Campaigners for equal rights and other freedoms don’t talk about reform anymore, but if it’s not revolution they want then technically it is reform. According to this western worldview, we are moving in a stream of time called Progress towards – something if not Utopia then always fairer, healtheir and wealthier all the time.
In the 19th century in northern Europe and North America, there was a movement of writers to expose social injustices through novels, with the goal of reform. They thought that if more people knew about injustices wrought upon the poor, women and children, then readers might add to pressure on government elites to reform laws. It was consciousness-raising about the suffering of others: The books were aimed at middle-class readers.
Protest novel, social novel thesis novel, propaganda novel, industrial novel, working-class/proletarian novel, condition-of-England novel: all describe the works of writers including Mary Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and, in the 20th century, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer and many more.
Critics argue about whether their social visions portrayed the truth and whether the authors really blamed structural problems or were more interested in individual character. On the literary front, too much protest can work against story-telling and other aesthetic qualities, leading to criticism about the novels being insufficiently literary. Other distinctions include
The value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. – The Victorian Web
I’m not a fan of drawing lines to distinguish between Real Art and everything else; I think you can have activist purpose and write beautifully at the same time, just as you can write nicely and have nothing much to say. The observations you make may feel significant to readers or not. Trends of the moment play a part: at the particular time in which I’m writing this, critics may introduce the idea of Cultural Appropriation, which suggests that outsiders should not write about social injustices they have not themselves lived.
To protest it may be enough to produce a portrait of how bad things are. To believe that reform is possible you need to be clear about what would constitute improvement. A novel about children forced to work in satanic mills might call for better working conditions for them or, alternatively, claim their right not to work at all but rather be allowed to enjoy ‘childhood’. To qualify as a reform-novel you may need to propose concrete solutions that can be formed into laws.
The Three-Headed Dog portrays life in underground economies amongst undocumented migrants, smugglers and sex workers, in a particular time and place: Spain in the early 21st century. After observing events surrounding undocumented migration and prostitution law for so many years, I got tired of being annoyed by the pontificating on policy and morals from people who seemed not to know many realities. To participate in mainstream debates one is pretty well forced to accept the framework of whoever’s funding the event or publication. The frameworks are never what I would choose myself.
Writing stories is a way to show how things are without being caught up in these alien frames. It is also a way to portray some of my own life, what I look at and care about. But not with avid activist purpose: in my case it’s about allowing ideas to float up from the depths and shape themselves into readable stories. Without calculating if they will be saleable, not taking advice about how to spin the ideas so they’re more palatable to policymakers or listening to the many well-meaning intermediaries who have counseled me to change things.
In the early years after Sex at the Margins came out I tried to talk about how labour policy might be linked to migration policy here and now (in the European Union and everywhere else). Seldom did interviewers follow this up, asking instead for me to rate competing prostitution laws (oversimplified into decriminalisation, ‘legalisation’ and penalisation of buying sex). Since then, policies on undocumented migration and what’s called trafficking have worsened.
But I resist. Resistance is still an option, the refusal to accept alien framings, perhaps the concept of debate itself. I wouldn’t call The Three-Headed Dog a Social-Problems Novel, but not because it’s written inside a crime or noir genre. I’d say rather because I don’t propose policies that might improve the wretched mess. At this moment I want more of the realities to come out – in a fuller form, with space for anthropological observation and literary emotion. So that a few readers somewhere may see into lives they otherwise never get to hear about. [This leads to ideas about what Education is, but enough for now.]
* In the pub plaque: Samuel Rogers, Anne Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Howard, Edgar Allen Poe and Dr Isaac Watts (none a known social-problem novelist)
-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist