Obligation or opportunity?

Obligation or opportunity?

Posted on December 4 by Dave Butler in Fiction, Mystery, Recent Releases
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(Photos by: Dave Butler)


Should fiction be used for good, or for evil?

That was the question posed to me at a recent festival where I was giving the keynote speech. I had shared my thoughts with the evening’s participants about how the relatively new literary genre known as eco-fiction has influenced conservation, and vice-versa. I offered a list of books that I believe have played that role, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and even Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, among many others.

An older gentleman, who quickly identified himself as a climate-change skeptic, cornered me after I spoke. While our opinions differed in a few areas, his questions to me were thoughtful and compelling: in our often-divided world, can – or should – fiction be used for good, or for evil (and who decides which is which)? Do fiction writers have an obligation to explore today’s societal problems, to impartially present (through their characters and dialogue) the full range of grey areas that always accompany complex issues?

Despite holding what may be an increasingly minority opinion, the man was clearly troubled by what he saw to be an absence of an atmosphere where rational conversations occur on complex issues, where people aren’t immediately categorized as “one of us” or “one of them.” After hearing me speak about how eco-fiction can help readers to recognize their own biases, encourage them to care about the world around them, and potentially inspire them to make changes, he questioned whether fiction writers have a responsibility to present all sides in their stories – and whether those missing conversations can or should occur between the covers of novels. By asking the questions, he was attempting to lay a significant amount of responsibility on fiction’s shoulders.

The man’s queries forced me to think about stories that have been major influences in societal conversations: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe); To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee); Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck); The Monkey Wrench Gang (Edward Abbey); Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver); The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood); Animal Farm and 1984 (George Orwell), and so many others. I’m sure you can build your own list. However, the one thing those inspirational novels share (aside from doing well at the cash register) is that through the power of storytelling, they stimulated people to look at issues of the day in new ways. And they made a difference, too. Eco-fiction is no different – we have novels that expose the world as it is now, and those that contemplate dystopian or post-apocalyptic futures.

But given that public debates about major issues like climate change (or insert other issue of your choice here) are increasingly polarized and divisive, the man’s question did make me wonder, if only for a moment, whether we as novelists do have a moral and ethical obligation to offer all sides when we write fiction. For example, if we create a character who considers climate change to be a deep eco-conspiracy, must we then develop a character with the opposite point of view, and/or a character who straddles the pointy pickets of the fence in between?

One could certainly argue that presenting all sides of a novel’s underlying theme makes for well-rounded fiction that’s deep and thoughtful, a story with power and range and uncertain outcomes. But is there a moral, ethical or professional obligation for a novelist to do that? I don’t believe so. In my opinion, that’s the job of investigative journalists. Novelists tell stories, using our voices and the perspectives of our characters.

If not an obligation, then, is there an opportunity here for novelists? There certainly could be. Particularly in the genres of mystery, crime and thriller, there’s strength in describing differing points of view through believable characters, in exposing debates through captivating dialogue, and in portraying ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ – but putting readers in the position of not knowing which is good and which is evil.

We create tension and drama, share passion and emotion, and we hope to entertain. In my most recent novel No Place for Wolverines (the second in the Jenny Willson mystery series), I played with the language often associated with development. On the one side, promoters speak of jobs and economic benefits as though they should outweigh any negative impacts. On the other side, my characters debated use of the adjective “mega-” to describe a project. They knew it had no real meaning but chose to use it anyway, because mega-things always appear more frightening.

Ultimately, I believe that there are as many reasons to write and read novels as there are writers and readers. But do we as authors have an obligation to describe all sides of every theme in our novels? Not necessarily. But is there an opportunity for us to share the complexities of the human condition, to encourage readers to think and care, to understand issues at a deeper level, to be more empathetic humans? Absolutely – and what an incredible opportunity that is.

Dave Butler

Posted by Dundurn Guest on November 1, 2016
Dave Butler photo

Dave Butler

Dave Butler is an author, photographer, forester, biologist, and a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow. His first Jenny Willson Mystery, Full Curl, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Crime Novel Award. He lives in Cranbrook, B.C.