Coffeetown Classics: Reading Social Justice
Writers have tended to be outcasts and misfits, entrepreneurial free thinkers who seek to earn a living and by making the world a better place. One way to improve the world is to create a thing of delicate beauty or grandeur. Another is to empower the powerless by giving voice to the voiceless. Thus, literature occurs at the intersection of the social and the aesthetic: an injustice provides the initial conflict that the narrative must resolve in order to be aesthetically satisfying.
A primary function of most literature, therefore, is to resolve social conflicts and right social wrongs. We crave the resolution it provides: we want both the characters and the authors we admire to be successful, to live fruitful lives. We want highly capable, determined, and interesting people to do well, and we want to mourn richly when they do not. However problematic and conflicted literature’s solutions may be, however dictated by aesthetic form, it contributes to our understanding of our world, shows how we function in it, and suggests how things ought to be. This contribution is made not so much by the expressions of the author’s opinions as by the structure of story.
But literature is nothing by itself. You have to read it. Its defiant protest will rarely be plainly written on the page for you. Some of our classic authors may not at first seem all that revolutionary to you today. The social problems of their texts may not necessarily even be clear to you; their solutions may seem less so. Literature is tricky—it may fool you. Its meaning is always hidden. Read to explore the conflicts, social and otherwise. But remember that reading is an aggressive, creative, subversive act. Read to see what people don’t want you to see, what only you can see, in the book you hold in your hand. Read to see now what couldn’t have been seen before, what even the author could not have seen in this book.
A work of literature is always an intervention, an interruption, an eruption. As editors, our main goal is not to get in your way. These are your books. Read them and own them. Each brief introductory analyses will tease out for you some of the ways in which each text intervenes in the social order, how it interrupts the prevailing power structure, how it erupts to disturb the social and economic order and change the world.
Literature is your inheritance. It belongs to you.