Must politics ruin everything?
Must politics infect even our art?
Must blog posts have bad grammar?
These thoughts came to me recently (well, maybe not the grammar one) as I witnessed author Jon Del Arroz on Twitter going back-and-forth with other authors about the seeming impossibility of keeping politics out of fiction. Jon, clearly, thinks that it is possible to write politics-free fiction, and that it is, in fact, easy to do. This is part of the impetus behind the Pulp Revolution, after all:
Just don’t write politics into it.
On the other side is the view that it’s impossible because political viewpoints form who the author is, and that such a fundamental part of the writer–or artist in general–is always going to seep through:
Politics are a part of the author, and every work is a piece of the author’s soul.
I have a problem with this second position, for four main reasons:
- Hypocrisy on the part of those who make this argument. These are the same people who try to tell us that, in our politicians, character doesn’t matter and that personal beliefs, whether philosophy or faith, need to be kept out of politics. Yet it’s “impossible” to separate personal values and beliefs from something with arguably far fewer consequences like art? Do we pick and choose based on some arbitrary metric? How does this even make sense?
- The conflation of contemporary politics with universal themes about humanity. Much of what passes as contemporary political philosophy is meaningless gibberish. Deconstruction, critical theory, tax policy, post-modernism, and the reduction of every single facet of human interaction into the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy has as much to do with the human experience and the intellectual life as your bowel movement has to do with high art (unless you’re a Dadaist, I guess, then have at it).
- It demonstrates a lack of skill. This one is short but sweet: a good writer can write from the perspective of anyone, and make the reader believe it…without the character sounding like a mouthpiece for the author.
- The conflation of politics with values. This is the big one. Values might determine what political affiliation–if any–you gravitate towards. But when we talk “values,” we usually aren’t talking “I’m a Republican!” or “I’m a Democrat!” Or at least we shouldn’t be.
I am a firm believer that one can enjoy art despite its creator’s politics. Don’t like Nazis? No one does! But just because Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favorite doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Nibelungenlied.
What’s that, you say? You’re not a Che-worshipping, Lenin-loving murderous Marxist? Well guess what: You can still listen to–and enjoy!–Rage Against the Machine (though those dudes will still hate you).
You get the idea.
But far more interesting is the “power lifts as values” issue. Let’s explore this a bit further.
Your values are usually some combination of standards and principles derived from faith or philosophy or both. These, in turn, tend to push a person towards one of the two general views of politics and the role of government: More government intervention, or less government intervention.
The values drive the politics.
For many, though, its vice versa. Their political beliefs dictate what they should do, think, and believe. Their political leaders, whether they be Presidents, Senators, Representatives, or pundits, dictate their core beliefs.
I know that some say “politics are an extension of our values,” but a lot of contemporary politics begs the question of where on Earth do these values come from? Certainly not the Objective Good.
You can see the problem with this.
If you can’t, then here it is: these things change as the people change and the people themselves change their own opinions and principles.
Most people involved in politics are self-serving assholes. They do not care about you. That’s why it’s good to have solid, unchanging, objective principles upon which to measure the behavior of yourself and others, and not rely upon what you personally feel at any given moment in time. Because what you end up with are situations where what is most expedient and convenient magically becomes a principle. Or a value.
The politics drive the values.
Why are there no values outside of politics? Is it the deliberate destruction of faith as an important institution in American society? Is it poor education that doesn’t teach bedrock principles of Western philosophy and thought? Was it the recent eclipse?
Whatever the reason, politics seems like a terrible substitute for values.
Some people see politics as electing moral leaders. As electing gods.
So what does this have to do with storytelling?
Let’s say you’re writing an intimate portrait of a family facing hard times. Or a bombastic sci-fi space opera. Or even mythical fantasy. Whatever. What is going to be both easier to work into your story, and less likely to stick out like a sore thumb: universal principles or contemporary politics?
Of course, if you explicitly set out to make your work with the purpose of being political, and you are honest about it, that’s fine. Just don’t be surprised when people comment on it, or object to being insulted.
Ah! Being insulted! This brings us to perhaps the most important point about all of this: It is possible to have political themes without being a snarky, dismissive, jack-off about it.
See authors like Kurt Vonnegut, for example. The man clearly had values that shaped his politics, and he explored these themes in his novels. But to me they never came across the way, say, stuff in Marvel Comics is coming across these days.
So is it a talent deficit in a lot of contemporary fiction that prevents writers from delving into political issues in a way that maintains the integrity of the storytelling? I’m sure that’s a large part of it…but most writers are way too good at what they do for me to be convinced that this is the main driver.
But what is it that compels writers to cram their works full of messages these days anyway?
I contend that there are two reasons:
First: They have nothing else going on in their lives.
Their lives are defined by politics, arguably one of the worst of all cultural institutions.
Having Aristotelian themes, or Christian themes, or Nietzschean themes, or Buddhist themes in your work is one thing. And it can make for compelling plots and characters! Having the talking points of a contemporary political party is another. It can make for a tiresome, political harangue.
Second: Their purpose IS the message, not the story.
And there’s nothing wrong with this! Just admit it! I’m with Jon here: it’s easy to not have a political message in your fiction if you don’t want to.
But when creators announce to the world that their purpose is to “subvert” tropes or traditions or other classic authors in order to take down one gender, religion, race, or nation or the other while promoting others, viewing everything through the morally and philosophically empty post-modern lens, how could the stories not suffer?
It’s adolescent, tantrum-throwing behavior: Having nothing constructive to create, the message-fiction author prefers to piss all over something else.
They just want to stick it to their typically imaginary “oppressor.”
No wonder Jon gets so fired up about this. No wonder I do too.
Now, characters may have their own personal values and yes, even their own personal politics. These may or may not align with the author’s. And the author’s own values and politics will define much of what happens within the story. But this can be done in a way that doesn’t make it glaringly obvious what the author thinks is right.
It doesn’t have to be a sucker-punch, if you don’t want it to be.
It’s a fine line that’s difficult to explain, but as with a lot of things, you know message fiction when you see it.
Apparently, readers do too, which is why they aren’t buying it.
And check out my Instagram here.