Something to say? Tell a story
In my current work-in-progress, a novel, I have found myself writing about data privacy, corporate power, manipulative advertising, the mental health of young people and the ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence. Put that way, it sounds as if I’m writing some polemic, banging a drum for a whole range of troublesome issues, trying to do with fiction something I could do better through journalism or social action.
Maybe it’s cowardice. This way I can afford to put my head just slightly above the parapet, because I always have the excuse that it’s fiction. It was the character that made me say it!
But then, fiction has always done this – acted as a Trojan Horse to smuggle in disruptive messages about us as humans, about our society, about things we should be questioning if we’re going to progress in a humane way. Storytelling’s oral tradition, in particular, has been one of the most effective and enduring methods of resisting repressive power. So the guise of entertainment is not, I think, an ignoble one.
That’s the difference, though, between polemic and storytelling. The entertainment value.
The holy grail for me – as a reader as well as a writer – is a great story laid on a bed of, for want of a better phrase, “serious issues”. Story is hard. With my work-in-progress, I’ve actually found the story much harder to bring out than those issues, and have had to fight to prioritise it when the many “serious themes” have been falling over each other to be heard. But I knew I didn’t want to end up with some rant. I want readers to have a good time, first and foremost. Two spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down.
A note on the medicine
I think contemporary British society is particularly under-addressed in our (contemporary British) fiction. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but there’s a tendency to avoid referencing the enormous changes we’re going through – and a trend in publishing for nostalgia and “the known” (historical fiction; books based on true stories or real people) – and the risk is, we’re creating a cultural gap.
With technological and societal change affecting us so profoundly and so rapidly, our modern world is bewildering, it’s true. Further, I understand that for a huge number of people reading, as a leisure activity, is an escape; I appreciate that they want to be taken elsewhere, not forced to relive a printed copy of the tough day they’ve just had.
I mean, I’d love to be able to write poetically about the idyllic worlds of yesteryear, simple folk pursuing lyrical lives in the fresh air and so on, but apart from the fact I don’t have that skill, it just doesn’t seem honest. Instead I keep finding myself back chewing over the messy stuff we’re dealing with here and now.
Ironically, that often means I write speculatively about a very-near-future or just-slightly-alternative-present – as in the novel I’ve been working on. But that just takes us back to the storytelling tradition. Don’t tell it straight, or it risks being a rant. (And, it’s important to mention, in some societies it risks the wrath of the powers you’re questioning.) Twist it, reshape it, douse it in story. Make it an allegory, a metaphor, an glorious adventure. Ideally, the reader will come away saying Wow, I had a great time with that story – and it really made me think.