When writing a novel, it’s best to show, not tell. When tackling social issues, it’s best to tell a story, not preach. The former is a rule every writing course teaches us. The latter is something I learned the hard way.
Novels have been tackling social issues throughout history—think of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The former denounces Victorian London’s inhumane treatment of the poor, while the latter depicts Dust Bowl migrants facing unjust labor conditions in California. Books like these are usually serious and biting, meant to expose problems and sway readers to the author’s stand on a particular issue. They’re sometimes called social novels.
In my native Philippines, José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere has stood the test of time and is widely regarded as the country’s greatest social novel. It was written in Spanish and published in 1887 as a blistering indictment of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. The book led to the author’s execution at age 35, but it also helped spark a revolution.
Today’s social novels don’t necessarily carry the gravitas of Rizal or Steinbeck or Dickens. Readers identify books such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears as genre or speculative fiction. This implies that their primary function is to entertain rather than shape opinions, despite the issues they tackle, which include the suppression of freedom of thought (Fahrenheit 451), women’s control over their bodies and lives (The Handmaid’s Tale), and homophobia and toxic masculinity (Razorblade Tears).
Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress explores racism faced by African Americans and political corruption in Los Angeles after WWII. It’s a quintessential mystery that follows a novice private investigator named Easy Rawlins. The book is a great example of how effective genre fiction is in presenting social commentary.
At the 2023 ThrillerFest, held in New York City in June, Mosley talked about how he uses mystery to explain what’s wrong with the world. “A book worth its salt,” he said, “is something other than the story and plot.”
Devil in a Blue Dress and the other genre novels mentioned above are popular precisely because they don’t preach. This little fact escaped me when I first wrote the manuscript that became my novel Multo, meaning ghost in Tagalog. The book follows a Filipino American bounty hunter named Domingo as he looks for the only quarry who has ever eluded him: an undocumented, biracial Filipina named Monica who can disappear like a ghost.
As a recent immigrant, the subject of immigration is close to my heart, so it’s only natural that my novel focuses on the struggles and aspirations of immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. For years I toiled on my manuscript from the perspective of Monica, who overstays in the U.S. in pursuit of her American dream: her white father who doesn’t know she exists. The father, an Air Force general, wants no political scandal. He hires Domingo to apprehend his daughter and take her to immigration authorities for deportation.
The manuscript was universally rejected by literary agents, who deemed it “un-commercial.” In hindsight, I admit it was a naive attempt at proselytizing. It took many years before an idea that ultimately saved my novel dawned on me. What if I told the story from the point of view of the bounty hunter? Domingo is a secondary character, a kickass hunter of fugitives and a wiseass observer. Unlike the protagonist, he’s a naturalized U.S. citizen. He can afford to make fun of the immigration system.
Changing my novel’s narrator organically revamped the tone and pace of the manuscript. Multo became a thriller. It tells the same story, but more effectively because it no longer preaches.
What if you want to tackle social issues but you’re averse to genre fiction? Heed the advice of Margaret Atwood: “Your job is to make your novel the best of its kind that it can be,” she said in an online class on creative writing. In other words, just focus on writing the story instead of worrying whether your book is “genre” or “literary.” Remember you’re a storyteller first and foremost, not a preacher or an activist.
Cindy Fazzi is a Filipino American writer and former Associated Press reporter. Her contemporary thriller Multo is out now from Agora Books.