Image: Matthew Loffhagen
All art is political, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The way in which we believe the world to work – the way we think it should work – has a natural part to play in both our creation of fictional worlds and how we depict our own. The connection between art and politics is natural, but it runs deep, and that means that your political beliefs often influence your art in ways you don’t recognize. When that’s the case, you run the risk of telling the reader a different story than you planned.
Addressing that means doing your best to identify the way politics influences your writing, and turning that process into something you at least partially control.All art is political, but not all art is consciously political.Click To Tweet
A quick note before we get started: obviously, an article on politics in writing is going to involve some peripheral discussion of politics. All mentions of political philosophy below – from the anarchistic to the libertarian – are solely for the purposes of providing examples for points about writing.
My politics do not influence my writing
Before we get to the way you can manage how you express politics in your writing, I have to address whether this is even an issue in the first place.
The most important thing to note is that the issue with managing the politics of your writing is one of communication. Even if you’re not writing an overtly political work, your political views are likely to influence your writing in myriad ways, and understanding what you’re saying to your reader will help you share your story in the best way possible, with minimal communication breakdowns. Managing the politics of your writing is therefore not necessarily a case of being as palatable as possible to the most people, or of hewing to specific guidelines of political discourse, but of writing with clarity.
For the most basic kind of example, look to how political language differs in meaning between countries. In America, ‘Republican’ denotes membership of a particular political party, whereas in the UK, it denotes the desire to abolish monarchy and replace it with a republic. A UK writer who doesn’t address this difference in vocabulary risks starting off at a fundamental disconnect with international readers, skewing the lens through which their intentions and speech are understood. This information might not change what they want to write – maybe they’re writing for a specific audience – but it’s still better to know than not, if only to avoid misunderstandings.
While this example draws on the most literal meaning of ‘politics’, it’s not all the term defines in this context. In terms of art, ‘politics’ tends to refer to the moral theory by which society is run – political theory rather than political practice. Our own personal political theory heavily influences the way we approach the world, both on a conscious and on a subconscious level, and therefore influences how we depict the world in our writing. This makes it pretty much impossible to avoid conveying your political theory in your writing.
Avoiding political writing
One of the biggest issues when managing political theory in your writing is that of focus. The things we find worth mentioning (or which we find so obvious as to be safely ignored) are defined by a vast network of assumptions.
This is the thinking around contemporary depictions of representation. That is; when a type of person isn’t depicted in a society’s art, that art conveys a worldview in which that type of person is either notably rare, non-existent, or not worth depicting. This idea serves to illustrate the issue of focus – even by simply depicting the ‘truth’ as they perceive it, the author creates a world shaped by their assumptions.It’s almost impossible to write insightful art without political introspection.Click To Tweet
For example, many critics argue that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works position European physiology and philosophy as the norm, with other groups either excised or depicted as aberrations. The majority of humans who serve the evil Sauron are ‘Easterlings’ and ‘Southrons’, linked to Asia and Africa by Middle Earth’s loose connections to real-world geography. In describing the monstrous orcs, Tolkien says:
…they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien references biases here (‘to Europeans’), but his writing choices still illustrate the difficulty of managing one’s own politics in fiction. It’s unlikely that Tolkien intended any conscious message, but in depicting people he finds familiar as the heroes of his story, and setting the rest of the world against them, he depicts a world and a story shaped by his political outlook.
It’s worth noting that Tolkien hated the practice of deliberately shaping a story as allegory, just as it’s worth noting that this attitude in no way grants him immunity from accidentally asserting his beliefs and assumptions as natural law.
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
– J.R.R. Tolkien
In this sense, managing the politics of your writing is a responsibility of the writer. There’s no effective way to abstain from political discourse in your art – it can either be done deliberately or accidentally, and the latter is out of your control.
Taking ownership of political sentiment
So there’s no real way to avoid your political theory influencing your writing. If you depict something, you do so through the lens of your bias; if you ignore it, you invite the reader to consider that absence natural. That’s not to say that these factors are overpowering – your action romp isn’t necessarily a societal evil just because it accidentally suggests that only America can ensure the safety of others countries – they’re just part of your art, and owning them is an effective way to improve your communication with your readership. Not only that; it’s an effective way to improve your art, deepen your themes and narrative, and contribute to the discussion. After all, not contributing is, again, a political act.
There is no such thing as being non-political. Just by making a decision to stay out of politics you are making the decision to allow others to shape politics and exert power over you. And if you are alienated from the current political system, then just by staying out of it you do nothing to change it, you simply entrench it.
– Joan Kirner
The first step is to try and identify as many of your biases as possible. You can’t catch them all, but the more you understand your innate beliefs about the world, the more agency you can take in the way they are, and aren’t, communicated. Try, also, to consider your own demographic details – your race, sex, orientation, nationality, financial status, etc. We have a powerful urge to consider our own defining traits as the societal norm. Appreciating that we understand the world according to a variety of subjective positions makes us at once more able to communicate what those positions are and readier to consider alternative outlooks.
Next, try to cast back to that stage of childhood where kids ask ‘why?’ over and over again. Interrogate your story, asking ‘why?’ of everything that’s true, especially those things that don’t seem to need any kind of explanation. Defaults are where our deepest assumptions take hold. You’re not going to find all your biases (that’s how they work), but if you can formalize a process of questioning that doesn’t depend on you noticing something on your own, you’ll be able to discover a surprising amount.
Ideally, you’ll also be able to turn to alpha readers for varied opinions and insights into the messages they see in your work. The more their worldview differs from your own, the better.
The idea, again, isn’t necessarily to change what you’re saying, but rather to gain as clear an idea as possible of what that is. Then, once you’ve gained as much insight as you can into the political theory nested in your writing, it’s time to look at how to express it effectively.
Expressing your politics
As I’m sure I’ve hammered home by now, there’s no way to avoid expressing your politics in one form or another. Similarly, history will introduce a whole new context to your writing that’s difficult to predict and pretty much impossible to cater to (not that trying to do the latter is anything like a good idea). The more deliberate your expression, the more successful your art; absolute control of the form is a fine goal, but not one anyone is actually going to reach. All that’s left, then, is expressing your beliefs as effectively as possible.
The political theory underpinning your work can be altered and expressed however you see best. In some cases, insight might bring the urge to overhaul elements of your story, in others, it’ll prompt you to dig deeper and explain elements of your world that you previously took for granted, and in others, it’ll change nothing.
Where you have the most control is in the direct political expression in your writing – the belief systems that characters express and act upon. The best piece of advice here is not to have a single individual embody every idea you want to convey as valuable. Not only if there the danger of such a character becoming a Mary Sue, but they face the ‘sez who?’ problem, where readers rebel against a preachy character.
Having one character share and succeed through a set ideology is suspicious to readers, and it rarely comes across as organic. Political theory is a vast and complex area; even if anyone is wholly right, their way of getting there won’t be perfect, and their answers definitely won’t be simple.
In Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, New York mayor Mitchell Hundred is introduced as a character who got into politics off the back of personal heroism. He’s presented as an anti-ideologue; a politically flexible operator whose novel, unentrenched solutions are effective because he’s prepared to give ground that political operators won’t.
The problem is that Vaughan isn’t an unparalleled political genius, so Hundred’s suggestions – as valid as they may be when compared to anyone else’s – have immediate and glaring flaws. Ex Machina simplifies the political landscape, assuming that all members of politically aligned groups want the same thing, that everyone involved is a consistent and logical actor, and that individual goals can be addressed in isolation. When Mayor Hundred discusses his opinions on marriage rights, he’s written as if his opinions are an unprecedented stroke of common sense.
There’s a huge difference between the legal contract of marriage and the religious ceremony of the same name. So I propose that the government stop issuing so-called “marriage licenses”, and instead start issuing civil union licenses to any consenting adults who want them, gay or straight. If that civil union wants to get married, they’re welcome to do so at whatever chapel, mosque or synagogue will have them. That way, conservatives can take heart that the government isn’t officially condoning same-sex nuptials, and liberals can… I don’t know, find something new to complain about.
– Brian K. Vaughan, Ex Machina
It’s not that the opinions expressed are wrong, or even that they wouldn’t work, but that they’re presented as a kind of magic insight – all the benefits are presented with care, and no-one brings up any of the drawbacks. For example, many groups would still see the suggested approach as the government officially condoning same-sex nuptials, the phrasing of ‘gay or straight’ is already out of touch with the dominant LGBTQ lexicon and theory, and the suggested approach imagines a political vacuum in which everyone is chasing a single end to the exclusion of all others (gay Christians who want to change religious policy, rather than escaping its reach, are treated as if they either don’t exist or are obviously acceptable casualties). In short, whether it’s a good idea or not, it’s clearly the product of a world where the author is in control of every detail.
In that environment, anything can seem like a good idea, because the author is in a position to either quieten dissent or completely remove all obstacles. In Ex Machina, Hundred’s theorizing is interrupted by an assassination attempt, turning what’s framed as debate into a monologue. Giving your character exclusive access to the pulpit doesn’t feel realistic and, in the worst case scenario, it leaves the reader as the first and harshest critic, rolling their eyes at an overly simplistic approach.
To this end, it’s always worth including criticism in your writing, even of ideas that you ultimately support. The more critical the characters are of each other’s politics, the more comfortable the reader will feel hearing everyone out. Plus, if they’re good ideas, they can stand the scrutiny.A plurality of voices can make the reader more comfortable exploring new ideas.Click To Tweet
This, really, is the best thing you can do for managing how your politics influence your writing. Surround your characters (and ideally yourself) with people who disagree, and allow those disagreements the space to be genuine critiques of the ideas you’re expressing. Often, a writer will try to emphasize their hero’s righteousness by giving the main antagonist a feeble argument, turning them into a straw man for the hero to demolish, but this has the opposite effect. The hero doesn’t get to defend their point of view properly, because they’re not really being tested, and the reader recognizes a fixed fight when they see one.
The more your hero’s ideas are tested, the more alternatives exist in the world of your writing, the more your hero has to accommodate for dissent, the more vibrant and persuasive your ideas will seem.
The death of the author
While we don’t have time to dive headfirst into Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’, it’s worth ending by reflecting on one of the key tenets of the work, especially since it remains so influential today. That tenet is that once a work is complete, once it’s with the reader, the author loses their authority over the text.
Art is inherently political. Even trying to make a film that has nothing to do with politics is, in and of itself, a political act. Once we make the work and release it into the world, it’s beyond our control.
– Barry Jenkins, ‘Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First’, TIME
Barthes argues that to make the author the authority on their text is to limit it. This is partly because, as expressed above, our art contains more than we know or intend. Tolkien hated allegory, he attempted to write without commenting on certain aspects of the world around him, but deliberate allegory is only part of that process, and it can’t be fully escaped.
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.
– Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ from Image-Music-Text
It’s an attitude that, by and large, is still held as paramount in literary criticism – once it exists, the text is its own thing, and the author loses the ability to define its meaning. Different authors have approached this idea in different ways, with the cartoonist Gary Larson’s comments on his work being used out of context (and without permission) summing up some of the emotions commonly at play.
These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”
– Gary Larson
In terms of the political reading of a text, this is dead on, except that the children have grown up and left home. One of the best tools of a writing group is the common practice of restricting authors from correcting factual inaccuracies in peer feedback; it’s a practical lesson in how, once the text is with the reader, its author loses the ability to steer their reading.Once the reader has your book, you lose the ability to tell them how to read it.Click To Tweet
Does this mean that you shouldn’t worry about political communication, because different readers will read different things, or that you need to be sure that all your intentions are present within the text? The answer is down to you, in the end, but it does mean that your intentions for a work – the things you’re doing consciously – aren’t where appreciation and criticism of that work ends. If you manage to write something popular, your readers will start digging down into the politics innate to your work. It’ll pay to be sure you’ve been there first.
The politics of writing is the writing of politics
Digging down into your personal assumptions, the politics by which you live your life, will make you a better, more considered, more communicative writer. Politics and art stem from the same beliefs, and each will always influence the other.
If this all sounds insurmountable, take heart – understanding your politics on a deeper, more comprehensive level, and considering how to communicate them effectively, explores the same territory as honing your craft. Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s the type of difficulty you were already going to deal with as an author, just from a different angle.
Which writers do you think manage their politics particularly well, which authors do a poor job, and why? Let me know in the comments, and check out You Need To Ask “Sez Who?” Before Your Reader Gets The Chance and How To Stop Your Opinion Taking Center-stage In Your Writing for more on this topic.