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In This Time of Trump, What the Hell Happened to the Social Protest Novel?


In advocating for a larger role for the arts in promoting societal change, the book world—or the lit biz as I like to call it—seems the logical place to start. Not only is serious fiction what I know best, but it’s also the medium that historically has had the most impact on society’s perceptions and actions, thanks to the “social protest” novel, a genre that sadly has fallen into disfavor among publishers to the point of basically disappearing.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, published in 1906, is justifiably remembered as one of the first and most effective works of this kind published in the twentieth century. Sinclair’s horrifying description of the inhuman and unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry ignited a public outcry. A year later, at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act, one of the first real governmental efforts to curb the rapacious business practices that were endangering the health and well-being of every citizen.

The Jungle was following in a long and vibrant literary tradition. Social protest novels flourished in England and Europe throughout the nineteenth century, with such prominent examples as Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Here in America, Harriet Beecher Stowe helped galvanize the abolitionist movement with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath touched a country’s nerve with his passionate plea for the plight of the victims of the Dust Bowl, and Richard Wright brought the racial divide to the forefront with Native Son. And no list would be complete without what was arguably the most influential social protest novel of them all, still stalking the corridors of power in Washington—Ayn Rand’s 1957 doorstop opus, Atlas Shrugged.

For whatever reason, that was pretty much the end of the tradition. Perhaps Americans became too economically comfortable and complacent (i.e. literally fat, and metaphorically dumb and happy) to want to read about the problems of the disillusioned and the downtrodden and what might be done about them. Perhaps the money donated to the mother of all MFA programs—the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—by socialism-obsessed conservative businessmen, the Rockefeller Foundation, and even the CIA, helped narrow the definition of what was “literary,” and redirected the imaginations of generations of writers inward. Or perhaps the liberal-leaning lords of the lit biz were simply revolted by 70 pages of Objectivist spouting by John Galt.

It’s true that from time to time, occasional stragglers do make it onto Amazon and prize lists in disguise. Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles is characterized as social satire, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America as alternative history. But such august fonts of knowledge as Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica can’t even agree on what to call the genre—social novel, social protest, realist, thesis, problem, philosophical, you name it. And you can follow the search tree on Amazon from Books to Literature and Fiction to Literary, you’ll reach an alphabetic dead end between Short Stories and Thrillers & Suspense.

What’s certain is those lords of the lit biz continue to dismiss the social protest novel for its alleged sacrifice of “character” for “message.” James Baldwin went so far as to disparage Native Son, claiming that a protest theme was an inherent limitation on character development and artistic value. More recently, the book industry’s trivialization of the genre was evident in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, when the reviewer opined in the lead paragraph that “Much as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the seedy underside of the meatpacking industry, Class Mom exposes the underside of that classic first-world problem, room parenting—i.e., volunteering to be the liaison between the parents and the teacher regarding class parties, field trips and countless other events too traumatizing to be accurately summarized here.”

Even tongue in cheek, this comparison is beyond tasteless, and proof positive that the lit biz in-crowd has abdicated their role for promoting the greater good—a role for which they were well suited and highly effective for so long. "Follow the money" is a truism as applicable to publishing as any other industry. For whatever reason, the people in charge apparently don't believe that readers will buy novels that stir them, make them want to do something about society's problems that affect their own lives, or their children's, rather than escape into someone else's personal problems that don't affect them a whit. This despite such evidence to the contrary as Sinclair Lewis's prescient anti-populist (read anti-Nazi) novel of 1936, It Can't Happen Here, selling out on Amazon within a week of the 2016 election.

I'm writing for much bigger stakes than just to prove the lords of the lit biz wrong, but I wouldn't mind their supercilious attitude being collateral damage. It seems to me that if there were ever a time for a resurgence of topical but engaging fiction about contemporary, highly relatable characters whose personal conflicts and issues are not separate from their political, moral, and social concerns, it is now, in this Time of Trump. At the risk of making this post seem nothing more than a shill for my own work, consider checking it out on my website or on Amazon, and decide for yourself.

IHLD (In High Literary Dudgeon) and all the best...Garth