“ A Book of American Martyrs,” by Joyce Carol Oates, won a Los Angeles Times book award Friday night. I thought the novel was incredibly powerful, but I was surprised to see it win in the Mystery/Thriller category. Although the story begins with a shooting — the murder of an abortion doctor — there’s no mystery about who the killer is, and there’s no thrilling chase to track him down.
But where we shelve “A Book of American Martyrs” is the least interesting thing about this novel. Whether a mystery, a gothic thriller or a work of literary fiction, it deserves far more readers than it got when it was published at the start of 2017, and this prize from the L.A. Times might help.
What’s so remarkable about “American Martyrs,” which echoes the 1994 murder of physician John Britton and his guard in Pensacola, Fla., is the way Oates dramatizes the deadly abortion debate in this country. Over the course of more than 700 pages, she fully sympathizes with two families on opposite sides of this incendiary conflict. We get to know the wife and daughter of the murdered doctor just as we get to know the wife and daughter of the fundamentalist Christian who pulled the trigger. They are all wrecked, grieving people, struggling to recover from a shocking act of violence.
I thought of this propulsive, demanding novel as I read an essay by Kevin D. Williamson over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. Williamson is a conservative writer who was hired last month by the Atlantic magazine, a decision that sparked an immediate uproar. Critics pointed to his suggestion on Twitter and on a podcast in 2014 that women who have abortions should be hanged. As the public outrage swelled, Atlantic Editor Jeffrey Goldberg determined that “the Atlantic is not the best fit” for Williamson’s talents, and he was fired just three days after his first piece appeared in the magazine.
In Saturday’s WSJ, under the headline, “When the Twitter Mob Came for Me,” Williamson pushed back hard against his critics. He portrays himself as an American martyr for truth and candor, set upon by a shrill gang of unscrupulous pro-abortion fanatics. His tone is sometimes wounded and pompous. He’s willing to acknowledge that his earlier comments about hanging were “trollish and hostile,” but he clearly feels more sinned against than sinning.
At the very least, though, he’s right to call out journalists who wrote about his views without bothering to contact him. And no matter what you think of Williamson’s work in general or the right to abortion in particular, toward the end of his essay he makes a crucial point about what’s happening to us all:
“What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism. Twitter is about offering markers of affiliation or markers of disaffiliation. The Left shouts RACIST!, and the Right shouts FAKE NEWS! There isn’t much that can be done about this other than treating social media with the low regard it deserves.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a less effective platform than Twitter to discuss the morality of abortion. Heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life and the dimensions of personal autonomy cannot possibly take place in the hate-filled quips that fire back and forth on social media. And yet, as Williamson notes, the distorting miasma of vitriol that Twitter emits has seeped into almost every public forum.
Few of us will probably ever change our minds about abortion (like Oates, I’m pro-choice), but many of us may need to change our minds about our ideological opponents.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to Twitter, Facebook and all those indignant op-eds that we use to confirm the superiority of our beliefs. It’s a flexible, troll-free, hacker-resistant platform on which complex social and moral questions can be carefully explored. It simultaneously engages our empathy and models the action of empathy for us.
It’s called a novel. And Oates has written one that will stretch the affections of readers convinced that abortion is murder and readers convinced that access to abortion is fundamental to women’s freedom.
How Oates can do this so effectively is part of the thrilling mystery of a good book.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.