By Karna Small Bodman
George Bernard Shaw once observed, “The best way to get your point across is to entertain.” I often think about that quote when I read a “thought-provoking” novel and sense that the author is trying to call attention to an issue, problem or, threat, and perhaps encouraging readers to support certain causes. I had that reaction when I started reading New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry’s wonderful historical novels where he writes about the creation of many man-made treasures around the world.
An example is his book The Amber Room about how Frederick of Prussia commissioned an entire room forged of exquisite amber back in 1701. Steve’s story focuses on how it became the center of an intriguing mystery when German troops invaded the Soviet Union and looted everything including the Amber Room. Then when the Allies began bombing Germany in 1944 the Room was hidden. Despite the efforts of treasure hunters and art collectors, it was never seen again.
Another Steve Berry thriller involving a work of art is The Omega Factor about the Ghent Altarpiece which has been vandalized or stolen thirteen times. In this story, the protagonist, Nick Lee, works for the UN Cultural Liaison and Investigative Office where his job is to protect the world’s cultural artifacts. Steve has written dozens of books focused on historical events, and now he and his wife, Elizabeth have created an organization called History Matters which raises money for historic restoration, conservation and preservation. His wonderful books certainly entertain while getting these points across.
It occurred to me that Amor Towles, the author of the novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, that was on bestseller lists for TWO YEARS, was perhaps making a different kind of point when he crafted a story that begins in 1922 about an aristocrat hauled before a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to house arrest in the attic of the Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin. The writer not only describes the tumult and corruption of the Soviet bureaucratic system, but also shows how the indomitable spirit of the man, his education and genteel nature can succeed in such difficult circumstances.
An author who makes his points by writing absolutely hilarious stories is Christopher Buckley who is a master at describing Washington politics, governmental overreach, corporate power plays, media spin control and other general nonsense. One of his bestselling novels, Thank You for Smoking became a national bestseller, was named one of the best books of the year by People and USA Today, and then was turned into a motion picture. In this tale, the main character, Nick Taylor, is a flak for cigarette companies, paid to promote their product and is so good at his job he becomes a target for both anti-tobacco terrorists and the FBI. One description of the story asks the question, “In a country where half the people want to outlaw pleasure and the other half want to sell you a disease, what will become of Nick?
On a personal note, some years ago I served on the White House staff of the National Security Council where we studied and acted on many threats to the country, especially from foreign sources. Later I decided I wanted to try and “call attention” to some of these threats and craft stories that would make the point but also entertain, as George Bernard Shaw had advised. One of those novels was inspired by a conversation I had with the Major General in charge of our worldwide Missile Defense System.
I asked him the question, “What keeps you up at night?” He said, “Let me paint a scenario for you. Let’s say that a rival foreign government or group somehow gets hold of a small nuclear device and is able to miniaturize it and put it on a delivery vehicle – it could be as simple as a Scud Missile (which are ubiquitous all over the world). And let’s say they have these components on a boat offshore – we’d never find them. Then let’s say they don’t intend to aim the nuke at New York or Los Angeles which obviously would be devastating. No, they plan to detonate it 50-100 miles up in the atmosphere. That explosion would not kill us on the ground. But what it WOULD do is create an “Electro-Magnetic Pulse” – or EMP – that would fry all electronics on the ground. We would have no computers, cell phones, communications, transportation, sanitation, refrigeration.” He looked at me and added, “It would set us back to the year 1910. And don’t think our enemies aren’t thinking about it, because they are, which shows we need to improve our missile defenses and harden our electricity grid.”
So, of course, I had to write a thriller about that “scenario.” The title is Castle Bravo – about a White House staffer who is concerned about just such a threat but has trouble getting higher-ups to address it. Meanwhile, her boyfriend goes overseas on a business trip and is in a remote area where an EMP is set off – by mistake. But he’s trapped (no communication or transportation) and some in the government of that country realize they have a potent new weapon in their hands. (I was grateful to Steve Berry for commenting on this story.)
A few years after that book was published, I clipped an article from The Wall Street Journal, about North Korea making just such a chilling threat. It reads, “North Korea’s threats against the US now include a tactic long discussed by some experts: an electromagnetic pulse or EMP triggered by a nuclear weapon that would aim to shut down the US electricity grid.” (The article is there to the right). Many believe that China, Russia and Iran have been considering a just such a scenario as well. But are our government leaders paying attention and taking steps to counteract such a move? If they are, they’re not making headlines, but I certainly hope they do.
What novels have you read where you sense that authors are trying to make an important point while also crafting an entertaining tale? Share your thoughts, and thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.
That’s an excellent question…and of course whenever I try to form an intelligent answer, I go totally blank. One comes to mind: We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, about animal studies.
For myself, I never try to make a point, but I do try to thoroughly explore topics that capture my fancy—juvenile rehabilitation, political parties, telemarketer fraud.
In your terrific novels, Lisa, you actually do make a ton of great points about exactly those “topics that capture your fancy” — I trust the messages get through to your many readers.
I’d never really analyzed novels on the basis of what point the author was making, Karna, but you’re absolutely right. And it was really fun and educational to read your assessment of the books. We are so lucky to have you with your amazing background and writing talent writing such great books in the field!
Thanks for the kind words, Gayle — I’ve been so pleased to be a member of this RWW group of awesome authors that YOU put together many years ago!