Dr Hywel Dix writes for The Conversation about the ways fiction novels can influence social change…
Fiction can change the world: five books that made a difference
Activist Jack Monroe recently used Terry Pratchett’s “boots theory” to explain the vicious circle for people on low incomes only being able to afford clothing that constantly wears out. Monroe has now used the Vimes index (named after a Pratchett character) of inflation to persuade the Office of National Statistics to review how it calculates the cost of living.
Raymond Williams’s classic 1977 book Marxism and Literature broke new ground arguing that fiction could influence social change. Here are five contemporary examples.
1. Bitter Fruit (Achmat Dangor, 2001)
In this novel, a bi-racial South African civil servant comes face-to-face with the white member of the state security forces who had raped his wife during apartheid. The book explores the consequences of political violence for both perpetrators and victims. There are no easy winners, pointing to the need for reconciliation – even when this feels impossible.
Reviewing the novel, South African academic Ronit Frenkel has shown that Bitter Fruit raised through fiction the questions South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to answer for the whole country after apartheid. Nelson Mandela was said to be a fan and Dangor went on to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
2. Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris, 2007)
In Joseph Heller’s anti-war classic Catch-22, the pilots joke while one by one they get shot down. The combination of bleak humour with a serious message played out numerous times throughout the 20th century. Franz Kafka had already used the same logic in The Trial, where Josef K is executed for an offence he never understands. Ferris’s novel is an heir to both of these. It is set in the late 1990s among a group of advertising executives as they lose their jobs. But although it was written immediately before the financial crisis of 2007-08, it can’t help but feel like a tragicomic social critique of it.
As the characters are laid off, their dreams shrivel up and their solidarity collapses. Researcher Alison Russell describes the tension between the office workers’ desire for security being in conflict with their desire for individual achievement in Then We Came to the End. It brings to mind Pastor Niemöller’s poignant words about standing up for others, or being left with no one to defend you. It comes across as a stark warning of what happens when corporate culture is left unchecked.
3. Elena Knows (Claudia Piñeiro, 2007)
Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro’s fifth novel to appear in English is narrated by Elena, a 63-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease. She measures out her day through doses of medication, between which, she knows, she will barely be able to move. And yet this is not the most interesting things about Elena Knows. Her daughter Rita has died, apparently killing herself. When no one is willing to investigate, she calls for assistance on Isabel – a woman whom she and Rita had earlier dissuaded from having an abortion.
What ensues is a subtle and skilful exploration of how far women have the right to control their own bodies. This has been of particular importance in Argentina, where Piñeiro was at the forefront of the campaign to legalise abortion as recently as 2020. Its readership was huge by South American standards – Piñeiro is the third most widely translated Argentinian writer ever – and its effect has been dramatic.
4. Girl, Woman, Other (Bernadine Evaristo, 2019)
There are so many good things about this book it’s hard to know where to begin. Some readers would have been familiar with the struggles of African-American women through the work of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Black British women writers, rightly or wrongly, had not received as much attention. Until now.
The wide varieties of speech used by Evaristo’s women from many different backgrounds makes Girl, Woman, Other a joy to read. Along the way it debunks a number of mistakes about ancestry and race. And the way it handles the often-fraught politics of trans rights is both sensitive and accessible, cutting through to a far more mainstream audience than would normally consider this still-emerging issue.
5. Broken Ghost (Niall Griffiths, 2019)
This is Brexit fiction, or BrexLit. The rapidly changing political landscape of the past ten years has been just too tempting for authors to ignore, but Brexit novels are often tame and twee. Invariably they portray educated cosmopolitan types thrown into disarray. That is, BrexLit often reinforces the social divisions it should be the job of the writer to break down.
Griffiths does something different. His cast of characters – a “slut”, a “junkie” and a “thug” – are worlds away from the middle-class lives of most Brexit novels. When he takes readers to a hippie commune up a Welsh mountain to see what happens to them, they might end up understanding the world from somebody else’s perspective. In healing the divisions in Britain post-Brexit, the importance of this book can hardly be overstated. This is why in the desert of Brexit fiction, Broken Ghost is a novel oasis.