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Literature and Politics.

Jeff VanderMeer (vanderworld) writes about Politics and Fantasy over at the new Emerald City.

Sometimes the reader has a responsibility--and in the case of the political, that responsibility includes not screaming "didactic!" any time a writer raises important issues in his or her work. Readers who care about writing need to recognize that sometimes the entertainment value of a piece must be weighed against the depth of what is being said, that sometimes a story may need a certain slow pace in a section, may need to build, and may even need to, yes, lecture, to achieve its full effect.

Now, after stating all of this, you may realize I haven't yet answered the question I posed before: Is it important for fantasy, or fiction generally, to be relevant in this way? The answer is a resounding No, it isn't. The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Art's sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics--that's all valid.

But, for me, not because of 9-11 but because of everything since then--the hypocrisy, greed, and evil of government leaders, institutions, and private individuals--I cannot not react in a different way than before. These issues permeate our world, and if you do not internalize that, if it doesn't affect your writing, then it lies like an unhealing wound in your heart, and you go a little bit crazy.


I am, of course, all for politics in art, so it's no surprise that I'm linking this.

But I come from a different angle to Jeff, I think (or, alternatively, maybe not). I like politics (in all its permutations, from feminism, culture, whatever you've got) because it gives art a bit more teeth. That's a general comment, of course, and it's not one that you can stand behind for everything, but still. Teeth, by the by, equals passion, and I like passion, even if I mightn't follow that passion a hundred percent.

Last week, I had this thought about the sedated generation. It was, believe it or not, while I was listening to Henry Rollins, and he was urging young people not to smoke dope, but to use their minds, which I thought was a curious position for an alternative rock icon to take. Personally, I don't much care if you take drugs or not, since it's your choice, and I'm certainly not going to tell anyone what they should or should not do with their time. Pot should be legal, anyway, like a lot of things should be legal in our society. So fuck it, do what you want. But I thought, just for a moment, how it's kind of strange that it appears, at times, that the way to rebel in today's society, is to take drugs. Social rebellion isn't protesting, marching, burning, forcing left wing politics into the world view, no, it instead can be argued that rebellion is about sedating yourself, about simply having a form of recreational escapism turned into a lifestyle. There is a War on Drugs, after all.

I wonder, you know, if fantasy--big, chunky fantasy with the politics and beliefs of naive teenagers--is not just another form of sedation. Another form of over the counter sedation. Shit, maybe literature and film and music has just become it, in a general way. Do we read/watch/listen for escapism? Our art will never be outlawed, but is it now performing the same task as a big bag of dope? Heh. Now there's a statement you can all get snotty over. Indeed, right now, there's a cat howling in the street in protest.

I've got no idea, of course, and these are generalised statements. Thoughts in motion.

Comments

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(Anonymous)
Jan. 30th, 2006 12:39 am (UTC)
escapism
Been thinking about these issues obsessively. It seems clear to me that a whole lot of fantasy IS about escapism, or, as I'd put it, consolation. It takes you away from the world, rather than back into it. It reaffirms certain consoling untruths about the nature of fate, love, and choice. It makes you forget the world rather tan engage with it. This, of course, goes for much of today's culture, but "the big fantasy trilogy" is a particularly stark example of it. In effect, then, fantasy, and literature in general, is split between two kinds of writers and readers. Those who are just in it for consolation and those who are intereseted in trying to find ways of interrogating the world (think David Eddings versus M.John Harrison). How's that for a generalisation? (:

Rju
benpeek
Jan. 30th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
Re: escapism
It seems clear to me that a whole lot of fantasy IS about escapism, or, as I'd put it, consolation.

yeah, i'd go with that. the question that remains, however, is what do you do with that as a reader/author? do you move outside the genre to find work that does things differently? i know people who only read fantasy as an escapism, and go elsewhere for books to provide other things, which is fine, really, when yout hink about it.
ataxi
Jan. 30th, 2006 03:14 am (UTC)
It's like the classic conversation between the vegetarian and the meat-eater where neither is prepared to accept the choice of the other and both want to assert control over the other's dietary practices.

There are plenty of people out there who'd rather read dodgy "escapist" fantasy fiction that melds irredeemably banal values with excessive wealth, jokey dialogue and occasional hot sex with fairy-winged chicks in lingerie, and that's fine.

When you interract with people in review communities (say like fantasywithbite) they'll often say "I didn't like that because it had too much politics in it". Sometimes they move on to saying "that isn't proper fantasy fiction because it has too much politics", that's when it shits me off.
benpeek
Jan. 30th, 2006 04:35 am (UTC)
the complains of those guys in fantasywith bite sound like the complaints of whiny vegans ;)
ataxi
Jan. 30th, 2006 04:57 am (UTC)
That's it. Either they're morally righteous without perspective like a whiny vegan, or unnecessarily combative like the meat-eater who isn't happy until every chin at the table is flecked with the innocent blood of a cow foetus. At no stage does it occur to them that it's just a preference.

You want to escape? Go escape with an Eddings/Jordan/Feist/whatsit. Stop complaining about the fact China Miéville is a Marxist or Ursula Le Guin doesn't write enough racism into her fantasy novels, and put a gun to your head and pull the trigger.

I'm not balancing myself out here (there's plenty of "escapist" stuff that's actually decent) but hey, you get that.
affinity8
Jan. 30th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
It's like the classic conversation between the vegetarian and the meat-eater where neither is prepared to accept the choice of the other and both want to assert control over the other's dietary practices.

I'm not sure which classic conversation this is, but in general, there are ethical, ecological and nutritional aspects of meat-eating that make *me* a vegetarian. I have no wish to control anyone else's dietary practices, but I encourage people to think about their choices and make informed decisions. One person has a preference; when a million people have it, or a billion people have it, or five billion people have it, it's a global issue.

On the other hand, whether I choose to read Mieville or LeGuin doesn't really have a global impact.
affinity8
Jan. 30th, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
It's like the classic conversation between the vegetarian and the meat-eater where neither is prepared to accept the choice of the other and both want to assert control over the other's dietary practices.

I'm not sure which classic conversation this is, but in general, there are ethical, ecological and nutritional aspects of meat-eating that make *me* a vegetarian. I have no wish to control anyone else's dietary practices, but I encourage people to think about their choices and make informed decisions. One person has a preference; when a million people have it, or a billion people have it, or five billion people have it, it's a global issue.

On the other hand, whether I choose to read Mieville or LeGuin doesn't really have a global impact.
ianmcdonald
Jan. 30th, 2006 10:35 am (UTC)
I've still enough left of me stash of Nepalese to enjoy the occasional treat, but to me, the big issue isn't escapism, it's atomisation. It ties it with current arguments in feminism (can't remember the name of the book I read reviewed in the Indie, dammit) but the argument is that feminism has traded social empowerment for personal empowerment. I think this is much bigger than just a feminist issue: societal atomisation extends through all contemporary western society: the only ultimate power for us is individual choice, (almost always a comsumer choice at that) not social change. And of course, choice paralysis is our modern anxiety: between so many coices, which is the best, the most empowering? Couple of good artciles on this subject in the current and last month's Prospect.
benpeek
Jan. 30th, 2006 10:56 am (UTC)
that's an interesting argument, that. i'll track down the articles. UK mag?
ianmcdonald
Jan. 30th, 2006 11:11 am (UTC)
UK mag. website here:
http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk

Haven't actually looked at it in any great detail myself, so I'm not sure how much information is on it.
ex_benpayne119
Jan. 30th, 2006 08:29 pm (UTC)
Ian, I agree...

that personal individual empowerment politics runs the risk of undermining any wider social change, and it's somewhat symptomatic of our age with its growing loss of belief in collective action...
ex_benpayne119
Jan. 30th, 2006 08:20 pm (UTC)
I don't really get the fantasy-is-apolitical-or-conservative argument... sure, it can be, but I think there's heaps of fantasy (even traditional fantasy) with radical politics (whether well done or clumsily done), and of the fantasy readers I know, many were attracted to it for its sense of idealism, ie. the world can be changed, rather than any sense of reinforcing the status quo...

I like Jeff's quote... for me, as a teenager I hated politics in art, usually because it was so obvious in its attack... now I tend to like a bit of politics in my reading...

As for Rollins, it's no big surprise... I don't think he smokes or drinks either... it's not so much a conservative "drugs are bad, m'kay" message, as it is one of personal empowerment, and strict self-discipline, which is a key Rollins thing...


benpeek
Jan. 30th, 2006 09:42 pm (UTC)
you could be right about rollins, i guess. i think i was just surprised given the venue, the age, all that. it was certainlly an interesting thing to see, and i wonder what most other people thought. as for the idealism, i've not heard anyone tell me that--indeed, i don't think it's why i began reading it either.

though as a teenager, i wouldn't have liked the politics. but not everything need be written for the teen me and, it must be said, haldeman's FOREVER WAR is always well liked by teens.
mishalak
Jan. 31st, 2006 02:44 am (UTC)
I agree with you about fantasy and science fiction being an escape. Heck, I might go further and say even those books that are deep meaningful and 'important' might also be just another form of escape.
bovil
Jan. 31st, 2006 06:17 am (UTC)
I think you've got something there.

It's not a popular argument and it says some ugly things, but it's probably pretty true.
benpeek
Jan. 31st, 2006 10:09 am (UTC)
what kind of ugly things does it say?
bovil
Jan. 31st, 2006 06:47 pm (UTC)
If deep, meaningful and political literature is escapist (and I'm not separating out genre lit here, nor am I saying that the writer or readers are admitting it's escapist), it's because it's an escape into a world where the individual has significance and power that the reader doesn't in the real world.

There's nothing wrong with an escape into significance. If that escape into significance is an escape into the political? Is it something that will give the reader confidence of his role in the world, or is it an indication that the reader already believes he has no meaningful role in politics? I'm thinking the latter, with a serious turn towards the feel-good "think globally, do nothing."
benpeek
Jan. 31st, 2006 10:08 am (UTC)
you can argue though, that any form of entertainment like literature, music, film, whatever along those lines, no matter what it does, is escapism. the idea is to emmerse you in the text, so to say, and by that nature, you've got to forget the real world. so, i agree, but i always thought that was kinda obvious, y'know?
(Anonymous)
Feb. 2nd, 2006 11:47 am (UTC)
escapism
Not all art is escapist in the sense that it wants to draw you into a constructed world. Brecht is the obvious example of someone whose aim is to rupture the notion of art as a realist representation - as is most of the avant-garde, whose art calls attention to its very status as art. In literature, this is probably a smaller current, though in speculative fiction the "New Wave" of the sixites has some elements of such avant-gardism. Ballard is of course the pre-eminent of the British. On the American side of things you're probably looking at someone like Ellison. Anyway, one thing missing from this whole discussion is a concern with the kind of politics being offered. I think the Gor series is escapist in a way that Le Guin isn't, because it's an escape into an unrealistic mysoginist world. Le Guin is an "escape" into a world of "real" people (truthful characters) - that is an escape INTO rather than AWAY from the world, if that makes sense. (Damn it...I'm gonna have to get my own blog one of these days! (:)

Rjurik
benpeek
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:23 pm (UTC)
Re: escapism
get yourself a blog!

:)

anyhow, yeah, i do agree that the discussions of politics without going into the politics is one that is never done. the gor books are a good example, and maybe even orson scott card's stuff--though i've no read any, i have heard they play strongly off his mormon beliefs.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 6th, 2006 03:45 am (UTC)
politics
It must be in the air. See the Summer Issue of Post Scripts, Number 7...
benpeek
Sep. 7th, 2006 12:30 pm (UTC)
Re: politics
...is someone going to send it to me for free :)
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