An Appreciation of Social Justice Literature

Reading literature is often an escapist break from life’s grim realities — such as that appalling (now somewhat amended) new Indiana law allowing conservatives to deny service to gay customers under the guise of “religious freedom.”

But literature with a strong social-justice component can also be enjoyable, because fiction of that kind not only addresses festering problems but can also feature memorable characters, great stories told in a non-preachy way, and some humor. All that is often found in the work of authors such as Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Grisham, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and Emile Zola, among others.

I’ll add Jhumpa Lahiri to that list now that I’ve finished her 2013 novel The Lowland. The two previous works of hers I read — the short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies and the novel The Namesake — had some sociopolitical context but mostly chronicled the personal lives of their protagonists. The Lowland also focuses on a small number of specific characters — in a compelling (and melancholy) way — but devotes plenty of pages as well to India’s communist Naxalite movement against poverty and the government’s brutal response that includes the cold-blooded police murder of Lahiri’s fictional Udayan character. Udayan’s posthumously born daughter Bela also becomes an activist of sorts.

Famous novels with lots of sociopolitical context include — among many others — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (anti-slavery), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which exposed horrendous conditions in the meatpacking industry), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (which addressed severe economic inequality), Emile Zola’s Germinal (which chronicled exploitation of the working class — specifically miners), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which envisioned a dystopia even more sexist and patriarchal than we have in real life), and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (which looked at homophobia during a time when the kind of anti-gay attitude displayed by some Indianans was much more the norm).

Those novels’ authors all wisely focused on how specific characters were affected by the prejudice, oppression, and other nasty things society flung their way.

Speaking of dystopian novels a la The Handmaid’s Tale, that genre is usually sociopolitical by its very nature. The question of “liberty and justice for all,” or lack thereof, is an undercurrent in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and various other dystopian novels.

Barbara Kingsolver alone has tackled many important issues while creating three-dimensional characters who readers like or dislike. The Poisonwood Bible (evangelicalism, colonialism), The Lacuna (McCarthyism), Flight Behavior (climate change), etc.

The area of mental health? Addressed in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among other novels.

Anti-war fiction also mixes wider issues with the stories of particular protagonists. To name just four powerful books: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die — the last being one of the most heartbreaking novels set in wartime you’ll ever read.

There are also literary works that are not war novels per se, but depict or reference armed conflict in some chapters. Examples include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

And then there are novels that depict the religious intolerance and hypocrisy that have such an impact on society — including nowadays in Indiana. Elements of that can be found in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (as practiced by Mr. Brocklehurst), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (Gabriel Grimes), and other works.

By the way, I’ve visited Indiana many times (my wife used to live there), and it’s a state with lots of great places and people. As with many other states, a minority of narrow-minded “leaders” and residents make things troublesome for everyone else.

What are some of your favorite novels with sociopolitical elements?

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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and 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, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at 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.