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).