Over the past few years I’ve noticed a substantial uptick in novels crossing my desk that have an extremely overt political message. Their pitches will often cite that the world needs their new book. The authors will treat the message, and the world’s supposed need for it, as the thing that’s going to sell the book.
I call this manifesto fiction. And authors can go very, very far astray if they focus too much on the politics and not enough on the storytelling.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of times I agree with the substance of the political message that’s being espoused! And, at the end of the day, everyone has to write the book they want to write.
But particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publication and if you have writing goals beyond just finishing the novel, here’s the thing you must remember: people will only buy your book if it’s a compelling story.
Focus on the storytelling and make it messy
There is a long and proud history of novels that shift culture and politics through sheer force of story, whether that’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Handmaid’s Tale, or, more recently, The Hate U Give. There’s also a darker history here, including influential novels that advance racist narratives that I don’t really want to give a further platform by naming.
Knowing this, authors set about writing the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of, say climate change, sometimes with the zeal of converts.
What they forget is that the classic novels that have shifted the culture aren’t didactic diatribes about their chosen topic. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a treatise on reproductive justice, it’s an immersive alternate future that gains power through its plausibility. The Jungle is perhaps the most manifesto-y of these novels, but it’s still a gripping read focused on specific characters who Sinclair goes to great lengths to help the reader sympathize with.
The great danger of manifesto fiction is that the author will put the thumb on the scale as they craft their protagonists and villains, resulting in caricatures and stultifying plot lines. The protagonists are unduly heroic, and the villains unduly villainous. It’s blindingly obvious how things will turn out. The author’s politics are like a decoder ring that spoils what’s to come.
Authors writing didactic fiction will often fail to empathize with their villains and see the appealing traits that give them power. They fail to make it a fair fight.
If you’re going to write manifesto fiction, it’s got to be compellingly messy. We shouldn’t know who’s going to win, and both the protagonists and the villains need to represent a full spectrum of humanity.
Pitch the story, not the message
Publishing employees as a whole tend to be a disproportionately idealistic bunch, but they can only acquire what they think they can sell. And “please read this political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction” is not really a selling point.
People decide to write fiction for all sorts of reasons, and if you’re passionate about a topic that’s dear to your heart and you want to change the world, more power to you. Really. Seriously. I really believe in fiction’s power to shift reality, not least because of the effect it has on the author.
At that stage, it’s almost more helpful to forget what led you to write the book in the first place, to set aside the message, and make sure the novel is first and foremost a cracking read. Then make sure that it sounds like a great story when you pitch it.
Your message is not going to be the thing that sells your novel. But if your message is surrounded by a scintillating story that shifts your readers’ perceptions, you just might end up changing the world.
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Art: The Dispute by Reinhard Sebastian Zimmermann