Stories With An Ax To Grind

A diversion from the road for a moment.

I recently received a note from another writer attending a fiction workshop in California.  I was told that in the course of the workshop the instructor handed down a dictum, something we all do when we’re trying to deliver as much information to students as we can in a too short a time.  The dictum was essentially this: Fiction should never deal with issues.  Fiction is about story, about motivation, about people, about relationship.  It is not about issues.  Which is something I might have said ten years ago.  But I feel very differently now.

In fact, one of the reasons I like writing mysteries is that it allows me to seduce readers into thinking about issues, very often from a perspective they might not otherwise have considered.  In my work, I’ve slipped in an overview of the controversy concerning the economic necessity of logging vs. the rape of the land (Purgatory Ridge).  I’ve dealt with the heartbreaking consideration of all the children whom we turn our backs on in this society and who are eventually lost to us (Copper River).  I’ve dealt with Indian gaming casinos and the affect they have on both the Ojibwe and the white communities.  I’ve discussed drugs, on and off the reservation, and the understandable reasoning behind the rise of gangs (Red Knife).  And always through my work runs the undercurrent of racial prejudice.

What is true is that in all this the bottom line is the human factor.  How do these things affect the people involved?  Non-fiction, it seems to me, often deals with the statistics of an issue.  It’s a macro view, often clinically distant.  Fiction offers the micro view, the dirty, nitty-gritty of what all the sociological or psychological or economic terminology tries loftily to define.  It is, as the instructor so wisely suggested, about story, motivation, people, relationship.  But it tends to be about the force or forces that can warp human beings or break them and against which admirable people try to stand.

In my own experience, the best non-fiction are those pieces of writing that take a true event and create a compelling narrative, which means they make it about people, not simply about issue.

Great stories are about conflict.  And if, in my work, I use an issue to generate that conflict, so much the better.  But the conflict is never about the issue.  It’s always about people on one side or the other, ordinary folks who, in response to threat, rise to extraordinary action.

I sometimes get emails from readers who object to the fact that my admittedly liberal, bleeding-heart sensibilities often find their way into my work.  But I can recall only two who told me they won’t read my books because of it.  Not a big deal.  Honestly, how often is it that you have an opportunity to stand on a soapbox without giving the other side a chance for rebuttal?

I do try to play fair, but it is, in the end, my game.

5 thoughts on “Stories With An Ax To Grind”

  1. Kent, I agree with you about issues, and the fact that you deal with issues is what turned me on to your books in the first place. I think the key is that you make the issues organic to Cork and to the story.

  2. Maryann,

    Thanks! Organic is essential, otherwise it’s all done with a sledge hammer, and who wants to be hit that? I’m pleased you get it.


  3. Kent, I was especially impressed with how you worked Canada’s gun-control and crime rate into ‘Thunder Bay’. It’s nice to have the statistics on your side when arguing issues of controversy!
    Deb S

  4. Keep on dealing with issues in your novels! For me, the mysteries and science fiction that feature issues are my favourites. I rarely seek out another book by an author who only has a plot. I usually read every book by an author who has made me think about an issue.

  5. Ha! This is important because I listen to the Audible versions of all your books, so hard to wait for another! But am currently looking though the paperback at the library to try to find your section in gun control, which I though was excellent &, like the previous person, want to use that information when needed. Also, living in Arizona near the border, really appreciated Sulfur Springs. Thank you for all your wise words.

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