Thursday, May 14, 2009

Taking A Position on Social Themes

Elizabeth Zelvin

At the recent Malice Domestic, I was on a panel on the topic of tackling social issues in mystery fiction. At last fall's Bouchercon, they assigned me to "the booze panel." That one was a challenge, though you could say I asked for it by choosing to write about recovery from alcoholism and, in the book due out this fall, addictive relationships. Everybody has opinions about drinking and relationships, and the views that come out when I write about these issues can be provocative even when I just want readers to relax and enjoy the story. At any rate, there is plenty of meat for discussion in writing that takes a position. Before the Malice panel, our moderator circulated a number of questions. The one that stuck in my head and wouldn’t stop itching until I scratched it was this:

“Must we present a ‘balanced’ view? Introduce opposing sides or viewpoints on an issue?”

Some mysteries lend themselves to balance. Their authors can create appealing characters who take opposing points of view and “tackle” the social issues they address by making a case for both sides. The book that springs most readily to mind is Canadian author R. J. Harlick’s The River Runs Orange—probably because we were Malice-Go-Round partners last year and speed-dated our way through twenty tables of readers and twenty repetitions of our respective three-minute pitches for our new books. Harlick’s protagonist finds some ancient human remains and feels torn between the competing claims of scientists who want to study them and the local band of Algonquins who want to give them a sacred reburial.

Some mystery authors take a strong stand for one point of view, but present the opposing beliefs and values by giving them to the villains. At the top of this list is Betty Webb, whose powerful Desert Wives portrayed the plight of young girls forced into polygamous marriages in patriarchal compounds in the Southwest so eloquently that it influenced legislation against the abuses it portrayed.

My intuitive short answer to the original question of whether we must present opposing viewpoints along with our own position was, “Hell, no. The opposition is doing fine without me.” When I started to think about how I could elaborate on that, I realized that I could name seven distinct “opposing sides” to the themes in my first two mysteries: alcoholism in Death Will Get You Sober and addictive relationships in Death Will Help You Leave Him—or to put it positively, recovery from addictions and the true nature of love.

I base my position on many years of experience as a mental health and addictions professional, director of treatment programs, and psychotherapist as well as many years of life experience and hard-won personal growth. Yet for many of my readers, the positions in these books will come as a surprise. Our culture has deeply embedded misperceptions about drinking, recovery, and relationships. Therapy flourishes in our society because we have to unlearn mainstream beliefs and values in order to move toward emotional health and maturity. The case against the views I explore through my characters is already made and constantly reiterated. My task is to offer readers a fresh look at the alternatives.

Here are the seven areas in which I can identify my stance and the opposing viewpoint:

1. Alcoholism is a disease with symptoms, a clinical course, and treatment. (The opposing view: Alcoholics are weak and lack will power.)

2. Alcoholics must abstain from alcohol and other mood-altering substances to achieve and maintain recovery; in other words, sobriety is always the goal. (The opposing view: It’s too hard for alcoholics to stay sober; harm reduction and moderation management are valid goals.)

3. In the absence of recovery, alcoholism is a painful, tragic, and life-threatening disease, characterized by increased tolerance and loss of control. (The opposing view: Excessive drinking or drunkenness is laughable and entertaining. High tolerance for alcohol—the proverbial hard head or hollow leg—is proof that the drinker is in control.)

4. Alcoholic drinking impairs functioning in every area of life, including health, mental acuity, productivity, relationships, and creativity. (The opposing view: Alcoholic drinking fosters creativity.)

5. Intimate relationships take work and require both a sense of self and an available and accepting partner. People who stay in bad relationships may have attachment problems, love addiction, and/or codependency. (The opposing view: Persistence in a relationship in spite of the partner’s abuse, unavailability, or indifference demonstrates love.)

6. Intimacy, or long-term bonding, is the key to a successful relationship. (The opposing view: falling in love, ie passion or short-term bonding, is the key to a successful relationship and can be maintained indefinitely.)

7. Psychotherapy and recovery programs are powerful tools for change and growth that can help and empower those who use them well. (The opposing view: Psychotherapy and recovery programs are merely psychobabble.)

Of course, this is not how I’d put any of this in a work of fiction. Like all my fellow panelists who write about social issues, I have a horror of sounding preachy. Instead—let me quote my characters Barbara and Bruce in Death Will Help You Leave Him:

“He swore he’d change,” Barbara said, “and she believed that this time he meant it.”

Right. Pigs may fly. But first you have to go down to Kitty Hawk and build them some wings.


Sheila Connolly said...

This is always an interesting topic to wrestle with.

In our books we create characters, and we give them opinions. The opinions may or may not be ours, but the characters can be pigheaded about their stance. As you point out, that gives you the writer the opportunity to explore more than one viewpoint.

But I think that if we choose to introduce an issue, we do ourselves and our readers a disservice if we try too hard to be fair and balanced. We're bound to offend someone along the line regardless, so we should stand by our own convictions or just leave the issue out.

caryn said...

I think an author can do whatever he/she wants with his/her work. However, if the social issue portrayed is a major plot thread or a main character issue, then the author needs to be careful to make it just that-a PART of the plot of character. I would think, and I'm not a writer so I don't know this for fact, that it would be very easy to get carried away with the issue and neglect the actual story.
Whether it needs to be presented in a balanced manner all depends on what the author wants to accomplish and what the issue is. There are some issues that can have two sides and with those the author needs to be careful how the issue is presented if and only if he/she doesn't want to alienate a block of readers on the ather side of the issue. I'm thinking here along the lines of abortion, legalizing drugs-for that matter drug use, animal testing, birth control for minors etc.
But some issues there really is not two sides. I mean, who is going to argue in favor of alcoholism or spousal abuse or animal cruelty??? There the author needs to weave that into the character and or plot with out getting preachy. An author can show what leads a person to do these things and the struggle to stop. How it's done can really bring social understanding to these issues without condoning them.
I have stopped reading two series because of preachiness. One is a dog training mystery series because the author continually expounds on the cruelty of neutering animals-I could just agree to disagree normally, but he goes on and on in his books on this so often that it becomes tiresome.
The other one involves not the work so much as the author who is not a bit shy on speaking out on issues near and dear to her-and again I could just agree to disagree, but this person speaks down to the masses on the other side treating them as uneducated reactionary whackos. Obviously she is not respectful of others viewpoint so I no longer feel inclined to support her work.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Caryn, you've put your finger on a crucial point. When asked for suggestions for questions beforehand, ALL the panelists on social issues raised the importance of not being preachy. To preview my post a couple of weeks from now on just that topic, I'll say that the authors' most pithy answer to the question of how to avoid preachiness was "Revision!"

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'm turned off when an author uses a character to jump on an issue bandwagon and then makes it sound like anyone who takes the opposite view is stupid. To me that's preachy and I stop reading.

Paul Lamb said...

It seems to me that the needs of the story will dictate how much of an issue and from what perspective it will be presented. In Winter's Bone running meth labs is considered just a way of life, just a way to get by. It's not my way, but it is still an honest, coherent story about this kind of character. You understand their motives and their universe. Sure we could preach about the evils of all of this, but that's not the story that was being told.

In my experence, except for psychotics, most people know when they are doing something wrong. Whether it's dealing drugs or racisim or whatever. To me, a way to achieve a balance about an issue like this is to have the character undergo an internal struggle or at least have doubts along the way. Regardless, the story comes first. Leave preaching about the issues to Sunday morning.

Julia Buckley said...

What an interesting discussion! I agree that issues can make writing interesting, but condescension is an immediate turn-off.

Vicki Lane said...

I struggle with this too, Liz, to the point that some readers have been annoyed at my protag's occasional inability to act just BECAUSE she sees several sides of a question.

I think it works well to have peripheral characters take the various sides of a question and try to show their sincere commitment to whatever it is -- to allow them their dignity , no matter how wrong-headed I may actually think they are.