November 18, 2010

Shining a light on society's ills

There are times when I gleefully rip into religion in my novels. It's such a delicious, overripe target. I can't help myself. But religion is not the only thing with a bulls-eye on it in my fiction. Stupidity, ignorance, cruelty and irrationality also get my attention. I like to point out the idiotic things we humans do, and as we know, there's certainly no shortage of material out there.

When we do this as writers, when we shine a light on society's ills, we perform a vital function for our world -- especially now that journalists have, for the most part, stopped doing (or even understanding) their jobs. Without a Fourth Estate, this job may now be up to fiction writers. Think of what Dickens' writings did for the London of his times, and Mark Twain's witty dissections of the society of his day. This is a hallowed tradition. I can't aspire to those heights, of course. But I can do my part. I can shine a light on the ugly things that need fixing.

Of course, any writer who wants to go down this road has to decide how to go about it. What tone should we assume when performing this service in short stories, novels, plays and screenplays? What is the most effective way for us to get the job done, given our own, particular talents?

In our times, snark has become an art form. People are getting better and better at it and article after article on the internet leaves behind a verbally bloodied victim. It's our primary spectator sport these days.

But snark is such an easy out, so close and convenient and raw, like ripping open a vein. It's always there; we can always do it. We simply direct a venom stream at our target and let loose a volley. The stronger the venom, the louder the thud as the victim falls to the floor, senseless. It's a quick fix, a hit that satisfies -- at least, momentarily. We use it all the time on blogs and I say "Go, girl" to that. But should we bring a current trend, a faddish way of speaking and writing, into a work of fiction that we hope might be around for a few decades?   How will it sound in 2025 if the people of that day are not constantly at each other's throats?

So I asked myself if I wanted to bring this verbal style into my books. Did it sound inviting? Did I want to write many scenes that ended in verbal bloodshed? The answer was no. To me, snark doesn't fit with my style, so I decided not to go that route. Snark's fine -- and believe me, I can do it -- but I don't see a place for it in my stories. I have other ways to accomplish my task, using humor and perhaps a frightening level of honesty.

I write scenes that hold up a mirror to show us what we really are, and what we're really doing. There are aspects to our behavior that are hidden under rocks, not only from others but from us. As a writer, I'm merciless about lifting up every damn rock I see and cataloging what lies beneath. That's what I do: I let the reader see situations from odd angles, showing them something they never knew was there. And I try to throw in a laugh to soften the blow. That's how I like to do it.

I think it's devastating enough to show the vast emptiness at the heart of religion by telling the story of someone who is harmed by it. I don't need to rip anyone apart verbally. Just put the reader in the right situation and it's so easy to see -- and recoil from. I create those situations. That's how I shine my light on the ills of society.

How do you address this in your fiction? Does snark play a role in your current work?

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