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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Eschew THIS! (Leela Bruce takes on Richard Bausch)

These guys have learned to love.
Why do you have to be a h8er, Richard Bausch?
Making my fists tingle for the sweet taste of battered bad advice isn't usually something I can control.  Someone just says some ridiculous prescription about what writing must entail (or not entail) and I immediately go into ass-kicking mode. I like to think I do it for the children--for all the young people out there who are trying to take a shot at writing and maybe don't have all the tools to filter through the advice that might not always apply to them...

Oh who am I kidding? That's a total lie.  I do it because it feels really good to punch someone in the face who's just being self righteous about telling the world the way they write is the One True Way.  And usually they are wrong.  So they're actually being self wrongteous.

So when Chris Brecheen told me he was going to some political speech and could I tailor my Wednesday offering to a politics theme, at first I thought "Hey man, I can't can't control who deserves an ass kicking in a given month."  But then he kept talking about some guy named Richard Bausch and his advice to "Eschew politics."

And I'll be damned if my fists didn't start to tingle.

Normally I only fight dead white guys, but since this is advice-centric, I can make an exception for someone who tells writers something so blatant as to actively avoid politics.  So come at me Richard Bausch('s advice to eschew politics!)


I'm going to start with a sucker punch, just to throw this bad advice off balance. So I'll walk up and say "Oh my god!  Richard Baucsh's advice to 'eschew politics'!  I can't believe I'm actually meeting you.  I'm your biggest fan!  You have spoken so deeply to me.  There were times when I really felt like joining the DNC, but then I remembered you and your advice, and I--"

BAM.  Suckerpunch!  This advice is in Richard Bausch's ten commandments to a young writer.  Wanna know what the tenth commandment was?  His last piece of advice?  It was to ignore general advice.  Advice as general as, say, his entire list.  Advice like eschew politics.  Yes, exactly like such advice.  He even invites us to discard all other commandments if they get in the way of writing a good story.  This almost makes me feel bad about the rest of the beat down to come.

Almost.

I will now unleash the butterfly/bee dance/sting combo-move of pointing out that this is advice to a young writer--one just starting out in the world.  Much like C.S. Lewis's similar advice, this must be considered when evaluating the whole.  We tell young piano players not to mess with the pedals as well.  That doesn't mean they never learn to use them.  It just means that it can complicate the initial process.  As a writer's sophistication grows, they can learn to love the flaws in humanity, and acknowledge the imperfection of a political party or political position without needing to give up that position completely.

Now that this bad advice is reeling a bit, I'm going to risk telegraphing a little so I can deliver a few Angry-Rhino punches.  Reading Richard's advice, it is very clear he's talking about a writer's fiction, not a writer's whole life.  He talks about historical backdrops to your story and offers the example of "if your character gives a speech with deeply held beliefs, make sure you don't believe a word of it."  These are examples on the page, not from the writer's own life.  Bausch isn't saying a writer can't be political, he's saying that a story shouldn't be political.  That leads to didactic crap at best and rank propaganda at worst .  But there's nothing to suggest that a writer can't be political themselves.

And let's be honest here.  This isn't advice about how to write.  Really, it's not.  This might be advice about how to write honestly, or genuinely, or possibly even "well," but it's not advice about how to write.  And it's certainly not advice about how to be a monetarily successful writer.  Plenty of writers the world over, in every time and political climate, have done well for themselves by writing didactic literature and even propaganda.  People will always pay to be told that they are right, and be patted on the head for what they already believe.  Headbutt to the bridge of the nose!

Now that this advice is really weak and loopy, I'm going to start throwing kicks to end this, starting with a wheel kick to the temple.  Hello?  McFly?  There's an entire genre of fiction called political fiction.  I'm going to write that again.  It. Is. Called. POLITICAL. FICTION.  Do we think somehow that has eschewed politics?  Did The Republic eschew politics?  Brave New World?  The Chocolate War?  Animal Farm?  No, these works were directly political.  They didn't eschew politics!  They slipped their hotel key into politics's front pocket and told it to give them ten minutes before coming up so they could put on something sexy.  And then these authors and politics had a steamy rendezvous that involved strawberries and a flogger.

Okay, this crummy advice is just standing there, bleeding, so I can do a spinning camel hump death kick to the sternum.  Bausch is a white male.  White males have a greater latitude to avoid politics for the actionable results of politics are least likely to affect them.  They have almost nothing to gain and very little to lose from engaging in politics--at least compared to people of color, women, or other marginalized groups.  Politics can be extremely important if they are the most effective means one has to pursue equality or opportunity--which for many non-white male (het, cis) groups, they very much are.  It's kind of like like most people who say there's "no difference between the two political parties" or salivate over Ron Paul's "brilliance" are almost always white, heterosexual, and predominantly male.  To them, there probably isn't much of a difference because they're not vested in the fights that don't concern them.  Ignoring the fight is easy when one doesn't have much of a stake in the outcome of it, but it's considerably harder when it involves someone directly.  Make no bones about it, Richard Bausch lived in The South during the civil rights era, so he knows exactly what politics can do and exactly what a powerful force "eschewing" can be.  That's why he says that writing about the personal impact and damage that "bad politics" has on people IS a part of a writer's job, and why he says totalitarians are rightfully afraid of such writers.  Even his advice about eschewing politics admits that eschewing the personal impact of such politics would be bad advice.

Lastly, as I take this advice's broken body into my hand like a groom holding a bride to cross the threshold, lift my knee, and slam "eschew politics" down to snap its spinal column like a broomstick, I will point out that "politics" is a word of enormous breadth, but with the potential for incredible specificity.  Artists often involve themselves in causes without necessarily entwining themselves in politics.  Many artists today struggle for LGBT rights, but that doesn't mean they are volunteering to man the Democrats' phone banks.  Artists relentlessly pursue truth, as Chris wrote about yesterday, and the truth of an issue can be political--depending on who wants that truth to come out....or who doesn't.  But while artists' truths might be political, they rarely politicize them.  As Bausch himself says: "The writers who have gotten into trouble with despots over the shameful history of tyranny did so because they insisted on not paying any attention to the politics except as it applied to the personal lives of the people they were creating. They told the truth, in other words, and refused to be political."  What Bausch is describing is very much what we might today consider deeply within the realm of politics--be they identity politics or otherwise.  So don't let the semantics of his advice fool you into being apolitical in you writing or in your lives.  Just because he doesn't want your book to be the talking points of Mitt Romney's campaign doesn't mean you can't be political in context.

I end with Richard Bausch's own words, using them to deliver the ironic death blow:  "The paradoxical truth of the matter is that a writer who pays attention to the personal life is subversive precisely because he refuses to pay attention to anything else."  While this might seem to reinforce his idea to eschew politics, he is essentially providing the secret back door to be more political than anyone who speaks of it directly could possibly imagine.

Eschew politics is bad advice, until you take it with all the grains of salt and realize that what Bausch is really saying is..."so that you can do even MORE damage than politics ever could."

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