A diversion from the road for a moment.
I recently received a note from another writer attending a fiction workshop in California. I was told that in the course of the workshop the instructor handed down a dictum, something we all do when we’re trying to deliver as much information to students as we can in a too short a time. The dictum was essentially this: Fiction should never deal with issues. Fiction is about story, about motivation, about people, about relationship. It is not about issues. Which is something I might have said ten years ago. But I feel very differently now.
In fact, one of the reasons I like writing mysteries is that it allows me to seduce readers into thinking about issues, very often from a perspective they might not otherwise have considered. In my work, I’ve slipped in an overview of the controversy concerning the economic necessity of logging vs. the rape of the land (Purgatory Ridge). I’ve dealt with the heartbreaking consideration of all the children whom we turn our backs on in this society and who are eventually lost to us (Copper River). I’ve dealt with Indian gaming casinos and the affect they have on both the Ojibwe and the white communities. I’ve discussed drugs, on and off the reservation, and the understandable reasoning behind the rise of gangs (Red Knife). And always through my work runs the undercurrent of racial prejudice.
What is true is that in all this the bottom line is the human factor. How do these things affect the people involved? Non-fiction, it seems to me, often deals with the statistics of an issue. It’s a macro view, often clinically distant. Fiction offers the micro view, the dirty, nitty-gritty of what all the sociological or psychological or economic terminology tries loftily to define. It is, as the instructor so wisely suggested, about story, motivation, people, relationship. But it tends to be about the force or forces that can warp human beings or break them and against which admirable people try to stand.
In my own experience, the best non-fiction are those pieces of writing that take a true event and create a compelling narrative, which means they make it about people, not simply about issue.
Great stories are about conflict. And if, in my work, I use an issue to generate that conflict, so much the better. But the conflict is never about the issue. It’s always about people on one side or the other, ordinary folks who, in response to threat, rise to extraordinary action.
I sometimes get emails from readers who object to the fact that my admittedly liberal, bleeding-heart sensibilities often find their way into my work. But I can recall only two who told me they won’t read my books because of it. Not a big deal. Honestly, how often is it that you have an opportunity to stand on a soapbox without giving the other side a chance for rebuttal?
I do try to play fair, but it is, in the end, my game.