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So, over on twitter, I have a personal hashtag of #redwriter. I use it for those moments when I'm explicitly talking about my socialism, and sometimes when I realise that something in whatever I'm working on is bouncing off that. I do it, because I am of the age and type that agrees with the slogan 'Politics is life.' And it keeps me thinking, which matters to me. I want to be mindful, in my work, in my words, in my actions, in my life. I fail all the time -- I did so earlier this morning. But I try.

And I'm following the debates about politics in books, and whether they 'belong' and the calls for 'just good stories' and so on, and, well.... Politics is life. We are soaked in them, we are created by them. As with gender and race and class and ability and sexuality, our political assumptions and the political assumptions that we grew up with help to shape and form who we are, our way of being, our expectations, our interpretations. Which means that there cannot be such a thing as a politics-free book. Every decision the writer makes in their work -- who the protagonist is, what the latter wants and approves, the nature of the threat or problem they face, the types of backgrounds depicted, who is left out -- all of those are marked by the author's own expectations and experiences. We all do it. Most of the time we don't even notice. But as a result, how a book plays for different readers depends on how close those readers' experiences and expectations are to those of a writer. 'Just a good story, no politics' is not a simply a call for books to be entertaining. It's a call for books to make specific readers comfortable. But all readers are different: we all have different levels of comfort and familiarity. The easier it is for you to find a book that mirrors your experience -- a 'politics-free' book -- the chances are, the closer you are to the hegemonic centre of society.

None of this is new: people have been saying this for years, usually in response to other people complaining about politics 'spoiling' books. People who are highly privileged are most likely to complain if they meet something that's not comfortable, not because they are necessarily bad people, but because they're used to seeing themselves at the centre of everything, and they're startled. People who are less privileged, less central to social norms are used to reading about characters and ideas and foods and places that they don't recognise, because mainstream books tend to reflect mainstream expectations.

It takes work to notice this, especially if you're one of the privileged. We don't notice things that to us are 'normal' and we expect what we read to reflect that. When we write, we often write to our internalised norms without noticing it. I can see that everywhere in my own writing. I'm a feminist and a socialist, but most of the characters in my first book are rich and powerful. The plot is mainly driven by the male characters, and the three main characters are all men. I made a conscious decision that most of the characters were not white, but I did not, in my own opinion, do anything like enough work to back that up, and I failed. Thew female characters have a lot of political and social power, but at least three of them are self-sacrificing, placing duty and the welfare of others above their own needs and survival. My internalised misogyny was speaking: women cannot succeed without sacrifice, pain and loss. I worked harder of breaking out of misogyny and Euro-centrism in my second book. I made a conscious effort to depict foods and traditions, landscapes and buildings and ways of organisation that were not just versions of what I grew up with. And I still didn't succeed. I really struggled to write Aude as a person with agency: inner training steered me towards making her weaker, more dependent, more timid and diffident. I've never found a character so difficult to depict. (The twins were easy. Ferrets do what they like, regardless of gender. Writing them was hugely freeing and great fun.) But I'm sure there are many places in the book where I failed, because I am marked by my culture, I am trained and shaped by it and it infects everything I do.

We can always find excuses for defaulting to our norms. Let's take an explicitly political book that is also a good fun read -- and often marketed as a children's book -- Watership Down. I love WD; I read it when it first came out (I was 12 or 13) and it was a big part of my teens. It's an adventure with rabbit heroes. It's also an analysis of different political systems and their good and bad points. Richard Adams comes down on the side of a sort of democratic anarchy, with a charismatic leader setting the tone. He set out consciously to write a political novel.

And yet, his assumptions and training show through. The characters are nearly all male, and such female characters who are present are weaker, more anxious, less able to act with agency -- and presented as potential mates. The rabbits are monotheists. Male leadership is assumed as natural. Threats come from outside, not within. Creatures who are not like you are dangerous. Now, most of this is based on the fact that the characters are rabbits. It's natural for rabbits to fear predators, for instance, and wandering bands of young rabbits tend to be male. But at the same time, Adams -- and the scholars whose work he used -- were affected by their social training when they wrote and researched. Humans live in a society in which behaviour is heavily gendered. It feels natural. So when we look at other species, we assume they do the same. Yet more and more research is now questioning this -- researchers have broken the bonds of their social conditioning -- and finding that in fact, many species do not express gendered social behaviour in the ways humans do. I don't know explicitly what has been observed in rabbits since Adams wrote, but I suspect that the norms his sources detected were refracted by ingrained gender bias. And he was writing a fantasy, in which rabbits have a religion, tell stories, invent political systems. He could have made some of the active central characters female. He didn't. He was comfortable with his own status quo. And he had the excuse, if needed, of 'Oh, but the book I read said...' That books said stranger danger and few women; it did not say religion, but he included the latter anyway. He made an unconscious political choice, just as I did with how I depicted Yvelliane and Iareth and Firomelle in Living With Ghosts.

And here's another thing. Of all my characters, Iareth is the one closest to me. That drive she has to do her duty, come what may, and the problems it causes her, is mine. One of the hardest scenes for me to write in that book was the one where she agrees to stay with Valdarrien. All my instincts -- and thus hers -- were screaming at me that she must not, that it was not Good Behaviour. The first time I wrote it, she said 'No' to him despite the plot. I had to argue with myself for two days before I could rewrite it. And I still think that, had he lived, she would have left him again, in a few months or years, because of that iron sense of duty. That's my own internalised female guilt, right there. I am not supposed to put my own wishes at the centre of my life, because good girls live for others. Like Yvelliane. Like Firomelle. Not at all like Aude, who I struggle to write.

What about 'non-political' books; books in which our personal cultural comfort zone is the default? Let's take Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, another book I read and reread, and loved as a teen. There is no over political agenda in the book: it's the story of a young woman having adventures, finding love and saving the world. At 14, it was the best book ever for me, because it was a fantasy (my favourite type of book) with a female lead who was always right. Usually female heroes are corrected by men several times in a book, but Lessa talks back all the time, does what she wants -- and the men climb down. It was wonderfully liberating. And yet.... Though the role of Weyrwoman is important, Lessa is a Unique Heroine. She is explicitly different to all the other women around her, she is special. And there can be only one of her (6 by the end of the book). Her life is very, very unusual. Everyone else important in the book is male: the other female characters are minor, unimportant and occupy gendered space: wives, servants and sluts. The political structure assumes male leadership -- and aristocratic, born-to-rule leadership at that -- and the solution to the poverty, suffering or distress of the 'common people' is not more agency in their lives, but having a better Lord (or Weyrleader). Bad lords are overthrown by good lords. Everyone is white, and the trappings of their culture reflect that. The book normalises and even romanticises sexual violence, to the point that it's almost unnoticeable. (When in the sequel F'Nor rapes Brekke, I noticed, and I was never entirely happy with their love story, but I accepted that to Brekke the rape was minor, even good, because the writer said so.) As far as I know, the only agenda McCaffrey had when she wrote Dragonflight was to put a women at the centre (just the one). But the other things are there, because they were part of her cultural norm.

All books are political. All books have agenda, conscious or not. Because we are all products of our cultures, and those cultures show.

Skirt of the day: blue cotton parachute (in non-parachute mode).


( 70 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 15th, 2015 11:43 am (UTC)
Does anyone really try to say that General Woundwort is not a political figure?

'General Woundwort's body was never found. It could be that he still lives his fierce life somewhere else, but from that day on, mother rabbits would tell their kittens that if they did not do as they were told, the General would get them. Such was Woundwort's monument, and perhaps it would not have displeased him.'

As you say, all books are political and how we read them is coloured by our own political upbringing and political beliefs.

This, for example, has been with me all my reading life:

"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!"

Apr. 15th, 2015 12:12 pm (UTC)
I think there are people who say 'It's just a children's book, so it doesn't matter' or 'Oh, but he's just the villain.'
And that is a good quotation.
(no subject) - cmcmck - Apr. 15th, 2015 12:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 15th, 2015 11:51 am (UTC)
Must be something with my political upbringing when the novel I'm writing right now is replete with (non-sexualized) strong female characters.

And something like, I don't know, two main characters are male.
Apr. 15th, 2015 12:12 pm (UTC)
That sounds excellent!
John Van Pelt
Apr. 15th, 2015 12:27 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad...
...you did a little unpacking of a couple of titles. The more examples of this we see the better. And different critics will spot different normative bloodlines. I want to get a list of paragon titles from the Sad Puppies, and unpack them all.


Apr. 15th, 2015 12:38 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm so glad...
I'm glad it's useful. And yes, that sounds like a good plan.
Apr. 15th, 2015 01:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks Kari,

An interesting counterpoint, or answer, to Watership Down in that regard is the comic MOUSEGUARD, which has intelligent uplifted mice as the protagonists. The cultural assumptions are distinctly different and it shows. Even if the protagonists are, well, mice.
Apr. 15th, 2015 01:06 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen that: I'll look out for it.
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Apr. 15th, 2015 01:36 pm (UTC)
The agency and putting oneself forward thing has been the hardest element in my Netwalk books. Yes, I'm writing about matriarchs but they're also concerned about family and power and legacies, and they're definitely wealthy. I find that when I want to write about non-wealthy protags, I default to male--perhaps in compensation for writing about working class settings?

Food for thought.
Apr. 15th, 2015 02:57 pm (UTC)
It's so hard: we are so entangled with all this.
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Apr. 15th, 2015 02:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for mentioning McCaffrey. That sort of overpowering, romance-novel-rapey sex is present in many of her earlier books, especially. One of the reasons I stuck with Pern through all the solo-author books was Menolly. The other is that the women seem to have more agency and greater social and political power as the series goes on. I wish I could believe it was intentional, but I doubt it. Still, it ends up being really interesting, if you read the books in published order: basically, the women become stronger in our chronology, but in Pern's, the abandonment of most of the Earth technology and movement back to a more 'medieval' social structure results in a huge reduction of female status.

I would not have guessed that Aude was hard for you. I really liked her, and I think if she had been the person you originally wanted, she might not have worked for me. It might be because, like, you, I am socialised to be the Professional Good Girl. That's only part of it, though; for me, Aude makes tremendous strides in overcoming a sheltered and privileged life, but that life has robbed her of some of the tools necessary for the sort of agency you say you wanted her to have. One of the reasons I like her is that she is constantly learning and re-evaluating and growing. She makes herself open to dealing with the unpleasant and uncomfortable, and is willing to go against the norms for her class. She feels real to me.

As for the rest, yes. The personal is political. That means that not only do books reflect the politics of the author (even, or perhaps especially, when the author is trying to avoid politics), but also, what we choose to read reflects our politics. I have always liked a broad range of sf, and have enjoyed an awful lot of stuff that is loaded with social and political messages that I find reprehensible in real life. But those books have to be really well-written, with believable world-building, for me to enjoy them; if they can't at least appeal on those grounds, my tolerance level is much lower.
Apr. 15th, 2015 02:58 pm (UTC)
Yes: no choice is value free.
Apr. 15th, 2015 02:16 pm (UTC)
This is an excellent post, Kari. Thank you.

But we do have the benefit of literary hindsight here. It's easy to see looking back that Lessa is the Unique Heroine in Dragonflight, and useful to point that out.

At the time, however, Any Heroine was pretty revolutionary, after all those books where there were no women at all or only Token Women With the Duty to Scream. And Lessa is not a Temporary Heroine either. There are so many of those, who go on the adventure only to discover at the end that their True Destiny is Wifehood and Motherhood, and meekly step back into approved feminine, subservient roles. For all her literary faults, Lessa is a permanent heroine, who continues active and powerful through several books.
Apr. 15th, 2015 03:00 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't downplay Lessa's importance: what I meant, really, was what you say -- that her uniqueness reflects the context of the writer. It's still hard to write lots of women with agency without complaints and push-back. In the 1960s, it must have been dauntingly hard.
Apr. 15th, 2015 02:45 pm (UTC)
But the other things are there, because they were part of her cultural norm.

This, this this.

This is a thing that really bothers me. In fact, I think I ended up having an impassioned, uh, rant, at someone about it at EasterCon: McCaffrey was a product of her era. Heinlein was a product of his. There are *shit tons* of things they get wrong, from a 2015 reader's point of view.

But from a 1950s, or a 1970s, reader's point of view, there as things they get right that are *so* *important*, and I hate it passionately when we condemn people wholesale for only being progressive in *one* regard instead of across the board.

Margaret Sanger, the womens' rights and birth control activist in America, who was instrumental in changing the lives of American women--she started what became Planned Parenthood--was apparently also a racist. Vast numbers of people a hundred years ago were. (Vast numbers of people today are. :p) I don't know if she was like, uh, what's his face, Lovecraft, who was apparently even Racist For His Time, or if she was just run of the mill American racist, but I see so many riders today on "Yes, she was amazing, but. But. But." And I wonder why--why we have to be perfect. Why we have to be--I actually retweeted something about this this morning:

People are too eager to say "This legendary person had flaws!" instead of, "Wow, this flawed human being managed to do something legendary."

None of us are flawless. We're all products of our culture no matter how hard we try. Many of us--I like to think most of us--do our best to be better than that, but nobody can manage it all the time, and it just...it upsets me, when people who have done something good, who have made at least one stride forward, are damned because they didn't finish the race. Because they were only a little better, in one regard, at one thing, instead of being perfect and advanced in all things.

I have a weak spot in that myself. I cannot abide John Wayne movies. The sexism, the rampant Masculinity, the treatment of women. I know they're a product of their time. I know they're an *exaggerated* product of their time, even, being films. But I lose my shit when I watch them, because I cannot. get. past. them being what they are. I can't get past my own cultural context even if I know it's not fair to judge them by it. And because I have that one huge raging spot where I know I can't get past it, I try hard to move past it in other places. And it makes me so aware of condemning things for being what they are, and it just...it really upsets me, sometimes, when we can't just say, "No, look, they weren't perfect, but they did good."
Apr. 15th, 2015 02:57 pm (UTC)
Hear! Hear!
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Apr. 15th, 2015 03:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Apr. 15th, 2015 02:54 pm (UTC)
me as boys
I often would wonder about myself....why do the sorrows of little boys bother me? (more so than female protags)...why do I tend to write about tragic princes... more so than tragic princesses? Because I grew up reading about them. So...even now. In Constant Tower I am focused on using the male protag to show my female pain. It works but yeah...still...upbringing
Apr. 15th, 2015 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: me as boys
Nods. Though you bring other things to the table; in particularly you speak so strongly for voices who are marginalised on racial grounds. And your male protagonists are complex and compelling.
Apr. 15th, 2015 03:07 pm (UTC)
I do agree that all books are political. I'm not so sure they all have an agenda. I think that a book can lay out different sides of a political issue, leaving the reader to decide (or not) which is better.

But I certainly don't object to books being political. People are political and we leave out an important dimension to our characters if we try to leave that out.
Apr. 15th, 2015 03:43 pm (UTC)
I think you're right. Most writers don't sit down with an agenda. But readers sometimes perceive one, because of the cognitive dissonance between their expectations and the book. They ascribe that to deliberate action by the writer (g the number of female writers who are labelled either 'feminist' (in a negative way, or 'Mary-Sue'. The reader is unused to seeing women at the centre of the story and sees it as a threat to their comfort.
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Apr. 15th, 2015 03:21 pm (UTC)
Also, people talk about wanting "non-political" books and then seek out things where huge amounts of the plot is explicitly about politics. The Puppies claim to love Heinlein: have they even looked at the plots of Between Planets, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Tunnel in the Sky, or Double Star? (That's just a few of the most obvious: it's hard to claim that Starman Jones is apolitical either.

ETA: Yes, Tunnel in the Sky is juvenile space adventure with dangerous alien animals. But the plot is driven nontrivially by a mayoral election involving the lead character.

Edited at 2015-04-15 03:25 pm (UTC)
Apr. 15th, 2015 03:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, so much this! And Heinlein's politics changed over time, too. They must be reading him very selectively.
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Apr. 15th, 2015 04:06 pm (UTC)
I decided it was one of those irregular verbs (thank you Yes, Minister):

I write the kind of exciting stories I want to read.
You keep bringing politics into your stories.
They churn out tedious message fiction.
Apr. 15th, 2015 04:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this! (Fortunately, I'd just finished my coffee when I read it.)
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Apr. 15th, 2015 05:58 pm (UTC)
Brilliant. Thank you.
Apr. 15th, 2015 07:01 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it.
Apr. 15th, 2015 07:36 pm (UTC)
Thank-you for this and for the conversations and thoughts you cause.
Apr. 15th, 2015 07:38 pm (UTC)
I'm glad it's of interest :-)
Apr. 15th, 2015 11:09 pm (UTC)
Excellent post. Of course our politics, experience and belief systems influence everything we write, and even completely superficial stories (as much as anything can be) by folks who fancy themselves completely apolitical are going to have some message content & value judgements (even if it's just "it is better not to be bored" or "it is wrong to burn down the orphanage because they took a child in right before you could scoop it up off the streets to torture in your hidden laboratory" or "might makes right, so don't piss off those who can destroy you".

And while most people always talk about how much they hate message books, honestly, I don't think wearing your political heart on your sleeve isn't always a bad thing. Les Miz, despite the "eh" ending, is about as openly messagy as a book can be, and is my favorite musical by far and on every list of my top ten books I ever made back when I used to do that sort of thing, even tho I don't always agree with every little bit of the messaging. To follow up on the Richard Adams commentary, I quite loved The Plague Dogs, which I've seen accused of excessive messaging. I didn't notice it, but then again I sort of take the basic premise for granted. I think most things are like that--there's some sort of implicit or explicit (usually both) in everything, we just don't notice most of it. Which can be good or bad, depending.

Sorry for the ramble.
Apr. 16th, 2015 09:10 am (UTC)
Oh, but I agree: I enjoy political books because they make me think and they make me see things in other ways.
The Plague Dogs is wonderful.
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