Literature and Social Commentary

Before reading the below, please note that some political/moral issues are discussed and that I do share my opinions, however, as lightly as possible as this is a blog about literature and life and less so about politics. So, please bear that in mind if you choose to respond 🙂 Thank you!

As we all know, writers like to use their craft to make social commentary. What safer way is there to remark on a social, religious or political issue than to drag fictional people through the coals of said issue? It’s like holding up a mirror, but not quite as direct. The deniers can still deny if they so choose. I love a story that takes a concept, tests it out on a population and makes a statement about life, society, the justices or injustices of the world. Writing fiction can be so freeing.

Did you read When She Woke by Hillary Jordan? It came out in 2011 and is essentially a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, but with an even bigger twist. People in this society are dyed the color of their crime (the colors are predetermined by some governing entity I presume) and then released back into society. It’s a beautifully written piece and makes all sorts of comments about abortion, crime and punishment and “moral” issues.

I started reading Smoke by Dan Vyleta last weekend. It occupies a somewhat similar space to When She Woke, though this book is more about all morals and behaviors as opposed to focusing on criminal reform, abortion and more. The book is touted as “part Dickens and part dystopia.” Of course I was intrigued!  Smoke, as you may have guessed, takes place in a mid-19th-century England. In this world, people release smoke, ash and other similar materials when they misbehave, think bad thoughts (bad according to whom?), or commit crimes, or even when they lose their temper, or are just embarrassed or ashamed. Tough world, right? I’m not sure of the origin of this smoke yet and this appears to be one crux of the novel. But, smoke reminds me a bit of dust from The Golden Compass series (though “Dust” isn’t a negative thing in that world, it’s highly coveted instead). I’m not yet sure of what the comment the author is making yet with the smoke either, but I still have more than half the book to go until I reach the end. But it feels like a remark on the separation, or in this case, the lack thereof, between church and state.

What does it mean when an author uses an external concept (like smoke or the dye for a crime) to impose some other’s morals on a character? Personally, I believe it’s meant to mirror the idea of the way our society imposes our own personal morals on others. I don’t want to get too political here and anger any readers, so I’ll stop there.

I’m wondering if this is a trend that will appear more frequently in books in the coming year or so, particularly given this is a rather volatile election year here in the United States. Smoke isn’t a brand new book, though. I actually only learned about it because the publisher announced a giveaway of the sequel, Soot on social media a week or so ago. The concept intrigued me enough to seek out the first book in the story and I have been wowed by the literary devices the author uses to express their perspective so far. What are you reading and what sort of commentary about the world around you do you see it making? Would love to hear your thoughts and about your reading adventures!