Politics and New Writers

Politics. Need I say more?

Almost everyone has some sort of interest in them, or some ideas on how things are supposed to be, and if you are a writer, chances are you are tempted to insert your politics into the manuscript. After all, even Three-Headed Space Slugs from Betelgeuse can be used to make a point about the latest government scandal, and certain real-world politicians or leaders almost beg to be made into villains for protagonists to defeat. And there are many authors who made a career out of taking their political, social, or religious beliefs and intentionally exaggerating some aspects of such beliefs to write a story – such alarmist fiction tends to resonate well with their reader base even at the cost of alienating some other potential readers.

As you could probably tell by now, today’s post is on the subject of inserting author’s politics into his or her books.

It is only human nature to seek out reading materials that reaffirm our existing worldview. While some literary works can be truly transformative, encouraging the reader to reconsider his or her worldview, such works are rare. Truth is, more often than not people buying books will do so based on their existing preferences; I doubt Tom Cratman gets many sales in politically liberal (in the US sense) areas, and you will probably not see Noam Chomsky sell many copies in conservative parts of the United States. Yes, those two cases are relatively extreme, but they serve to illustrate a point – books with strong ideological component tend to cater to specific readership.

The problem with that, of course, is that said books may have far less appeal to everyone outside of their target audience, and that an author seeking to appeal to that audience may end up pigeonholed into those markets.

It is particularly important for new authors, who strive to get published and build a resume, and who cannot necessarily afford to limit their choices. As much as we already limit our choices through writing specific genres (let’s just say I will not be writing a full-on romance novel or hard-boiled detective drama any time soon), limiting potential audience by having a strong political component can be akin to putting all of your proverbial eggs into one basket.

Of course, there is a flip side to it, too. One of the key advantages of strongly political books is the preexisting audience for them. Just like stories set in certain popular universes (Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40,000, et cetera) are guaranteed to sell reasonably well, a book with a strong political undertone is bound to appeal to existing readership. A writer who manages to get published on the strength of an ideologically forceful book will have an existing market to tap into.

Personally, I do not like books with heavy-handed ideological treatment. As much as science fiction is supposed to challenge the ideas of what the world is supposed to be like and to make us think about alternatives, it is also supposed to be entertaining and (hopefully) thought-provoking. As a reader, I would probably not be the target audience for more ideologically-minded writers, as I tend to be put off by prominent, we-are-right-you-are-wrong politics in my reading materials. Yes, some of the most powerful literary works of the modern era were thinly disguised political statements (“1984” anyone?), but such works tend to be few and far between. More often than not, many attempts at profound political statements end up as caricatures, with villains inevitably following the ideology opposed to the author’s, and very few writers can pull it off convincingly without turning the story into an author tract.

As a writer, I will not pretend to be apolitical, but at the same time I will also not make politics a centerpiece of the conflict in my current stories. Someday, this may change, especially if there is a great story in it, and I believe that I can make a convincing point without making the story too overbearing for my readers, but for now, modern-day politics are out for me. This is mostly a conscious decision, although part of it stems from my tastes as a reader – if I don’t want to read it, why would I write it?

With this in mind, what do you think? Do politics have a prominent place in fiction (and especially science fiction and fantasy)? More importantly, should a relatively new writer avoid heavily politicized topics until he or she is more established?

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