Rising Above the Noise: Writing Social/Political Commentary

We’re all painfully aware of the inexhaustible barrage of social and political commentary these days, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media buzzing like starved flies around a cesspool of absurd political chaos and indefensible partisan posturing. Sometimes you just want to get away from it all and write about gumdrop fairies and unicorns dancing on rainbows, and while that’s perfectly fine, that’s not the objective here today.

You may ask yourself, “why bother?” If social or political writing consisted solely of punditry and opinion pieces, I’d be right there with you. Unless you are bringing something completely revolutionary to the table, pursuing straight commentary at this point will all but guarantee you’ll be lost in the shuffle. Fiction with a political or social bent, however, allows plenty of space to say your piece and offer new angles on situations most assume have been wholly explored. A special piece of art can change the world, and the most impactful art tends to draw from the world around us. Luckily, writers have numerous methods that can stir readers’ consciousness without preaching or force-feeding a set of preconfigured ideals.

We’ve all read something that feels less like a story or conversation and becomes a diatribe that strikes the wrong nerve and sets an uncomfortable tone. Once a reader reaches that point, there’s rarely any turning back. The one major exception here is satire. That said, satire is one of the most difficult genres to get right, but the payoff is by far the most rewarding. If you’ve got a satirical piece materializing, make sure you go back and re-read Jonathan Swift’s legendary “A Modest Proposal” one more time to ensure your grasp of the form is firm. Swift’s convictions are steadfast, but instead of pounding his readers over the head in an attempt to force compassion, he challenges us to reckon with a ludicrous darkness and find our own way to the message.

One of the biggest challenges to writing a timely commentary is that it can come with a giant expiration date, but using allegory avoids a head-on collision with overt hot topics. Like satire, allegory can be hard to pull off without irony or being too obvious, but again, you can weave a very rewarding tale with enough work and the right vision. Think of allegory as a metaphorical narrative, in which you tell the story as directly or indirectly as you like, but masking the actual details with characters, settings, and events that don’t have any clear correlation with the underlying narrative. For the most basic examples, think Aesop’s Fables. For something that goes a little deeper, try George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

For a less restrictive foray, take a stab at genre fiction. I know science fiction and fantasy (SFF) have long been the poster children for escapism, often denounced as being universally unimportant or just for kids, but just in case you were unaware, people who make these sweeping judgments could not be more wrong. Several classic novels are now categorized as literary fiction, even though they are SFF: 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Farenheit 451 are just the tip of the iceberg. In more recent years, “speculative fiction” has risen to prominence as a division of SFF that leans more socially conscious and forward thinking, with writers like N.K. Jemisin, Jeff Vandermeer, Nnedi Okorafor, and many others forging a strong path.

With SFF, you can write direct representations of reality filtered through alien characters or situations, and while your audience will (hopefully) pick up what you’re throwing down, you won’t be stuffing it down their throats, and they’ll be all the happier for it.
If this style of genre fiction simply doesn’t suit you, just extract your subject and inject it into an unexpected place. This way you have more freedom than you would within an allegory, but you still have an interesting structure to build on. If you have a raging diatribe about the current administration, shift to a setting with lower or considerably different stakes, like a family owned theme park, a corner store, underground snake wrestling club, or whatever you see fit.
Whichever direction you take with your sociopolitical work, begin with a clear, original, truthful stance. Write with honesty and integrity, respect your readers’ intelligence, and don’t tell them what to think—show them what happens when characters think in certain ways.

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