When Fiction Changes the World

Popular culture has one big advantage over most other forms of communication: it is popular.  And that means a lot of people are receptive to it who might turn off at the first hint of a political speech, a charitable plea or a social campaign.  People like movies, novels, art and plays, and they will devote many, many hours of their precious time to enjoying them.  In today’s busy, message-crowded world, authors in particular command an extraordinary degree of attention from their readers.  Who else can talk to a stranger night after night, sometimes for hours at a time, without losing their interest?

This gives authors a remarkable platform from which to influence others, allowing them the space to explore complicated issues in depth, setting out an argument that can be both complete and devastating.  Even more so if it doesn’t sound like an argument.  Readers can be drawn to empathise with characters who, through their actions or experiences, effectively live the argument.  Dickens didn’t have to spell out the reasons why conditions in the workhouse should be improved – he simply showed his characters suffering.

The Constant Gardener drew our attention to unethical pharmaceutical trials in the developing world.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin transformed American opinion on slavery.  The Riddle of the Sands raised the spectre of German invasion in 1900s Britain, and led directly to the formation of the first modern intelligence agencies.  A recent academic report, The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge, praised books like The White Tiger and Brick Lane for improving general understanding of complex social development and migration issues.  The Kite Runner "has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research", said the report.

Movies and TV have a similar impact.  Blood Diamond has made plenty of young wooers check the provenance of the stones in their engagement rings.  A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest kindled important debates about how the state treats citizens incarcerated in correctional and mental institutions.  Philadephia helped make AIDS discrimination unacceptable, and Syriana forced viewers to question our dependence on oil.  The Wire and Traffic both added new perspectives to the highly controversial debate on drug reform.

In Rogue Elements, I tackle the same subject, with three courageous politicians leading a worldwide campaign to legalise narcotics.  The book is a spy thriller – it’s meant to be fast-paced and entertaining, and there isn’t time for long discourses.  But over the course of the narrative the theme of drug reform keeps coming back, here with a focus on health issues, there with a cold hard look at the violence and destruction Prohibition causes.  One book alone won’t persuade our law-makers to debate the subject intelligently and objectively, but it might contribute to the groundswell of opinion gradually shifting society in a more progressive direction.

Of course, fiction can also be influential in what it prevents.  Every time a dystopian novel or movie shocks a wide audience, it serves as a warning for what might be if we don’t look out.  Nineteen Eighty-Four wears the crown in this category, its title now a useful shorthand for every commentator worried that their society is taking a step down the road to totalitariansm.  Perhaps The Hunger Games will play a similar role for younger generations unsettled by conspicuous consumption and extreme reality TV.

Fiction is powerful stuff.  Whether on the page or the screen, it can engage and mobilise citizens in a way few other communications media can touch.  If you have an issue to raise, or an argument to make, consider telling a story.


Help strengthen the arguments for drug reform in Rogue Elements at