By Ashleigh Watson
How Should We Review Sociological Fiction?
‘How’ is always contextual. Reviewing fiction, like reviewing abstracts for conferences and articles for publication, is done according to relative criteria. The quality of the writing is always a primary focus. The ways we understand that quality depends on various things: why it was written, who has written it, who the writing is aimed at, what the writer is aiming to do with the piece. Whether it ‘fits’ the space it’s been submitted to. The work’s clarity, poetics, resonance, and aesthetics. To review sociological fiction we may consider each of these things, as well as what makes the fiction sociological.
As I reflected two years ago, we may distinguish between sociological fiction, fiction written by a sociologist, and fiction written by a non-sociologist that nonetheless offers space for sociological insight. Why we would do this is another discussion – many sociologists work outside sociology departments, in interdisciplinary settings, under different titles, and outside academia. We may also consider the use of the piece, an important consideration for the PhD (for example), if we recognise that distinctions of usefulness depend on the context of use.
One valuable criteria to consider is the sociological labour that has gone into the production of the work. When used in social science, the arts-based research method of fiction writing involves purposefully writing research or theory in to the text. This can be done as a translational process, and to generate sociological knowledge in its own right – not only ‘writing up’ but part of the method and/or labour of analysis. So, assessing the sociological labour in this instance means evaluating the sociology in the work. It involves considering: the approach the piece takes to the social world; the theory, concepts, or ideas it engages with; the existing research it illustrates or builds upon; the critical questions it may raise; the new knowledge it may offer.
In her innovative text Fiction as Research Practice: Short Stories, Novellas and Novels, Patricia Leavy offers some evaluative criteria for fiction-based research. She partly draws these from traditional evaluative criteria for qualitative research, reimagining how elements like validity, rigor, congruence, generalizability, authenticity and reflexivity might be effectively applied to fiction as a different genre of research. They include:
- The creation of a virtual reality
- Substantive contribution
- Personal signature
Considering how a piece creates a virtual reality is a good starting point – more so than poetry, short and longer stories arguably do more to create worlds. A piece of fiction can feel unfinished or underdeveloped if there is no wider virtual reality that the specific narrative is set within. Where poems primarily enliven moments, feelings and scenes, one thing that makes a plot compelling and believable is the world – real or imagined – that gives a specific story boundaries and context. We might best understand this as verisimilitude. Narrative ethnographic writing often centralises this criteria.
Judging the substantive contribution a piece makes depends on the kind of piece and its intent, much like the use of the piece as discussed. Aesthetics is significant to consider for sociological fiction, as it is through the aesthetic of the work that we may best bring to life conceptual sociological schema like habitus, governmentality and cultural imaginaries. The personal signature of the work is most commonly discussed as ‘voice’ – something chased and cultivated by writers and artists in many fiction and nonfiction genres.
While mapping fiction criteria onto traditional qualitative criteria, ultimately Leavy argues that it is important to evaluate this work on its own terms rather than as an extension of qualitative research. As such, Leavy also raises interesting criteria like:
- Sensitive portrayals of people and promotion of empathy and empathetic engagement
- The presence of ambiguity
Like criteria of resonance and identification, empathetic engagement may be difficult to assess as what resonates with and engages readers can vary considerably. This may be best understood or evaluated under the criteria of characterisation, or how well the author creates believable and multidimensional characters in the piece. To sensitively portray people, sociological fiction writers may again follow the example set by narrative ethnographers. If the text intentionally aims to promote empathy then this could be evaluated as part of how well the work fulfils the aims of the author rather than as a blanket criteria – though I agree the promotion of empathy is a worthy goal of sociological fiction writing.
The presence of ambiguity is also worth discussion and something I have considered at length in my own work. My current research project involves the creation of a sociological fiction novel, and in my accompanying exegetical writing I work to illuminate and justify the use and value of the novel. For my own project, I conclude that the aim of my book is not to deliver a concise sociological argument via a story; I aim to float critical questions about culture and social life that take a sociological perspective. By focusing on creating a bed for these questions to flower in, in a way I do develop the presence of ambiguity. Unlike traditional scholarly work, this fiction has an end but no conclusions. Depending on what the author intends to achieve and their motivation for writing, this may be a real strength of sociological fiction – not necessarily whether we achieve ambiguity, but whether we create work that is open and highlights possibilities, rather than being closed and arguing ‘valid’ certainties.