Monday, July 30, 2012

Can a novel change world history?

I'm happy to welcome author Noah Beck to my blog today with a fascinating post addressing the question of whether a novel can change the world. My own first novel, Divide by Zero, comes out next month, and looks at much smaller themes of small-town life facing very personal disaster. But Noah's novel, The Last Israelis, takes on the world with serious global intent. I'm hoping to read the Last Israelis later this year. Meanwhile, meet author Noah Beck and consider how your reading, writing and dreaming might change the world. Over to you Noah, and thank you for visiting my blog today. 

By most measures, fiction writers are a fairly self-indulgent lot: they sit around mulling and forming ideas, converting concepts into stories, refining their drafts, and then hoping that someone — perhaps with enough prodding — takes notice. In most cases, when stacked up against physicians, firefighters, and home builders, it’s hard to see how scribes have earned their right to food and shelter on any given day. At best, they produce a few days or weeks of occasional entertainment for whomever happens to enjoy what they write. And yet, story-telling has been around since the dawn of time, so clearly fiction has the potential to serve an important purpose — to provide a call to action, a warning, or a source of courage or inspiration.

But can a novel change world history? It’s a fanciful idea, yet not outside the realm of possibility. As with free speech generally, the novels that have the greatest potential to alter world events are probably those that governments most vigorously try to censor and repress. For example, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” the 1928 novel by D. H. Lawrence that was internationally banned or censored for its sexually explicit content, may have been most responsible for overturning book censorship, even though — ironically enough — the novel had nothing to do with censorship and was never written with the intent to subvert it (unlike, say, Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451″).

Some writers who set out to change the course of human events with their stories actually succeed, as did Harriet Beacher Stowe. Her anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was published in 1852 and is credited with helping to foment the US Civil War. Legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, he declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

Nevertheless, writing a world-changing novel is an outlier so beyond any writer’s control that there is something preposterous about aspiring toward such an outcome. Thus, when I decided to stop the ayatollahs’ march toward the bomb with nothing but the imagination of an unknown author telling an Armageddon story about 35 men on an Israeli submarine, I knew the odds were slightly against me. And yet, with a trace of the irrepressible optimism that I apparently inherited from my father, I quixotically dropped everything else in my life — my job, my plans, my social life — in pursuit of an absurdly improbable objective. After all, the odds of writing a novel that stops Iran from getting nuclear weapons are infinitely better if one writes it than if one doesn’t. So I did. The book that resulted from that sleepless, ten-week effort is titled “The Last Israelis

What struck me most about this writing experience — besides the absolutely exhausting, marathon-like nature of it — was how surreal the whole endeavor seemed at times. Creating a world out of one’s imagination inherently detaches the writer from reality to some extent, but that experience is somehow intensified when the imagined reality takes place mostly in the cramped hull of a submarine. My small apartment, which I had barely left during the few months that I was writing, began to resemble the submarine that I was writing about and which the main characters were also stuck in for months. There was also something bizarre about writing a doomsday novel that takes place in the very near future and is based entirely on the facts of today. The writer becomes one part omniscient spectator, one part passive participant in a gruesome end that is theoretically just around the corner.

Now that I am firmly back in reality, I’m relieved to see that there is still time to prevent the fanatical regime in Iran from acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons. I can only hope that my novel — by reaching the right decision-makers and/or changing the terms of the public debate — helps to inspire the policy changes needed to prevent the Iranian nuclear threat from materializing. Even if six rounds of UN Security Council sanctions could not stop Tehran’s atomic warpath, surely my submarine thriller can!
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Noah Beck has been telling stories and writing creatively since he was a child growing up on the West Coast of the USA. Despite early literary leanings, his two Ivy League degrees (or, more precisely, the debt that accompanied them) diverted him to over a decade of corporate jobs. He kept his sanity with extensive journaling and globetrotting to over 50 countries, while maintaining a large collection of story ideas waiting to be developed when he finally decided to turn his real passion into a career.

This post was first published in the Times of Israel on July 12th, re-posted with permission.

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