books to satisfy them. Some of those books will make us reach for a Kleenex. Some of them will help us realize our own place in the scheme of things; or give us the impression that they have. Some of them will make us want to throw them against a wall. And there’s room for all of them -- for all of that -- thank goodness. There’s room for all of those types of books, and more besides.


Anonymous said…
Nice post. I can't tink of anything to add. Bravo.

John McFetridge said…
Yes, excellent post. I remember taking a seminar on Alice Munro and thinking - maybe for the first time - the characters in this book are people I know, relatives of mine. And they're not very nice.

When my own crime novel was published last year a few people said it made Toronto look bad. I got the feeling they felt I shouldn't do that. I didn't try to, I tried to present the city as I saw it. I'm still amazed how many people say, "That's not my Toronto," when it comes to crime.

It's a good question, when did people start thinking fiction is about showing the world the way we wish it was, instead of the way we see it?

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