WAITING FOR THE GUN TO GO OFF: Social Issues in our Books

by Nancy Means Wright

     I’ve been dividing my free time this month between the election debates and a class on Chekhov, who famously said that if we introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off in the last. So I’m waiting for that metaphorical (or real) gunshot. I resorted to a sedative (well, two glasses of wine) to get through the first debate. It was like watching the football game my grandson recently lost: berating the agressive opponent, sighing over the errors made by my boy’s team.

     A Middlebury College political science prof told us a month ago that debates don’t really matter. Or ads, or a goof here and there. Last week he reversed himself, admitting that in this particular election, a debate seems to have made a major impact. But for me, the debators (to date) have only skimmed the deep-down human issues: the poor, the disabled, the war on women, marriage equality, global warming, guns in schools–the list goes on. 

     Can a fiction writer fill in the gaps–make a difference? Is the written word more lasting than the spoken?

     Back in the nineties Vermont farms were downsizing; a wholesale buyout ensued–a local farmer shot himself. Amazon was taking business away from my local bookshop and my favorite print and copy store was threatened by Staples. Farmers  fretted about the high  price of milk and were upset with the BST hormone used to increase milk production, and with additives to render crops more resistent to bugs. 

     Without these independents and the green fields of grazing cows, I worried, what was to become of our rural state?

     When two elderly farmers were robbed and beaten in northern Vermont, I felt compelled to write about these concerns. My first mystery began with that attack. My fictional dairy farmer Ruth sets out to find the scoundrels, and like the author–and I hope, the reader–to bring some kind of order back into her world.

     Encouraged by strong reviews and local farmers ordering copies of my book, I went on with the series–and the social issues. When poison entered a safe house for abused women, I dealt with the use of superwarfarin, sold as Killabird, designed to destroy unwanted birds at the feeder. When I read a news clipping about an apple orchard sprayed with Round Up, causing the apples to turn brown and rot, I had a plot for the third mystery. At the time I was living next door to an orchard, where Jamaicans come each fall to pick apples and sing in the trees. So I became that orchardist, trying to heal his life after a daughter’s death by a drunken driver–until the Round Up. 

     Perhaps the most devastating of all the issues I’ve dealt with was the eugenics project, begun in the thirties to sterilize so-called “degenerates” in order to “breed better Vermonters.”  While I was writing the book, the signs for gender equality I’d stuck in my lawn were stolen on two consecutive nights So I added a lesbian professor who is strangled when she writes a controversial paper about the eugenics movement. Later I took on women’s issues in an 18th-century series featuring real-life Mary Wollstonecraft, who fought her whole short life for women’s rights, abolition of slaves, and freedoms of religion and press. 

     But I had to take care, I warned myself, not to hammer in the issues too heavily. Our writerly mission, after all, is to tell a good story! But I barely contained myself when my research discovered that Gilbert Imlay, a dashing American with (supposedly) abolitionist views, and with whom Wollstonecraft fell blindly in love, had actually invested money in a slave ship! And over half the kidnapped blacks died during that cruel voyage. Horrified, I wanted to bring Imlay to justice in my novel, but I couldn’t alter the historical facts. He got away with, yes, murder.

     One way, perhaps, to right the wrongs in our books and “transform” the reader is to leave an open-ended question, resolve one issue but leave another to fester in the reader’s heart–and perhaps to add a little humor. In my current class on Chekhov, we watched a comical one act (1886) called The Evils of Tobacco, a monologue the playwright spent years revising. At first he wrote principally about the dangers of smoking, but through six revisions, the weed became a metaphor for the narrator’s unhappy marriage, his inability to do something meaningful in his life. In this way the comedy of the henpecked husband morphed into a drama of “broken dreams,” a “wasted life.”

     And in the one act comedy, The Bear, Madame Popov, who swears that her love for her late husband will last “beyond the grave,” admits in the same sentence that “before my very eyes he made love to other women and deceived me, mocked at my feelings!” In the end, insulted by a man who comes to collect money, she fetches her late husband’s pistols: “What pleasure I shall have putting a bullet through your brazen head!” She challenges the impudent fellow to a duel–and though he feels a fool, “the shame,” he admires her spunk and offers marriage.

     So it’s through our characters’ actions, perhaps, that we can best portray an injustice. For the moment Chekhov’s widow comes out on top, but what will happen after the kiss and the prospective lover’s masculine sense of shame at being bested by a woman? Chekhov doesn’t tell us–rather, he introduces the equality issue through action and dialogue, then leaves it for the audience, and the reader, to mull over.

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10 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    I think one of the abiding appeals to mystery readers is that the novels bring order to a chaotic world. The rules apply here. Everything gets more or less sorted out in the end. Real life just isn’t like that. As Sartre said, “life is absurd.” In novels, it’s easier to laugh at politicians and injustice.

    • True, Jacquie. It is easier to laugh at politicians, even police in our books. I often feel guilty when I make a cop sound a bit dense–just to point up the good work of my protag. But I do love the existentialist Sartre, although sometimes he’s a bit too nihilistic for me. Anyway, the bad stuff in life is easier to take with a spoonful of sugar.

  2. Nancy, very well-written and insightful. As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword, and I admire that you address social issues via your fiction. Your books sound interesting and engaging.

    • Thanks, Christy. I do wail at the wrongs of the world, and writing does offer a bit of salve–or keep me from muttering out loud to my family! I should have mentioned Moliere in the blog–he’s one of my favorite laugh-out-loud satirists. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a doctor in his century!

  3. My writing has come to a stop except for the newspaper articles I write monthly for the swspotlight.com . However, I was so tired of the hateful postings to my newsfeed for Facebook I started to respond – and my true colors came out. I learned that people I respected surprised me with their bias, bigotry, hate-mongering, religious fanaticism and downright threats to my freedom of choices and those of all women in this country through their votes. It was an awakening that led my pen to write even more and for me to be the recipient of labeling, hate statements, and some posts that were actually frightening by the venom projected. Yet, I could no longer remain silent. Many who shot ugly remarks at me were authors in my friends list; many unfriended me. I am for diversity; I am for equality of rights for citizens of all backgrounds; I am for sensible integration of immigrants into the mainstream (perhaps even non-sensible integration for some); I am for fair and equitable taxing structures that eliminate loopholes for the insanely privileged in a country with children with distended stomachs and poor dying from disease for lack of insurance; I am for God’s children caring about each other because blood runs red in us all and a dying man doesn’t ask the source of the transfusion blood. I am a patriot; I live by the golden rule practiced by just about every religion on the face of the earth and I respect other people’s rights to believe as their heart dictates but not to legislate their beliefs into my life and limit my freedoms. So, keep it up. Someone has to be brave enough to fight injustice with the pen, expose the culprits and keep the light burning for a just and peaceful earth that does not destroy itself through greed and chemistry. When I fought for the rights of migrant and seasonal workers in the impoverished town of Immokalee, someone told me that there are no rewards for those who love with all their hearts and seek positive change; even Christ was crucified.

    • Don’t stop writing, DK–the world needs you to continue to speak out! I’m so grateful to receive this brave response to my little blog. I’ve received venomous posts on FBook off and on, too, and it’s so easy to be intimidated–but we can’t let ourselves be. I guess this is why I write fiction–it’s easier to speak for peace and equality in a character’s head. Yet in one sense, I guess, we’re hiding behind a fictional character and need to air our thoughts to the world as well. Come what may! Thank you so much for this humane outcry in the wilderness!

  4. Thanks for an important and thoughtful post, Nancy, and thanks to DK for her courage. I agree that we need to include injustice in our fiction, because it exists in real life. I applaud your outrage and the way you make it work for you. I’ve been unfriended by family because of expressing my beliefs–and as much as that hurts, I’m better off without hiding myself from them.
    Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Great, Nikki. Another open mind on our side! But again, because we’re writing fiction, we have to couch our outrage in action and dialogue–rather than doing a rant. This is often hard to do. How much do mystery writers have to entertain, rather than instruct or transform? This can be a dilemma, and I don’t know the whole answer.

  5. Nancy, thank you for your thoughtful post. I think many of us, like you, were drawn to writing crime fiction because of our concern for social issues. Actually, I can’t think of a better reason.

    DK, I second what Nancy said. Please don’t let the hatemongers silence you.

    • And a thoughtful response, Anita! I’m sure you’re right: that social issues have drawn so many of us to mystery fiction, We write to entertain, yes, but also to tell our stories and try to right the wrongs of our world.

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