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The Fiction Politic

As writers, I’d like to think we tend to be a little more tuned in to the world around us. We notice more details than the average guy on the street. We try to see trends and identify where the culture we live in is going. For better or worse. Often that includes the world of politics and the social issues of our times. And since every writer I know also has an opinion and isn’t terribly afraid of voicing that opinion, the question arises: do political and social issues belong in our fiction? Now I’m not talking about political thrillers and that type of genre where politics is an integral part of the plot. I’m talking about ordinary, mainstream fiction, the stuff we all write.

For instance, if you’re writing a western novel set (as most of them are) between 1870-1910 in the American West, should you include a discussion of civil rights? The situation of the Native Americans? Women’s suffrage?

The short (and easy) answer is that like everything else about your writing, it is entirely up to you. It’s your story do what you want.

The longer answer (as in most things) is a bit more complicated.

First of all, if you’re something of a political junkie, that mindset is going to infuse your fiction anyway, whether you consciously plan it, or not. If you’re a hardcore socialist (for example) you probably won’t write a work that serves as a ringing endorsement of libertarianism. The reverse holds true for dedicated libertarians. Even if you don’t consider yourself overtly political, your world view (whatever it might be) will naturally inform which stories you choose to write and how you write them. It’s human nature.

All that aside, there is a long, distinguished history of writers using their work to affect social change (or to at least bring an issue or problem to the public mind). Some of the greats did it: Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, are just a few modern examples. So using your fiction to advocate for your favorite cause or issue is not automatically out of the question. It can actually serve to do a great deal of good in this world.

But realize as you write that novel exposing the evils of X that a significant portion of the reading public will quite possibly disagree with you. If they disagree strongly enough, they may never read another word you write. Ever. You will have lost them and probably all their friends too. (I have never read Atlas Shrugged for this very reason. I cannot buy into its central premise.)

It is something to consider.

Another pitfall is the danger of morphing from demonstrating an idea through your fiction to advocating a particular position in your story. It is very, very hard to advocate without coming across as preaching to the audience. Nobody picks up a novel or clicks on to a short story hoping to be preached to. There is no surer way to lose a reader in an otherwise well-written story.

Even some experienced, otherwise well-regarded authors have fallen into this trap. Read John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer for a good example of preaching. Mr. Grisham couches it in dialogue between two characters, but it was still preaching and a less dedicated reader might have put the novel down. (I merely found myself skimming a few paragraphs).

And then there is the issue of timeliness. Many issues that make headlines every week now will be merely footnotes in a history book a few years from now. If you base your novel around that issue, your novel will become dated as soon as the issue recedes from the public consciousness. It becomes dated. Even if well-written, it still comes across as quaint because the issue is no longer important. This is even more of an issue if the problem the story is highlighting is solved. (Even if the public just perceives it is solved).

Think of the great anti-war novels that came out of the late sixties and early seventies: Catch-22, MASH, Slaughterhouse 5. While still excellent reads, in the current pro-military mood, they seem somehow quaint and naïve. They are novels that captured the mood of a particular time in American history (the end of the Vietnam War) and don’t translate as well to the post 9/11 world. (Though some might argue they should).

Again, it is something to consider.

And, as a final note, just as it is all but impossible to write a story without having it reflect (if only unconsciously) your world and political views, it is also virtually impossible to write a realistic work of fiction set in the modern world without mention of political issues. If your novel is set, for example, in a modern American city, how would an author avoid at least mentioning the issues of poverty, drug abuse, unemployment or homelessness. Leaving them all out is a type of political statement in and of itself.

How you have your characters react to these issues is also an opportunity for a political statement. And again, having them ignore the issues is also a political and social statement, not to mention a great way of showing character.

Personally, I have followed politics since I was in middle school (when Nixon resigned). However, I seldom write overtly political fiction. Instead, my political and social views are born out more through my characters than anything else. (My protagonists tend to me of a liberal bent, though often with a very strong moral code). Occasionally, they will even get in brief disagreements about things with a political shadow. These conversations are never a major part of the narrative and serve to enhance characterization more than anything else.

That is how I choose to deal with most political and social issues in my fiction. At least up until now. (Tomorrow could change all that. I make no promises). How you deal with your issues is entirely up to you.

Just know what you’re getting yourself into before you make any decision.

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