Are there untouchable topics in literature? No, of course, not. But there are topics that are difficult to do well, or it feels like you are preaching.
You know the ones: alcoholism, abortion, medical ethics, underage drinking, etc. These are hard to put into a story or novel and have it work.
Dealing with Flash point, Difficult Topics
I’ve been listening to Mary E. Pearson‘s novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox and she does a stunning job of addressing medical ethics. It’s reminiscent of Peter Dickinson’s 1989 novel, Eva, but takes the discussion in new directions. Here are some of the things she does right as an author treading lightly.
Character. The novel works because the character is front and center. This is above all a character novel, with all the ethical dilemma from the medical “miracle” taking place within the character. She IS the ethical problem and has to resolve how she feels about herself. So, it’s not a theoretical issue; it’s an issue of identity.
Voice. Written in first person, the character’s voice is stunning. First person was a good choice, because it allows the reader to experience the dilemma along with the character. The voice never falters, it’s flawless.
Backstory. The bane of any sort of difficult topic is the mountain of data, the historical arguments, the cultural context. It is a trap, though, for the unwary author who tries to insert all this back story into the novel. Pearson walks that fine line between planting necessary information, but putting it in naturally.
All sides are presented fairly. Pearson populates the story with a variety of characters who represent the various points of view about this question of medical ethics. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do in a novel dealing with issues that set off fireworks in our culture. It’s easy to include stereotypes, believe cliches. Instead, Pearson creates fully developed characters who are passionate about issues, but are conflicted by the dilemma that confronts them. The grandmother, the friend at school, the mysterious next-door neighbor — each has a life perspective to bring to the story that enriches the conflict, without cheapening it.
Are you passionate about some topic facing our culture? I’d recommend you read this book just for pure enjoyment of Pearson’s language and storytelling. Then, re-read it, study it, as an example of how to do it right.
It’s sold movie rights: we can only hope they do the novel justice.
Also see the website for the book, Who is Jenna Fox?