We’ve all read social novels where writers with a lofty view and ‘an edge of advocacy’ set out the here and now. These novels are instructive. Consider: ‘Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant.’
Now in a period of history where voices are suspect as there are too many voices anyway and ‘cultural appropriation’ makes a writer insecure as opposed to the omniscient voice of the writer who knows all, the whole premise of the social novel is being questioned. Not just the social novel, but the novel itself as “the art of the novel is itself too white”.
Jonathan Dee examines Go, Went, Gone, a new novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, a book about the refugee crises and an exceptionally well-written one except that it makes him uncomfortable for reasons that are unclear. Even the protagonist is pushed in the story to ask the refugees questions for reasons he himself does not understand. Another book like Exit West by Mohsin Hamid presents the refugee as more human—Hamid abandons the realist template to explore issues like these, something that Dee thinks is perhaps the right way to deal with such themes. Prose is not always enough to convey the stories of the people of today and even if it does, there could be a fault so glaring that readers are oblivious of, as it is the fault of the imagination.
Do you agree that social novels have served their purpose? Read this thought provoking essay The Lives of Others by Jonathan Dee here.