Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Soapbox?

By Barbara D’Amato

Here is another in my long list of worries about what I am doing and why: Shall I include my political views in my books, and if so, how much?

The question, which is always hanging someplace in the back of my mind, came forward a couple of weeks ago. Two of the various mystery and writing listserves included messages of annoyance at specific authors who were too political, or, in these cases, “too Democrat.” The posters claimed that the books spent too long making a case for one political point of view. In one case, the politics was called gratuitous.

I won’t name the authors involved, except to say that they are both well known and I like their books. These were recent publications.

Suppose you include strong political opinions? Do you lose readers? Some, I suppose. Well, maybe you could give your opinions to one character in your book and a contrary political view to another character. Does that even-handedness take care of the reader who objects to your real views? And should it? Aren’t you more honest letting it be clear where you stand?

Of course, you can slip your views in subtly. Show the evils of the Whosis and the virtues of the Whatsis. Like Dickens showed the evils of the workhouse. But is it as simple as show-don’t-tell? I don’t think so. Readers are not stupid. If your cruel Texas sheriff is also a bigwig in the Republican Party and thinks family values means keeping down folks who aren’t “our kind” – well really, how mystifying is that? In a long-ago book, Hardball, I explored, if not pushed, the idea that our drug laws may be causing the drug problem. The competing views were expressed by characters, not the narrator, but my opinion was probably clear.

I kind of like having an author fervently try to convince me of something. But I suspect most readers don’t. And I suspect most writers worry as I do about how far to go with their personal views.

As writers, ultimately we should be ourselves. Many years ago, when my younger boy was in middle school, a teacher became worried that he was reading some iffy books. She meant sex and violence. My response was that if he was reading I was in favor of it. Reading takes you into the mind of another in a way nothing else can. It is truly broadening.

And yes, I think fiction is a force for Good.

But still, how far do you go?

9 comments:

hawk3ye said...

Great post, Barbara.

Almost all of the fiction I read has political content. In the case of genres like mystery and science fiction, morality and conflict are central to the story, and it makes sense that the politics of the characters would be expressed. I think as long as your story has truth and complexity, it's not soapboxing.

Steve Malley said...

I think the important thing is not to be preachy. Nobody wants their work to come off sounding like an ABC Afterschool Special. (Do those still exist?)

James Lee Burke does it beautifully. His convictions ring through every novel, threading through, informing and often driving very entertaining stories.

Brave New World, 1984 and All the King's Men are powerful examples of persuasive fiction. Each has an overt message built into the story. But in each case, the story is damn fine.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, hawk3ye. I agree. And as Sean was saying in his recent post on I Spy, the fact that the two characters, one black and one white, were friends was its own statement.
Steve's point that you have to avoid preachiness is absolutely right. Sometimes it's not easy. In reading reactions to various novels, I find that the person who thinks the author is being preachy is often the person holding a different political view. Anybody else have this experience?

Pete said...

Pontificating is fine, as long as it's done subtly. The story has to stand on its own merits, independent of the political stance. Otherwise it's just a gussied-up editorial.

Matt said...

Crime fiction has a tremendous history of including political content.

Think of Hammett's "Red Harvest," Richard Price's "Clockers" or just about anything authored by George Pelecanos.

I am an unpublished writer, rewriting my first book, a crime novel set during Prohibition. I knew from the outset that a straight up "broads, beer and bullets" novel wasn't the way I wanted to go.

Prohibition was one of the most wrong-headed pieces of legislation to ever crawl out of Washington. Not only was it the first amendment to ever restrict freedoms, it was a law that, in its hapless enforcement efforts, saw a rise in alcoholism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and corruption. This is to say nothing of providing a money minting operation to organized crime. I knew I wanted to write a book that reflected those thoughts. I wanted to write something that felt authentic.

In the course of my research, I read several books and articles (thank you, New Yorker CD-ROM archives!)on the political movement behind the Volstead Act.

While the politics of Prohibition are not central to my book, the research was invaluable in helping me define the political atmosphere of the book's time period, 1931. I think the background information certainly helped sharpen my characters, my voice and, of course, the setting.

In today's virulent and knee-jerk culture wars, you're gonna get hit no matter what you do. As long as you're honest and the politics doesn;t bog down the story, I think you're good.

Anonymous said...

I read 'Hardball' (to use as an example) and the differing points of view definitely made me stop and think. It didn't change my opinion on how the 'war against drugs' ought to be waged, but I liked that the views presented were quite balanced.

I've found that if a main character espouses a particular view, it's usually the author channelling their personal views on the matter. In this way, one can probably decide if a particualr author is pro/con this or that.

I do recall reading one novel that dealt with the notion of communicating with someone from beyond the grave. The protagnist sought the services of a medium who claimed to be able to provide her with pertinent "messages". The nature of the plot demanded that the reader believe this was actually happening. Unfortunately for the author, I was quite sure she personally wasn't into dabbling in the occult.

So while this isn't an example where *politics* interfered with my enjoyment of a novel, my own perception of the author's personal belief system ruined my enjoyment of the plot. (Climax was decidedly not one of surprise and excitement).

Jude Hardin said...

Put Archie Bunker and Michael Stivic in the same scene, and you have conflict. Always a good thing in fiction.

And, you're also making a statement about the absurdity of extreme views on both sides.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, jude. matt, pete and anoymous for your great comments and thank you, anonymous, for the nice words about Hardball.

Good luck with your book, matt. It sounds good. I think our present prohibition is wrong-headed, too.

jean sheldon said...

As citizens, writers or not, if we have an opportunity to say we think something is wrong, we have a responsibility to say it. The challenge for a novelist is to say it as a confidence rather than shouting from a podium.