31 March 2010

Writing and Politics

I had a meeting with my supervisors the other week and they seem pleased with the writing so far - so that's good. Perhaps a little more writing at this point wouldn't have gone amiss, but I've managed to rope myself into collectives for an Anarcha-feminist event in Manchester and the Merseyside Mayday Festival, so not much chance of writing anything fictional until at least May 2nd.

Just so this blog doesn't die before it's begun, though, I decided that, since my politics is clearly getting in the way of my writing, I'd do a post about why my politics doesn't get in the way of my writing.

I'll start by mentioning a thing that annoys me. I am explaining an idea for a story, or something that happens in the story, or even showing an extract of my story to somebody who happens to know my politics. People don't know me for any length of time without finding out about my politics, so I may as well make my politics known here: I am, in no particular order, an anarchist, a communist and a feminist. I probably count as a few other things, but that's my conspicuously secular trinity (in that I tend to a belief that the three are actually one and the same, as the core values of any one of those ideologies implies the necessity of the others, but that's not what I want to talk about here.)

So, it may come to the attention of somebody viewing my writing, and knowing my politics, that elements of my politics can be detected in elements of my writing. What I want to know from the reader of an early draft is what every writer wants to know: does the plot work? Are the characters engaging? Are the outcomes plausible? Does the language sound right? Am I a worthless peddler of purple prose? Should I burn every word I've ever written and never show my face in polite society again? But all that person wants to tell me is: "That bit, there, with the anarchist/feminist/communist thing...You're just writing that in because you're an anarchist/feminist/communist." It's the qualifier that irks me rather than the observation. Why "just"? Why should the presence of political thought preclude other narrative concerns? The implication is that visible ideological bias is inherently damaging to the quality of creative writing, and this assumption is expected to hold without the need for any solid objections to either the ideology or the writing.

There's a misconception that if radical political thought and narrative collide, the only possible result can be propaganda, often described as "thinly veiled" to compound the crime, as if hiding the ideology behind heavier drapes would make it more acceptable. Now, if what's actually meant by "thinly veiled" is "badly integrated" or "inconsistent with the plot and characters" or "The plot and characters are insubstantial enough that there's nothing to this story except the ideological message", then those are all valid criticisms, but the presence of an ideological theme does not, in itself, turn a well-written story into "mere" propaganda. In fact, it's difficult to imagine well-written fiction that doesn't have political or ideological themes going on somewhere.

What separates good fiction from propaganda is not how well-hidden, or even how valid the politics are, but how good the fiction is. William Morris' News from Nowhere, for instance - much as I can get behind its aims and principles, and enjoy it for its visionary passion - is a dull story. The characters are not characters but devices, the questions don't ever challenge the explanations the protagonist is given, and nothing really happens - no changes in pace, no tension, no conflict, no plot. Something like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, on the other hand, despite some politics I find elitist and objectionable, is a good piece of fiction. It has characters who change, develop, make decisions, take risks, ask awkward questions of themselves, each other and the reader. It has twists and turns that make me want to know how it ends. I may not accept Bradbury's assertion that a society seeking after equality for all will attempt to eradicate innate intellectual advantage by burning all the books, but the readability of the novel allows me to suspend my disbelief - if not my disagreement - enough to enjoy it as a good read. This doesn't only apply to overtly political utopian and dystopian fiction, either.

The idea that fiction can be apolitical fails to take into account that every fiction writer is the de facto dictator of their own world. More than that, writers are gods, with ultimate power over cause and effect. I not only decide what dilemmas my characters will face, and how they will react to them, but what the outcome of their reactions will be. It's a mighty responsibility, but I don't shirk it. Many writers do. They claim not to be political or, worse, politically neutral. My favourite debunking of this attitude comes from Yonmei on FeministSF, who says:

I cannot make a decision politically neutral by declaring I have no interest in politics or that I am not a political writer: that statement just means a writer who is [not] prepared to think about the politics of their fractal selection - or at least that they’re not prepared to acknowledge any political thought. The only political decisions/political thought that appears neutral is the politics of the dominant majority. If, without thinking about it, a writer strives to appear politically neutral, the kind of political writing they will do is the promotion of the dominant narrative.
Yonmei, 'What is a Writer's Job?'

Nobody, and certainly no fiction, is politically neutral. Espousing the dominant politics of one's own time and place is not neutrality, but it is safe, practically invisible and highly unlikely to get you labelled a propagandist. This is illusory, though. Failing to question the status quo is as good as tacitly approving it, and besides, characters who don't question are boring. Attempts at political neutrality are, therefore, far more likely to lead a story into both bad politics and bad writing than a committed, well-integrated ideological component to the narrative.

So, when it is pointed out to me that my writing reflects my politics, I can only look puzzled and ask: "Whose politics were you expecting it to reflect?"


  1. Great post. I agree that politically neutral fiction is unfeasible. However, I would add 2 caveats.

    The first thing, if someone accused me of writing something "just" because of my politics, I too would consider it a grave insult to my writing. But then, I would also double-check to make sure that whatever I wrote really is necessary for the story.

    The second thing was your rhetorical question at the end of your post. "Whose politics were you expecting it to reflect?" I would like to ignore it's rhetorical intent and answer it literally:I was expecting it to reflect your character's politics

    I think in most places in a book, it's usually the focal character's politics that should be coming through. Granted, the Author's politics can(and should) still be found, but it should be in ways more subtle than a character's. An author can use things such as setting, plot outcome, and the consequences of the focal character's outcome to express their theme(or "politics" as you say).

  2. Thanks for the comment - I entirely agree with your first point, but then my only problem with the original criticism is that it's stated in terms of how consistent the theme is with the writer's politics, rather than how inconsistent it is with the story.

    On the second point...What my characters say and do should reflect their own politics, certainly - no character should be a simplistic mouthpiece for the author. But it's still me who decides what will happen as a consequence of what they say and do, and how they will change because of this, and those are the most politically-charged decisions of any narrative. That's what I mean by stories reflecting the author's politics - I can leave the characters to draw their own conclusions on what to take away from their experiences, but in the end, I'm the one who decides what experiences they get to draw those conclusions from. I think the balance is probably in recognising that they might draw different conclusions than I would, and the readers may draw different ones again. Ambiguity isn't quite the same as neutrality. I suppose what the author does is leaves conclusions open to interpretation, but not so open that the story seems completely pointless. It's pinned down to a limited range of conclusions, and right in the middle of that range is the author's politics, but the readers and characters may fall a little way to either side.