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Does talking about issues in novels make a difference?
By Alan Gibbons
I remember a discussion when one of my books was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Somebody in the audience asked me why I wrote ‘issue books.’
“Do I really?” I asked, rather taken aback.
“Yes,” my interrogator asked, “it’s always racism, bullying, war and peace. Why is that?”
I have to admit, it had me wondering which books don’t have issues. People often contrast two authors writing in roughly the same historical era. Charlotte Bronte in Shirley writes about the Luddite riots and the presence of the military transferred from the continental conflict, while Jane Austen barely reflects the Napoleonic wars at all. There are still many ‘issues’ in Austen’s novels, property and relationships, the way a woman tries to gain some control over her life in a male-dominated society.
I think my questioner was misunderstanding how a novel works. A novelist is necessarily enquiring into the world in which he or she lives. The subject matter can be more or less evident, can have a heavier or lighter touch in the body of the text, but it is always there. Novels are about something, however much some ‘Art for Art’s sake’ purists may protest.
If you take contemporary Young Adult fiction as a spectrum, there are those of us who give greater weighting to aspects of social and political reality. Many of my favourite writers, Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman, Robert Swindells, Anne Cassidy do not shy away from controversial subjects and wrestle with subjects such as honour killing, racism, homelessness, crime and child murder. To imply they are simply novelising their own views would be an insult to their craft and attachment to character and narrative. The primacy of storytelling is there for all to see. They are not trying to ram anything down anyone’s throat.
Of course I have my own personal beliefs. I am of the Left. I despise racism and sexual oppression. This naturally finds a voice in my books. Indeed, it triggered a comically intemperate outburst against me on the blog Conservative Home. In Caught in the Crossfire I take on racism and Islamophobia. In An Act of Love it is terrorism and radicalisation. In Raining Fire it is gang violence. In Hate it is the issue of hate crime. I am not briefing or instructing my readers in these novels. If that is what I wanted to do I would be a journalist or a sociologist. The issues are the context of my storytelling, the soil in which my characters flourish and grow.
Do the novels have any impact? Will racism be any less virulent because of Caught in the Crossfire? Will hate crime be any less likely to occur because of Hate? I hope so, but novelists can’t give their readers the answers. At best, we can ask the right questions.
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Eve’s older sister, Rosie, was bright and alive and always loved being the centre of attention. Then one day, she is brutally murdered. Six months later, Eve meets Antony and discovers that he was there the night Rosie died and did nothing to help. Is there any way she can ever get past that? Inspired by the Sophie Lancaster murder in 2007, which saw Sophie and her partner Rob viciously attacked in Stubbylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire because of the way they dressed. This is a hard-hitting real-life thriller about friendship, courage, loss, forgiveness and about our society and communities.