Eleventh-Hour Advocacy: can fiction be used to elicit change?

Some writers believe that literature should provoke readers to action  compelling them to change their views on controversial issues. But if authors use the novel as a tool for advocacy or activism, Antonia Hayes asks, are they really producing propaganda?

Like every writer, I’ve been inspired by events from my life. Relativity, my debut novel, includes an act of family violence that I’ve also lived through, but the book isn’t memoir in dark sunglasses and a headscarf. Relativity is fiction; it’s not about me, or a disguised retelling of my experiences. When you work on a manuscript over several years, it’s inevitable that crafting the narrative will pivot the story away from whatever triggered telling it. It’s equally inevitable – especially if you’re a woman – that if your work draws on even a whisper of reality, it will be labelled autobiographical, no matter how much you protest that it’s not. 

Then there’s the loaded question of topicality: tapping into the zeitgeist and using fiction as an instrument to comment, respond, or draw attention to current social issues. Novels possess a special power: they can shine an interior light on topical subjects as diverse as Alzheimer’s, autism, climate change, and human rights. But what role should the novel play as a tool for advocacy, awareness-raising, or even activism? Can fictional stories lead to real action and change?

 

Shapes and reflections 

Right now in Australia, family violence is a hot topic. Three of the five novels shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year touched on this theme, including the winner: Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep. But Laguna said she wasn’t deliberately trying to tackle big issues and comment on violence and poverty, noting that ‘writers... without being conscious of it… are reflecting back to society the issues of the day’. Making a statement wasn’t intentional. Laguna was writing from inside her main character and seeing the world through his eyes. 

But how much was their commentary top-down rather than bottom-up? It’s the chicken or egg causality dilemma – which came first, the zeitgeist or the book?

Unconscious or deliberate, social commentary in fiction isn’t new. Dickens did it; so did Jane Austen, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Harper Lee. But how much was their commentary top-down rather than bottom-up? It’s the chicken or egg causality dilemma – which came first, the zeitgeist or the book? Leon Trotsky believed literature ‘is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes’ – that culture was a spark to fire political revolution. Jean-Paul Sartre argued for socially responsible writing (littérature engagée); bearing witness was passive, it wasn’t enough. In Sartre’s eyes, a writer must address the major events of the era, take a stance, and provoke others to action. So what was in my creative toolbox: a hammer, a mirror, or both?

Writing a book is like visiting the optometrist. You stare through an intimidating piece of machinery, look through the glass, but everything is blurred. Lenses slide and flick, and your vision slowly sharpens. The vague chart comes into focus. But it takes a lot of fine-tuning for the clouded letters to turn crisp, to finally read the bottom line, to see what’s in front of you with clarity. With Relativity, I didn’t know what I was writing about – themes, topics, overarching purpose – until the words were already on the page. I didn’t have any idea I owned a toolbox until I’d built the shed.

How could I not write about family violence, though? Since the age of nine, I’ve kept diaries and scribbled my every thought in notebooks. Compulsive recordkeeping – and a desire to translate sensory experience into language – is how my brain is wired to understand the world. So I was never compelled to write fiction because I’d suffered a personal tragedy and wanted a platform to raise awareness about the bigger public issue at its heart. I wasn’t moulding my novel to fit within some manufactured convention or fashionable talking point. Instead, I was an unformed writer deeply shaped by a singular event and its aftershocks. Preoccupations rise from the novelist and this was mine. Before I started writing Relativity, I knew an important story had landed in my hands, but I also knew it wasn’t a story yet.

 

The rehearsal of possibility

One thing I’ve always loved about reading fiction is the power of resonance, of inhabiting characters who reflect back something of my own emotions or experiences. Readers crave that electric thrill of connection, when a writer perfectly articulates an idea or feeling the reader’s shared. Fiction makes us feel less alone. Post-publication, I’m frequently asked why I wanted to tell this personal story. While Relativity’s story is imagined, much of the sentiment is real. Did I write my novel to give readers access to my feelings as David Foster Wallace suggested, that if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own’? Was I looking for solidarity to help champion a cause, or seeking simply to not be misunderstood’?

¯\_()_/¯

I recently saw Karen Joy Fowler speak at the Bay Area Book Festival. While writing We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, she kept asking herself these philosophical questions: what does it mean to be human? What separates us from the rest of the animals? In her research, Fowler learned that empathy is natural primate behaviour, an ability we share with other species, but she also said that Empathy comes with a caveat: we only extend it to those we recognise as like ourselves. Otherwise, we categorise those unlike us as "the other". We need to erase this idea so we can understand the complete world.'

Studies about the neuroscience of experiencing empathy through literature show that reading fiction taps into the same brain networks as real life experience. Reading is a rehearsal of possibility, activating our mirror neurons in the same way as when we guess how other people feel. If literature can neurobiologically replicate real emotions and experiences, could empathy generated by fiction be the greatest tool for social advocacy of all?

 

Monsters, morality and a magnifying glass

Helen Garner, on the topic of writing about darkness, said wider issues like the phenomenon of family violence become most revealing to the reader when they’re put in human terms. Stories humanise ‘the other’. Not only because they synthesise empathy but also because stories are specific. Novels in particular are a powerful magnifying glass for examining human behaviour; they can give ‘the other’ a voice.

Fiction is intimate because of its unique interiority. By understanding the inner lives of characters who’ve done monstrous things and grasping their humanity, how can we continue to label them monsters? Prejudice comes from misunderstanding. Proximity weakens prejudice. The immersive precision of storytelling forces us to confront human complexity, within others and ourselves. When we identify with immoral characters, like perpetrators of violence – even though our instinct is to shut our eyes to their humanity – we not only come closer to understanding their behaviour, we might also uncover the monster that lurks inside us all.

But how can novelists explore topics like domestic violence without advocating their moral position? When a writer hammers home their moral agenda, they break a cardinal rule: they don’t show, they tell and preach. Novels are diluted by strong conviction. Iris Murdoch addressed moral questions in her books but was against the idea of didactic fiction. This distinction between moral exploration and moral enforcement is important. Morality in fiction becomes problematic when the writer’s strategic goal is to teach. Embedding intentional lessons in a narrative can read as self-righteous and smug; moral instruction limits a reader’s imaginative autonomy. But when writers use covert moralism to raise questions, the reader’s imagination expands instead of shrinks.

Or perhaps simply the quality of the writing is key, as Oscar Wilde said in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

 A quiet, secret encounter

In On Writing, Stephen King warns against letting research dominate a narrative, saying Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog… the story always comes first. Like research, advocacy should be secondary to story. When a novelist becomes enslaved to an issue rather than storytelling, it becomes propaganda. While it’s seductive as a writer to imagine that your words can exert a force, you also can’t shove them down people’s throats.

How can the role of the novel be to campaign? Books are a quiet, secret encounter between a writer and a reader. In and of themselves, they’re not a roaring battlecry or loud call to action.

Fiction entertains, moves, enlightens, guides, illuminates, demystifies, provokes, and every other verb on the spectrum. But essentially, novels don’t have a universal function, so to write them presuming they do is a false process of engagement. How can the role of the novel be to campaign? Books are a quiet, secret encounter between a writer and a reader. In and of themselves, they’re not a roaring battlecry or loud call to action. Reading is idiosyncratic. Every reader will always bring something of themselves, at that point in time, to the indelible words printed on the page.

Using a novel as a tool for advocacy disregards this ephemeral meeting between reader and writer. It’s not a dialogue, relationship, or exchange; it’s a moment. Novelists cannot preempt, illicit or negotiate a targeted reaction from their readers. Just as writers have no control over critical reception, their writing can’t force a reader to respond favourably, negatively, or at all. They can’t make readers champion their cause. Empathy isn’t enough.

What good is raising awareness anyway? Novels shouldn’t be engineered for social action or activism because fundamentally, it’s not up to the writer to bring about change. Fiction can sway, suggest, inspire, push back, disgust, magnetise, tempt, or bore. While novels can be a springboard for advocacy and a catalyst for action, they can only indirectly lead to real change. Choosing to take action falls with the reader. Whatever happens after the book is read is out of the writer’s hands.

Ultimately, I wrote Relativity because it was a novel I needed to read at an isolating moment in my life. I wrote it for nineteen-year-old Antonia.

Raising awareness was only ever an afterthought. That never motivated me to write fiction; there’s no key message or social comment I want readers to take away from the book. I never wrote with any zeitgeist or moral dilemma in mind. At the last minute – when Relativity was complete, edited and about to go to print – I impulsively added this final paragraph to the acknowledgements page.

My eleventh-hour advocacy was an accident.

But if a side effect of publishing can be to have just one ephemeral encounter of consequence – to help a single reader feel less alone, or prevent one avoidable injury, or simply connect with another human being and raise questions – then I wanted to be able to do that. Even if there were no guarantees; even if it was only once.

Portrait of Antonia Hayes

Antonia Hayes grew up in Sydney, spent her twenties in Paris, and currently lives in San Francisco. She has worked in publishing as a book publicist, in bookshops, and co-directed Australia's National Young Writers' Festival. Relativity is her debut novel.

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