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The power of prose: Understanding the impact novels have on our society

November is National Novel-Writing Month (often abbreviated as NaNoWriMo), which encourages individuals around the world to write 50,000-word novels, regardless of their backgrounds or experience. 

Whether you’re a fan of television and movies based on science fiction, adventures, comedy or another genre, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen at least one film or series inspired by a novel. 

From fantasy sagas such as The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter to romantic comedies and dramas (such as Bridgerton, The Notebook and The Color Purple), book-to-film adaptations are a common storytelling practice that can be seen throughout the entertainment industry, bridging the arts of literature and cinema. 

Beyond mere entertainment, novels can also be recognized for their use of characters and plots to help readers—and, in these instances, viewers—better understand the human experience. 

Photo of Thrity Umrigar
Thrity Umrigar

To discover how novels impact other media we consume, The Daily spoke with Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of the novels Honor, Bombay Time, The Space Between Us and If Today Be Sweet, among others. Umrigar is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Read on to learn Umrigar’s thoughts. 

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length

1. Novels often delve into complex social issues. In your opinion, how do they contribute to raising awareness and fostering discussions on these topics?

Novels are an emotional medium, much like music. They offer us the privilege of interiority by giving us a look at someone’s inner life, their innermost thoughts or sentiments they’d never say out loud. In that sense, we get to know a character better than we can know our best friend. This can leave the reader vulnerable in the best possible sense—by softening our hearts and leaving us open to new ideas and to feeling the pain of others. Great writers are always compassionate in their writing and that compassion produces a reciprocal feeling in the reader.

2. How do novels serve as vehicles for empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives and experiences?

By telling the story of a single character as fully and honestly as one can, a writer creates a universal story. An empathic imagination is the most important tool in a writer’s tool box. When I was a teenager in India, I read all of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and other American writers. At no point did I stop and say, “These are American writers writing about America.” I just saw them as writers who belonged to me, because they spoke timeless, universal truths. That’s the alchemy that good writing produces.

3. Novels have been banned or censored in various societies throughout history. What are your thoughts on the power of novels to challenge social norms and provoke change, even in the face of censorship?

The role of all art is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The current book bans that are sweeping the country are part of a long and ignoble history. But writers can’t afford to be censored and the most pernicious form of censorship is self-censorship.

4. In a digital age with numerous forms of entertainment and information consumption, how do novels continue to maintain their relevance and impact on society?

I think, sadly, that novels have become an elite art form to some extent. We live in a polarized nation where we all live in our own silos. We consume different news sources, listen to different music, subscribe to different political philosophies. Novels, with their interest in telling human stories, have the potential to bridge those differences. I think the popularity of book clubs is a great thing because other than the community that they offer, they also force people to read books they wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on their own.

5. As a writer yourself, how do you navigate the responsibility of addressing social and cultural themes in your own work?  What impact do you hope to achieve through your novels?

I want my novels to be well-researched and emotionally honest. I don’t think in terms of commercial success or appealing to a certain group of readers. I feel like my primary responsibility is to the text itself, my characters [and] how I want to present their full humanity. But what I want is for my readers to read about a different culture and see not differences, but similarities. I want them to see their story in the stories of people ten thousand miles away. And my dream is that the stories that I tell will soften their hearts a little bit.

Everything in the news today makes us toughen ourselves or harden our hearts in order to carry on. But art and literature can have the opposite effect. That is the true mission of art—to make us see our common humanity. This is why art survives through centuries and in every single culture.