From The Writer's Chair Politics in Genre Fiction Yes or No

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Chris Yugay

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Oct 28, 2019
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Just finished reading Michael Connelly's The Law of Innocence (which, by the way, I enjoyed even though, I admit, it is not the strongest of his work). Popped into Good Reads to see what other people think about it. MG, there is a civil war going there! A huge number of people are pissed off by what they see as Connelly's "sneaking in leftist agenda". This petty fight notwithstanding, what is your opinion on political discussions or even just political references in the works of fiction (especially genre fiction)? Is it worth the trouble?
 
Politics is a hot potato at the moment. Sometimes it is impossible not to mention political issues. My Cornish Detective Neil Kettle is a farmer's son, likely to vote for the Liberal Party or even the Greens, as he's into conservation and is against badger culling and fox hunting. Book 3 of my crime series is set at the time of Brexit, so I had to mention the results of the referendum and how the loss of European grant aid drives crime. Some readers will like that my protagonist is a lefty, while others will prefer someone who's more Atilla the Hun politically. As the old saying goes:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.
 
Did Ayn Rand write politics into the stories? Did it create a polemic? Are those books still being read and discussed, written about ... sold?

While there is no evidence that the book has been banned in the U.S., many have expressed their dissatisfaction with the book's promotion of selfishness as moral fortitude, as well as its critical view of government.
Strandbookstore
From the 1950s to the present, these books continue to keep her political bent alive.
 
I think as long as it's not preachy, it doesn't bother me to come across political or religious themes in fiction, even if they're not views I share.
 
I think as long as it's not preachy, it doesn't bother me to come across political or religious themes in fiction, even if they're not views I share.
One would expect that. But this trip to Good Reads has made me realize that even a slightest political remark can set the house on fire. It is no accident that I mentioned Genre fiction. Things do not get any more straightforward than they are in detective stories: there are bad guys who commit crimes and then there are good guys who catch them. (This simplicity is probably what attracts the fans of the genre in the first place.) And one would think that the red and the blue and all the colors in between would at least unite in rooting for the good guy. But no, some still manage to be offended by something the good guy says in passing. Made me realize to what exreme point the world is polarized today.
 
It's a tricky one.

Now, more than ever, politics is so polarised and hate-fuelled, and to make a strong political point in fiction will always invite both support and criticism from readers. For example, reading the comments in Goodreads on this particular book we can see previous ardent fans of the author denouncing him for the stance he's taken.

An agent said to me a few years ago when we were discussing this very issue about an idea I had: "Why run the risk of alienating 50% of any potential readership?"

I think if you're expressing personal political views in fiction then it's a potential risk to your sales, but of course whether to take it is the writer's prerogative. In one's own life then it's a different matter. We stand by our convictions whatever their hue.

I belong to a golf forum elsewhere, and the political threads (of which there used to be many) were discontinued because of the bad feeling they engendered. It was getting extremely ugly at times.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that we keep Litopia free of such things as 'direct politics' with a capital P.
 
George Orwell asserted:

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I think if you're expressing personal political views in fiction then it's a potential risk to your sales
Absolutely. What is interesting is that readers appear incapable of separating the writer from his/her characters. Connelly's protagonist is a lefty criminal defense lawyer, very anti-police, very anti-prosecution. That never wavered and until recently the entire mass of Connelly's readers were totally OK with it. But this time, a casual anti-Trump remark has sent them over the edge. I am just trying to understand why. I mean... crime fiction lovers do not think that Jeff Lindsay spends his weekends murdering and dismembering people or that Thomas Harris indulges in cannibalism. So, what is it about politics that 'breaks the Fourth Wall' for them?
 
Absolutely. What is interesting is that readers appear incapable of separating the writer from his/her characters. Connelly's protagonist is a lefty criminal defense lawyer, very anti-police, very anti-prosecution. That never wavered and until recently the entire mass of Connelly's readers were totally OK with it. But this time, a casual anti-Trump remark has sent them over the edge. I am just trying to understand why. I mean... crime fiction lovers do not think that Jeff Lindsay spends his weekends murdering and dismembering people or that Thomas Harris indulges in cannibalism. So, what is it about politics that 'breaks the Fourth Wall' for them?
I'm a huge fan of Michael Connelly's work, having read all of his books, except for the latest. I love Don Winslow's books, especially the Cartel series of The Power of the Dog, The Cartel and The Border. The latter features a corrupt American President and his family who are implicated in the drug trade. The world needs such brave writing.

Crime writer Don Winslow on why he turned his sights on a new ‘criminal’ - Donald Trump
 
what is your opinion on political discussions or even just political references in the works of fiction (especially genre fiction)? Is it worth the trouble?

Is it worth it? I guess it depends on what the author wants to achieve by having political references in their work, and whether it's integral to the story. A political view in a book could spark a fire, and the author then ends up selling tons of copies because everyone wants to see what it's all about and share their own opinion about it. (Author laughs all the way to the bank.) On the other hand it could backfire, and get the author into deep doo doo.

A political view might risk sales. But excluding that very view might make the story, twee, unrealistic, or two dimensional, the book weaker and hence risk sales.

Like Robert says, if the political views in fiction are preachy .... YIKES.

Personally, I'm not offended by political views in fiction; in anything. It's just an opinion. Yes, political discussions are flammable and best left alone in places where there're interactions, like here, or like Jonny says in his golf club. I don't talk politics at work.

Should we include political discussions or views in our works of fiction?

I think it depends on how it's handled, and whether or not it's integral to the characters' journeys. (I'm thinking books about apartheid, etc. There will one day be books about someone in the midst of Brexit.) Difficult subjects will always have readers who will be offended. If the view comes across as the author's opinion it's probably more likely to offend. But if it's the opinion of a fictional character, it's just the opinion of a fictitious person and it'll be the reader's own bad / intolerance for taking offence.

I try to take responsibility and care of what I put out via my stories, and how I do it. I want my work to be for the greater good, not for the greater damage. I don't want to feed into fear, or into hatred. But I'm willing to tackle sensitive subjects, political or otherwise. I believe we need to address those things, if there's to be change in the world. If the story calls for an extreme political view, I'll cover it but in such a way it doesn't feed into the bad.

Can we not show what should be the right view by showing what's considered a wrong view? And who judges good or bad anyway?

I think it's ok to cover politics in fiction. Art can be a mirror. The moment we curb what we say in books for fear of offending someone, we're censoring free speech, and we won't be able to write a word. What are we left with? Sweet stories about pruning roses? Politics is part of how the world ticks. Some humans need to learn to be less sensitive, and stop seeing someone else's words as an attack on their entire existence. As authors, we can't mollycoddle the world. Readers need to take responsibility for their reading and accept that when they're reading something, they may not like it.

We're living in a world where it's easy to share opinions and get on a soap box/high horse (and yes, yes, I'm doing it right now too). Algorithms ensure we get re-enforcement of those opinion in the form of similar content, which in turn strengthens our standpoint into a belief that we are right. It has created that 'extreme point the world is polarized today' you mention @Chris Yugay. A strong belief is easier to offend. Also, some people get carried away sharing how offended they are with everyone whether or not anyone listens, and some find themselves deep in the rabbit hole of offence they never even intended on going into.

I'm a strong believer in writing the stories we're called to tell as long as it's done with sensitivity, knowledge and respect, and if that's covers political subjects, great. There will always be someone who will take offence. I could write a book about bread baking and there's bound to be someone who will have an issue with how I treated the dough.

By writing we put our necks out. So be it.

We need to encourage different views. The world shouldn't have just one vista. It would be rather bland.
 
I think there are two issues here and brave writing is always needed, indeed many writers have changed the world with their work through the ages and doubtless continue to do so.

An established writer with a following can 'afford' take chances - but can an aspiring newbie do the same and find a welcoming ear from an agent or publisher prepared to back them Irrespective of their politics? Then I suspect probably not or at least it seems less likely if in their early work they choose to wear allegiances on their sleeve

I guess at the end of the day it's to do with an (aspiring) writer's motivation to write. Change the world or earn a crust?
 
can an aspiring newbie do the same and find a welcoming ear from an agent or publisher prepared to back them Irrespective of their politics?
I think they probably can, again depending on how it's handled and how much of the political view is in the book. Is it an entire book full of extreme views? Just one line? If the views are self-gratifying, or extreme, and fill the entire book, then it's probably less likely an agent or publisher will pick it up irrespective of fame. But if the view sits right in the story, I'd hope the agent and the publisher to have the sense to see that it's a healthy part of the book.

It might also depend on how it's submitted by the author. If the author subs it as a normal book fitting their chosen genre, it probably wouldn't be an issue. Why flag a few risky lines when subbing to an agent? It can always be edited. But if the author sends a letter with the sub, making a political point, the agent might bolt.

Strong views doesn't mean the story isn't commercial.

But as you know I'm not an agent. Might be a good question for a Huddle.
 
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I think they probably can, again depending on how it's handled and how much of the political view is in the book. Is it an entire book on extreme view? Just one line? If the views of the total work are self-gratifying, or extreme, then it's probably less likely an agent or publisher will pick it up. But if the view sits right in the story, I'd hope the agent and the publisher to have the sense to see that it's a healthy part of the book.

It might also depend on how it's submitted by the author. If the author subs it as a normal book fitting their chosen genre, it probably wouldn't be an issue. Why flag one risky line when subbing to an agent? But if the author sends a letter making a political point, the agent might bolt. Strong views doesn't mean the story isn't commercial.

But as you know I'm not an agent. Might be a good question for a Huddle.
Yes agree with all of that as it covers the bigger question. Odd political references won't matter that much for anyone. Also thought your previous post #11 pretty much nails it.

I'm really looking at it from the point of view of typical Litopians looking to sell our first books. It's a bit like that other 'P' word. Do we really want to make the job harder by perhaps being overtly card-carrying political in our first work? I know, what about a political polemic with a prologue too. :)

Great minds and all that, I had already written this down on my pad as a Huddle question for Saturday. :cool:
 
By writing we put our necks out. So be it.
We do indeed. But to criticism of how we tell our story or the story itself. I strongly disagree with the notion writers have any kind of duty to inform, to take a position, or get involved in controversy. That's for non-fiction writers. Fiction writers tell stories and readers will take what they want from the story. Stories are not true but politics deals in reality. The only reason I would mention politics in a novel would be to show what sort of character I am talking about and it would be an aside. Anything else smacks of preaching/telling and we know they are pitfalls.
 
I'm really looking at it from the point of view of typical Litopians looking to sell our first books.
Yes, that's what I meant to address with my second post. (I might be having another linguistically challenged day :rolleyes: :) )

I'd like to think the agent / publisher can judge the work irrespective of how new us Litopians are, but maybe I'm dreaming, I don't know. But I suspect they'd love to discover a new career. I recon they will judge the work on its total and whether or not they can see a market. They can always suggest to the author to make changes or edit something out. I very much hope they wouldn't discount something on the basis I'm new. But maybe some will not want the risk.

I strongly disagree with the notion writers have any kind of duty to inform, to take a position, or get involved in controversy.
I agree. The only duty we have is to our story.

A higher message in fiction doesn't necessarily mean preachy. Many good stories have a higher message, especially the lasting ones.

I just goolged Goodread's best political novels. 1984 is at the top. Farenheit 451,... Catch 22, Clockwork O ... and,... I've never read them (YIKES shame on me bad bad author) but I've never heard anyone say they're preachy. However I hear they carry a valid message. I really need to read them.
 
Agree @Barbara

I mean the industry being reticent about a heavily politically preachy book from a newbie with no following.
The PP bit being the issue not the newbie.
Us newbies are the future :rolling-on-the-floor-laughing::rolling-on-the-floor-laughing:
 
I mean the industry being reticent about a heavily politically preachy book from a newbie with no following. The PP bit being the issue not the newbie.
I am having a linguistically challenged day. *SLAPS FOREHEAD* Plug in, Barbara. :D

Hey, we could experiment: write one seriously preachy novel about why reindeers should be given the right to vote, open a twitter account, recruit one follower, then see what happens.

:p:D:rolleyes:o_O
 
I think casually commenting on modern political affairs directly in genre fiction (e.g. a comment referencing Trump) is not necessarily clever from a commercial standpoint because a) it probably isn't needed, b) it dates your novel and c) risks polarising your audience.

However incorporating broad political themes into genre fiction is not necessarily a problem as far as I can see, especially if it complements the overall theme, plot, characters etc. Some classic sci-fi (1984, Handmaidens Tale etc) have some deep political themes but they address broad political structures and ideologies rather than attacking a person or obviously picking a current side (Trump/Biden, Boris/Starmer etc)
 
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