Defining Socially Engaged Fiction
Socially engaged fiction, for the purposes of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices. It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment. The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially engaged literature. “Social engagement” describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
Clear, analytical and literary accounts of political and social injustice (either current or historical) include the following excellent examples: Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Crows Over a Wheatfield, Paula Sharp; Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison; The Women’s Room, Marilyn French; Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen, Alix Kates Shulman; Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan; Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks; The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver; The Color Purple, Alice Walker. Other contemporary contributors to this tradition include Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich, Ursula Hegi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ruth Ozeki, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, and John Edgar Wideman.
These authors notwithstanding, issues of social engagement have in recent decades held a less commanding place in U.S. literature than in the wider world. Social commentary in our art is frequently viewed with suspicion. Its advocacy does not fall within the stated goals of any major North American publisher, endowment, or prize for the arts. The Bellwether Prize was conceived to address this deficiency. We would like to see the place of conscience in our nation’s artistic landscape restored to the same high position it holds elsewhere in the world. By means of this prize we hope to enlist North American writers, publishers, and readers to share in this crucial endeavor.