Do social issues belong in the books we read?

By Amy Leadbitter

Throughout history, novels have been used to inform, educate and expand the horizons of its reader to a variety of social issues. Every genre, from YA, to crime, to romance, has often promoted or explored different social issues of our current world, and for good reason. 

The argument that these real-life issues need to stay out of our escapist novel-reading time is unacceptable to me. Nothing made by humans, especially in the arts, can be made in a neutral environment. The experiences of the author, their values and beliefs, will shine through regardless – and it should. Books are a fantastic way to engage the audience with a certain outlook of the world, or to understand something they may not have thought about before. Some may argue that we have enough media to do this already, but I believe books are in a uniquely brilliant position to do this better. Firstly, authors are not as motivated by profit as directors and executives are. I have never met an author who decided writing was the path for them because of the great pay; authors write because they love to write. This means their motive is not to play it safe for fear of profit margins. Film makers must consider the views of society and whether it will break even, meaning important or controversial topics are unlikely to make it to the big screen. Authors are not as restricted by this, meaning a much wider variety of issues might be explored in novels from the fact authors are not pandering to popular mainstream ideas. Secondly, books are a much more fun format to learn than other methods, such as talks or lectures. You explore through a character or a fantasy setting, allowing much more engagement with the topic because, frankly, it’s nowhere near as boring. 

The way we learn about the world around us is not always the most impartial either. Every institution has an agenda. Schools, for example, are restricted as to what they can allow students to talk about or read. Family and friends might not be the best equipped to answer life’s questions. But books? There’s a whole world of differing views, issues and systems to explore. It helps people understand issues that may never personally affect them in real life. I remember my awakening to subtle racial institutions by reading Noughts and Crosses at age 12 and having a eureka moment at the plasters in this ‘racially flipped’ society being for dark skin tones instead, making the white character feel excluded. As a young white girl in a rural area, I had never had to encounter or confront racial microaggressions, but books like these were crucial in developing my understanding of the world outside of my own little bubble. They can also give hope and encouragement to those of us struggling in the real world. Reading how a character overcomes a struggle similar to ours, from small issues such as trouble fitting in, to big issues of government oppression, it empowers the reader to fix problems we face in the real world, just as our favourite characters did.