Reading lists

10 times fiction changed the world

From stunning eco-fiction to iconic feminist literature, these remarkable novels have all inspired change through the power of great storytelling.

Carmella Lowkis
Tiled jackets of fiction books that have changed the world, in Vintage Earth-themed colour scheme

A group of eco-activists sit around a campfire in a Pacific Northwest forest, discussing how they can convince the rest of the world to join their cause. Their newest recruit, a psychologist named Adam, suggests, ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.’

This scene from Richard Powers’s The Overstory could very well be describing itself: the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been praised by readers (including Barack Obama) for changing how they think about the Earth.

It makes perfect sense, then, for The Overstory to be one of eight titles in the new Vintage Earth series of novels which aim to transform our relationship with the natural world. Each book in this series is a work of creative activism, a seed from which change can grow, from The Wall by Marlen Haushofer – cited as an influence by Nobel Prize-winners Doris Lessing and Elfriede Jelinek – to The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, a founding member of XR Writers Rebel.

But the climate crisis isn’t the only space where fiction holds sway. Inspired by the Vintage Earth series, here is a look back on some other moments when a good story has sparked real-world change.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837)

The image of a young orphan holding out his bowl for more gruel is so engrained in our cultural consciousness that it’s almost easy to forget that Charles Dickens was drawing on reality when he wrote Oliver Twist.

Under the New Poor Law of 1834, government welfare for the impoverished was only available to those who chose to enter the workhouse. Supposedly there to provide clothing, food and shelter, these institutions were in fact described by contemporary critics as ‘prisons for the poor’, with families separated from one another, meagre rations and discharge hard to obtain.

Dickens made his disapproval of the New Poor Law clear in his satirical portrayal of Oliver’s workhouse – a message which his contemporary readers could hardly miss. While there was no demonstrable shift in legislation due to Oliver Twist, the novel caused outcry over workhouse conditions, bringing the plight of the poor into the drawing rooms of the Victorian upper classes. As Dr Heather Shore, social history expert at Leeds Metropolitan University, puts it: ‘All of a sudden [Dickens] moves the debate on because now people, when they want to talk about criminal children they can think about the Artful Dodger – they know who these children are through Dickens’s fiction.’

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1905)

Set amongst the immigrant and working-class communities of turn-of-the-century Chicago, Upton Sinclair’s provocative exposé of the meatpacking industry is one of the clearest examples of fiction bringing about direct change to society.

On publication, The Jungle was immediately denounced by the conservative press as un-American libel, not least because Sinclair advocated for Socialism and unionisation. Sinclair’s clear objective was to reveal the exploitation of factory workers, however, his readers had a different takeaway from the novel: they were enraged to learn of the unsanitary conditions under which their food was produced.

In response, then President Theodore Roosevelt arranged an investigation of Chicago-based meatpacking facilities. The team’s findings went on to inform the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection acts of 1906, transforming the industry’s sanitation standards. Sinclair was disappointed in this result, saying, ‘I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

Radclyffe Hall’s story of upper-class Englishwoman and ‘sexual invert’ – aka lesbian – Stephen Gordon was the subject of one of the most famous obscenity trials in British legal history. Despite the efforts of publisher Jonathan Cape and support from the literati including Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Vita Sackville-West, the novel was found to be obscene on the basis that it might ‘deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences’.

However, if the court’s intention was to prevent discussion of lesbianism, their efforts backfired. The publicity surrounding the trial reached more readers than The Well of Loneliness ever would have achieved alone: now the topic of lesbianism was being discussed in newspapers up and down the country. The allure of a banned book also led to rallying support in the States, where the novel triumphed in a further obscenity trial.

Called‘the bible of lesbianism’ by The Times, for many women throughout the twentieth century The Well of Loneliness was their first – or only – encounter with lesbian literature. The book became a common reference point in butch communities, particularly in the States: American historian Lillian Faderman recalls one post-war article that even claimed Hall as ‘Our Matron Saint’ of lesbians.

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Big Brother. Doublethink. Room 101. Thought Police. 2 + 2 = 5. The language of George Orwell’s 1984 has been applied to just about every current event of the past decade, from Brexit to vaccine passports, fake news to drone surveillance.

Set in a future society kept under mass surveillance, controlled by a Party who dictate their own version of reality through constant propaganda, the classic dystopian novel has been hailed by many modern readers as alarmingly prophetic. The New York Review of Books called it ‘enthralling and indispensable for understanding modern history’.

Orwell’s name dominates talk around authoritarianism and liberty, with thinkers all over the political compass claiming him as a supporter. You would be hard-pressed to find a conversation on freedom of speech that doesn’t reference 1984. No wonder, then, that the BBC named 1984 as one of 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Things Fall Apart is widely considered to be Chinua Achebe’s magnum opus, as well as a definitional work in both African and World Literature. The story follows Igbo champion wrestler Okonkwo as his village and world are unbalanced by the arrival of European colonisers and missionaries.

Following its publication in 1958, the book became one of the first works of African literature to achieve global acclaim, changing perceptions of European colonialism. Achebe was praised for his handling of sociopolitical themes and for his innovative writing, blending the English language with Igbo words and narrative structures. Nelson Mandela described him as ‘a writer in whose company the prison walls fell down’.

The success of Things Fall Apart paved the way for future authors from the African continent. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that Achebe’s work ‘influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well’. Or, in Achebe’s own words, ‘The popularity of Things Fall Apart in my own society can be explained simply . . . this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, “rudimentary souls.’’’

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

When creating the misogynistic regime of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood didn’t have to look far for inspiration: its horrors were drawn from real life. In fact, most of Atwood’s sources can be traced directly, via her archive of newspaper clippings kept at the University of Toronto.

Almost four decades since the novel’s first publication, we are regrettably still seeing similar headlines around reproductive freedoms and women’s rights. The only difference is that, nowadays, this coverage often name-drops Atwood.

The Handmaid’s Tale and its various adaptations are now a lingua franca for campaigners around the globe. Protesters wearing the iconic red cloak and white bonnet of Atwood’s handmaids – made material by designer Ane Crabtree for the hit 2017 TV series – have appeared at demonstrations in support of women’s bodily autonomy, from Northern Ireland to Argentina; and the phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, which inspires Offred to fight back against Gilead, has become a feminist rallying cry.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved by Toni Morrison is an enduring tale of the horrors of slavery, and of maternal love at any cost. Inspired by true events from history, the novel is the story of Sethe, a woman haunted by the spectre of an impossible decision she had to make in order to escape enslavement.

In 1988, Beloved received the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award. In her acceptance speech, Morrison reflected that ‘there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby’ to honour the memories of those subjected to slavery: ‘There’s no small bench by the road . . . And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to . . . I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.’ Responding to this plea, in 2008, the Toni Morrison Society set out to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America, starting on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.

Morrison’s legacy doesn’t end with the impact of her own writing: working as editor at Random House, she used her position to champion the voices of Black writers including Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara, further transforming the modern literary canon.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993)

The reason the rich are so rich, suggests Captain of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch Sam Vimes, is because they spend less money than the poor. For example, a person who can afford to shell out for a durable pair of boots, which may withstand a decade’s wear, will spend less over time than someone who can only afford a cheap pair that won’t last out the year. So goes the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness, as set out in Men at Arms from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

This handy illustration of an economic theory has frequently been referenced in the past decade or so in connection to the increased cost of living, and most recently inspired food writer and anti-poverty activist Jack Monroe to launch the ‘Vimes Boots Index’ at the start of 2022. Monroe was prompted to develop this initiative after they noticed that the consumer price index to track inflation ‘grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least’.

The Pratchett estate has supported the use of Vimes’s name for the index, with Rhianna Pratchett stating that ‘Vimes’s musing [is] all too pertinent today, where our most vulnerable so often bear the brunt of austerity measures and are cast adrift from protection and empathy. Whilst we don’t have Vimes any more, we do have Jack and Dad would be proud to see his work used in such a way.’

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (2016)

The eponymous Kim Jiyoung of Cho Nam-Joo’s novel is an everywoman in a patriarchal society: as a child, she is second to her brother; as a student, she is the subject of unwanted attention from male teachers; as an employee, she is overlooked for promotion; as a wife, she must swap her career for domesticity. Shining a light on endemic sexism and institutional oppression in South Korea, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has been celebrated as one of the most important feminist novels in Korean.

Shortly after the book’s publication, multiple cases of misogynistic hate crime and sexual violence galvanised a massive #MeToo movement in South Korea. With this, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 became a cultural touchstone for Korean feminists. Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, whose public disclosure of her experiences of workplace harassment made national headlines, quoted lines from the novel during the subsequent legal case.

Cho Nam-Joo’s novel has also lent its voice to the political sphere. In 2017, Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker Keum Tae-sub presented the book to 300 fellow National Assembly members for International Women’s Day on 8 March, a gesture echoed by the Justice Party’s Roh Hoe-chan, who presented the book to then President Moon Jae-in later the same year, with a note imploring him to ‘embrace all the Kim Jiyoungs born in 1982’. The Barun Party’s Kim Su-min even named an amendment to the gender equality law the ‘Kim Jiyoung Law’.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old girl fighting for justice following the murder of her best friend by a police officer. The YA novel, which has been adapted into a film starring Amandla Stenberg, is a powerful exploration of inequality, police violence and prejudice.

But Thomas doesn’t just see her novel as a response to activism: books are ‘a form of activism in their own right,’ she told the Observer, ‘in the fact that they do empower people and show others the lives of people who may not be like themselves.’

This is true for The Hate U Give, which has been an igniting spark for young activists in America and beyond. After a Texan school district banned the book from library shelves following a parental complaint, student Ny’Shira Lundy took inspiration from Starr to speak out. After gathering 4,000 signatures on a petition, Lundy was able to persuade the school district to return the book to circulation. In her accompanying letter to the superintendent, Lundy wrote, ‘Starr Carter has taught me that it is okay to be myself. That I should take charge and stand up for what I believe in.’