Monday, September 20, 2021

Is There a Place For Social Commentary in Our Novels?

How much social commentary should a writer put into their work? Should they put any in at all?

I think we all know how polarized our country is right now. Say the wrong thing in your novel and you’re liable to lose fifty percent of your readers. For that reason, I stay the heck away from politics.


These days, the strangest things set up a political firestorm. Masks, vaccines, mandates. Instead of following the science, we follow the rhetoric.

In my fourth book, Shadow Hill, I touch upon LBGTQ bias, school shootings, and climate change.

One of my characters, fifteen-year-old Caroline Bell, writes a column for her high school newspaper that centers on school shootings. Without pontificating about gun rights or gun control, she very simply talks about how many children have died in horrific, senseless mass murder events. And how, with semi-automatic weapons easily at people’s disposal, how fast it can happen and how bad the body count can be.

Caroline goes on to interview her teachers and fellow students about how they feel as they practice lockdown drills. The queasy stomachs, the nightmares, the headaches are the resulting trauma of having to train for a possible mass murder event.

When I talk about climate change in the novel, I talk about the science of the greenhouse gas effect, primarily as a result of burning fossil fuels. I also talk about insane amounts of subsidies the United States Government gives to oil and gas companies. I also mention how much money the fossil fuel industry spends on lobbying against climate change policies.

Have I lost any readers over it? I don’t think so. I’ve had neighbors on both sides of the political spectrum tell me how much they enjoyed the book. One of them even mentioned a character I introduced who was a United States Senator. The congressman in the book is sexist, hypocritical, and an opportunistic liar.

One of the hats I wear here on the coast of North Carolina is that I serve as the president of a non-profit organization called the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. BAPAC represents 43,000 businesses from Maine to Florida and 500,000 commercial fishing families. Our primary goal is to oppose the offshore drilling for oil and gas. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is fresh in our minds even though it happened eleven years ago.

I’ve been to Washington DC three times and testified in front of a US House committee stating our position and why. There are presently a number of bills moving through the House that would permanently ban offshore drilling off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Do I I know of any politicians as bad as the one I describe in the book? No comment.

I just finished reading a wonderful mystery by my good friend Warren Easley entitled No Witness. He spends a great deal of time in his novel talking about how immigration laws affect the Hispanic community and the distrust that they create. It too is kind of a political book but without being preachy. Will he lose any readers over it? I hope not.

So, back to my original question. How much social commentary should you put into your book? Heck, I lost a reader because I once took a shot at Fox news.

I guess it’s all about how passionate you are.


Susan D said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Thomas. There's a lot to say here, I think. So I'll try not to... :^)

I write short stories, and while many are set in the past, I don't think I'd be true to my characters if they had no opinions on social or political issues, or kept quiet about them. And with so many factions wanting to politicize absolutely EVERYTHING, I'm not sure a person could express anything about their own values without being accused of "being political".

Okay. There. I'm stopping.

Except I'll add, Louise Penny's latest seems to pull no punches about an issue that's front and centre in the book.

Donis Casey said...

I don't see how one can write true characters without writing about social issues, since everyone who ever lived is affected by them. I know one often wants her villains villainous and her heroes more virtuous, but sometimes I write characters who have different political/religious views than I do, and find it tricky not to let my personal judgement of the character's beliefs unduly affect the way I present them. It's an interesting exercise.