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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The Dangers Of Politics In Fiction Writing

   
Author Topic: The Dangers Of Politics In Fiction Writing
luapc
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In November, OSC's new book Empire came out, for which many reviews have emerged, some good and some bad, as you can expect from any book. Here is the link to one as an example:

NOTE: Don't read this if you don't want to know specifics about the book before reading it.

http://www.sfreviews.net/empire_osc.html

This review, like a lot of others, points out the political nature of the book, which is integral to the plot and subsequent events that unfold. This seems to overshadow a lot of readers and reviewer's take on the book, and the main thing they point out.

Now, understand that I'm not writing this thread to discuss this one book in particular, or author even though this is OSC's site, but rather would like to hear what others here think of the dangers of using their own political and religious views in their fiction writing. When is it going too far, and what makes it beneficial, rather than a problem to the reader? Even if an author's views are middle of the road, do you dare write a book that even appears to be from a viewpoint of out on the fringe, or is that just asking to annoy a lot of readers?

As a final note, I know that Heinlein's earliest works, before becoming popular, were perceived as being political and biased because they were full of his personal beliefs, and weren't received well by publishers. After realizing this, he changed his style so that the story indicated these ideas rather than coming right out in the words.


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BruceWayne1
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As a reader for some reason when the subject of politics (or religion, and I know others who even feel the same about sports and their favorite teams)comes up I pause, my defences go up, I become cautious. This doesn't stop me from reading even if the view point is different than mine, I think it somehow sets a higher standard for the author to live up to in order to keep me. IF I feel I am beign preached at I will drop the book in an instant, I can go to church and get that, but if the characters have a particular POV I have no problem at all with that. It should come from the character not the author. just my 2cents, until Survivor chimes in then I'll no doubt change my mind
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Ray
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I don't think you're asking to annoy readers, but you are setting yourself up to a different standard. By writing a story with your personal political and/or religious views, you're claiming that you have knowledge on the subject. If you don't, you've already cut your story and your credibility off at the knees, because your audience will call you on it.

If you do have knowledge on the subject, the second challenge is to profess those ideas clearly. But that goes with any piece of writing. For the rest, you just have to be able to tell a damn good story, otherwise, why are readers spending their time with you?


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wbriggs
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The personal is more interesting than the political. That is

John's the judge who will rule on whether a nuclear plant can be built at Sandy Bottom. His wife Susan is adamantly opposed to nuclear power. He's not sure he should intervene, but...he had an affair last year, and he's sure she suspects, and ever since they've become more distant. At this point, *anything*, he fears, might be the last straw, and she'll leave him. If she tells the press about what he did, so much for his career. He hates himself for thinking of such petty concern -- and even more for thinking how much easier it would be for him if she just disappeared.

OR

Corporate goons (or, if you prefer, eco-terrorists) have threatened him, but there's no way John will give in on the nuclear power plant at Sandy Bottom. He knows of the horrendous danger if he gives in to the bad guys. Can he and a heroic reporter get the information to the public before environmental disaster strikes?

To me the first one is clearly more interesting. You get to be righteously angry in the second one, but the first one has an actual character to worry about.


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Robert Nowall
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Despite being openly partisan, I find it hard to write about politics in fiction. All my characters tend to share the same sort of views, limiting debate between them. I appreciate it when it's well-done, but so far it's defeated me. (Non-fiction, now, is another matter. There I can expose foolhardiness to my heart's content.)
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Survivor
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Whatever you write about will necessarily limit your audience.

The tragedy of politics is that most people have already made up their minds very firmly on the subject. It isn't a good sell unless you're planning to "preach to the choir". Why should this be the case? Because there are always plently of writers, journalists, and other public figures already hard at work making sure that everyone hears their message. In the end, any book about current politics is doomed to get lost in the noise unless it is actively sponsored by an existing political movement. If you don't pick a choir, and stay on message, then you won't get the kind of backing a political book needs to succeed.

If you happen to belong to a choir and don't mind playing the obedient mouthpiece now and again, then it isn't a bad way to sell a few books. But you'll have to compromise your art to stay on the message.

Empire is going to be one of Card's least popular books, even though it's really quite a remarkable (and chilling) story. In the end, it isn't about the civil war or politics or anything, it's about good people who make peace with evil. But because it contains politics, very few people are going to see anything deeper. And since it doesn't pander to anyone, it has no appeal as a "political" book. If it weren't for the fact that Card is already quite famous, almost nobody would buy it at all.


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oliverhouse
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Politics or religion in fiction can be wonderful, but it's usually best seen through a personal filter (as the always-on-target Mr. Briggs points out).

When it's bad, that's often because the story seems biased. The characters that hold viewpoints that are opposite of the "good guys"' beliefs are caricatures of the vast majority of people who _really_ hold those beliefs.

It's really nothing more than the same problem you have with stereotypes in general. If your characters are well-developed for the most part but every religious believer looks like Dave Koresh, or every atheist looks like Adolf Hitler, or everyone in the middle looks like an indecisive weasel, then every part of the story they touch risks descending into triteness or even idiocy.

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited February 01, 2007).]


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Spaceman
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Science Fiction has been a forum for political discussion since the sixties, at least. Just look deep into the original Star Trek scripts. Very political. Look at Dangerous Vision, look at Alan Dean Foster's writings, look at Norman Spinrad. The politics are everywhere. They get away with it because it's subtle or the target is a proxy.

You can't help but filter your world through your own politics. You can't take it out any more than you could take out your voice or style.


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luapc
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From the posts here, I think most people here at least, agree that politics and other sensitive subjects need to be handled carefully and appropriately. Authors who use their stories as vehicles to voice their opinions under the guise of fiction, are likely to draw the criticism of readers for using it in such a way.

On the other hand, it is possible to put politics into fiction. Like Spaceman says, it has to be subtle, and fit the characters and be relevant and essential to the plot, or show something important about a character. If those factors aren't there, then it just becomes a framework for spouting the author's beliefs.

This was pretty much my take on it, but I wanted to see what some others thought. Thank you all for your responses.


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Robert Nowall
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Science fiction has always had works of political overtone. The fans and writers of the thirties wore their politics on their sleeves.

On Empire...I bought it, but I just haven't gotten around to reading it. Something else usually gets in the way, including several non-fiction political books. (I bought a dandy on the other day about the West's relationship with Islam. Opened whole new chapters of thought about it.)


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dee_boncci
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For me, and a few others I suspect, politics do not engender the visceral enjoyment I like in stories. They can hold a certain intellectual interest as backstory, millieu, or a minor sub plot, but I don't really want to read about personified liberalism squaring off against personified conservatism as the main story line. Nothing there to connect to on a human level.

The "Left Behind" series didn't do much for me for a similar reason, if you replace politics with religious doctrine (I don't agree with the "rapture" movement's interpretations)


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BruceWayne1
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But At least "Left Behind" was obviously a religious book the authors didn't sneak it in the main stream genre.
What bothers me is buying a SciFi book and getting preached at.

Goodkind does that with the Sword of Truth books. they are about Free Enterprise vs Communism in a lot of ways but he does it in a pretty good way and it helps that I agree with the author. If I wasn't totally involved with Richard and crew I may have been put off.


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rjzeller
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I think you take some real risks when you try to bleed politics into your book -- unless the book is ABOUT politics. If you're a new author or not too well established yet, I would suppose (though I cannot be certain) that political posturings in your fiction may lead to trouble.

But there are plenty of authors who do so, and some more bluntly than others. Look at Michaal Crichton's "State of Fear." It's been a long time since I read a novel that slanted, and he seems to have done just fine.

Then again, he is a very well established writer, so perhaps that plays into it.

I think if you're honest and true to your characters, the audience will accept that any political issues belong to your characters, not you. But it's very easy to let your own political views slip in, and if you do, I think you could put off some readers. Let your characters make a statement if that is how they are, but don't make the statement yourself....

my 2 pennies....


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oliverhouse
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Tolkein's worldview is very Roman Catholic, but he never really lets it surface in an obvious or preachy way. He also never lets his antagonists become caricatures of, say, Anglicans or Muslims, even when he represents different races.
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BruceWayne1
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this has become a problem for me too when I know the author's political and or religious position before reading the book. I become biased before even picking up the book. for instance, OSC's books about the women of the Old Testament. I read them and realy enjoyed them but was constantly looking for LDS influence. Didn't ruin the books or anything just kept me from innocently reading.
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Spaceman
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I should point out that Empire is not SF, it's more of a thriller.
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luapc
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That is true. Empire is more like a Jack Ryan type story from Tom Clancy, than any kind of SF. The only thing even remotely SF is the possibility it happens in the near future, but of course, that's not enough to make it SF.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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EMPIRE qualifies as an "if this goes on" story (or "near future history"), a sub-genre of science fiction.

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Survivor
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It would, if it had any serious speculative element that isn't an imminent possibility. The only thing that would remotely qualify is the army of mechs, but they aren't at the core of the story. I did find it interesting that Card has someone say that they don't show any significant Japanese influences...hello, who's done almost all of the serious work on working mechas? But the fact remains that the story assertion that such things could be built today isn't remotely SF.

I don't think that it really qualifies as an "if this goes on" type of story either, because such a story is based around a single commonplace trend extrapolated much further than anyone would reasonably supposed it could go. Repent, Harlequin, said the Tick-Tock Man has a milieu based entirely on the idea that tardiness has become a capital offense. One thinks of how we've blurred the line between entertainment and political exercise in both directions. It clearly comes into play in terms of the idea of how the Progressives mech army functions. But it isn't a stretch of the same level, we already see all kinds of extreme protest tactics which are basically artistic law-breaking in the pursuit of political change.

I personally think that the story would have worked better without the mechs, which were included because of the contract under which Card wrote the book. If the baddies had used "stock car" militarized vehicles or something then it wouldn't have had a significant impact on the story arc but would have avoided the plausibility hurdle altogether.

The really key central issue of the story isn't SF at all. I tend to dispute it, but that doesn't make it SF. I believe that history has a shape, certain kinds of events really are beyond the power of an individual or small group of individuals to alter. Of course, I have the unique perspective of being one such event


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Spaceman
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I would say that Scott, for all intents and purposes, called it a thriller on page 351 in the acknowledgements, buy disclosing that he watched 24 as an example for pacing.
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Zero
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Actually a funny thing happened when I read that review.

I have not read Empire, but based on its premise, well, I thought it looked more than a little ridiculous. My immediate thinking was it was an outlandish concept and probably something Card didn't qualify, in my mind, as an expert on. So I'd already made up my mind, quite unfairly, what it was about and that I didn't like it. I didn't want to.

Then I read that review. Though the reviewer makes the occassional good point, ultimately his criticisms of the book and Card's philosophies in them drew my interest and I found myself defending Card in my mind. Maybe I'm a natural-born devil's advocate, but...

I guess what I take from this is that even negative attention toward writing can elicit a positive response from some audience, no matter how small.

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited February 03, 2007).]


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Survivor
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It's true that the emotionalism of the review could make you think that there must be something to Empire (and there is, though the story I read bears little resemblance to the story Card claims to be telling).

To me, Empire reads as a chilling story of the terrible dangers of "moderation" in politics. It's really weird that Card spends so much effort claiming that we should all be more moderate, given the story he weaves. Frankly, the Progressive Restorationists come off as martyrs more than as villians, because at least they try to fight for something they believe.

But a single hysterical trash job doesn't necessarily mean that the work being trashed is any good. It just means that some people are nutjobs who lose their mental balance at the slightest provocation


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Tanglier
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All of my favorite books deal with politics and religion, usually in the messy way wbriggs describes.
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Zero
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True.

I also love politics in my fiction BUT the caveat is I prefer my politics to be fictional involving fictional entities, then the bias and agenda of the author is it at least clumsily disguised. Helps keep me far into the deep distant world of fiction, instead of dragging me back to the world I live in.


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pantros
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A book has to address a social issue that the audience can relate to for it to really influence the reader.

Heinlen was a complete and utter loon but his books always made me think because they were so socially off-center.

I stopped reading OSC when I thought he was getting preachy - this is long before I knew he had LDS influence. But I dont see OSC as a loon.

Who sells more books? Who has had a greater influence on the human condition?

The answer to both questions is Heinlen.

Its better to teeter on the far edge of socio-politico-religious consciousness. So stick your neck out as far as it will go. As long as you are consistant and thorough, you might just influence the next generation. That's not to say you'll make them think as you do. But, you might do one better and help them understand themselves better.


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Survivor
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Are you saying that readers don't relate to Card because his concerns are too prosaic? Or rather because those concerns are mostly things about which his readers have already made up their minds?

I think that's somewhat similar to my own point, but that could just be because I'm having difficulty parsing your argument otherwise.

My favorite books deal with issues that are apparently close to the heart of the author and intended audience, whether or not they agree with me. Of course, very often in overtly political books (particularly those which are actually published in the end) you see authors allowing their nominal group affiliation to override their own deeply held beliefs and feelings.

Which somewhat describes Empire, a book billed as being about the dangers of extremism, but to me it read as being about the dangers of moderation, most particularly of political compromise. I have to wonder whether Card is conscious of the schizophrenic thematic clash in the plot as it develops. On the one hand I think he must realize it, but on the other hand he doesn't strike me as the type to carry out such an elaborate ruse in all his public statements about the book. But then, I don't know him personally or anything.

Regardless, I think that the doppeled text, a sincere book hiding itself inside an insincere one, is fascinating to read and compelling in its cultural implications. Such books frequently appear prior to major historical junctions, as now. Ultimately I don't know that it matters whether the dramatic structure of Empire is intentional or accidental. Card, whether or not he is consciously aware of the fact, is absolutely against political compromise. And it shows.


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rcorporon
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I'm a Marxist, and my novel deals a lot with uprising and revolution, but I make a very strong effort to not infuse my writing with what I call "blatant politics."

I don't mind politics in books, but I prefer it to be pretty detached from anything remotely modern. For example, GRRM's books are full of politics, but they deal with kings and queens, so it's not like he's trying to forward any agenda.

I have stayed away from Empire because I find OSC's personal politics to be in the extreme opposite to my own, and I was worried that I would just be subjected to political situations and viewpoints that I disagree with, and hence don't want to spend my valuable reading time wallowing in.

I guess what I'm saying is that I personally don't mind politics in books, as long as it fits the story and doesn't blantetnly push some agenda.


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