A few weeks ago, I was teaching a class on writing authentic antagonists to a group of children. I asked the kids, aged nine to twelve, to yell out the name of their favourite villains so I could write them on the board. The idea was to get a list of favourite villains, and then break down their attributes and what made them such great antagonists in their own stories.
We started with the villains I expected: The Joker, Voldemort, Darth Vader, and so on.
Then a couple of the kids started laughing to themselves. They whispered to their friends nearby, and there was more sniggering. “Do you have another villain to add?” I asked, expecting, perhaps, Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants — the antagonist from the Captain Underpants movie, and a name guaranteed to make anyone with a juvenile sense of humour collapse into giggles.
Instead, the kids shouted out the name of a prominent American politician.
Writers and Politics Don’t Mix
The issue of whether or not fiction writers should share their own political thoughts in public places, especially blogs and social media, is one that comes up time and time again. I’ve certainly been warned never to share my own politics online.
“You’ll lose potential readers,” common wisdom says. “You won’t get an agent. You won’t get a publisher. No one cares about your opinion. Your job is to entertain with your stories, not espouse your political beliefs in public.”
It’s a message that I’ve clearly internalised quite well. Even in writing this, I was reticent about completing the above anecdote. And that story isn’t even about my political beliefs, but those of a group of tween-age Australian kids!
But in thinking about my discomfort in talking about my class’s views on Trump, I got to wondering whether, in this day and age, that advice is still good. Or, in fact, if it’s ever been good.
Should Fiction Writers Comment on Politics?
Before answering this question, I think it’s important to stop and think about what we actually mean when we say “politics”.
Most of the time, we tend to think of talking about politics as being about supporting or opposing individual candidates or political parties. And it certainly can be. But back in the 4th century BCE when Aristotle wrote his treatise Politics, the words Republican and Democrat weren’t a large part of his rhetoric. (And, even today, they’re really only relevant in a small portion of the world.) Instead, he was writing about ethics, morality, and the role of the people in determining the creation of a “virtuous society” for all citizens.
Politics can relate to the activities of people in power, or the study of government. But it can also be an individual’s personal beliefs and principles, and how they relate to the use of power.
That may seem like a minor distinction, but I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of having someone say they don’t want to talk politics when talking about something completely unrelated to the government or political candidates.
For example, a couple of days ago I was talking to my mum on the phone and the topic of plastic waste came up, in relation to single-use plastic bags and straws. For a few minutes, we discussed the items in question, and then the discussion veered towards general environmentalism. “Oh, I don’t want to talk politics,” my mum said.
Protecting the environment? I don’t want to talk politics.
You can no doubt come up with your own examples.
So if I mention on social media that I think we should be doing more to protect the environment, am I starting a political discussion? By definition, I am — I’m voicing my personal belief about a topic that is often discussed by people in power.
The only way to truly avoid talking about politics, in fact, is to completely avoid sharing your personal opinion about anything. And while that’s no doubt possible, it seems to go against the whole idea of social media and, in fact, general conversation.
So, should fiction writers talk about politics? To quote John Scalzi from his blog post on this topic (all the way back in 2008):
Why yes, fiction writers should write about politics, if they choose to. And so should doctors and plumbers and garbage collectors and lawyers and teachers and chefs and scientists and truck drivers and stay-at-home parents and the unemployed. In fact, every single adult who has reason enough to sit down and express an opinion through words should feel free to do just that. Having a citizenry that is engaged in the actual working of democracy matters to the democracy, and writing about politics is a fine way to provide evidence that one is actually thinking about these things.
Is it Smart for Fiction Writers to Comment on Politics?
The reason that many people recommend avoiding politics as a conversation is the fear that it will affect who reads (or doesn’t read) your work.
That’s not entirely without merit. I know there are plenty of people out there who refuse to read Orson Scott Card’s work after reading about his personal beliefs and principles, for example. But does it make enough of a difference to really, truly matter?
J.K. Rowling is so well-known for her political tweets that Buzzfeed has published multiple lists of them. Stephen King isn’t shy about sharing his opinions. And while they were famous authors before sharing their political thoughts online, I’d imagine that’s got less to do with them waiting for the right level of fame and more to do with when social media became the platform du jour.
The Economist last year released an article with research that left- and right- leaning Americans purchased and read completely different books, with little (to no) overlap. The same is true of TV shows, with relatively few bridging the divide.
If you add that information to the knowledge that, like it or not, your implicit political beliefs and principles show up in your work (see Natalia Sylvester’s WU article from a couple of months ago for more on this), then how can being more vocal in your politics online make any discernable difference? People with similar(ish) beliefs are going to read and enjoy your books, even knowing your politics, and people who have completely opposite principles are unlikely to have enjoyed your book in the first place.
By being honest about our politics — our beliefs and principles — online, we may, in fact, reach readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read our books. And though we may lose other readers in the process, I’d suggest that the people we lose weren’t our target market in the first place.
All Writing is Political
I’ve written in the past about the impact of fiction on the world and social change, and if I can be gauche and quote myself from that article:
We learn what the world and people are really like by reading books and watching movies. The stories we’re exposed to, particularly when we’re young, become part of who we are. They teach us about the world, about ourselves, about “the other”. They create our values and beliefs. They become our guiding principles of what’s right and wrong.
Sharing our personal politics outside of our stories doesn’t detract from that. If anything, it adds to the power of our voices to create change.
As Mohsin Hamid wrote in the New York Times a few years ago:
Does fiction affect politics? Yes, inevitably. So is all fiction political? To my mind, yes again. Fiction writers who claim their writing is not political are simply writers who seek to dissociate themselves from the politics furthered by their writing. Making up stories is an inherently political act.
If that’s true — if the very act of being an author and making up stories is inherently political — then perhaps we’re asking ourselves the wrong questions. Instead of asking whether it’s a good idea to share our political beliefs online, maybe we should be asking whether we, as authors with the freedom and ability to use our voices for social change, have the right not to?
Do you write about politics on social media? Have you ever chosen not to share something because you’ve been worried about how it would affect your writing career? How do you feel about authors who discuss their personal beliefs and principles online?
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