Art, Politics and Meaning

Yesterday, two rather fractious commenters, one on this blog and one on a friend’s post on another blog, made me think over a) the whole purpose of this blog and what I post here b) what is art, and what is the purpose of art c) the whole point of meaning in books and blog posts ranging from the meaning that can’t help being in it to the “message” bit d) the importance of politics to meaning and to art.

I know I’ve covered this territory before, but clearly I’ve not done it well enough, since it came up yet again.  Or perhaps what brought it up was a determined attempt to change/dismiss the conversations that go on here.  I’ve seen the same thing done to books.

So, pardon me while I try to explain again.  Warning: some of this is going to get all philosophical, but I’ll try to be clear and plain, nonetheless.  Note that these are not the answers for everyone, and I would not presume to dictate to other artists – I’d say other craftsmen – how to do their thing, but they are the answers for ME and in a way the only way I can function.

First let’s start with the purpose of this blog and what I post here.  I’ve called it a writer’s blog, and it is that.  I’m a writer.  Necessarily the way I’ve occupied my time the last twenty some years has left a mark on how I view life, the world and the metaphysical.  (I realized this, when I found myself at a very difficult time in my life, looking vaguely skyward and asking “What made you think that was a good plot twist?”  I could also go into how the way I read books is not the way I read books when writing them wasn’t my job.  Or the way life has become a way of researching, but I won’t.  All those are subjects for other posts and this one is going to be very long as it is.)  It also affects the things I’m interested in.

Some of my posts will be about how to write.  I know they’ll be of limited interest to pure readers.  Maybe.  Even in the days I thought I’d never write for a living, I liked knowing how the sausage was made.  Your mileage may vary, though.  A lot more of my posts will be about how things work/history/the mechanics of what we’ll call, with some poetic license, the human heart.  These too are part of my tool box and my stock in trade.  You have to understand others in order to write others convincingly.  Otherwise all your characters are yourself.  Yes, we know writers like that. Most of them fail to sell.  I suspect the ones who do sell do so by virtue of that magical “push” that publishing houses are finding is less and less effective.

And then, because we live in interesting times, some of my posts, at least, will be about the future and where the industry is going.  Because I’m a science fiction writer, some of them might even venture into where the world is going.  It might startle you to know that I have opinions about that too, and I can see trends that few people are talking about.  Part of this is that, I think, most people are only seeing the upheaval tech is bringing about in their own little sector.  Because of my specialty, I read EVERYTHING and talk to any expert who will stand still long enough, so I’m more of a generalist, and I wonder how many other people see that what affects them is happening ALL over, much less realize what kind of a world this will create.

If by now you’re going “But that leads you with both feet into politics.  And you say you don’t like politics or religion on your blog!”

Of course a lot of that leads me straight into politics, if by politics you see “the way things are organized” or “the way we view the world” or “the way we arrange economics” or “how we view the individual.”  Of course it does.  BUT that’s not the politics that’s banned on this blog.  You are allowed to comment on “That’s not how people work” or “Consider that altruism has a function in the human life.”

The politics that I don’t want on the blog are the same I don’t want in my books and work very hard to keep out of my books.

Sigh – this is going to be complicated, so hold on tight, okay?

I came over here for in time for the 80 election.  (And then I went back to Portugal for years, to finish my degree.  Never mind that.)  At the time Heinlein had just exploded in my own mind as the lodestar of the authors who guided my thinking.  Up until about two years before, I had had several influences, but as I got close to 18, Heinlein seemed to make the most sense to me.

As we neared the election, and I got involved in one candidate’s campaign, one of the questions that worried me was “How would Heinlein view what I was doing?”  And another “Who was Heinlein voting for?”  (Years later, talking to Ginny, I found he had voted for the candidate I’d worked for.  But that was through private knowledge.  I couldn’t have GUESSED otherwise.)

Now, no one, not even the least attuned of the fans could say that Heinlein’s books were completely apolitical or that he had no MEANING to his stories.  However, as far as his meaning applied to then contemporary American politics, I – a zany fan – was in the dark.

This is sort of what I aim for with my own writing.  It’s what I aim for in my blog too.

Yes, I do realize if I’d been in the con circuit I’d probably have KNOWN Heinlein’s political affiliation – or even if I’d heard the spiteful comments of some of his colleagues.  In the same way, my politics aren’t very hard to find out in terms of “who is Sarah voting for?”  Heaven knows I’ve written about it enough in the last few years, though never on this blog.  They aren’t as easy to DEFINE, as far as “what political philosophy does Sarah hold?” but they are still easy enough to find out.  I contribute to a couple of political blogs.  Most of you know this.

But then why the double-life?  Why keep myself innocent of politics here and in my books?  Why not reference current candidates, excoriate the ones I hate, laud the ones I approve of and generally talk here as I do in my political persona?

Well, see, that has to do with the nature of art.  At least art as I understand it.

Most people know art when they see it, which means most people have a different view of art.  (I still rather like the Terry Pratchett explanation that art has either urns or columns.  I’d guess in writing, art has descriptions of urns or columns?  Um… I’m falling down on art, if so.)
At least, most people who think for themselves have an individual definition of art.  A lot of the public who is not particularly interested in the art form being discussed – be it music, visual art or writing – just assumes whatever the experts say is art must be so, since these are “the people who know.”  (This is why even as the reading market fractures and “push” no longer works for your average, run of the mill bestseller, you’ll get more and more mega bestsellers and those will be the “pushed” ones.  Think Twilight or Hunger Games.  Those will succeed because the publicity around them is so extraordinarily massive that it will get people who don’t care much for reading to buy them on the principle that “everyone is saying these are really good.”  If you see the power of the mega-push decline, it will mean, paradoxically that MORE people are reading for entertainment.  This is because) Most people know what they like.  But a lot of them are vaguely embarrassed by it, because it doesn’t agree with the experts, so it can’t be “art.”

One of my family’s favorite pastimes (we have mentioned we’re bad people, right?) is to go through the modern art section of art museums and do unvarnished critiques of “installations.”  Because a) yeah, we know how to evaluate lines b) if something is a crock of pretentious baloney we don’t care what the “experts” say.  We know how the sausage was made.

Anyway, for me art – real art – be it in writing, music or visual art is by definition something that transcends its time and place and both holds a mirror up to the person experiencing it, by touching something so basic in his human experience that it tells him what it is to be human, and allows the person experiencing it to momentarily escape the prison of his brain and see what it’s like to experience the world as someone else.

In books, this is literally so.  We have the advantage over movies in telling stories, because movies can only TELL the story while we can have the reader BE someone else for the duration of the reading experience.  Or at least that’s what we aim for, and approach in varying degrees, (sometimes in the same day). [This is one of the reasons I despise the minimalist style of story telling that aimed for the stripped-down camera-eye.  Why should we put down our superior tools and take up the inferior ones?]

The great books we read become a part of us and we use them as references in our own lives and emotions.

So, why not let contemporary politics leak in?  Aren’t those important?  Don’t we live through them?  Aren’t I a political animal who often sees the next election, the next issue, the next cause celebre as a vital hill to die on?

Okay, let’s talk about Shakespeare.  Take a deep breath, it connects and it will all become obvious in a moment.

Shakespeare has, I believe, stood the test of time.  The fact that we can still emote with and “experience” his characters despite the fact that a) his art was closer to the script writers of today (though not quite) b) our world is so different from his he might well go mad trying to process it, means that he did indeed touch something essential about – that inadequate term again – the human heart.
Shakespeare lived at a time of great ferment, when the modern state was literally lurching forth out of the womb of the renaissance.  And yet most of his plays are apolitical – at least with reference to the personalities of the time, or the time immediately before him.

Those that aren’t…  Well, I know many more of you than I’d like to think about like USING Richard III.  We won’t go into that.  Richard III, the play, has become a pawn of modern political thinkers who push it this way and that to attack their enemies.  Stage it just SO and it is an indictment of fascism.  Turn it around the OTHER way and attack whoever you don’t like in politics today.

That is because Shakespeare was a genius, and when geniuses turn their minds to mere political hackery – which Richard III was for him – they still create a superior work that can be used as a weapon centuries later.

But it is a weapon and, as such, it is not as much art as it could otherwise be.  The reality of Richard III intrudes in the minds of those who have studied the history.  Beyond the fact that he was not a hunchback, he was a complex man and in many ways no viler than anyone in his time.  Richard III the play is political hackwork, written to curry favor with Shakespeare’s patrons.

Had all Shakespeare wrote been those “history” plays he would now be an obscure Elizabethan playwright, maybe as good as Marlowe, maybe a little better, studied only by those of us who have a jones for that sort of thing.  And had he, instead of Richard III written the Tragic and Faithful History of Sir Roland Octone, King of Fareeans, the play would likely be superior, because, unmoored from the need to appease his patrons and justify the rather icky Tudor reigns, he would have made the tyrant more human and touched more of that universal humanity that is life to writing.

Why would that identification with current – for any time – political parties/affiliations blunt art?

Because humans are tribal creatures.  Yes, I know I keep telling you that.  Listen, though.  Humans are tribal creatures and as such are predisposed to identify ours/not ours.  Writers are human.  (Well most of us.  At least when the writing is going okay.  You don’t want to place any bets when I’m blocked.)  If you start using labels and use the labels you identify with, you exclude other people.  Writing from the point of view of the label means, by definition, that the book is going to deal in caricatures.  Caricatures are very well in their place, but the Mona Lisa is not a caricature, nor is every portrait ever painted supposed to be a caricature.  In the same way, though one or two books one reads and likes (when it pulls for one’s side, at least) can be caricatures, we don’t always want to read caricatures.

Part of the issue with writing – particularly science fiction, to a lesser extent fantasy, but to a greater extent (weirdly) mystery – is that the publishing establishment – a very small group of people, most of whom either agreed with each other or were afraid to dissent – collided at high speed with boomer ethos [not to be confused with boomer Athos, which is either a time travel story or a reincarnation thing].  Boomer ethos demanded “message” in their books.  (Don’t ask me why!  It just seems to have been true in every art form all over the world for that particular generation.) And most people – certainly publishing establishment people – THINK message means “current politics” either in the form of echoing a cause celebre du jour, or in the form of naming party affiliation.

This became such a touchstone and a demand, that – before indie came and set everything on its ear – the establishment was busily making regency romances as unreadable as everything else by demanding political rants in the middle of those.  These political rants were usually about things that are VERY well decided in our days, and which frankly don’t need defense.  They made of every romance heroine a vocal supporter of woman rights (before she gives it up to the hero after one kiss…  Don’t go there) and every “good” character a vocal opponent of slavery or child abuse or whatever the publisher’s hobby horse was.

Let alone that this was in most cases a-historical (yes, it’s possible that most women thought they had a raw deal back then.  They did.  But they wouldn’t think of their rights in modern terms, which these books portrayed.  And yes, an amazing number of people at the time were publically or privately opposed to slavery.  But again, very few of them would think of racial – or social – equality in modern terms.  Humans are tribal creatures and the ‘consensus’ of the time was elsewhere.  Yes, there’s ways of making it convincing, but most writers can’t/don’t know how.  And besides… every book?  On subjects that are a “duh” in modern times?)

That type of demand for explicit political allegiance is the death of art.  All it creates is an endless succession of … not even Richard III, more like Henry VI.  You read them, you flinch past the bad parts, and then you never pick it up again.  And that’s if it doesn’t take flying lessons because it says something that amounts to an insult to the group you see yourself as fitting in.

Freeing us from that type of nonsense, expanding and fracturing the book market is one of the best parts of the ebook revolution.

Another good part – beyond creating what I consider better “art” – is that not having to identify and label yourself allows you to talk to readers who might otherwise disagree with you.  As much as I love Heinlein, I – of course – don’t believe as he did in everything.  For one, I find keeping a “group marriage” going, human nature being what it is would require WAY more emotional effort than most humans can muster.  (And yes, I realize there are group marriages that work.  I just don’t “believe” in them, and from the outside it seems a dicey endeavor, needing exceptional people.)  But there are other points, minor or major.  I can still read him and love his world and his characters, because his characters are internally consistent AND convincing.

This is partly because he didn’t tag them with contemporary politic tags, which would both hold me at bay and in a way allow him to – almost without noticing – create caricatures, instead of real people.

And that’s the other reason I don’t allow politics – or at least political identification tags – on this blog.  Oh, I’ll ignore it once or twice, but I will NOT allow the blog discussion to be diverted to current political tagging (most of which are deceptive, anyway, let alone that one of the sides changes names more often than a Chinese restaurant with a bad menu) or the current cause celebre because to do so means that the stuff that interests me, like futurism or ethics becomes diverted to a flood of tribalistic name calling.

Allow me to tell you, too, that if you what you identify with is the label, you are not thinking through any of the underlying issues and you’re dehumanizing your opponents – and yourself.

I’ll make an exception to this when talking of the ideology Heinlein called Red Fascism and its blinkered economic theory.  Like stupidity as referenced by Heinlein, there is no way to “try it” that it will work.  Not for human beings.  Not on Earth.  To quote Heinlein, “the result is always death; there is no reprieve.”  That it is considered bon ton and bien pensant in intellectual circles today only shows that education, like publishing five years ago, has become so confused it needs a revolution.  But that’s a post for another time.

My goal for the discussions in this blog is to discuss the real issues and the real causes, without recourse to touch-stones that call out to group identity and close off thought.

And my goal for my writing is to create stuff like Romeo And Juliet and maybe, one day, if I’m very lucky, Macbeth and even perhaps, in the fullness of time, King Lear and NOT an endless succession of Henry VI.

If that doesn’t interest you and that’s not your notion of the writer’s art, so be it.  In the end, I write what I have to write because it’s what someone like me CAN write interestingly (or even competently.)  No artist, not even the great ones, ever pleased every one.  And no one EVER liked every story he heard or read.  However this is my path and the only one I can walk.

22 responses to “Art, Politics and Meaning

  1. What strikes a cord through time is that the essence of human nature does not change. For example, what we view as our tribe may shift, but we are still our tribal. Most of Shakespeare’s, Austen’s, or Heinlein’s works will remain readable because of this. It might rightfully be said that there is nothing new under the sun, except for the trappings.

    Seems to me you are aiming high — go for it. I wish you good fortune in it, for if you succeed the world will be a little richer for it.

  2. While an author can’t please everybody, to obviously engage in Modern Politics in his/her stories will insure that potential readers will be turned off if they disagree with the Politics.

    Even if “you” want to spread a message, if you’re too obvious about it, you’ll ruin the story and turn readers off.

    Of course, a hundred years from now, readers likely wouldn’t care about your “great message”.

    It is has been said that Heinlein’s “messages” got through because the readers didn’t realize that he was intending to “give the reader a message”.

    Finally, some writers “think” that their message isn’t extremely obvious but the message is painfully obvious to the reader.

    • Finally, some writers “think” that their message isn’t extremely obvious but the message is painfully obvious to the reader.

      True. (Although I wish fewer people appreciated being beaten about the mind with a polemic. This must relate to Ms Hoyt’s comment about the necessity of messages in the last generation of books.)

  3. *nods vigorously in approval*

    I always like the old Strunk & White bit about not putting your Big Points in overtly, because readers don’t like being pounded on the head, not to mention it being detrimental to the story. Your ethics and beliefs are going to be in there anyway, regardless, so extra pounding is not necessary.

  4. Hallelujah! I dislike heavy-handed “messages” in books, even if the “message” is one I agree with. If it’s *not* one I agree with, I won’t read another word of a) book in hand; AND b) anything else the author writes/has written. Life is too short, IMHO.

    Go for it, Sarah! Reach for the stars :-)

  5. Then again, some readers are highly sensitized to messages, and will find them anywhere, even if your writing, like mine, resembles a Rorschach blot more than narrative . . .

    • You know, mine is often like that too, but there is a “message” in the sense that I have definite ideas about things. HOWEVER it wasn’t messagy enough for most of my publishers. :-P

  6. The link to this post is going into the resource file for my short story ideas.

  7. Oh, yeah. If I wanted a message, I’d go to a sermon. Message books turn me off so fast, unless they’re done *very* well indeed.

    Anyone who’s looked closely into Pratchett, and Shakespeare, and Heinlein can see that there are things being said. Usually it’s more in the line of exploring where this particularly sticky idea and concept goes if you aim it *that* way.

    One of the sadder things about genre communities, especially science fiction and fantasy, is the way people who are usually outsiders by any definition are so desperate to fit in somewhere that they tend to form their own black holes of group think. Human nature, I know, but it takes a strong soul to avoid getting dragged in.

    • Thanks for the laugh, Kate. You’re right about “outsider” communities. But I think there are more would-be outsiders than real ones. The real ones tend to stay quiet and do their own thing.

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  9. There are VERY few political hackwork books that have stood the test of time. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm (even though I dislike Animal Farm, it has stood the test of time) are the only two that come to mind. As stated most political hackwork comes out as caricatures and it takes an exceptional and I believe differently talented artist to do caricatures well enough to stand up once the current political scene has changed.

    Beliefs will naturally filter into anyones writing to an extent, whether they be political, religous, philisophical or whatever. But you clarified much what I previously assumed about this being a nonpolitical blog. Meaning, when say government run rabbit farms are brought up I can comment that, government run rabbit farms are the wrong way for the country to go because…. But to come on here and say Candidate X is an imbecile, everybody needs to vote for Candidate Y unless they want the country to go to hell in a handbasket is unacceptable.

    • Jack London wrote a hideous SF message novel called “The Iron Heel” that has been nearly forgotten.

  10. As I believe I’ve mentioned in another post, one of my favorite authors slips in echoes of current politics into her works sometimes. One of her trilogies echoed it so strongly, she even used some of the current terms to describe the two factions (progressive and conservative… or traditionalist? I forget which it was for the other side).

    The only reason I can stand to re-read the work in full (rather than skipping over the political scenes) is because both sides had very human characters. Actually, I felt like the “bad guys” got more a more human treatment with a mixture of flaws and positive traits than the “good guys”, whose flaws seemed to me to make them into good-but-heartless idols rather than humans making decisions that forced them to compromise on some of the very ideals they held. (Amazingly enough, even the protagonist doesn’t like the characters I’m thinking of.)

    Authors with less skill have got the bin by shoving their politics into my face and vilifying anyone who didn’t agree with them. And I don’t appreciate it even when I agree with the politics involved. Their works, I’m betting, won’t stand the test of time. The author I mention above probably will as long as she continues to balance.

    As for my own writing… I don’t ever want to write “with a message”. The idea makes me uncomfortable. I’m working on an alternate reality/history piece now where I need to establish some of the social and historical changes so people understand how my world works. Trying to balance an explanation of why things work the way they work by acknowledging certain things without trying to sound like I’m moralizing is frustrating, because I know that people will interpret it as me trying to “have a message”.

    Really, I wouldn’t have even a breezy explanation of what happened at all if I weren’t trying to minimize the “minnows”. (I forget where I read it, but someone quoted, “Readers will swallow a whale, but choke on a minnow.” – ex: Suspend their disbelief for a super spy, but reject the idea of him never running out of bullets in a gun that’s meant to have only six shots… unless you explain why there are more shots in that gun.)

    • Trying to balance an explanation of why things work the way they work by acknowledging certain things without trying to sound like I’m moralizing is frustrating, because I know that people will interpret it as me trying to “have a message”.

      When I attended college searching out the messages was all the rage. The English department reeked from attitude that there must message. Whatever it was it had a message — intended or not. Even the attempt to avoid message contains, in and of it self, a message. You couldn’t just read a story for the sake of the story. One might come to the conclusion that they were trying to teach you to hate reading…

      There is a sequence in Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield has to explain to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who he hired to write a paper on his own work, that, according to the professor, Vonnegut’s paper on his own work was a failure because he has no understanding of the message in his writing. It makes me smile.

  11. Well, part of that is the knowledge of personal experience, a lot of readers have shot revolvers and so have personal experience/knowledge that most only hold six shots. But not a lot of redears have ever worked in espionage, so it is easier for them to suspend their disbelief.

    Some writers, like Tom Kratman, make no bones that what they are writing is political rants, and I don’t have a problem with that (he is one of my favorite authors), but it takes a different sort of talent to produce good books of that style, and the author is necessarily limiting his audience somewhat. But he is also not prostituting himself to whatever publisher he is working for, because he is writing what he believes. The problem I have and that I believe is being addressed here, is authors putting political rants in otherwise nonpolitical books; especially if done simply to please the editor/publisher. And/or transposing current political issues into historical novels where they are totally unrealistic. About the only thing that will cause a book/wall collision faster than this is when an author shows complete ignorance of fairly commonly known and easily researched ‘facts.’

    • also political values that are not supported by plot/character development, or that are way too “easy” like, everyone who works for a corporation is ipso facto evil and crooked because… lasers.

      There are some books where my politics are more obvious than others and I suspect A Few Good Men will be called political… because it is very pro-US — but I figured since I already voted with my feet, any readers who don’t get THAT about me needs their multiple heads examined, so… Also, it’s — I hope — I don’t know, my betas can opine — supported in the book itself in more ways than “because I say so.”

  12. Brava! Well done. The “messages” were a big part of the reason that I stopped reading the NYT Review of Books, because even in something as basic as a book review some of the reviewers felt the need to inject political commentary.

  13. You’ve put your finger on the issues I have with Tom Kratman’s work (not to say I don’t, well, “enjoy” may not always be the right word, let’s use “appreciate”, them, they do require a different mind-set for me from reading for enjoyment). They are, to a large extent “caricatures.” Other stories can be equally political but since they “distance” themselves at least a bit from the world outside my window I find them easier, and more entertaining to read.

  14. Pingback: The PJ Tatler » Why Shakespeare Shouldn’t Be a Political Hack

  15. I’ll give this post FIVE STARS.

    You’ve totally nailed the subject. Totally.

    Wayne

  16. Writing, like any art, attempts to portray the reality of the world. Politics is an effort to spin that reality. The two activities are inherently antithetical, but since reality contains politics (or, if you prefer, particular views of how the world works – I mean, SOME people really believe that government run rabbit farms would be ideal) the artist will of necessity include some elements of politics in their limning of reality.

    As one who actually remembers the 60s, the buzzword of the times was RELEVANCY. Art must be RELEVANT. Literature must be RELEVANT. Education must be RELEVANT. Never mind that those making those demands were such callow youths they had no freaking idea what would prove relevant — or irrelevant — over time.

    I don’t know whether it was Chesterton or Lewis (both being superb aphorists, both preaching similar messages) who noted that by focusing on the present one risked missing the eternal, but i am sure whoever it was said it more concisely and beautiful than I’ve managed.