June 4, 2012

The mighty pen: Fiction as a form of protest


Chinese author Yao Jiafu (R) interviewing Chen Xitong

Conversations With Chen Xitong, a new book of interviews with former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, provides a starkly different assessment of events surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre, claiming the Chinese government never should have used violence against pro-democracy students protesting China’s political system. The massacre occurred on this day 23 years ago.

Despite the government’s attempt to halt publication of the book, it was released in Hong Kong last week and is garnering much attention from civilians and politicians alike.

In the book, Chen, who was jailed for corruption for many years and only recently granted medical leave, says, “Nobody would have died in the June 4 incident if it was handled properly. I feel sorry, but I could not do anything, very sorry. I believe the truth of the 1989 episode will be uncovered one day.”

Conversations with Chen Xitong is a non-fiction account, of course, and is but one title in a large catalog of books whose primary purpose is promulgating change.

But what about the other side of the spectrum? Which fiction books, with roots firmly planted in protest, have provoked social change?

Some examples …

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century (and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible) and is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. The book’s impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the American Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”


by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is driven by a sense of urgent social problems, and the evocation of values carries conviction precisely because it is a response to what Dickens diagnosed as a pressing need.


by Victor Hugo

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. —Upton Sinclair


by George Eliot

Often called Eliot’s “political novel,” Felix Holt is a transitional work that addresses the most profound personal and political questions she had yet attempted in an English story. The moral outlook is sterner, the critique of social institutions more radical, and the novel presents a starker version of George Eliot’s moral and political positions …


by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a frank look at a woman’s life at the turn of the 19th century. Published in 1899, Chopin’s novella shocked critics and audiences alike, who showed little sympathy for the author or her central protagonist, Edna Pontellier. A master of craft, Chopin wrote a forceful novel about a woman who questioned not only her role in society, but the standards of society itself.


by Upton Sinclair

From the moment of its publication, Sinclair’s portrait of an immigration family caught in the cogs of the meatpacking industry has gained the attention of reformers, prime ministers, and presidents. Few other works of literature have been credited with making as direct a social impact as this novel. —Russ Castronovo


by John Steinbeck

This book is more than a novel about an epic journey in an overcrowded, heavy-laden old Dodge jalopy across Highway 66, across hot desert sands, on toward Canaanland, the land of milk and honey; and further on toward disillusion and revelation. It is an anthem in praise of human community. And thus survival. It is astonishingly contemporary. —Studs Terkel


by Ray Bradbury

When did science fiction first cross over from genre writing to the mainstream of American literature? Almost certainly it happened on October 19, 1953, when a young Californian named Ray Bradbury published a novel with the odd title of Fahrenheit 451. In a gripping story at once disturbing and poetic, Bradbury takes the materials of pulp fiction and transforms them into a visionary parable of a society gone awry, in which firemen burn books and the state suppresses learning. Meanwhile, the citizenry sits by in a drug-induced and media-saturated indifference. More relevant than ever a half-century later, Fahrenheit 451 has achieved the rare distinction of being both a literary classic and a perennial bestseller.


by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller’s World War II satire, Catch-22, poses the moral dilemma of how to remain sane in an insane world. When it was first published in 1961, the novel not only became a modern-day classic, but it also introduced the Catch-22 catchphrase into everyday vernacular. —Harold Bloom


And still there are many, many more. Beyond U.S. and British literature, works from Russia, Japan, Germany, Latin America, and elsewhere across the globe are thick with narratives of social protest. What other books belong on this list?


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.