Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fiction with a Message

Sandra Parshall

Some people believe that fiction writers, along with actors and musicians, should keep their opinions to themselves and do their work with no goal beyond entertaining an audience. No social or political messages should be allowed to make readers stop and think about real-world issues.

Fortunately, crime fiction authors have always ignored that advice, because they realize their characters don’t exist in a void and have to make their way in the same world readers inhabit. Some of the most popular mystery writers have proved it’s possible to present their own passionate viewpoints without losing readers. Carl Hiaasen is an anti-development crusader in south Florida and gets that across in his books, but readers are too busy laughing to object to having their consciousness raised about environmental issues. Long before Hiaasen, John D. MacDonald kept readers enthralled with mysteries that highlighted destructive development in the same fragile Florida ecosystem.

Many crime fiction writers explore a variety of today’s most sensitive social issues in their books. Julia Spencer-Fleming, for example, has woven mysteries around the plight of illegal migrant workers, teenage pregnancy and abandoned babies, violence against gays, and post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from Iraq.

More often, though, writers focus on particular issues that mean the most to them. The challenge they face is finding fresh ways to weave those topics into entertaining stories. I asked three authors who are currently including environmental issues in their novels why they feel fiction is a good medium for their message and whether any readers have objected to being “educated” as they’re entertained.

“Crime fiction is a good medium for exploring ANY issue that people feel passionate about, because that passion, when pushed to the extreme, can lead to murder,” Beth Groundwater says. Beth writes a series featuring river ranger Mandy Tanner, who works on the Arkansas River in Colorado.

C.J. Lyons agrees. “All my crime fiction has a message, whether environmental or simply about everyday people finding the courage to become their own heroes.” C.J., a physician who began her career writing medical thrillers and now co-authors environmentally themed novels (Rock Bottom, Hot Water) with activist Erin Brockovich, says Brockovich sought her out as a writing partner because of the strong message about self-reliance in C.J.’s first series. “I feel fiction is an appropriate medium to explore issues, whether environmental, political, or moral/ethical. Crime fiction is the best venue because at its base you have the timeless struggle of good versus evil, and our job as writers is to explore all that messy gray area between the two.”

“Environmental thrillers offer a unique opportunity to educate readers about real-world problems in the context of an exciting story,” says thriller writer Karen Dionne. The world’s dwindling supply of clean water and misuse of this precious resource has been a major concern in Karen’s personal life and she explored the issue in her first book, Freezing Point. Her second, Boiling Point, is about the disastrous consequences of a radical scheme to end global warming. Both of Karen’s eco-thrillers, she notes, have been used as course material at the University of Delaware.

Whatever a book’s underlying message, telling a compelling tale must come first.

“I always try to balance things so the reader can make up their own mind without being preached to,” C.J. says. “Above all, my job is to entertain...the education comes in a close second, but if a book isn't entertaining, who's gonna read it in the first place?” She says she hasn’t heard any complaints, and in the case of the books co-written with Brockovich, some readers have asked for more information about mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and the dangers of nuclear power.

Beth Groundwater always tries to see her writing through the eyes of a reader. “I complain when an author stops the action in the middle of a gripping story to stand on their soapbox and push (or have one of their characters push) their viewpoint on an issue,” she says. “I prefer to show how the issue affects my characters' lives, then let readers draw their own conclusions. For example, in Deadly Currents, I illustrate how water rights affects the lives of not only river rangers and rafters, but of everyone who lives and works in the water-starved American West. Because of my organic approach, I've never gotten a complaint from a reader about preaching my beliefs. I have, however, been told that I've opened readers' eyes about an issue and made them think more about it, even to the point of changing their opinion.”

Human impact on the natural world, and the constant push-and-pull between environmentalists and business, can be divisive and inflammatory, and Karen believes writers must keep this in mind. “I think more than most other kinds of fiction, environmental mysteries and thrillers walk a fine line. There's always going to be a certain amount of political and sociological baggage that goes with having written an eco-thriller. If a reader disagrees with the author's environmental position, that may well get in the way of their enjoying the story.” 

Some people simply aren’t interested in mysteries that are “about something.” One of Karen’s readers complained in an online review, “I sympathize with the message, but at the same time, I read fiction to be entertained, not to be told how often we are destroying the earth even if it may be true." Other readers, though, have echoed the Romantic Times reviewer who said, “[Freezing Point's] ingenious plot, genuine characters, superlative writing and nail-biting suspense will change the way you look at a bottle of water.”

C.J. believes the six most powerful and irresistible words in the English language are "Let me tell you a story..." When it’s done right, a story can change lives, change opinions – or, at the very least, give the reader something to think about.

How do you feel about fiction with a message?

Learn more about C.J. Lyons, Beth Groundwater, and Karen Dionne on their websites:, and


Sheila Connolly said...

I think social commentary definitely has a place in crime fiction, as long as it's integral to the plot and not too preachy. I've discussed integrated pest management strategies (minimizing use of chemical pesticides, using natural enemies, and so on) in my Orchard mysteries, but it's clearly relevant to the central, ongoing story line.

I often find myself quoting Mary Poppins' "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." If you the writer embeds a more serious issue in an entertaining story, I think it may actually be more effective than shouting from a soapbox.

Steve Liskow said...

Good grief!

Stories have conveyed messages since Sophocles, Shakespeare, and the myths (not to mention the Old Testament). These works express ideas about the responsibility of government or our place in the natural order. Art always creates some form of order or logic, and that's an agenda, too.

How can you tell a story that has no moral or ethical content? That's what gives it depth. In addition to these four writers, you can find dozens of others who have constant concerns. If people don't want a message, maybe they should try reading kite string.

caryn said...

I like to "learn" something when I read. I trust authors to know their stuff and have often gone on to google and/or check out other books on a topic. But I have also quit reading authors because their crusade for some issue severely interupted the story while the author preached to the reader. And there has been at least 1 author I quit reading because the position on the issue pushed is one I strongly disagree with.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

The one thing I've found all authors who weave in social issues have in common is a determination NOT to be preachy. As a writer, this imperative has taught me a lot about revision.

Sandra Parshall said...

Remember the negative reaction to Nevada Barr's depiction of child prostitution in BURN? A long string of scathing "reviews" were posted on Amazon, and I saw lots of negative comments on DorothyL too. Nobody was defending child molestation, of course. Most people said they're aware this happens, but they don't want to be reminded of it -- and they don't want to read about it in a novel that's supposed to be entertaining. I didn't enjoy reading it either, and I wished afterward that I could get those images out of my head. Yet I would never condemn Barr for writing vividly about a subject that obviously troubles her deeply, and I'm glad her publisher supported the book.

Other readers praised BURN, and it was on some critics' Best of the Year lists precisely because it tackled a tough subject. It was a bestseller, btw.

Sally Carpenter said...

The great film commedians have shown that humor can make social justice messages palatable (Modern Times, The Great Dictator). I like a book with stubstance as long as I get an entertaining story and realistic characters, not a sermon and stereotypes. Save the long speeches for talk radio. Show, don't tell me about an issue. Readers seem to remember the comedy in my mystery novel, but underneath is serious stuff about alcoholism and building relationships. Sally Carpenter

Sandra Parshall said...

Some great movies have featured social/political issues. We remember Chinatown for the incest angle, but the story revolves around corrupt manipulation of water rights in southern California.

Diane said...

I'm with you on presenting sometimes difficult issues for the public to face, but without being preachy about it. Maybe they'll be curious enough - after being 'entertained' - to do some more checking on their own.

For me, whether or not I'm reading one such book will depend on what's going on around me at the time and my resulting state of mind. For example, when our country was invading Iraq, and the whole thing was - for the first time ever - being televised, I felt I that if our young people were having to go through it, I had to watch. I am a military brat, and those kids are family, more, actually, than my blood relatives. But it was stressful, and one Saturday I finally turned off the tv, pulled one of my unread mysteries off the bookshelf and read it in one day. Carolyn Hart's latest at that time. I had other, deeper mysteries on the shelf, and would eventually get to them. But that time - and for a bit after - I could only read 'fun' mysteries. Other times I crave deeper stories. It all depends on what's going on around me.

Diane said...

And, Sandra, Chinatown and one other movie, Clockwork Orange, were the only two I have ever seen that really, really sickened me. I hated them, no matter the message behind them.

Christopher Graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Dionne said...

Great post, Sandy! It's very interesting to see my fellow authors' comments. I agree with CJ's remark that above all, in fiction, we're telling stories. Still, when some of our characters have strong opinions on political or environmental topics (even if we, as the author, don't happen to share them), I think this does potentially narrow the book's audience. I have at least one writer friend who openly admits he doesn't read anything labeled "environmental" because of the associated "baggage." (His word.)

My advice to authors looking to label their work is to use as broad a category as possible in order not to unnecessarily limit their audience.

Abigail-Madison Chase said...

I would agree crime fiction is a place that social issues can and do give people a chance to present differnt views of issues...great post!

JJM said...

Morality tales are all well and good, but it's the sort of thing Lewis Carroll very rightly parodied in the Alice books.

The story is central. Everything you write must be in service to the story. If the message (the "moral") does not do this, major revision is in order -- or the elimination of that message altogether.--Mario R.

Anita Page said...

If we're breathing, and paying attention to the world around us, we have opinions on social issues. So should our characters, I think. Denise Mina comes to mind as a writer who beautifully integrates the political and the personal.

Sandra Parshall said...

Denise Mina is one of my favorite writers. Her latest book, THE END OF THE WASP SEASON, is phenomenal. Her books are about people. She shows society and its problems through them and their personal and professional lives.

One former favorite writer I've had to stop reading, at least temporarily, is T. Jefferson Parker. These days he's writing exclusively about drug trafficking in the Mexi-Cali region, and the corrupt cops who are supposed to be policing it. The whole subject bores me to tears.

In addition to books about drug trafficking, I usually avoid thrillers about terrorism and books about diabolical plots involving figures in national government. If the book has a flag on the cover, I steer clear.

caryn said...

Sandy, I am one who didn't like the last Barr book but I haven't stopped reading her. I don't think she was preachy in the book, but in the last couple of books she as just taken the series in a very different direction. Much less "park and outdoorsy stuff" and more societal problem stuff.
And so there is a new book coming and I have it on hold at the library, but I will read carefully the dust jacket before I invest many hours in it. Parkish/ outdoorsy I'll read. Deep dark societal problem? Probably not.

Anonymous said...

I totally adore John D. McDonald and Carl Hiaasen and will definitely look into all of the authors you mention in this post.