One of my favorite writers is Wendell Berry, an essayist, poet, novelist, farmer, activist and environmentalist. He is a wise sage of our time, pointing out our society’s problems and struggles with uncanny accuracy.
In a letter to an English teacher who wrote to him about the subject, Berry writes:
The thought that I keep returning to is this: By taking up the study of writing now, you are assuming consciously, probably for the first time in your lives, a responsibility for our language. What is that responsibility? I think it is to make words mean what they say. It is to keep our language capable of telling the truth. We live in a time when we are surrounded by language that is glib, thoughtless, pointless, or deliberately false. If you learn to pay critical attention to what you hear on radio or television or read in the newspapers, you will see what I mean.
The first obligation of a writer is to tell the truth–or to come as near to telling it as is humanly possible. To do that, it is necessary to learn to write well. And to learn to write well, it is necessary to learn to read well. Reading will make you a better writer, provided you will read ever more attentively and critically. You will probably read a lot of contemporary writing in your textbooks, in magazines and newspapers, in popular novels, etc. The contemporary is inescapable. You may more easily escape the writing that is most necessary to you. I mean the books we know as “classics,” books that have been read for generations or for centuries and so have proved their excellence.
The main thing that Berry’s writing does is tell the truth about us without becoming partisan, trite or reactionary. Isn’t that what great writing is supposed to do? Where are the writers who hold society’s feet to the fire through allegory, satire and commentary or great diction? Sometimes I wonder if society only wishes to be entertained. No one seems to want to think about themselves or the world they live in anymore.
Take a look at current the top ten best selling books . I would argue that none of these books have anything to say about our culture, are not commenting on anything, and are for entertainment purposes only. (If they are saying anything at all its that we don’t like to think). I am not saying there is anything wrong with entertainment (Lord knows I need the escapism now and then), but if escapism is all we have, what does this say about us? Why can’t writers sprinkle in some type of critique of society’s ills while making their books fun to read? Writing an entertaining novel that forcibly presses a hot button issue is a difficult task. If the writer pushes too hard, they can seem overtly preachy like the writers of the film Wall-E. I’m as environmentally conscious as the next guy, but good grief, I get it! I don’t need it rammed down my throat with a mechanical pincer.
One author who tried to walk this tightrope with every novel was Robert Heinlein. No one will ever say Heinlein was a terrible author, for his novels are still recognized as great science fiction. What he is, though, is an example of a writer who tried to walk the fine line of entertainment and commentary. His first novel For Us the Living, is about a protagonist who skids off the road and crashes, only to wake up in the year 2086 where a new society has emerged. After the car crash episode, the entire book reads like a treatise on Social Credit, which is an economic and social theory that Heinlein felt would work to solve society’s ills. A large chunk of the novel is filled with a giant, monotonous explanation of the system without much entertainment at all. A time when he went too far in the other direction is his novel The Number of the Beast which is purely for entertainment and really doesn’t say anything at all (unless it is a satire of science fiction conventions. I’m not really sure).
A perfect example of an entertaining story commenting on society’s ills without getting too preachy is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sure it’s been banned more times than the Widow Douglas dipped snuff, but it is still a fine example of satire and commentary on social ills while entertaining the reader. Critics of the time did not know what to make of it. It came under fire for its poor grammar, bad choice of heroes and setting a bad example for young boys everywhere. I always remember reading the scene where Jim and Huck are separated when the raft is nearly run over by the riverboat. Huck plays a trick on Jim out of meanness, only to feel bad when Jim is left alone on the raft wondering if his little charge was dead or alive. Huck swims up to the raft, kneels down in front of an African-American and asks forgiveness. Sure, the book is full of “n” words which are deplorable and ugly (and written in context of the time period), but the image of a white boy kneeling down in front of an African-American man and asking forgiveness is quite striking. One can also argue that Jim becomes the father figure for Huck throughout the novel, a novel written not long after the Civil War. Say what you want about the racist overtones (they are there as a product of the times) but at its heart there is also a thread of civility and grace for all human beings, and a railing against hypocricy that is covert and powerful.
The lesson here, I think, is to try to write novels that are thought provoking, that make us think about ourselves and how we might become better human beings, but disguised enough in entertaining stories so that we might have to read the novel a second time to understand those messages. It is a challenge that I make to all writers, including myself.