On the Idea of Social Reform Novel about the Homeless

In 1902, the great social reform novelist Frank Norris wrote:

If the novel were not one of the most important factors of modern life…if its influence were not greater than all the pulpits, than all the newspapers between the oceans, it would not be so important that its message should be true. ..The people look today as they never have looked before, as they never will look again, to the writer of fiction to give them an idea of Life beyond their limits, and they believe him as they never have believed before and never will again.

And perhaps Norris was right back in the days before television and radio. Consider how influential Sinclair Lewis’ great muckraking novel The Jungle was when it was published and led to federal legislation to reform the meatpacking industry that improved American life and delivered a swift uppercut to rapacious and brutal capitalism in at least one round of the ongoing bout that pits capitalism against humanity. Capitalism is currently beating us senseless and there is no referee to stop it on a technical knockout.

Can novels sway American thinking today on a timely subject? Can they reach a wide audience and get Presidents to act on a crisis in America?

No. Such a novel is not even attempted today, on any social reform issue, at least to my knowledge, and I do follow these things. I might add here, that the best writing on social reform issues going on today is in crime fiction.

If such a big Dickens-like American novel was attempted, it would have to be a novel of class, all the classes, over generations of American life, all colors and desires and barriers in American life. This kind of vast scope is seemingly well beyond the talent of American novelists. They probe the micro in our domestic relations.

I am not talking about historical fiction that travels back in time to address a great social reform issue from the past, such as slavery or Prohibition or child labor or women’s suffrage. American writers do that very well. They also write great environmentally-conscious raising novels.

Regarding the homeless crisis, which is what interests me the most as an American and a writer, it would have to be a social reform novel of non work. How do you write a novel of non work? No one would do anything but be homeless, which is, a lot of work. The novelist could focus attention on all the work being performed to solve the crisis, but that misdirects attention toward an upper class of professionals. I don’t want to read a novel about that.

The emphasis of such a sweeping reform novel about the homeless crisis would not be on race or gender or sexual preference. Class would be paramount. Marx was right once, he will always be right. Class is it. Class is everything. The novelist would have to dive into economics and what novelist wants to write about the dismal science and public policy about homelessness?

I had no interest in this subject until I became one of the actors in this crisis because of my incarceration and marginalization and living among the members of the New American Diaspora in a 42-year old RV that never moved. I saw activity that no other American writer of my generation had ever witnessed. It’s still going on.

Now, the subject fires my creative mind and desire to serve.

Sinclair Lewis spent seven weeks among workers in the meat packing industry before writing The Jungle. I think he lived where they lived.

Should I go live in an encampment for seven weeks and then write a novel based on the experience? It seems a shallow and dilettantish approach and besides, I don’t want to live in a tent in a homeless encampment for one night. I saw more than enough during my adjudication and living in a ramshackle RV park in the middle of nowhere, that at least had an ocean view for the shipwrecked Americans living there who never bothered to visit the ocean. They were too busy watching Fox News.

As I have written previously about my writing on the homeless issue, I don’t know where the writing is going. I have no book in mind, nor structure for a book. But I have toyed with the idea of a novel. I’ve even warmed up by writing a 10,000-word Christmas tale that features a homeless veteran who gets a job on a Christmas tree lot in Coos Bay. It’s coming to the newsletter next and blog in nine installments of roughly a thousand words each. I want to believe this work of fiction will inspire at least one person to act in some way on behalf of the homeless issue. Okay, maybe more than that!

This upcoming tale is my Christmas gift to all you readers who read this blog and newsletter. Please share this post and help me spread my word. And Merry Christmas.