I am a peacemaker. I avoid conflict, keep my mouth shut in tense situations, change the topic rather than deal with something that could explode. Whether or not that is helpful in real life is debatable, but as a writer, this tendency is a downfall. Writing needs conflict. We read to see how people deal with problems—if they don't have problems, then we'll read something else.
As a reader, I appreciate books which tackle tough topics or show protagonists in difficult situations. This includes controversial topics. I think fiction is great medium in which to explore controversial or taboo topics. A novel is a safe arena in which to explore something that makes us uncomfortable. After all, it's fiction, right? So it's not really "real." It's a way to face something without it becoming personal. It's like reading a newspaper; we can keep it at arm's length if we wish.
Even though fiction lets us look at controversy in an arms-length, curious sort of way, it also draws us in. This, I think, is the power of fiction. In reading, we tend to identify with the protagonist. We see what they see, feel what they feel, hear what they hear. So when we have a protagonist who is dealing with something bad—bullying or illegal drugs or an affair or whatever—we also have the chance to get inside their head and understand why. Why are they drawn to that? What makes them do it? And in that understanding, we are less prone to judgement.
There's an old saying about not judging someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. I grew up in a very conservative Christian home. We looked down upon anyone who was divorced, because divorce clearly wasn't God's plan for marriage. It shouldn't happen. The couple should have tried harder, shouldn't have been so selfish, should have done something better. Then my parents divorced. Suddenly, I had a completely different perspective on divorce. As writers, we have the power to give that new perspective to readers through our writing.
Some of my favourite books deal with controversy. Angela Hunt is one of my all-time favourite authors, but I passed on several opportunities to review her book The Offering because of the topic. It deals with surrogacy and IVF, which the Catholic Church forbids. Somehow, the book still ended up in my mailbox and I read it. While I still agree with the Catholic Church's position on the topics, I have more sympathy for someone considering either because of the way the characters in the story drew me into their struggles.
Similarly, Nancy Rue and Rebecca St. James tackle the topic of cutting or self-injury in The Merciful Scar. Before I read that, I had no idea why on earth someone would think that cutting themselves would fix anything. I wasn't very far into this book before I was crying for Kristen, understanding completely why she wanted to cut. The Merciful Scar made me think really hard about my own life and about people who face addictions and gave me a lot more sympathy.
As writers, then, I think we should tackle controversial topics. I think we should write prayerfully and humbly, asking that God can bring truth into our words and help our words bring understanding to our readers. I think we should read books that deal with controversial topics, as writers to learn how to handle those topics, and as readers to gain sympathy and understanding for the people dealing with those issues.