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Daily Book Talk: The Novel As Tool

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Showing 1-25 of 32 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 23, 2012 9:57:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2012 10:24:54 AM PDT
No... not the novelist is a tool... that has been discussed enough thank you.

Through out history, the novel has been one of the most important tools of social change. From Dickens to Hugo to Harper Lee, and so many others, the novel has been instrumental in changing the world. Stories of children working in sweat shops (not sweets shops), of injustice, racism, and inhumanity have, it seems to me, been more effective than almost any other medium at affecting changes in public perceptions resulting in real changes in society and culture and eventually in law.

Now I know, I have poked at this question from a half a dozen different directions, because, to be quite honest, it not only interests me and justifies my spending time writing up these questions, but because I am convinced that the novel, can be, is, should be, even sometimes must be more than just entertainment, it is a tool for social commentary and change. It has an irreplaceable value.

Now, before I lose myself and pontificate upon all of this, as is my wont...

Why is the novel such an effective tool for changing hearts and minds?
What is it about the form of the novel that makes it have such an impact?
In what ways do you think other media are better at this than the novel?

What story(s) do you think have changed society and the world?
Are there any novelists working today that you think are effecting social change?

Have you ever read a novel that was too heavy handed in its attempt to be relevant?
Did you finish it?
Where is the line between propaganda and literature?
Do you think important, society changing novels are written on purpose? Or are they serendipitous magic?

Do you choose books because of their social impact, or do you shy away from stories that have an agenda?

As always, this isn't the place for self promotion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 12:06:53 PM PDT
Oh, wow, what a question, Ed!

I am going to have to give this one some thought while I eat & I'll be back.

And, I'm so glad you are here!

Posted on May 23, 2012 12:15:42 PM PDT
I have to think about this one too, but while I do...

*HAPPY DANCE* Ed is here!

Posted on May 23, 2012 12:26:44 PM PDT
Rachel says:
It has to move me to some emotion in the human condition. Words are power and I admire those who wield it well!!!...:)

Time Warped

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 12:52:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2012 12:53:14 PM PDT
A. Customer says:
Why is the novel such an effective tool for changing hearts and minds?

Big subject Ed, so I will just give my take on this aspect for the moment. I suspect that a novels effectiveness in changing hearts and minds is often on a subliminal level. As soon as the words on the page are no longer visible, and the reader is fully engaged with the plot, characters and theme subtle connections are made. It is not so much the impact of the actual words as such, but possibly the empathy that one might feel for a character, the emotional response to an event, the intellectual and emotional reaction to certain socio political situations that may be the focus of the story...and so forth. In short, it is perhaps the unconscious processes which occur during a period of escapism that resonate more deeply and make the novel a powerful vehicle of change, rather than the strict interpretation of the words?

ETR - stray letters.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 1:09:33 PM PDT
I think that the novel is so effective at changing hearts and minds because it is the medium that best enables a reader to step into the shoes of a character who is markedly different from the reader. Movies, even when they are autobiographical, or told from a very close viewpoint, aren't as effective at closing the gap between character and viewer. The advantage that the visual media have over the novel is that the images can be so intensely affecting that their impact can be much greater than words on paper.

So, a novel is really, really good at allowing the reader to step into the shoes of, say, a child who has suffered abuse and violence, and pyschological, as well as physical, impact of that violence on the child. A visual depiction of the actual violence, in a movie can be much more impactful of the actual horror of the violence itself.

In terms of stories that have changed society, I think that your example of Dickens is a really, really good one. His social commentary was so compelling that we use his name as an adjective to describe things - Dickensian conditions at a factory abroad, etc. Another example - a little later than Dickens - is Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, which has been credited with beginning the movement against animal cruelty in England, which then spread across the globe. Interestingly, the early advocates against child abuse based their strategies on the SPCA movements spawned by that book.

Other novelists that I think have had tremendous social impact are some of the writers from the Harlem Renaissance - Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God changed my life for the better when I read it as a college student.

Novelists currently effecting social change? I don't think it is possible to know the answer to this question until we get there. I think we do see sharp social commentary - Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (a little older now, but still relevant), Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (ditto), and even The Hunger Games all provide a not-terribly-flattering perspective on current culture.

As for heavy-handedness, I refer you to Atlas Shrugged, which in my opinion crosses the line between literature and propaganda.

I often read stories that I think have an agenda. I want to know what the forces are that are trying to mold popular opinion. But I try to educate myself so that I am not fooled by the agenda, whether I agree with it or not.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 1:12:42 PM PDT
Ms. Twinny,
There is much truth in what you write. :)

Indeed, I think there is something a bit insidious in how the novel works on a reader. (at least a skillfully written novel) When you find yourself in the story and in the heart and mind of a character identification happens in a way that is almost uncontrollable. I think it is very cool.

Posted on May 23, 2012 1:15:46 PM PDT
Nice, Miss Mayhem!

I just wanted to jump in and mention Harper Lee's impact on the fight for civil rights.
I most certainly think that TKAM had an impact on that, though I am not sure that that was her intent. As a reader I know that it impacted me and that I viewed the world differently forever after.
Perhaps it was, as Twinny said, empathy that I felt for Boo? The love and respect I felt for Atticus? I don't know...but I do know that I FELT.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 1:40:56 PM PDT
There is so much good stuff here it will take me forever to respond to it all...

I do think people are different regarding which is more impactful, written horrors or visual depictions of them, but in the main I think you are correct. A story lets you into the heart of the victim, and the video lets us see the true horror of the event.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 1:52:55 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2012 1:54:37 PM PDT
D. J. Bowler says:
Hello Ed! Nice thread-start.

"Why is the novel such an effective tool for changing hearts and minds?"

We've been expressing ideas as written narratives since The Epic of Gilgamesh, and in spoken form since the development of speech. It's probably how humanity developed the concept of grammatical *tense*, it's innate to the way we think. It's how we as a species have learned to accessibly express and explore larger concepts.

The arrival of the 'novel' in the modern era was simply a change of focus - from tales extolling the virtues and iniquities of monarchs and deities to subject matter of personal, real-world relevance [1].

"Have you ever read a novel that was too heavy handed in its attempt to be relevant?"

Michal Crichton's novels, et al. He has a tendency to pontificate for pages at a time through his characters... Bless his heart ;]

This is just one example, of course there are many others.

[1] The rise of the novel spurred the modern person's 'sense of self' as much as it was a symptom of increased self-awareness. The process was self-reinforcing, and in some cases, revolutionary.
[2] Jurassic Park, etc.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 1:57:45 PM PDT
Wow, you're coming in here with footnotes? LOL You're prepared!

Posted on May 23, 2012 2:32:05 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2012 2:38:56 PM PDT
DeeG says:
I'm going to have to think about this a bit. Certainly agree about To Kill a Mockingbird. What about Fahrenheight 451 or 1984? Those both have a profound impact, though I'm not sure they actually brought about social change.

eta: I'll add in The Giver. Both my children have had to read it in school, and it's had a significant impact on them. They appreciate the choices we have in our society much more than they did before they read the book.

Posted on May 23, 2012 2:51:31 PM PDT
You know, I have The Giver. I have to set aside some time to read it.

Posted on May 23, 2012 5:53:09 PM PDT
DeeG says:
Charlene, I didn't read it until a few months ago. It's probably good I'm not a teacher for the intended age group, because I wouldn't be able to pick such serious books for them. I'd be more likely to try to shield them too much. One section is very disturbing, but I won't post a spoiler.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 6:20:02 PM PDT
D.J. you are an over achiever! footnotes and everything!

<<<[1] The rise of the novel spurred the modern person's 'sense of self' as much as it was a symptom of increased self-awareness. The process was self-reinforcing, and in some cases, revolutionary.>>>

It is an interesting history to be sure. In particular for me how the novel differentiated itself from other lengths and styles of fiction to be the predominant form. I haven't read nearly as much as I would like on the subject.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2012 8:40:07 PM PDT
D. J. Bowler says:
I'm simply responding to your excellent conversation prompt... Cheers!

Posted on May 24, 2012 3:20:06 AM PDT
I agree with those who said that the reason novels can be so effective is because it allows the reader to be exposed to situations and people they wouldn't be otherwise and in a manner that allows us to often empathize on a much deeper level.

I definitely don't seek out novels that are known to have a certain agenda or message. I read for entertainment so that idea actually turns me off. However, if the author is clever I'll get whatever deeply imbedded message may be intended anyway. That's the key though. I don't want a book to preach at me or be heavy handed. (Though I have overlooked heavy handedness when the plot and characters are entertaining enough!)

As to where is that line? I think it differs between individuals. Some will talk about the author's blatant propaganda in a book that I've read that completely went over my head. Maybe because I'm not looking I don't see what may be obvious to others. So for me I guess it has to be pretty blatant, and it's usually a case where the author's voice seems to be coming through rather than the character's. Or there's a lot of repetition (which turns me off in any case).

I'm sure that some novels with large impact were written with that purpose in mind, but I think usually it's more serendipitous. I think usually if an author sets out with that intent, they're usually going to fall into the blatant preaching category and fail. But a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird is a well-told story with an important theme that touches a whole generation because it's accessible and engaging.

A more recent example I can think of is Pay it Forward. I haven't read the book, so no idea how heavy handed or not it is, but I've seen the movie. It's not a new idea by any means, but the book and movie revitalized an older one that hadn't been getting much "press" in recent decades and has had a pretty big impact.

Posted on May 24, 2012 4:31:38 AM PDT
"Are there any novelists working today that you think are effecting social change?"

So many young minds have been shaped up by books. We need stories to process the daily nonsense.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 5:56:30 AM PDT
Andie says:
Ms. Mayhem, I have nothing much left to add. You've said it all.

Ed - I'm SOOO GLAD to see this thread! Some of us tried ot keep daily book talk alive in your absence...but I, for one, never had a question this thoughtful. Welcome back, and excellent topic.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 7:04:58 AM PDT
It is so good to see you!

My perception of the movies and television shows during the 70's was that many if not most of them were very heavy handed in their attempt to "send a message." So much so that I didn't watch much of either during those years.

But, I will pick a couple of examples of people who I thought did it intentionally well. One would be All in the Family. It was never supposed to be anything more than an examination of Archie's narrow mindedness. Yet even when it was preachy, it was engaging. They allowed Archie to be a real, but terribly flawed person, and they allowed his foils, especially Michael (Meathead) to be just as flawed even when he was right. So even though I can't say I ever enjoyed All in the Family, I found it a powerful critique of our culture that was hard not to watch even when it made me angry.

From the movie world, how about "Star Wars." Now, now I am not going to put it in the class of To Kill a Mockingbird, or Nicholas Nickleby, it didn't have that kind of social impact. And certainly most people never spent much time parsing out the social messages in the movies. And that is what I think was so great about it. It touched on issues of power and ambition and faith, in a time when those topics were fraught with antagonism, and most people were moved by the story, had their opinions affected by the story, and thought they were just having a good time watching as Space Western.

Believe me, I know about preachy (big grin), and being able to be socially conscious without evangelizing is a great and delicate skill.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 7:06:11 AM PDT

That is not true... your topics were great!

And our Ms. Mayhem is quite brilliant in my rarely humble opinion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 7:08:02 AM PDT
As you might guess, Gabriela, (may I call you Gabriela?), I agree whole heartedly.

Something has to stand in the way of Snooki and Spongebob. :)

Posted on May 24, 2012 8:10:15 AM PDT
Jim Webster says:
Perhaps novels provoke people to think?
If everyone started thinking that would be the end of civilisation as we know it ;-)

Posted on May 24, 2012 8:30:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 24, 2012 8:45:27 AM PDT
There are a couple of aspects of the novel that I don't think anyone has mentioned, but which I believe are a part of the strength and power of the novel.

One of those is length. The novel, as opposed to the short story, novella, and those abominations that call themselves novels but are so long that you need a cart to carry around the DTB versions, is perfect for telling a complete story, filling in character's and showing the results of actions and decisions. Better than any other media I can think of the novel provides the perfect amount of depth to capture a reader's attention, move their heart, and affect their thinking. Evne before the E-reader it was easily transportable, even as a hard cover. And yet with in those 200 to 400 pages there could live an entire world.

Everything else, from the spoken word to the 3D cinematic extravaganza, fails to carry the power of the novel for the amount of bang per minute you get from them.

Another point that I have been mulling over is the value of reading being something that is done inside of one's head. Now I know some of us read with our ears (audio books), and some of us read with our fingers, but even with both of those methods the words become a story inside of our mind. As valuable as visual media is, and it surely predominates the story telling market these days, it does not work on the viewer in the same way as reading does on a reader. We don't have to interpret the images in the same way or to the same extent as we do the words on page (screen). We don't internalize a movie in the same way we do a book, maybe just as much, but not I the same way.

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful answers.
I have missed this and you all a ton.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2012 8:43:15 AM PDT
At least the end of government as we know it :)
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Discussion in:  Kindle Book forum
Participants:  15
Total posts:  32
Initial post:  May 23, 2012
Latest post:  Aug 1, 2012

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