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Do social issues belong in novels? Or should fiction help us to escape the world’s problems?

I can’t believe it’s time for another Round Robin. (I say this every month! Life is galloping away with me.)

Today’s theme has got me thinking hard again. What current issues are important to you? How often do modern social/global issues have a place in your stories?

round robin, helena fairfax

These are both great questions. Here is my answer to the first question (or part answer, as I could write much more): One of the items in the news that has

helena fairfax
Photo via Pixabay

really affected me recently – and has affected millions of us – is the sight of refugees from Syria and north Africa making desperate attempts to get into safer countries in Europe. What extraordinary and heartrending sights we’ve seen from the safety of our living-rooms. Young men risking their lives to get into the Channel tunnel (at least ten have died); whole families walking hundreds of miles by the side of a busy road to reach Germany; flimsy dinghies washed up on beaches in Greece. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the terrible sight of a toddler lying dead on a beach, and his grieving father. All of these stories have given me a terrible sense of impotence, along with anger at the governments of the world – in particular, those of the countries who are the cause of this distress to innocent people, but also anger against the governments of the developed world. People are dying. Why are we not able to join together to help? And what can I do as an individual to help these people, apart from give money to charities who are trying to provide assistance? It’s a terrible thing to watch people in distress and feel as though you should be helping, but you can’t.

helena fairfax, john steinbeckI know there are many writers in the past who have addressed social issues in their work. The author who I always think of when I see these images of migrants is John Steinbeck and his novel The Grapes of Wrath. This book told the true story of how hard-working farming families were driven out of their homes in Oklahoma and were forced to travel west to California to look for work. Although the story is set almost a hundred years ago, the tragedy that befell these farmers and the situation of present-day migrants are so similar, it’s heart-rending. I’d love to say that writing can change the world – but have we really learned nothing in a hundred years?

As for whether my own writing deals with social issues, I write romance and commercial women’s fiction, and like most novels in this genre my stories are about the lives of ordinary women. I like to create characters who have real problems, and social issues are bound to impact on their lives, as they do for most women I know. In The Silk Romance, for example, the heroine’s father suffers from depression after his wife has died, and the heroine has had to make some sacrifices in order to look after the family. The provision of care for people suffering from mental health problems in this country isn’t great, and the fact that Sophie has taken on the burden of care reflects how hard it is for family members to cope.

Kate, the heroine of A Way from Heart to Heart, was brought up in care after her relationship with her mother broke down. Children brought up in care face far more problems as teenagers than others, and this novel deals with the issues facing a group of disadvantaged teenagers, and the work of a charity to try and help them gain the skills they’ll need in the future.

These sound like serious reads, but as my books are romances I like to think they aren’t depressing – they’re positive and optimistic stories about how people can overcome personal difficulties. Of course when you watch the news, and you see that people are actually dying whilst trying to take care of their families, then perhaps my stories – with their happy endings – aren’t realistic. But personally I think there is enough misery in the world around us, and having something to read that gives you hope that things could actually turn out OK isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wonder if you asked the people waiting in the camps in Calais what they would prefer to read during the long days – a book with a happy ending, or a “realistic” book that reflects the unhappiness of their own lives – what would they choose? Having suffered personal tragedy in my own life, I know which one I’d go for.

* * *

I’d like to thank Rhobin Courtright for another great topic.

How about you? What news story has affected you recently? As a reader, do you prefer to read fiction that allows you to escape from harsh reality, or do you think fiction should always reflect social issues? If you’re a writer, do you incorporate social issues in your novels?

If you have any comments at all on this interesting subject, I’d love to hear from you.

And if you’d like to read what other authors have to say, please follow the links below.

Skye Taylor
A.J. Maguire
Beverley Bateman
Margaret Fieland
Marci Baun
Victoria Chatham
Connie Vines
Bob Rich
Rachael Kosinski
Helena Fairfax
Judith Copek
Rhobin Courtright

22 thoughts on “Do social issues belong in novels? Or should fiction help us to escape the world’s problems?

  1. Your observations are so true. Watching these tragic events from my comfortable living room creates many mixed feelings: compassion and helplessness, but also a horrible sense of some dystopian new world nipping at my heels. But I want to think there’ll be a bright and shining future for everyone to look forward to. And that’s why I’d go for the happy ending every time, whether I write it, or read it.


    1. That’s a great comment, Beverley. It does feel as though the world is changing. But I guess after the Second World War there must have been similar scenes of despair and chaos. I’m with you in hoping that the future will be much better for most of these migrants, if we can just help them through these terrible times. Thanks so much for your comment.


  2. Helena, it doesn’t matter whether you write romances or crime novels or science fiction. Your belief system comes through anyway, and you are an agent in shaping the opinions of others. So, thank you for being compassionate for refugees. I was a refugee as a teenager, and it’s not a comfortable thing at the best of times. They deserve all the help we can give them.



    1. Thanks for those words, Bob. I appreciate your comment. My mother’s family came to England during the 30s. It definitely wasn’t easy. Refugees and migrants are individuals with hopes and dreams – not the “swarms” our Prime Minister referred to them as. I hope you settled into a brighter life. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.


  3. It is so interesting to read all the posts, they are similar but so different. I liked your sentiment: “I think there is enough misery in the world around us, and having something to read that gives you hope that things could actually turn out OK isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” Hope is always a good thing, isn’t it? Enjoyed your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an interesting topic and questions, Helena. I’m firmly in the escapist camp, giving people something to read that takes them away from real life for a while. It’s also my preferred reading and film watching as I feel so helpless watching real life tragedy unfolding on the news. But fiction can also address many problems in a way that brings hope to readers. I’ve read more than once how reading escapist type fiction has kept a woman sane now and then in an otherwise depressing situation.


    1. Hi Rosemary, I’ve heard that, too, that reading can help people suffering from depression. There’s something uplifting about a happy ending that really can boost your mood, even if only temporarily. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment.


  5. Like you, my genre is supposed to have a happy ending and mostly center on developing relationships so the larger issues of the world don’t take center stage. Also, like you, I find the images of Syrian refugees heartbreaking and troubling. Why can’t we do something about it. But then I see other images of mostly young men of obvious Arab descent climbing off the trains bringing them to asylum supposedly and wonder were are the children and the women? Why are they all just young men? and because we live in the world we live in, I can’t ignore the idea that they might be terrorists, taking advantage of the situation to infiltrate with the intent of creating incredible mayhem and when that thought comes to me I have to ask how can we be humane about the Syrian refugees and still protect ourselves. And I don’t have an answer.


    1. Skye, I believe any terrorists with a serious intention would try a different route than risking their lives in this way. I understand what you mean when you say there are a lot of young men trying to reach Europe. But young men are often the ones who are prepared to take a risk, and that’s why they outweigh women and the elderly in a dangerous journey. My son was a young man, and for this reason I would offer other mothers’ sons a hand of friendship. But I don’t know the answers. I wish I did. I think this situation is something that has moved us all. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment.


  6. In a word, I do feel social issues should be included, albeit not preachily. Just saw a bit of the original THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (not the crap Keanu Reeves remake) which essentially had an alien drop in and warn us against nuclear annihilation. There is a clever little scene where the alien (Michael Rennie), blending in with the crowd near the flying saucer, is briefly questioned about the situation by a reporter. When he tries to give a reasoned, nuanced answer (ie not ‘let’s shoot anything different to us’), the reporter doesn’t want to know. I like fun chic-lit and respect Erica James, but I’ve also just been reminded of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and also remember Gene Roddenberry developed STAR TREK partly as a way to fool the networks and explore social issues via the prism of sci-fi.

    So don’t preach, but I do on occasion like to see some comment on social and current affairs incorporated into the text.


    1. Hi James, that’s a great point about the “prism of sci-fi.” Sci-fi a genre that’s often been used by writers and film-makers to explore social issues. “Let’s not shoot anyone different to us” is a theme that’s often central in sci-fi novels and films, and has been for decades, but there are far too many news items every day showing people doing just that.
      I’ll look out for that original The Day the Earth Stood Still film. Thanks for dropping in, and for your thoughtful comment.


  7. Helena, I do think that people read fiction to escape our world, so if a writer creates solutions–however imaginary the setting–to the problems the reader is stressing about, then there is nothing wrong with that. Sure, maybe the ending realistically wouldn’t happen, but it COULD. I know I read for escapism, and if the ending is too real and depressing I will never pick it up again. I don’t want to read a book and feel horrible!


    1. Hi Rachael, I’m with you on not re-reading a book with a depressing ending. Not unless the book was a total masterpiece. I enjoy books with an uplifting ending, and I agree – it’s good to imagine it could happen, even if in real life it’s unlikely.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment.


  8. Hi, Helena. I don’t think it’s possible, regardless of your genre, to write something entirely void of modern social issues. Authors are shaped by the world they live in. I write fantasy in an entirely fictional world, yet some modern social issues exist. I think the author can decide how prominent a roll the issues play within the book.

    Some problems with letting too many modern social issues into a book is you run the risk of the book sounding dated in a few years. There’s also the possibility of sounding preachy, and alienating some readers.


    1. Hi Eric, I agree with you on the danger of books sounding preachy. A lot of Victorian novels have dated and are unreadable nowadays because of all the moralising – which just shows what a master Dickens was, as his books deal with social situations and are still as readable today. And a lot of fantasy books deal with social issues in a totally readable way, too, eg Ursula le Guin, whose books I love.
      Thanks very much for your great comment!


  9. I think one of the reasons I don’t spin my entire story around social issues is because when I pick up a book, I’m primarily looking for entertainment. I’ve had enough tragedy in my life, I read enough news articles about tragic events like the refugees from Syria that I don’t need to read about it in a book. So, truly, I read to escape. There are invariably social issues within my books because the characters’ lives are shaped by the world they live in. Unless they live in Utopia, there will always be social issues and the characters will always be molded by them.

    Excellent post.


    1. Thanks so much, Marci. I’m with you in that my characters are affected by the world around them. I think romance novels make great histories of the issues affecting women’s lives. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your interesting comment!


    1. I think most people seem to agree subtlety is the key, Susan, rather than preaching. No one wants to pick up a book to read a sermon. It’s been an interesting discussion. Thanks so much for your comment!


  10. I believe the characters in our books are who they are because of what they have faced and overcome (or not). Poverty, racism, the subjugation of women resonate with most writers, and readers. We don’t need to beat the drum but we do need to make sure our characters are three-dimensional and it’s fine to give them opinions, esp. ones we don’t share. I like how you are able to touch on problems without making gloom and doom in the book. Nice post.


    1. Hi Judy, I like your description of a book’s characters – that they are what they have faced and overcome. Great characters learn and grow through the course of a novel – or, if they fail to learn, at least the reader sees how they’ve failed.
      Thanks very much for your comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It was an interesting topic.


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