Over on his site, Paolo Bacigalupi asks the question “Should Fiction Writers Write About Politics?” in the wake a of reader comment after Paolo did, indeed, write about politics. While Paolo answers the question to his own satisfaction (I encourage you to read it), let me state my own, probably unsurprising, opinion here:
Why yes, fiction writers should write about politics, if they choose to. And so should doctors and plumbers and garbage collectors and lawyers and teachers and chefs and scientists and truck drivers and stay-at-home parents and the unemployed. In fact, every single adult who has reason enough to sit down and express an opinion through words should feel free to do just that. Having a citizenry that is engaged in the actual working of democracy matters to the democracy, and writing about politics is a fine way to provide evidence that one is actually thinking about these things.
The real question here is, “is it smart for fiction writers to potentially alienate readers by airing their politics?” My response to this, again to absolutely no surprise to anyone, is another question: “why should a fiction writer be obliged to be silent on the life of the state in which he or she lives?” Do readers really think it’s wise that writers, of all people, stay quiet on the matters that affect their lives and the lives of their families, friends and nation, because some person they don’t even know might feel slightly discomfited, and doesn’t have the wit to separate a work of fiction from the largely unrelated real world concerns of the writer?
As long as we’re asking whether fiction writers should write about politics, let’s ask: should fiction writers write about sports? Because if I say, oh, that the Georgia Bulldogs suck and I hope that Tennessee well and truly kicks their ass on October 11, I’m going to alienate an entire state’s worth of people, some of whom might now never get my loathing out of their heads every time they see my name on a book. Should fiction writers write about computers? Because if I express my opinion that Apple computers are merely status bait for anxious beta males, I invite a veritable rain of hate from those same beta males, some of whom will never forgive me for not kneeling at the altar of Steve. Should fiction writers write about sexuality? Because if I admit that during my second year of college I totally went gay for a semester and don’t regret a single moment of it, I’m going to alienate the people who believe that scarfing wang is not a thing boys should do. Should fiction writers write about religion? Because if I express my belief that those who believe in consubstantiation rather than transubstantiation are taking the express elevator to Hell, then, whoops, there goes a whole swath of protestants.
Now, as it happens, I don’t hold these opinions about consubstantiation, or the Georgia Bulldogs, or Apple computers, nor did I, in fact, spend any time in college in hot, sweaty m4m action. But it doesn’t matter; the fact of the matter is that any opinion I hold and publicly discuss has the potential to alienate someone, somewhere, perhaps to the detriment of future sales of my fiction. I mean, for Christ’s sake, out there in the world is a guy who holds me in spittle-flinging contempt because I think the word “alright” is the incorrect way to say “all right.” It seems doubtful he will ever buy any of my books. Should fiction writers write about the English language? After all, lots of people seem to think “alright” is a real word. Should we content ourselves merely to pity them in private?
Of course not, just as we should not be obliged to keep to ourselves opinions about sports, sexuality, technology, religion, food, toys, war, science, music and so on. The reader who believes a fiction author should keep his or her opinions to themselves is effectively (if generally unintentionally) saying “You exist only to amuse me. You are not allowed to do anything else.” To which the only rational response is: blow me. I’m not going to hesitate to add my voice to the national dialogue on any subject just because someone somewhere might not be happy with what I have to say. And more to the point, I think it is bad and dangerous thinking for people to suggest that fiction writers should have to live in a black box of opinion. The idea that writing fiction somehow obliges or even just encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is flatly odious.
Indeed: The idea that practicing any profession somehow obliges or even encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is odious. Everyone should be encouraged to say what they wish to say about the important matters of the day. Everyone should feel that participation in the life of their community and their state and nation is a critical act. To do less invites ignorance and ultimately tyranny.
To go back to fiction writers and politics, there’s another reason I feel obliged to freely speak my mind: Because so many writers cannot. PEN has a handy list of writers currently imprisoned all over the world because they’ve written about the world they live in; it also has a list of writers who had been imprisoned and who, while now released, continue to face prosecution and danger should what they write offend the wrong people. Are there fiction writers on these lists? There sure are. These writers chose to speak about their world, despite the certain risk, and were punished for it by prison terms or worse — and I’m supposed to hold my tongue because someone might not buy my book? Give me a fucking break. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t dare.
And yes, it means that some people won’t buy my books. So what. I live in a place where it will never come to this, but if I had to make the choice between selling fiction and speaking my mind about politics, I would speak my mind and not once regret the choice. There are always other ways of making money; my conscience requires I participate in the political life of my country. If not selling another word of fiction were the cost of that participation, I’d be getting off cheap, particularly when you consider the alternatives.