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Friday, July 27, 2012

Eschew Politics! (Last of the series. I promise!)

We continue to explore if (and how) a writer should involve themselves in politics, and we continue to throw Richard Bausch under the bus as being the person who most famously has vocalized this sentiment echoed by so many other writers.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I've never seen a writer read Bausch's advice without voicing their dissent on that issue.  They agree with his advice to read, to establish routines, to dream, but when they hit "eschew" suddenly they make a moue and say: "Well, I don't know about that."  But a lot of successful writers, and almost every big name fiction writer, seems to echo some version of this advice.

Leela Bruce has done a wonderful job pointing out why writers should not eschew politics.  I have my work cut out for me to try to counterpoint such a thorough thrashing.

Let me start with a disclaimer: with writing we tend to categorize genres as a mental means of categorization, but these are artificial boundaries.  Writing often falls elegantly into the space between genres and it is the label makers (not the writers) who stumble clumsily with definition.  With writing as obviously directly political as punditry and political writers, going through a genre of fiction we call political fiction, a sub-genre of speculative fiction that deals heavily with political allegory, all the way to politics-eschewing fiction, it would be impossible to be prescriptive to writers in a way that matters about what relationship they have with politics.  If you want to write politically, learn the ways to do that effectively.  Such ways DO exist.

And yet...I would still encourage most fiction writers to avoid politics.  Especially young writers who are struggling to find their way. I think politics can be caustic.  I think they can be deadly traps.  And every time I've gotten caught in their web, my life as an artist has suffered.  But if anything this week has shown is that now I have to explain what I mean by that, and why.

With a word as big as "politics," Bausch couldn't possibly have encouraged a writer to eschew them at their most fundamental level.  Politics can be defined at its most open ended as "Who gets what and when," or "Influence of others to gain control or power."

Folks, if your fiction lacks this, you have a problem.  This is one of the most fundamental aspects of plot that you can get.  Your character has to WANT something, and there has to be a power dynamic between them and the obstacle.  And they have to attempt to use means at their disposal to influence that outcome whether it's their sweet tongue, their motley crue of misfit rejects, or their PX7-Mark II Spacecruiser.  So without that most basic level of "politics," you'd have a pretty boring story.

So what DO I mean?

Let me start by saying all the things I DON'T mean (and which Bausch didn't say, which I suppose we should add since he's the one under the bus).  I DIDN'T say:

Don't vote.  Which entails reading the voter guide and understanding the issues that will be on the ballot.

Don't understand politics.  A writer must constantly understand how people try to influence each other.  How else will they portray such a thing in their own fiction?

Don't understand political science.  Understanding politics at a higher level of comprehension will really help you portray a realistic world where people are seeking to influence each other.  Also, if you're going to world build in a way that is even remotely realistic, you should probably understand how collective action problems work and what tools people use to deal with them.

Don't Be informed.  Puh-leeze.  If you're going to write about it, you better know enough to portray it accurately, whether it is the engine of a 57 Buick or the political climate of Myanmar or what a campaign office in a lost cause state looks like or the actual science of stem cells.

Don't have a cause.  Leela did a good job Wednesday of illustrating the difference between writing about the personal cost of an issue and writing about the politics of that issue.

Don't have an opinion.  It's not bad to be open minded.  It's really not bad to be willing to watch people when they argue as a study in humanity instead of jumping and bludgeoning them with your own ideas.  But no one is suggesting at the end of the day that you don't care one way or another.

Nope.  Not saying that stuff.

As Leela also pointed out, it's not even clear that Bausch wasn't strictly talking about the writing within a story.  The full quote of Bausch tends to get truncated to his bullet point of "Eschew politics" and if you read the whole thing, he's pretty much talking mostly about what works in a story.  Writing politics into a story is preachy at best, and Ayn Rand at worst.  We might even like didactic literature if it agrees with everything we want to believe, but good literature should challenge our beliefs, not pat us on the back for them.  It should deepen our understanding, not crystalize our positions.  It's disingenuous.  We all remember the episodes of our favorite shows that were nothing but political talking points and how stupid those shows felt even when we were agreeing the whole time.  (For me it was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where there were holes developing in warp space that was SO obviously about the ozone layer/environmental issues that I was rolling my eyes even back at age 19 or 20 when it first aired--now I just find it painful.)  But this is specifically a cautionary tale about how corny fiction can get if you fill it with sophist expressions of political thought. Many writers, even some of the ones who have offered ideas synonymous with "eschew politics" have had intensely political personal lives.

Write about issues and you will be political.
Write about politics, and you will obscure issues.
Be political in your life...maybe even in your blog.  Keep it out of your fiction--at least in a direct way.  The lack of stupidity in your fiction will thank you.

However, I would also suggest that a careful examination of these writers would reveal that they have had lives of social causes, not lives of partisan politics.  They may identify, for example, that the Democrats are more receptive to the struggles of the LGBT community and given them some energy or praise or time, but they did not align themselves with the Democrats and take on the trials and tribulations of the DNC, nor did they remain with their alliance for any longer than it served them.  They called out Obama (scathingly) on his every failure in this regard.  Stephen King has written (pointedly) about raising the tax rate on the 1%, but he did not extol everyone to join Obama's reelection campaign and man a phone bank or to contribute to the DNC.  He stopped at the issue.  The issue may have been a political one, but he didn't tread into the direct politics of it.  Obama might make a calculated decision that the country is not ready for equality marriage yet, and he will lose reelection if he pushes for it, but that doesn't mean a writer should stop writing about it.  In fact, the opposite is true and if you hold your fire because it's "your guy" in the cross hairs, you've lost all pretense at integrity.

Seriously, you know any feminist writers who hung up the towel after second wave and said "Well, my sisters...we have arrived!  No need to keep writing."  Indeed it is the discourse we need to change and the hearts and minds we need to win if we're not politically ready for an issue yet.  It also means that instead of grinding into the politicians who made political choices in a waste of spirit, the writer might want to focus on a continuing effort to alter the timber of the discussion.

Writers take positions on issues (even political issues) all the time, but they stick to the issue and the personal stakes and they stay out of the actual politics of those issues most of the time.

When I say it probably is a good idea for writers of fiction to eschew politics, this is what I am talking about.  The demands of partisan politics require too much time, too much energy, and far too much compromise.   But worst of all they change people to hold an antipodean worldview that no artist can truly afford.


TRUTH-  I've already written about the cost of truth that can come from entwining with partisan politics.  A writer  can't afford to run their fiction through the filter of politics.  What comes out the other end will not be truth.  It will be the half of the truth.  The half that a given side in a political struggle likes to pay attention to.  It will avoid what makes "them" look good or what makes "us" look bad, and no genuine art can afford that.

TIME AND ENERGY- Politics takes time and energy away from art.  If you've tried to seriously pursue writing, you've probably noticed that it takes some time and effort.  Trying to put in two or three hours a day along with reading and maybe taking care of kids or having a day job or something.  Guess what?  You're out of time and you're probably a little wiped out.  If you want to volunteer for this campaign or that lobby group, suddenly you're going to discover that it is your writing that suffers.  At the end of the day, you still need to take care of your kids, work your day job and pay your rent, and even sit catatonic on the couch and let your eyes glaze over while a couple of episodes of How I Met Your Mother play in front of you.  So where is the time to be a political dynamo going to come from?

Unless you're willing to do a little bit of crystal meth, it's probably going to come from your writing time.

And you don't even have to be Political Pat in order to lose time to politics.  Ever been on a political forum?  Did you get the sense that you were really spending your time in a productive way--changing the minds of those who disagreed with a careful enumeration of skillfully constructed points?  Or did you walk in there thinking "My pen is my sword, and with it, I will smote ignorance in the name of righteousness," and then eight hours later, you were also using all caps and suggesting that people die in fires.  And no one's mind had changed....even a little.

Hey you don't even have to use a forum to try this out.  Put up a political post on Facebook.  Might I suggest, given current events, that it be about gun control.  Notice what happens?  (I mean, unless you have somehow culled your friends list to be nothing but those who agree with you, and if you've done THAT then you probably aren't going to make for a very honest writer anyway.)  Did someone disagree?  I be they did!  Do you want to reply!  Do you want to correct them?  Did it seem like maybe they missed your point and you want to make sure they got it?  Go ahead, reiterate what you meant.  I'll wait here.  What?  They still missed the point??  That seems strange.  Better explain it again.   What do you mean you've been at this for three hours with five different people (and a complete stranger who watches timeline like a hawk)?  And not one person has changed their mind?  Not even one?  Gosh...it's almost like that was a huge motherfucking waste of time and energy.  Well, better luck tomorrow. 

Or, you know, maybe you could write instead.

COMPASSION- Here is the main reason to avoid that caliber of political engagement.  You are a writer, and unless you want to write propaganda, punditry, and puff, you have a duty to portray people honestly and with the deepest humanity and compassion.  Yeah, even that guy.  That means you find the humanity in your enemy, and you sure as shit find it in your opponent on the somewhat limited United States political spectrum.  Writers can't afford to fall into "we vs. they" philosophies.  Writers have to paint us all as human--complex, nuanced, and equally flawed regardless of our politics.  They can't afford believe that people who don't agree with X position are all ignorant or stupid because that might come out in their writing and destroy their integrity.  They have to understand those people.  They have to empathize.  A writer has to be able to portray a black teenager from Oakland with humanity and dignity enough that no one ever even thinks to dismiss their far left politics.  They have to be able to portray a white Christian from east Texas with the humanity and dignity that no one ever thinks to dismiss their far right politics.  They can't dismiss either of them as brainwashed by their culture, uninformed, or stupid, but they have to acknowledge that both are brainwashed, uninformed, and stupid.

Portray your world in the black and white that politics says it is, and you will have a world of unimaginably small stakes, caricature villains, and change no one's mind ever.

Take a chance understanding people, portray them honestly, maintain the highest levels of compassion, and you may very well move people in the way politics never could.  In the end I must agree with Leela.  The reason a writer should "eschew politics" is because they can be far more effective, in every way, if they do.

Including politically.

1 comment:

  1. Truly thought political writing can change minds.

    But that takes a very mature perspective and a keen ability to persuade.