Where are the Social Movements in Fiction?
Eleven guesses why social justice activism rarely appears in our novels and movies
When big events hit, people seek perspective in books and movies. There is, as Rich Benjamin writes in The Intercept, “a wide, multifaceted desire for books that can help a person digest the current moment and the uncharted future.” During and following the 2020 racial justice uprising in the U.S., libraries, bookstores, publishers, and online media sites all featured lists of works headlined “Guides to Antiracism” and “Black Lives Matter,” showcasing an array of essays, memoirs, and histories of racial injustice and struggle in the US.
The sudden scramble of mainstream white culture to highlight what for many has been a lifelong daily atrocity may be questionable, but these lists do indicate that social movements raise consciousness. While not everything on the lists is profound, many excellent works have been brought forward, including searing social analyses by James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and many others.
The lists also include novels and feature films—as well they should, as good fiction is uniquely able to pull us into worlds where we’ve never been: a past historical era, a future dystopia, a Black working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, allowing us to feel what the characters are going through and connect to their experiences and perceptions through the creator’s portrayal of them. Borrowing words from one my favorite novelists, Paule Marshal, fiction lets the creator “operate on many levels and… explore both the inner state of [the] characters as well as the worlds beyond them.”
But the lists seem lacking in one area: where is the fiction—movies, novels, TV programs—about social movements? Where are the lists of:
stories drawing us into the heads and hearts of activist characters organizing to protest injustice and demand societal change?
novels that show us activists’ daily lives—the way they show us (accurately or not) the daily lives of lawyers, detectives, or office workers?
television shows where activists paint signs and pack water bottles to go down to the White House or the local police station to march, chant, kneel, or pull down racist statues?
dramas about activists working for peace in the face of war fever?
Imagining Activists in Fiction
As an activist who loves fiction, I’ve long been struck by the potential for fascinating stories focused on activists’ lives and struggles.
Yet despite the huge reservoir of real movement experience to draw from, I find surprisingly few such stories on these library lists (or anywhere else in mainstream culture). Yes, there are some dramatic retellings of the stories of great movement figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others, but what about stories of everyday activists, where we readers and viewers get to be with them through the excitement, dilemmas, delights, and dangers, of participating in a social justice movement? There are some, but not many, especially considering the amazing inspiration, emotion, and drama of activist life. Not to mention the vital importance of activism to planetary survival.
We see countless stories of police, detectives, special forces, military and civilian, in all walks of life, whose basic goal is righting what’s out of whack and returning life to “normal,” that is, seeking justice that upholds the status quo. Where are the stories of activists pursuing the deeper justice of social transformation?
We take delight in the adventures of iconoclasts, mavericks and other disrupters of the prevailing order. Yet the rebels we warm to in movies don’t often confront the system collectively, which is the only way such confrontations actually succeed.
Siding with the underdog and questing for justice are universal story themes. We see endless variations on them in all genres of fiction, from heroic quests to right wrongs a la Quixote, to densely populated sagas about challenging tyrants–a fantasy staple–finally culminating in liberation. Nonetheless, with few exceptions these narratives tend to skirt in-depth depiction of how such movements get organized. Yet the rising up of oppressed people—the quintessential underdogs—is full of adventure, drama, mystery, intrigue, romance—everything a storyteller could desire.
I can readily imagine stories set in the Black Power, labor, American Indian, Chicano, and so many other key movements, past and present, TV shows about people challenging police violence (rather than ones that romanticize policing), westerns about Native activists fighting mining or fossil fuel industries, rom-coms starring young people who meet in an environmental or anti-racist movement; wrenching dramas about peace activists pouring their own blood on Trident missiles.
I have to conclude that such works aren’t on the lists because they mostly don’t exist, at least not in the English-language mainstream in which most US (and likely many other) libraries and commercial booksellers fish.
Here are some speculations about why fiction centered on activism, activists, and social justice movements, is sparse, marginalized and, when it does exist, often unkind to the activists it does depict.
Most fiction authors are not activists. Of course, most authors aren’t detectives, spies, or space travelers, either.
Mainstream histories tend to assume that change comes about through the actions and decisions of “great men”—generals, kings, the wealthy and powerful—rather than collective grassroots movements, even though collective action is what actually powers major social transformation. This mindset has been inculcated for centuries in so-called “Western culture,” so it’s little wonder our mainstream fiction exhibits a similar pattern.
Along this same line, fiction in Western contemporary culture, especially since the Cold War, tends to focus on individual characters tackling dilemmas and challenges on their own, without reference to “any community, ideology, or political system.” (Annie Levin, “How Creative Writing Programs De-Politicized Fiction,” Current Affairs, April 18, 2022.) Even a character shown engaging in activism often acts individually, doing their own letter-writing campaign or staging a lonely protest or sabotage. In real life, such solitary activism is much rarer and much less effective than collective action.
With activism and social movements so marginalized from the dominant narrative, featuring them in the story arc might not even cross the author’s mind.
Activists themselves write huge amounts—mostly nonfiction, but they write fiction, too. However, I’ve found that while their stories tackle social issues like racism and other oppression, placing their characters in social movements confronting the problems collectively seems much less common. Perhaps activists get swallowed in the general zeitgeist, too. I’d love to discuss this with other fiction writers who are also activists (and vice versa).
Anti-Communist persecution of radical authors, filmmakers and other artists has long chilled production and publication of social-justice-oriented fiction. It would be interesting to know the extent to which past and present red-baiting continues to discourage literature, film and TV depictions of social justice movements, as well as ways in which rising social movements open the way for more fiction featuring activists.
Fiction featuring activists that does exist is generally not widely promoted or sold. Popularity—on Amazon, Netflix, Google, best-seller lists—drives sales, which drive popularity, which drives ranking and reviews…which drive sales. As bell hooks said, “[t]he primary way the reading public knows that a book exists is either they see it displayed in bookstores and/or they read reviews…When work is dissident and progressive it is unlikely to receive very many mainstream reviews. (Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks, Routledge, 2014) Nonetheless, many progressive social critics—including bell hooks—do become widely known, especially in times of social upheaval. But works of fiction about such upheavals are still not often seen.
Where activists do appear in mainstream entertainment, many portrayals tend not to encourage readers and viewers to empathize, admire, or identify with them, let alone follow their example in challenging the status quo. Activists are often ötherized,” stereotyped as angry, extremist, silly, full of weird ways, and other unattractive traits. Protests and popular mass actions tend to appear as rowdy, uncontrolled, angry, scary. Could this jaundiced view of activists make creators reluctant to include them in their stories?
Dominant culture does not make it easy for people to gain knowledge of how social movements work, nor to get details of how people organize, raise consciousness, and all the rest of what’s involved in propelling social transformation. More fiction that actually shows such details in engaging and relatable ways could spark ideas and impart lessons dominant interests do not want widely shared.
As my fellow National Writers’ Union member Dorothy Smith said, we have been educated from childhood to conform, not to speak out. Dissidence is considered bad behavior and is regularly punished, especially when coming from those most oppressed. This conditioning is so strong, and fiction’s potential to open people’s minds to activists and social movements so thoroughly marginalized, that we fail even to notice its absence.
The CIA has done its part very effectively in ensuring that aspiring writers stay away from fiction portraying social change. According to cultural critic Annie Levin, during the Cold War, the CIA funded “literary magazines worldwide through the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” with numerous connections to organizations, magazines and creative writing programs whose purpose was to depoliticize the writing of fiction. (Levin, op.cit. I highly recommend this article, as well as the many revealing links the author includes.)
The Fiction Featuring Activists List
Conspiracy theories? Well, we do live in a society where a few people control the vast majority of wealth and power, including creation of and access to education and entertainment. Whether or not you’d consider that a conspiracy, and whether or not these guesses are good, the dearth of fiction featuring activists and social justice movements is a problem, given how vital activists and activism are for the survival of our planet.
We need more works of fiction centering activists and social justice movements. We have only to look at how much progress—though not enough!—has been made in the representation of people of color and women, so long marginalized and stereotyped in fiction, to recognize the importance for activists of being fully and fairly portrayed, and being heard in their own voices, as well as the potential dangers of their being misrepresented.
Let’s recognize the works of fiction featuring activists that do exist and include them on the lists! Let’s look at new efforts like The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah, and others, with generosity but open eyes.
And let’s create more fiction that fully and fairly represents everyday activists and social justice movements.
Soon: The Fiction Featuring Activists List. I have been compiling works of fiction of all kinds and genres where the stories center on activists. I look forward to sharing it! Get ready with your recommendations!
And if you are writing stories about activists and social movements, let’s be in touch! Leave a comment below!
The National Writers Union DC-MD-VA Chapter, of which I am a proud member, is participating in National Independent Bookstore Day crawl on April 30, with visits to indie bookstores in our tri-state area: We will be in:
Hyattsville, MD, at My Dead Aunt Books, 11AM
Washington, DC, at Politics & Prose, 1PM
Falls Church, at One More Page Books, 3PM
Please join us if you’re in the area. Support indie bookstores!
Speaking of unions, Politics and Prose is now a union shop!
Also, the NWU is co-sponsoring a writer’s event at another local bookstore (not yet unionized), Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009 on May 11. 6:00 PM. I will be featuring this book and a talk with co-author Ellen Bravo next week.
This is a free newsletter, but it’s very nice to know people read and appreciate my efforts. If you do, please “like” and respond with a comment or question. And/or propose an addition to the Fiction Featuring Activists List. Thanks!!
I really enjoy your newsletter !
The observation about the lack of activist characters in fiction, with realistic day life around their work for the cause they support, is so true.
I like the fact that you put links inside the text. Those links and the fact that you refer to recent other articles, show that you are solid in what you bring us. You are not stagnant in your knowledge about the subject. That saves the idea that activism is a relevant mode of communication in a democracy. It is actual even if it is often depicted as savage or past date.
I like also your approach of hypothesis and bringing inputs of informations with respect of the intelligence of the reader to make his own mind (to agree or not with some points, let go his own curiosity/focus on others...).
Would you be open to, one day, offer your observations about societal conflicts VS internal and external conflicts in fiction ?
Bravo for your good work !
Of the 11 guesses, the one that most fascinates me is #3: "fiction in Western contemporary culture, especially since the Cold War, tends to focus on individual characters tackling dilemmas and challenges on their own, without reference to “any community, ideology, or political system.” (Annie Levin, “How Creative Writing Programs De-Politicized Fiction,” Current Affairs, April 18, 2022.) There is something deeply wrong about this, but true to our hyperindividualism as a culture. I read a lot, and this has bothered me but inchoately, it wasn't something I could easily put my finger on. I just read Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde, set in Nigeria, and the difference is very easy for me to put my finger on: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/667821/vagabonds-by-eloghosa-osunde/ Thank you for your 11 guesses! + each other thing you included in the latest piece +have written on this website!