In 2012, Susan Nussbaum won the PEN/Bellwether for Socially Engaged Fiction. This award, which was established in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver, was created to "promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships." The award is given to an author of a not yet published novel that typifies its principles. The award also raises some fascinating questions. What is the place of literature in addressing social issues? Can literature be an effective catalyst for social change? Can literature enlighten us about the potential dangers or benefits of scientific, aesthetic, or moral/ethical re-visioning of our place on the Earth and of our responsibilities within that?
Much fiction, intended for pure enjoyment, will not change our worldview or our way of seeing ourselves. The simple pleasure of a good read is a legitimate function of fiction and is even necessary in the hectic world we live in. However, other literature asks us to reach beyond ourselves and experience the world in a manner that may change our vision of our relationship to wider social and ecological systems. Western literature has often raised questions about life and its purpose from Gilgamesh's dilemmas with power and friendship to Homer's ironic picture of warfare; from Vergil's pitting of love against duty to Jonathan Franzen's depiction of the struggle between family and personal integrity.
Some works were written to disturb the consciences of their readers, others to raise them. Jonathan Swift's writings, in particular his "A Modest Proposal," were thinly cloaked ironies or outright attacks on social mores. Harriet Beecher Stowe was credited, facetiously, by Abraham Lincoln as being 'the little lady who wrote the book that started this great big war.' Upton Sinclair's The Jungle prompted legislation and regulation from the highest levels. Others like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Margaret Atwood have warned us of a dystopian future if we continue on the roads we are traveling. Today eco-fiction joins these works in depicting a future, both human and natural, in which life becomes less precious and the struggle so horrific that the value of humanity and even of life itself comes into question. These works raise the same legitimate question: Is this literature or is this merely skillfully contrived propaganda?
Writing that serves merely to promote a social/scientific program or political position is in danger of becoming propaganda. True art must reflect both the worldview and culture out of which the artist works and the unique perspective of the artist, whose point of view may reveal positive and negative dimensions of his or her own world. The very act of writing this kind of book, one that demands us to shift our relationship with the world, is revolutionary.
The Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prizes, and the Nobel Prize in Literature were awarded to authors who could and sometimes did create earthquakes in human society. Pulitzer Prize winners Edith Warton, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and Alice Walker help us pull back the facades of American society to reveal its often troubled core. Man Booker Prize finalists Iris Murdoch, Thomas Keneally, William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro take us on journeys into the human heart with all its darkness and light. Finally, Nobel Prize winners Selma Lagerlöf, Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, and Toni Morrison mirror the need for human self-reflection and criticism in a world often too self-satisfied for the good of any of us. These authors risked their livelihoods and even their lives by writing their groundbreaking books.
Susan Nussbaum finds herself in the honorable company of those who are willing to share their own vision of the world and its possibilities in ways that may seem foolish, unrealistic, quixotic, or desperate, but whose contribution to our human development has proved to be - again and again - truly life-giving. For this, she certainly deserves Kingsolver's PEN/Bellwether prize. Among many others, she is a prophet in the true sense, not as someone who predicts the future but one who reveals the present honestly and without distortion.
This article was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the
November 2013 paperback release.
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