There are loner authors who do little but write during their working hours, and then there are activist authors who spend a fair amount of time on various causes that are important to them. This post is about that second group of fiction writers, living or dead.
Looking outward can be a mixed bag for activist authors. The time they spend advocating for various things can siphon valuable hours from writing, perhaps make their fiction too polemic for some readers’ tastes, and/or turn off some politically opposite readers even if the fiction doesn’t get strident.
On the other hand, being an advocate can enrich authors’ literary output by giving their works more passion and more of a seen-it-firsthand foundation, and by making their fictional characters more vivid and realistic because activist authors meet many more people than reclusive authors do. Also, the advocacy of authors can engender intense loyalty from their ideological soul mates among readers.
Of course, working for causes isn’t admirable if the causes aren’t admirable. A case in point is the way Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame has spent lots of time ranting against same-sex marriage — making him a “poster child” for anti-human-rights blather. But many Card fans say his homophobia isn’t noticeable in his fiction.
Activism obviously takes many forms, and I’m going to mostly discuss activist fiction writers of the liberal persuasion. But please feel free to also mention conservative authors in the comments section below.
I’ll start with Upton Sinclair, who spent nearly two months working incognito as a meatpacking plant worker to help research The Jungle novel that exposed the horrendous, unsanitary condition of those plants. Nearly three decades later, another example of Sinclair’s activism would be his campaign for governor of California.
Then there are the fiction writers who, in wartime, help the wounded (as Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman did during the American Civil War), work as journalists (as Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway did during the Spanish Civil War), or even participate in military action at an older age than the typical fighter (as George Orwell did during the Spanish Civil War). In some cases, those actions directly result in a novel (like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls) or nonfiction book (like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia).
Parker’s sympathetic writing about Spain’s anti-fascist forces for a leftist magazine, along with her other political work over the years, eventually got the humorist/short-story writer/screenplay writer blacklisted by Hollywood movie bosses during the McCarthy era — affecting her work in that way. And right-wingers were surely not pleased to learn that Parker, who died in 1967, bequeathed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Speaking of civil rights, one example of South African author Nadine Gordimer’s anti-apartheid activism was helping to edit the famous “I Am Prepared to Die” courtroom speech that Nelson Mandela gave in 1964 before being sentenced to his long prison term.
Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning author of the novel The Interpreters and other works, was also a political prisoner, in Nigeria. He was denied writing implements in jail — hardly conducive for an author to continue one’s career — but still managed to compose some poems, among other creations.
In the French literary realm, Victor Hugo went into exile after criticizing Napoleon III’s autocratic regime, and Emile Zola fled to England in 1898 after authorities targeted him for taking his public “J’accuse” stand against the anti-Semitic railroading of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. Zola’s courage may not have greatly affected his novel writing (which had creatively peaked between 1877 and 1890), but it could have affected his life: Zola’s 1902 asphyxiation death from a blocked chimney may have been retaliatory rather than accidental.
Among the many other past and present authors who have been activists in deed or speech include Douglas Adams (animal rights), Margaret Atwood (feminism, the environment), Margaret Drabble (anti-war, anti-imperialism), Alice Walker (civil rights, anti-war), Rita Mae Brown (civil rights, anti-war, gay rights, feminism), Arundhati Roy (anti-globalization, anti-imperialism, anti-nuclear power), Stephen King (pro-gun control, pro-higher taxes for the rich, anti-Tea Party), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (anti-czar, anti-serfdom), Booth Tarkington (served a term as a Republican legislator in Indiana), Norman Mailer (ran for mayor of New York City), and Gore Vidal (ran for U.S. Congress).
Many authors in the above paragraph, and in this blog post as a whole, were involved with other causes in addition to those I mentioned. And the very act of writing certain books is activism, with an obvious example being Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Who are some of your favorite activist authors? (As noted earlier, I named mostly liberal ones but you’re welcome to name conservative ones, too.) As an optional question, do you think author activism is a good, bad, or mixed thing — and why?
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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.