Politics in fiction today is a touchy subject1, but one still worth discussing. In opening, I wish to posit three points about it, especially in speculative fiction.
First, our political truths are important and diverse, and since fiction is the lie through which society discusses uncomfortable truths,2 we had best be able to express our political realities through it. Second, as many other writers and rhetoricians have argued, the concept of apolitical fiction is a myth; even the absence of political content is, almost invariably, political. Third, there really is no such thing as message fiction, as we tend to recognize it; there is only poor writing and strong writing, as always.
If these premises are true, then (1) there is ethical reason to grapple with political themes, at least as they occur naturally in our writing; (2), it isn’t truly possible to avoid these themes anyway, so we may as well be deliberate about them; (3), as long we we should and must embrace the political nature of writing, we should learn its rules—what makes it ham-fisted and what makes it compelling.
Writing is an unavoidably political act. Even a grocery list, which many believe is for no one but themselves,3 is political. Where do you shop: Whole Foods, Walmart, or your local farmer’s market? Are you buying organic or conventional? Any palm oil in your groceries? How much are your shopping choices rote habit, with little reflection on the impacts they make upon the rest of society?
Writing establishes perceptions and reinforces behaviors, even a shopping list.
Before words enter publication, writing is a personal act which may reflect personal feelings about political things. For many, writing is a solitary undertaking, but one which can translate the inner world of one person’s psyche to the minds of others—sometimes millions of others. Words produced for public consumption, while they may feel personal to the writer, are inherently political—a species of telepathy which passes from the individual to the community, one which can and does transmit political sentiment.
Conceptually, the personal and the political already share a stronger relationship than we might at first assume. To illuminate it, this three-part series of Musings will cover the following territory:
First, the tenuous barriers between what we call personal and what we label public or political; second, writing and storytelling as personal acts, ones which necessarily grow political at the moment of publication; third, speculative fiction specifically, especially science fiction, and its relationship to political discourse; and lastly, for what its worth, some advice about the dos and don’ts of managing the political in our fiction.
The Personal, Private, Public, and Political
My dictionary defines political as “relating to the government or public affairs…” For writing to be political, it needn’t discuss the current President, the votes of Congress, or a state election—although it might. A relation to public affairs is enough. Now, how might we delineate public affairs from private ones?
To begin, and for reasons which should become obvious, let’s also equate the private with the personal. My trusty dictionary defines personal as “of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions.” To a degree, we may use the words private and personal interchangeably, but this text will prefer the word personal when possible.
The emotional need for privacy is powerful. Individually and culturally, we continually construct personal-private boundaries, both psychological and physical. We rightly defend our privacy and, in the United States, the Fourth Amendment exists to protect it. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment’s protections constrain the state, which can never secure absolute control so long as its citizens retain some privacy, a point underscored by George Orwell.4 The mere fight for privacy, or declaring something personal, is counterintuitively also a publicly political act. The personal is in this sense logically political.
Perhaps worryingly, this implies also that nothing can be purely private, but all which is political and all which is personal occupy a spectrum. This personal-political spectrum shifts endlessly, according to culturally arbitrary standards.
For example, what people do in the bedroom is personal, is it not? To wit, in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated criminal sodomy laws in all fifty states, but a dozen still outlaw it, including Alabama. In the Yellowhammer State, boinking a partner in the ass is by legal definition an act of public concern, subject to political discourse, and police regularly cite those laws to make unconstitutional arrests. In seventeen states, broadly, homosexual sex is still illegal—SCOTUS be damned—a clear declaration that socially rightwing interests still exercise real power over such personal affairs.5
Liberal thinkers, too, generally recognize thresholds beyond which sex loses its private quality and enters public-political concern: Bring a child into the act, and all fifty states and most of the rest of the world rightly take umbrage. (Though it is still possible throughout the United States for children to marry young,6 sometimes after obvious statutory rape, thus absolving the rapist in the eyes of the law.)7 To damage children is to damage their families and communities, to damage their education, to damage their futures—and ultimately to damage all of society—the argument is a compelling one. No threshold of privacy, we would hope, justifies overt violence against children.
Public concern with the personal doesn’t stop at sex, of course. Pro-choice advocates argue the abortion decision lies between a woman and her doctor; pro-lifers disagree, and either way the topic remains as politicized as any can be. So long as members of a society contest them, the most personal of acts make the leap to political in a mere twinkling.
Similarly, what you take into your body is no one’s business but yours, unless the law establishes controls for your substance of choice. My local pharmacy scans my ID into its system every time I purchase Sudafed—someone, somewhere can hypothesize that I suffer from hay fever or, if I buy enough pseudoephedrine, that I might be cooking methamphetamines. For this reason, the state tracks these transactions, but what about logging purchases of birth control, mood stabilizers, or medications for “pre-existing” conditions? Under federal and state laws, most such information is “private,” but in today’s world of hackers, partisan politics, corporate rights, and commercial privatization (ironically named, for an ongoing threat to personal privacy), how easy is it to imagine the publication and politicization of data we consider today to be protected?
The dystopian phantasmagorias abound.
In forty-two states and most countries, using pot in one’s home is due cause for the state to batter down your door and incarcerate you; if the current Attorney General has his way, citizens of those eight states will once more be subject to arrest,8 and how many will already be on record as pot users? Well-intentioned regulations sometimes turn to bad ends.
Conversely, a dearth of state regulation may also elevate the personal into the political. In 2017 the average wage gap—unequal pay for equal work—between women and men is 21¢ for every dollar.9 For many women and their allies, their personal experience of lost earnings, and disparate opportunity, becomes a political effort to promote real change.
Is a uterus public or personal? Is your relationship with a doctor, or indeed is your health, your concern? Are the affairs of multinational corporations private? This and a legion of other questions define the personal-political landscape, a complex and ever-evolving conversation (or shouting match, or fistfight, or gun battle).
We may not feel the personal is political until it’s our life being regulated, repressed, or attacked by public policy. This is privilege—some of us have more than others. Yet the threat of the political becoming personal is omnipresent for everyone, no matter our station. “First they came…”10 for everyone but me.
Though as important today as ever, these ideas are nothing new. The Personal Is Political11—in 1970, Carol Hanisch wrote, “One of the first things we discover… is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions… There is only collective action for a collective solution.”
Let’s also reverse that: The Political Is Personal, a concept important in fiction writing. We tell stories through points of view, through the senses and thoughts of our characters, individuals who may fight the impositions made upon them by the politics of their world and culture. As writers, we practice a deeply personal process, but if we’re honest then the public and political nature of reading never strays far from our minds, particularly if we write for public consumption.
Returning to that grocery list: its every item reinforces or challenges the political landscape, and though there may be such a thing as an innocent writer, there is never innocent writing. Never neutral, words reflect either a memory or a vision, both of which impact our actions in the present and spread beyond us to nudge the culture in which we live—for the greater good, or by reinforcing systems of might-makes-right or power for power’s sake.
The Case of the Domestic
Much of postmodern and contemporary literature deals with the domestic—a specific form of the personal and private—which perhaps deserves some deeper consideration. For that, we might consider Bob Shacochis’s model for a “literature of political experience” or a “literature of domestic experience.”12 This is a variation on the personal-political, where the domestic also reflects finer layers of freedom and control. Since the patriarchies of the Greeks and Romans, the domestic has always been a microcosm of the larger structures of society; so as the emperor was the head of society, the paterfamilias was the head of the household, and that structure held absolute until the modern era. The personal-political continues to unfold intimately in people’s lives, these days more varied and less hierarchical than in eras past, at least in some households—for the better, in my opinion.
Perhaps the first great rivening of the “American domestic” by state powers occurred during the Civil War. Brothers fighting brothers, yes, but also the freeing of slaves which, to the minds of many a land-holding white, was in some portion the division their family, even the intrusion on it by the state and by political forces. For both the Union and Confederacy, the political became personal indeed.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did not start the Civil War—even if Lincoln told her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” But its characters, including slaves and slave owners, and their familial and delicate relationships, illustrated the personal nature of the politics of slavery.13 Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did influence Northern thinking, and more importantly its message impacted generations of Americans afterward, strengthening anti-slavery sentiment in our culture even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
In her remarkable essay, “The Thoreau Problem”, Rebecca Solnit writes, “If [Thoreau] went to jail to demonstrate his commitment to the freedom of others [slave specifically], he went to the berries to exercise his own recovered freedom, the liberty to do whatever he wished, and the evidence in all his writing is that he very often wished to pick berries.”14 She refers to the innate strain between the domestic Thoreau of Walden15 and the communitarian Thoreau of Civil Disobedience16 Solnit gracefully argues that to fight for the freedom of others is the only way to guarantee our own freedom, and fighting often begins with speaking up—or writing down the truth, for those of us who write. Fighting for others is not a constraint on our freedom, but a necessary condition for a free society. To retain our personal freedoms, goes the argument, we must at times engage politics and public life.
The personal and political are cyclical.
Thus writing, too, is a cyclical act which engages politics and public life: we influence through our writing, and are influenced by our reading. What’s more, writing can politicize independently of the author, conscripted by readers into political service, with or without the author’s permission. Mohsin Hamid, the celebrated British Pakistani writer, observed, “Politics is shaped by people. And people, sometimes, are shaped by the fiction they read.”17
This is unavoidable, and not always for the best. Irresponsible writing, even if produced for “entertainment,” can affect terrible outcomes. I refer you Umberto Eco’s excellent analysis of Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew, and how it escaped Sue to become The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.18 What began as flaccid amusement ended by justifying, in the minds of Adolph Hitler and his supporters, the extermination of as many as six million Jews. It became the most sinister kind of propaganda. On this example alone, let no one ever declare that simple fictions cannot spur political outcomes.
Also invoking The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Francine Prose argues pessimistically that, throughout the decades, fiction has mostly darkened politics:
Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is that of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Its disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. So what if Sinclair had hoped that his work would end the oppressive conditions under which industry workers labored rather than merely improving the quality of the protein on middle-class tables?19
Though bleak, neither The Jungle nor The Wandering Jew suggest all writing is fundamentally equivalent to propaganda. While each story may privilege one idea or another, one way life or another, it does not follow that every example is agitprop. Lies require distinct intentionality. Still, politicizing forces can twist fiction to any purpose (as with The Wandering Jew), irrespective of an author’s desires (as with The Jungle), and these days disinformation is all too common.
- Not to be confused with political fiction. Though political fiction would necessarily be covered by these arguments, mainstream-contemporary political fiction is not here the focus. That political fiction would be deliberately political is a duh—let’s explore here the reality that political ideas exist in all fiction.
- Camus, Albert. (1942). The Stranger. (Trans, 1989) Matthew Ward.
- Eco, Umberto. (2004). How I Write. On Literature. (Trans) Martin McLaughlin.
- Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four.
- Senzee, Thom. (2016). 17 States Where Gay Sex Is Outlawed. The Advocate, June 2. <http://www.advocate.com/love-and-sex/2016/6/01/17-states-where-gay-sex-outlawed>
- Reiss, Fraidy. (2017). Why can twelve-year-olds still get married in the United States? The Washington Post, 10 Feb. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/10/why-does-the-united-states-still-let-12-year-old-girls-get-married/>
- Every state in the Union allows marriage, with special consent, under the age of eighteen. Fewer states allow marriage for individuals under sixteen—the age of consent in much of the world—but there are twenty-eight states which do. Of those, eighteen are states which tend toward conservative constituencies or which are deeply conservative; the remaining ten states tend toward liberalism or are deeply liberal.
- Wagner, John & Zapotosky, Matt. (2017). Jeff Session’s war on drugs has medical marijuana advocates worried. The Washington Post, 15 May. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/jeff-sessions-war-on-drugs-has-medical-marijuana-advocates-worried/2017/05/12/0c0043ee-3738-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html>
- Sheth, Sonam & Gould, Skye. (2017). 5 charts show how much more men make than women. Business Insider, 8 March. <http://www.businessinsider.com/gender-wage-pay-gap-charts-2017-3/>
- Niemöller, Martin. (1955). From his 1946 speeches. They Thought They Were Free. (Ed) Mayer, Milton.
- Hanisch, Carol. (1970). The Personal Is Political. Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation.
- Fassler, Joe. (2013). Should Literature Be Personal or Political? The Atlantic, 30 Oct. <https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/should-literature-be-personal-or-political/281007/>
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Solnit, Rebecca. (2007). The Thoreau Problem. Orion, May/June.
- Thoreau, Henry David. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
- Thoreau, Henry David. (1849). Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience).
- Hamid, Mohsin. (2015). Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics. The New York Times, 17 Feb. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/does-fiction-have-the-power-to-sway-politics.html>
- Eco, Umberto. (2004). The Power of Falsehood. On Literature. (Trans) Martin McLaughlin.
- Prose, Francine. (2015). Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics. The New York Times, 17 Feb. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/does-fiction-have-the-power-to-sway-politics.html>