As if to honor this season of political conventions, the fall issue of The Great Smokies Review features two of them. Not Republican or Democratic, these essays, but still political, each in its own way. Porter Taylor’s “General Convention 2003” revolves around the hotly disputed voting-in of the first gay Episcopal bishop. “The Misadventures of Comic Book Girl,” by Caitlin Donovan, takes us to a comic book convention, and much further: to sexism in the depiction of hero-figures.
Themes of social justice and politics marry well with nonfiction writing. But how do they function—or matter—when it comes to fiction? Ask novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who awards her Bellwether Prize (the handsome sum of $25,000) for “fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” Or ask that other novelist with a social conscience, Dickens.
In writing classes and workshops, we steer away from the political. This is partly because, at the work-in-progress level, we are often advised to focus on character and story, letting those elements lead readers to the work’s theme or to whatever take-away their experience of the reading provides. Another reason some of us avoid theme, at least socio-political ones, is that we think “issues” do not belong in the world of art.
Following that thinking, Sebastian Matthews (Craft Session: “Seventeen Ways of Looking: Notes on Collage”) writes: “Don’t get too caught up in finding meaning in every little detail. You catch a drift of the mood then follow it in. Let the work show you how to see.” In every work of fiction and poetry that appears on these pages, there are fine examples of emotion or “a drift of the mood” preceding meaning. We read the haunting story of a young girl bearing unthinkable burdens (Cathy Vance Agrella’s Isabel King of Black Oak Ridge). We engage with her pain and courage first; later with the stated theme of her author’s note: How do we reconcile the world we thought we had with the world we must live in? We might ask Cathy if her story began with the mood or with the musing.
In the preface to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain purports to make his stance on the matter clear: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” According to Wikipedia, “Twain wrote the ‘Notice’ to basically tell people in a satirical way to avoid over analyzing the novel for motives or deeper meanings. Just enjoy the adventure!” Edits, fortunately, are welcome on Wikipedia, because we might well wonder if Twain’s words were less of a warning than a dare. Perhaps he was challenging readers to discover that, with writing, deep meaning and adventure go hand in hand.