Ken Liu Explains Why The Social Messages In Fiction Depend on the Reader

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Ken Liu’s debut novel The Grace of Kings has sparked lots of interest with its coinage of a new genre, Silkpunk. But is it a novel of social commentary? Does it comment on contemporary social issues? The New York Times asked Liu, and he delivered an interesting perspective on the ability of fiction to critique society.

Q. Historical, or speculative, fiction is often a metaphor for issues in contemporary society. Is this the case for “The Grace of Kings”?

A. I think this depends on the reader. The novel that an author writes is often not the novel that the reader reads, and most of the “messages” in a novel are put there by the reader. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. That’s how literature functions.

Historical fiction certainly has been used often to comment on contemporary issues, and sometimes historical fiction also offers interesting critiques on historiography. Though I’m not writing historical fiction, the novel’s connections to history are obvious and deep.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that fiction, as a rhetorical mode, works very differently from expository writing. If an author has a specific critique about contemporary society in mind, fiction tends not to be the best means to deliver that critique. But if the author wants to draw a rough comparison that may be enlightening for multiple political perspectives, fiction works much better.

Read the rest of the interview over in the New York Times.

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