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What to read next? Fiction or non-fiction? | OPINION
A year ago, the movie, Hunger Games, pulled in $155 million in its first weekend, making it one of the top earners of the decade. Suzanne Collins, author of Hunger Games, pitted simple folk against an elitist and oppressive government, striking a nerve in people who wonder what the heck the world’s power brokers are up to.
Fiction sells best when it’s rooted in tensions of the real world. And since social tensions peak during periods of change, Right-Now happens to be fertile ground for plot-lines like Hunger Games. In the hands of responsible writers, fiction reflects what’s happening and prophesies what’s coming up. We need literary prophets. Without them, we’re like passengers on a blacked-out train with little sense of direction or speed. Certain writers though, are able to place their awareness outside the train to provide us with clues as to where we’re headed — and how fast.
Fiction often tells metaphorical truths in depth. It criticizes leadership. It casts fictional heroes and villains in lightly disguised roles of real-world characters. In a genre called Dystopian Fiction it warns us of when and how society is headed toward potential disaster.
Library shelves are stuffed with Dystopian Fiction. In a typical plot, characters we’re supposed to identify with are made-up characters who live under some form of oppressive system that has parallels in our world. Without that connection, books won’t sell. Toss in some sex and violence and they sell like hotcakes.
It is our good fortune that we’re blessed with conscience-driven writers who take on the mission of warning us about real-world dark issues. Since fictionalizing real people skirts libel and slander penalties, writers dare to take on law, the military, government, economics and religion — for starters. Call them literary whistle-blowers. So long as they keep from naming names or portraying real-world events with photographic accuracy, they don’t get sued.
Some librarians list these titles under Social Fiction. It’s not a new thing, that dusty old delight, Gulliver’s Travels, remaining one of the best. Add a bunch of 20th Century classics including Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, The Crucible, Dune Chronicles, Wall Street, Grapes of Wrath and the Jungle. More recently, House of Cards continues to make news while Neal Steffenson’s wildly intellectual books tackle power-hungry institutions. Sci-Fi is full of this stuff.
Librarians have trouble rounding social fiction titles into one collection. Too subjective, they say. Too general, too broad, too hard to define. You have to look elsewhere for lists. For instance, Barnes and Noble’s web service lists 27,217 titles for Politics and Social Issues. Scanning their listings is as entertaining as scanning Netflix for a good movie. If interested, look for listings of Social Science Fiction titles, too.
One of my all-time favorites was economist, banker and writer Paul Erdman who educated readers with thrillers based on inside knowledge of financial abusers. Once jailed in Switzerland for bank fraud, he intimately knew the dark side of international finance he shared with his readers. Writers like Erdman prove that it’s possible to gain a more complete understanding of real world by reading carefully chosen fiction.
Depending on the circumstances, fiction can be the best voice for whistle-blowers. Should they take a head-on approach to exposing wrong-doers they’ll be buried in lawsuits. Or just buried. Better to avoid revenge by writing thinly disguised tales, especially when targeted wrongdoers are backed by political clout and deep pockets.
Exposés of business culture illustrate conscienceless power, as in, “The weak are meat and the strong do eat.” In Michael Douglas’ screenplay portrayal of modern robber-baron, Gordon Gekko, he famously said, “Greed is good.” Actually, if blame for such moral failings can be attached anywhere, it should be to the nation’s leading schools of economics and business, including Wharton and Harvard. It is there where business leaders had a chance to set a better tone for business ethics and blew it.
That blame must be shared with our judicial system which has a knack for busting underlings while letting CEOs, CFOs and Chairmen of the Board walk free. When pensions and homes of tens of thousands of people were lost through shady dealings and justice saw and heard no evil, it was fiction writers who took up the cause and rubbed perpetrators’ noses in the stink of their offenses.
Try The Aspen Account by Bryan DeVore or The Last Hedge by Carey Green. Check them out on Amazon’s website where it’s easy to sort the wheat from the chaff by scanning endless readers’ reviews. Among the good stuff you’ll find that, beyond entertainment, solid fiction writers deliver sermons worth thinking about.
Beyond whistle-blowing and prophesy, fiction delivers a smattering of general education. Much of what we know about military adventures, battlefield life and death, courtroom antics and high adventure comes via fiction. But watch out, while there’s much to learn through writers’ stories, a lot of what they pass off as fact is often a bunch of hooey.
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