Issues with Issues

Over on her blog, Robin has some thoughts about “issue” books. Go read it and also be sure to read the comments, which are terrific, especially Molly’s comment about the power of the “survivor” in issue fiction and memoir.

There’s a lot to say here and I won’t say it all, but still — this is gonna be a long one, folks. And inevitably some people are going to misinterpret it, which made me think twice about posting it in the first place, but, well, here goes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, an “issue book” is typically a book identified primarily by its association with some controversial issue, as opposed to its quality. The term is often used pejoratively in many circles, which is how it’s pretty much used below. Why? Well, because while there are certainly good issue books, the fact of the matter is, we rarely call them such. We usually just call them “good books.”

Which is part of my point.

Robin says in her post, “…there are a lot of books out there that take on an issue, it seems, just for the sake of being scandalous.”

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about.

This is a tough…issue (heh) for me because I could come across sounding hypocritical once Boy Toy hits. There are going to be a lot of people who call it an “issue” book. (They’re wrong, but that won’t stop them.)

It’s also tough to talk about because, inevitably, someone is going to think I’m talking about his or her book. Let me say this: I’m not talking about your book. I’m going to try to make my examples as ridiculously narrow as possible so that it’s impossible to assign them to any one book, but let’s face it — someone’s gonna take offense. Try not to. Honest to God, I’m talking about the concept and the overall notion of “issue” books, not your book in particular! There are many fine “issue” books out there, but there are also many that are problematic. (In particular, since Robin’s post was touched off by discussion of Patty McCormick’s Sold, people will assume I’m talking about that book. I’m not.)

Here’s what bothers me about “issue” books — they tend to muddy the waters of what the book is actually about. Sometimes that’s because the book is only about the issue at hand, with the issue overwhelming the actual story-telling. My feeling is that, no matter how passionately you feel about the issue, guess what? You’re a writer. Your job is to tell me a story. That’s the most important thing. It needs to be an interesting, compellingstory, not a screed.

That’s a fine line to walk. It can be crossed very easily, especially when you’re very close to the subject or have done a lot of research and want to show the world how much you know. I’ll poke fun at myself here: A few years ago, I wrote an odd sort of historical fantasy novel (quite unpublished, thank you). The novel starred an actual historical person (a pretty famous one, actually) and I did a hell of a lot of research into his life. I used that research in the book, to the point that it was strangling the story. But I didn’t care — I just loved this person and I was going to show the world why. My early readers finally had to perform an intervention: “I know you know everything there is to know about this guy,” said one. “But I don’t care. I care about the story.”

There’s an old saying: A story is not everything that happened. It is every important thing that happened. When you’re caught up emotionally in an issue, you sometimes forget that, and the story suffers as a result.

I mean, if you want to write about, say, the plight of impoverished albino children raised by wolverines, then that’s fine. But if that’s all you want to write about and you have no interest in investing your story with character development and plot twists and so on because you’re just so damn focused on those poor, poor kids and their wolverine parents, then guess what? Maybe you should write an op-ed piece or script a documentary or pen a non-fiction book or produce a segment of Dateline. But don’t use fiction as a cloak and a crutch because fiction has certain demands and requirements.

What else can go wrong with “issue” books? Well, they can get attention they don’t deserve. And they’re invulnerable.

I mean, let’s say I write a book about a teen who’s only sexually aroused by goats. It’s not particularly well-written, but when it comes out it has all kinds of attendant press talking about the shame of kids who can only get it on with kids (heh) and how X percentage of high schoolers are zoophiles, but no one ever talks about this hidden underground sex practice among our teens, and so on and so forth. The book gets lots of attention and I am feted as being oh so daring for writing about it.

Here’s the problem, though: The book isn’t all that good. Maybe it doesn’t suck, but maybe it’s just…so-so. Still, it’s getting a lot of attention it doesn’t deserve. Meanwhile, another book that’s not nearly as controversial misses out, even though it’s better written and an overall better book. It’s about a guy with a pet goat who sees that goat as a substitute for his dead mother and has to deal with an upcoming move to the city that will take the goat away from him. It’s a really good book, but since the kid isn’t shtupping the goat, not as many people notice.

And I’ve made my own book bulletproof. Anyone who criticizes it can be shot down with, “Don’t you feel anything for those poor, secret zoophile teenagers, you heartless bastard?” Fiction shouldn’t be bulletproof. It needs to be open to criticism and discussion. If someone is afraid to criticize Kid on Kid because of the subject matter, then I’ve just cut off discussion of my book.

Am I saying that “issues” shouldn’t be tackled at all? God, no! I’m just saying that they can’t be the be-all and end-all of the story. The story needs to have a reason for existing beyond, “I really want to hammer home this controversial issue.”

Now, some people will say, “Barry, get over yourself. You’re being way too cynical. You’re assuming people only care about the flash, not the substance.”

To which I respond, “Jerry Springer. Anna Nicole Smith coverage. American Idol, for God’s sake.”

And some people will say, “Even if an issue book isn’t particularly well-written, the writer deserves kudos for bringing the issue up for public consumption.”

And I say, “No. A writer deserves kudos for telling a good story. If it’s a good story that also discusses a tough issue or changes the world by shedding some light on a topic, then that writer gets an extra heaping helping of kudos. But a good story comes first.”

Maybe that stance makes me a hard-ass. OK, so be it. The fact of the matter is, I make my living telling stories. I take it pretty seriously. Again — if you don’t want to write good fiction, go make a documentary. If it’s well-done, I’ll be first in line to watch it. I don’t quibble with people’s intentions or the necessity of exposing the evils of the world. But use the proper tools and use them properly.

Look, Boy Toy’s got child sexual abuse in it, OK? But when I talk about the book, I try to avoid talking about that because the book isn’t about child abuse. The abuse is a natural part of the story. It enhances the story and the story (hopefully) earns the rather raw and difficult images I bring to it. But the book is about a kid named Josh who’s trying to figure out how to move into the future when he can’t quite shake his past.

Looking for Alaska was a great grief book because it wasn’t about grief. It was about very specific kids dealing with grief in their own way. The Girl with the Silver Eyes was a great divorce story because it wasn’t about divorce — it was about how a specific character dealt with it. Wide Awake strikes a chord not because it stars young, gay political activists, but because it tells a timeless truth: stand up and be counted if you want to make a difference.

Robin’s own Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature is a great book not because it’s about evolution and fundamentalism, but rather because she’s crafted a credible, powerful character in Mena who strives to understand and to better herself. Quite frankly, the book could have been about Mena trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem as opposed to the Theory of Evolution and it would still be great because of Robin’s wit, devotion to her character, and attention to detail. When the book comes out, people will say, “It’s about evolution vs. intelligent design” because that’s a quick, sexy, controversial way to sum it up, but they’re wrong. Robin’s book is about a girl trying to reconcile her upbringing with what she feels (and fears!) may be the real truth of the world. The evolution stuff is window dressing. Gorgeous, well-crafted window dressing, to be sure, but what’s important is the window we’re looking through, not what surrounds it.

I’ve blathered on a lot here, and people are going to assume that I hate specific books and specific types of books, and nothing could be further from the truth. I just worry when I hear someone say, “Oh, Book X is so amazing! It’s about Controversial Subject #30, and I can’t believe Author Y was so courageous to write about it!” I immediately think, Yeah, but is it a good story?

Because, again, someone could probably get a lot of attention writing that Kid on Kid book (coming Fall 2009!). But fiction doesn’t exist just to bring “issues” to light. It has to have its own internal reason for “living.”

Again: a lot of blather. What it boils down to is this — The story is what matters. If the story tackles an issue, great. But don’t reward a bad story just because it touches on difficult subject matter. Save your kudos for those who touch a live wire and do it well.

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