Episode 49: Putting Your Politics into Your Writing

On June 29th, Kasie and Rex discussed how to work politics into your fiction (or not). Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Putting Your Politics in Your Creative Writing

Agenda

  • Political Viewpoints in Classic Literature
  • Dos and Don’ts on Adding Your Views
protesters on the street
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Segment 1

We’re going to start with some examples of classic literature that became political tools or icons. So our listeners know where we’re going with this discussion, let’s draw some compare and contrast.

When we say “political” are we limited to legal and government? Are we talking about leadership and power? Are we talking about the tension between competing entities for unsettled prerogatives?

The overtly political

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Raymond Bradbury
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The subtle political

  • Pride & Prejudice — Was Jane Austen political?
  • Frankenstein — Did Mary Shelly mean to indict the Age of Enlightenment by showing the dark side of scientific pursuit?
  • Anna Karenina — Was Tolstoy’s portrayal of the failure of Russian society’s accepted marital hypocrisy meant to enact change?
  • Madame Bovary — Did Flaubert not take on the same institution with a similar amount of derision?
  • The Dispossessed — Did Ursula Leguin base these space worlds with competing political systems on the tensions she saw in Earth-bound human-created systems?

Other recommendations from this blog:

Genevieve Valentine (Persona; Icon)

Malka Older (Infomocracy — a thriller centering around a global elections system)

Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina — character is the mayor of NYC)

Segment 2

Inserting Political and Religious Views into Your Fiction Writing

  • “Now more than ever, it is acceptable for writers to insert their political and religious views into their writing.”
    • Why now more than ever? 
  • “Fiction writing, however, is a little bit different because you are speaking through characters and circumstances rather than through facts.”

True or False: My work is not political.

Or, finish this sentence: My work is not political because …

According this blog, you can’t help but write your own political views into your work. Whether you mean to or not. The question is just whether you’re:

  • Being intentional
  • Totally aware of the political themes and their impact on the story
  • Limiting the politics to a specific niche (gender, government, global, etc.)
  • Exercising your rights to certain biases while also avoiding stereotypes and offensive language.

It’s worth adding (also from that blog) that making the author the authority in the work limits that work. Often the books we like best are effective because they engage readers’ interpretations of the work as possibilities. It’s not always what you intend. It could be something completely other.

In a story I took to group Tuesday, “Relay,” the character is remembering an affair she had when she was seventeen. One of the readers started talking about consent and whether this woman, as she’s remembering the incident, has any feelings over whether it was consensual. I dismissed her response as “so very Millennial” but as I’ve thought about it since, I have a choice to make. Either I remove the clues (like the character’s age) that led this reader to think through the consent question, or I let the story lead the reader into a deeper consideration about how old is old enough to really know what they’re consenting to?

Segment 3

Dos and Don’ts from this site:

  1. Don’t Preach
    1. “…political and religious views must come from a character or from a certain situation that you create.”  They might be YOUR views, but “…incorporate those views into dialogue and thoughts.”
  2. Make It Appropriate
    1. Some plots and genres lend themselves to religious or political debate; others do not. 
  3. Give it a Minor Role
    1. Very few readers want to be preached to while reading fiction; give religion and politics a back seat to the main plot of your story.
  4. Present Both Sides
    1. Have “Polar Characters” — One on your side of the fence and another who holds a differing opinion. Not only will this make your writing more realistic, but it will appeal to a wider audience.
  5. Have Someone Else Read It
    1. Have someone else be the judge: Ask a friend, a relative or a colleague to read your book or story specifically to judge the amount of religious or political content.

Back to this blog and their advice:

  • Try and identify as many of your biases as possible. 
  • Try to consider your own demographic details – your race, sex, orientation, nationality, financial status, etc. 
  • 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.”

“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

From Writer’s Digest: 5 Tips for Writing About Politics in Fiction

  • Figure out what your book is (really) about.
  • Be clear about what purpose politics will serve in your book.
  • You don’t have to chase the headlines (unless you really want to).
    • Ask yourself these questions: What will be my balance of fact and fiction? How wedded am I to the headlines? — brings to mine our friend Lorenzo’s book about the college kid accused of rape, this is a “reipped from the headlines” kind of story, but he’s having to finesse it, right? To get the angle he’s trying to portray.
  • Make your characters and events as different from the news as possible.
  • Accept that you’re not going to please everyone.

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