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Posterity Can Wait

January 10, 2018

"Most Read" in 2017
Novelists quickly learn that any book review is “subjective.” I recently discovered that a reviewer’s subjectivity extends beyond the novel itself to its genre. In an otherwise enthusiastic review of The Piketty Problem, the Kirkus reviewer opined that “the only problem with this absorbing story” was my describing it as a “social” or “social protest” novel along the lines of The Jungle or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because “instead of depicting the struggles of the working class, the tale skillfully shows readers how middle- and upper-class people talk about the rights of workers.”

This narrow-minded opinion about what constitutes a social protest novel seems laughable at best, dangerously out of touch at worst. (I did complain to Kirkus, to no avail, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t about the struggles of the working class either, unless the reviewer’s definition included slaves.) But it does seem to reflect the prevailing attitude in the lit biz, disdainful at best about this kind of serious fiction, to the point where it’s been drummed out of the list of acceptable genres. (I just searched “social protest novel” on Amazon and the first recommendation was Black Beauty. Yup, the story about a horse.)

At a time in our country’s history where there is so much to protest about, and such a need for encouraging thoughtful debate about our pressing problems, I firmly believe that the black arts of fiction are a powerful tool to get people to engage with issues that they otherwise wouldn’t find time for. To my mind, social protest novels can and should protest anything and everything that the author feels are endangering the well-being of our country and its citizens, or our planet and its peoples. Political dysfunction, climate change, and economic inequality come immediately to mind. (If I had the opportunity, I would certainly argue with the Kirkus reviewer that the middle class in our country is currently in as much danger as the working class ever was.)

Literary history supports the notion that this kind of serious fiction with a serious theme can have an impact on public opinion. A year after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle focused attention on the inhuman and unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Perhaps apocryphally, but by no means unbelievably, President Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Recent sales trends also suggest that people are ready and willing to vote with their wallets and buy novels with a message. George Orwell’s 1984 surged to the top of the best-seller list immediately following the Presidential election, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here weren’t far behind. A social protest novel of a different stripe, Atlas Shrugged, is still selling briskly sixty years after its original publication.

It doesn’t seem to matter to the lit biz. The powers that be apparently don’t think it’s wise or important to stir social passion, to make readers want to do something about society's problems that affect their lives, or their children's. Perhaps they don’t think it would be profitable. Perhaps they’re thinking of posterity, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, that kind fiction won’t age well. Francine Prose, a novelist and critic for whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect and admiration, wrote in the New York Times Book Review last year, “The landscape of literary history is littered with the wreckage of writers who thought they were on a mission.” A second highly acclaimed novelist, Rivka Galchen, wrote in a different issue of the same publication, “Art that directs our feelings about contemporary events, even when well intentioned, quickly reads as dated, corrupted, almost always wrong.”

But guess what? Readers don’t necessarily agree. Just a few weeks ago, Amazon released its top-ten list of “Most Read” books for 2017. You can see for yourself in the headline from Publisher's Weekly, which book was number one, surpassing genre stars like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Harry Potter.

Thanks to the aforementioned de-genrefication of serious, thought-provoking fiction, Amazon has no choice but to classify Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as “Fantasy” and “Science Fiction>Dystopian.” But if this compelling story, a futuristic take on a feminist’s nightmare, is not a social protest novel, I don’t know what is. Sure, the popularity of the novel, originally published in 1985 and predating the #Me Too movement, has been aided by the series streaming on Hulu. But if readers didn’t have an appetite for fiction that transcends the usual pablumatic entertainment, or the literary navel-gazing emanating from the MFA mills, they’d be satisfied with what they saw on their screens and leave it at that. But they didn’t, and that’s sending a message to anyone who’ll listen.

Posterity can wait. It’s time for novelists to make a difference today.