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Political Fiction: More Complex Than It Looks

Politics in fiction is a fiery subject. From YouTubers complaining about forced politics to Medium contributors arguing for the importance of ‘diversity’- it’s hard to seperate the political from the fictional. Adding onto that, many authors- ranging from Stephen King, to JK Rowling, to GRRM Martin- have commented on political issues. This is particularly true in North America.

It’s not an overstatement to say that politics in fiction is a touchy area. In this blog post, I will attempt a neutral position. Whilst I have my own politics, I will attempt to leave them out of this article. Snowy Fictions, after all, is a place that welcomes all viewpoints.

This blog article comes from the perspective of both a reader and a writer. Not only will I address the challenges both face in a hyper-critical age, but I will also argue for free speech and the ability for readers and writers to make their own choices. Make no mistake: I am not arguing that writers have to write in a certain way. Nor that readers have to read a certain way. I’m not a fan of that!

Is All Literature Political?

political literature- aristotle
When in doubt, revisit philosophy.

I devour alot of literature. I also watch movies, chat about television and analyze comics. Not only am I active in fan communities and discussion, but I’m keenly aware of trends. And there is this notion that literature is meant to be political. The implication is often, that art, will always have a political leaning. In response to that, I must argue for the nuances.

Aristotle called man a ‘political animal.’ That rings true- humans are fundamentally invested in how the world works. This applies to traditional governments to friendship groups. However, that does not mean the art everyone produces will be a political force. While there may be an underlying message or metaphor (for instance, the film The Day After Tomorrow is about global warming) that does not imply that the fiction is driven solely by politics. There is room for nuance.

There are other factors, such as philosophical reasons. Andrei Tarkovsky movies and David Foster Wallace novels are a prime example. For most artists, examining humanity, even outside a traditional political context- is the priority.

Another topic is the difference between art and propaganda. I am drawn to these rich discussions because propaganda, is the antithesis of art. This is because art is about humanity. Propaganda, on the other hand, is about the institution or society. To put it simply: art is about expression, whereas propaganda is about control.

I love this video by “The Closer Look” that discusses the failures of the recent Doctor Who.

Henry’s analysis is thought-provoking and highlights many problems with ‘politics’ in popular fiction.

To conclude: literature may have a political underpinning, but it could be motivated by philosophy and the human condition. Alot of fiction doesn’t seek to control other’s behaviours.

Writer’s Obligation To Readers & Political Fiction

Captain Marvel- political literature
You don’t want to come across the wrong way.

As I have established, art is not always a political force. Even though I can notice some political themes in Christopher Nolan movies, they aren’t driven by politics. To some, this is problematic. Don’t writers have an obligation to be political? Shouldn’t their works comment on the injustices that exist in our world?

My answer to that is short. No. Authors must have control over their art. It is extremely entitled to expect writers to have the same political viewpoints as you. Authors who cater to the political whims of fans will end up miserable.

What’s uttely vital to the success of fiction is that authors have free speech, and do not face censorship. If a writer chooses to be political, then obviously, I respect that. A good example of a political filmmaker is Oliver Stone. Yet being ‘political’ doesn’t suit every artist.

The most crucial obligation of a writer is honesty. As someone who would like to publish books, I know the importance of not lying to fans or resorting to deception. As I said earlier, propaganda is about control. That is done through manipulative means. Because of that, many YouTubers argue that Disney has become driven by dishonest ‘politics.’ And to be honest, there arguments have merit.

A great example of this is Brie Larson. Her comment that men- in their 40s- should realise that ‘A Wrinkle In Time‘ was not made for them was always going to rub people the wrong way. Larson’s comments manipulated fair criticism against a corporate Disney film, and twisted them into issues about race and gender. Because of that, fans reacted negatively.

Not a good look.

When writing fiction, it’s vital to be honest. If a writer can manage that, then to be honest, it doesn’t matter what politics they are inserting.

Readers And Viewers Aren’t Easily Fooled

Star Wars fans are passionate- but they represent a variety of differing political viewpoints.

Here’s a tip. Your viewers and readers will have a variety of different political viewpoints. I know plenty of Star Wars fans who are all over the political spectrum. So when you construct fiction, it’s best to remember that your target audience may dislike having politics pushed down their throats.

You could say ‘I don’t want them enjoying my literature anyway.’ And you are free to say that! But alienating a potentially significant section of your audience will probably backfire. Of course, there are some artists who benefit from being overly political. Part of Ayn Rand’s legacy is her political commentary. I also understand that if you are writing about an incredibly emotional issue- you can’t really avoid backlash.

If say, you are writing a novel about abortion and are taking a position (whatever that may be)- then that’s part of being an honest author. Politics in fiction can be instrumental in creating discussion, or help an author articulate their personal beliefs. And there is nothing wrong with that. What’s fantastic about fiction is its ability to communicate our beliefs, our desires and our passions. I don’t expect it to be rosey all of the time!

(Many) Fans Are Going To Interpret Your Work As Political Anyway

Daenerys Targaryen - political literature
Can we seperate the political from the fictional?

Writing fiction is like walking a tightrope. One wrong step, and you fall off. Here’s the thing: there is nothing writers can do to stop readers from injecting politics within their texts. I am guilty of this. When Game of Thrones had its final season earlier this year, I did not shy away from expressing the parallels between Daenerys Targaryen and communist tyrants. As justified as I believe myself to be, in doesn’t change the fact that I did.

Many writers are familiar with the trope ‘Death of the Author’ and it applies here. Once your work is out in the public, there is nothing stopping readers from interpreting your work through a political lense. Is that a bad or a good thing? Well… that’s entirely up to you. All I know is that you can’t stop fans from enjoying or being critical of a work of fiction.

However, when it turns to nasty cases of censorship- then writers and readers have an obligation to speak up. Free speech in literature is so important, and can’t be stressed enough.

Writing For Children & Young Adults

Writing for children brings a set of challenges.

This is a murky area. Should children’s literature be political? In general, I’d say no. This is because I don’t think adult writers should take advantage of children’s vulnerability. Of course, children’s authors are free to explore whatever issues they want in their literature. However, the end goal must not be to control the minds of children. There is no way I can frame that: it’s foul.

Of course, teenagers can get very passionate about politics. However, it’s ultimately not up to writers to decide what young people believe in. Sure, we can offer perspectives, but we must accept our limitations. And to be honest? That’s a good thing! I don’t want to control what teenagers think, after all. I’d also say that there is something creepy and sinister about an author who seeks to alienate child readers because of a difference in politics.

A good example of political or religious fiction that isn’t propaganda is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. CS Lewis uses theological metaphors and a backdrop of World War II. Whilst Lewis is moralistic (with strong themes of redemption and rebirth), I don’t find Lewis to be patronizing or controlling. If anything, he’d be proud of the fact that his work is loved by many children and adults, that differ in faith and political leanings!

Another terrific example is JK Rowling. Do I differ to her political beliefs? Oh yes! Can I see these beliefs expressed through Harry Potter? Yep! Yet, I still adore the wizarding world. It’s fantastic, charming and rather brilliant. I have alot of respect for JK Rowling. This is because she crafted a magical world that can be enjoyed by a variety of readers.

Great Political Fiction

It’s possible to be political and produce great fiction.

A crucial point is that political literature can be enjoyed by all. It creates discussion, not division. This is why, I believe, Watchmen by Alan Moore has had such staying power. There is no denying it’s political slant- Watchmen covers big themes such as the Cold War, power and injustice. Yet I never felt while reading Watchmen that Moore was manipulative or trying to shove his politics down my throat. I enjoy Watchmen because it’s sophisticated. I appreciate it’s ability to discuss complex topics with nuance and depth.

Great political fiction starts debate and discussion. On the other hand, bad political fiction ends dialogue and discourse. That’s why I find the latest attempts by Marvel and DC to be so uninspiring. It’s fiction that is not interested in a wider debate, but would rather have the final say. This ties into my earlier point about propaganda and control. What I like about the fiction of George Orwell is that although he is blunt, he is actually critical of controlling methods by individuals. Orwell wants us to question things, and not to blindly accept them.

A unique perspective can make great political fiction. If a writer has something new to say, or an original artistic approach- then that will be welcomed. A fantastic example of this is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. He pretty much started the dystopia genre, after all!

Concluding Thoughts

political fiction- animal farm

Wow- this blog post is getting long! Anyway, I hope I successfully conveyed my thoughts. Political literature is a complex beast that can’t be easily understood.

So, is it a good or a bad thing? Well… it depends on the author’s intention and expression. To be honest, there are so many factors that decide whether or not a work of fiction will be received well within a political context. The best thing writers can do (myself included) is to be honest and authentic.

Anyway, that’s enough from me! What are your thoughts on politics in literature? Comment below, I’d love to read your thoughts. And if you’d be so kind, leave a like or share this blog post.

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