Ron MacLean to Discuss the Social Novel

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For the final Chautuauqua Writers’ Center Brown Bag of the season, novelist Ron MacLean will discuss the social novel and its relevance in the 21st century.

MacLean, Week Nine’s prose writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, will discuss “Writing a Bigger World,” at 12:15 p.m. August 26 on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

The topic was inspired by a conversation MacLean had a year or so ago with Aminatta Forna, a novelist born and raised in both Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom.

MacLean said Forna wondered why so few American writers addressed a larger social canvas and seemed to prefer exploring “small, domestic and personal” worlds in their work.

“I thought it was a great question, and realized that all the recent novels I’ve read that address a world larger than a character’s immediate friend group were produced by writers outside the U.S. — Spanish writers, Russian writers, African writers,” MacLean said. “Given the strong history of large scale social fiction in the early 20th century, I got to wondering why it had become so out of vogue.”

It’s a topic that MacLean has a personal interest in. MacLean was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

His most recent novel, Headlong, “addressed large social concerns, under the guise of a mystery — which seems to be the one form through which we Americans are willing to engage social issues,” he said.

It’s a theme he wants to continue as he works on his next projects, MacLean said. He wants to bring a larger scope to his short stories and to future novels “that might not be mysteries.”

For his Brown Bag, MacLean will look to famous social novels of the 20th century that have shaped American thinking, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

From there, he’ll discuss how writers today can address social issues without becoming activist fiction — “where a novel becomes nothing more than a tract advocating a certain point of view for a cause,” he said.

MacLean said he hopes his audience will come away from his presentation eager to engage with the kind of work he’ll discuss.

He wants to leave them with “an increased thirst for fictions that encompass a larger world, the satisfaction of engaging some interesting ideas and maybe a few titles they might add to their reading lists.”


The author Ryan Pait

Ryan Pait gets a different haircut every summer to keep the people of Chautauqua guessing. This is his fourth summer at The Chautauquan Daily, so if you’re tired of him, that’s OK. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in literature from Western Kentucky University. Don’t ask him about what he’s doing after this summer, but do ask him about the Nicole Kidman renaissance, the return of “Game of Thrones” and what he’s reading.