Mixing Art and Politics


Let me start by saying that today’s post comes to you courtesy of my brand new iMac with its very impressive 24 inch display. (Overcompensating?  No, why do you ask….?)  I like my new toy very much, and as I grow more and more used to it I like it even more.

A couple of weeks ago a reader asked about weaving social issues and political perspectives into our work.  I can’t find the exact question, so I’m working from an admittedly faulty memory here, but I’m going to try to address the issue, and if the person who asked the question originally would care to pursue the matter in comments, I’ll do my best to elaborate there.

This is a matter that I take quite seriously.  Almost all of my work has at least some social commentary in it.  My LonTobyn books had ecological themes; the Forelands and Southlands books deal with race, ethnic identity, and prejudice.  Another book that I’ve yet to publish explores issues of addiction, and even my newest project, which is probably my least political work, plays with issues of economic class and the reach of political influence.

I don’t address these issues with the hope of converting people to my point of view; I think that most authors who do try to turn their books into polemics risk alienating more readers than they sway.  I also don’t want whatever social commentary I put in my books to overwhelm character or worldbuilding or plot.  The fact is my novels are entertainment first and foremost.  If a reader pays no attention to any of the political/social stuff, but loves the story, then I’ll have succeeded as a writer.  Convincing a reader that I’m “right” about a particular issue is beside the point, and as I say, if that becomes my goal, then my story is going to suffer.  No one likes to be hit over the head with a political point of view, particularly when they’ve picked up a book for fun.  If you want to read a book that’s actually ABOUT race or ABOUT ecology, you’ll head to a different part of the bookstore.

But then why do I put the political stuff in there in the first place?  Well, for one thing, I want it there.  I enjoy writing books that look at these larger issues.  Questions of race and ethnicity (for instance) fascinate me.  By weaving them into the Forelands books, I made the books more interesting to write, and regardless of whether my readers care about those issues as much as I do, the fact that I was more engaged as a writer made the books better. 

Perhaps more to the point, though, I can’t really separate myself and my art from the world in which I live.  Yes, I’m creating my own worlds, with their own issues and problems.  But the worlds I create can’t help but reflect, at least in small ways, the “real” world.  The fact is, prejudice has been a powerful social and political force in our world since the beginning of recorded history.  Unless I were to create a world populated entirely by people of the same race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and/or political outlook, there will be differences among groups in my worlds.  And as we know from our own world, where there is difference there is prejudice.

The stories of the Forelands and Southlands series could not have been told without dealing with these issues.  The world doesn’t make sense without the ancient hatreds that divide Qirsi and Eandi.  The relationships among various characters would be far less interesting without that tension.  In the same way, the tension between Tobyn-Ser and Lon-Ser in the LonTobyn books makes no sense without the ecological implications of their conflict.  It’s not that I’m trying to score political points.  I’m trying to tell stories, and the social issues are inextricably bound to those stories.  Just as they have been to so many of the important stories that have shaped our world.

When The Sorcerers’ Plague came out last year, Kirkus Reviews panned it, saying in part, “Volume one of a new series, this is epic fantasy with an Important Moral Lesson. Prejudice is wrong.”  The review goes on in the same sarcastic vein for a while and then says that my characters are weak, too.  They didn’t like the book.  But it’s Kirkus, and they don’t like lots of stuff.   What ticked me off about the review is that in mocking the book they made it seem that by dealing with prejudice I was in some way wasting my time and that of my readers.  Everyone knows that “Prejudice is wrong” they seemed to be saying.  Let’s move on.  And all I could think was, do they not read the papers?  Have they not looked out a window over the past decade?  It’s not as though prejudice has vanished from our world, at least it hadn’t the last time I checked….

Maybe this is a reason NOT to allow any hint of social commentary into one’s books.  You’re bound to annoy someone.  However subtle your approach (for the record, Kirkus said that I bludgeoned my readers with the message) you’re bound to make someone feel that you’re preaching.  And it may be that the reader who asked the question about this originally felt that way about my work.  That’s okay.  The books are about racism; they’re about characters who hate each other because their eyes and hair are of different colors.  When you’re the victim of prejudice it doesn’t feel subtle.

I didn’t mean for this post to become defensive.  I write the books I do because I feel passionately about the worlds I create, about the characters I place in those worlds, about their stories, and yes, about the issues that confront them.  Those issues aren’t always all that different from the issues you and I face in our world.  And I feel passionately about those, too.  In the end, that’s why social and political matters find their way into my books.  I care about them, and I want to write about people who are dealing with them.  If you’re entertained by the books and don’t really care about the rest, that’s great.  If you’re entertained by the books, but you also come away from them thinking about relationships with other people, or about the future of our own planet in a slightly different way. . .  Well, that’s great, too. 

David B. Coe





18 comments to Mixing Art and Politics

  • I always thought you did a good job in NOT preaching in your books. Before I got to know you and your liberal democratic dogma, I didn’t know what side of the fence your politics were on.

    When it comes to worldbuilding, the main goal of a writer shuold be to make the world as realistic as possible. In the Real World, you have rasicsm, hatred, and intolerance. To make a world devoid of social problems would be to make a world un-realistic.

    I think when I get published, I will send a box of Hot’n Fresh Krispy Kreme donuts to the reviewers. How can they not like me after that? *smile*

  • David, its nearly impossible for artists to separate themselves from their art — only people who are happy with their hive-like lives are able to successfully compartmentalise themselves.

    I grok your irritation — it’s one thing for someone to snark on your work, on your creative endeavours. But for them to do it so publicly *and* get paid for it is adding insult to injury.

    Here’s a thought, though — you evidently touched something in them, or they wouldn’t have made so much noise in their reaction to it.

  • Nice post, David. I think it was my question that sparked this. I didn’t go looking for it though, so I don’t recall exactly what I asked. Then again, it could have been someone else. You’re right however. Social issues and political views are impossible for the most part to avoid in fantasy, if you’ve done any real semblance of world building. They’re an inextricable part of every culture. How you decide to use them in the story is another matter. They can be just part of the background world, providing interest and depth, or they can become a crux around which the story turns. Up to the story teller about how to use them. I’ve used religion and economics to a major degree in my story, since the the main sources of conflict stem from one group of people attempting to dominate trade throughout the lands, and a paranoid deity who sees this development of a ‘trade culture’ as a denial of belief, and thus it’s efforts to incite a war to wipe everyone out and restablish the old ways of thinking. I did not develop this story however with the purpose of making any particular point regarding religion or economics, but I’m sure some readers will end up taking some particular point of view from it. I just started from the premise of a delusional, paranoid god who conspires to wipe the slate clean so to speak every time the people as a whole began to change their world view, and then building a story around keeping her from doing that. It speaks in some ways to my religious views, but I’ve made no particular effort to espouse them. I just think it makes for a good story.

    On a side note, folks should go check out agent Nathan Bransford’s blog for his ‘Agent for a Day’ contest. I think it’ll be great fun, and he’s also looking for sample queries from published authors to use. So, if David, CE, Misty, or Faith feel like chipping in, please do! I was the one who gave Nathan the idea for this contest, so I’m feeling obliged to tell everyone I know. 🙂

  • Kirkus. Hmmm. Yeah. This is why I don’t read reviews. Not ever. Not good ones, not bad ones. None. (Unless the hubby shoves it at me, reading it aloud while I eat dinner. Which totally spoils the meal.) When I did read them my worst was the one that said my books made him feel slimy.
    Moving on.

    David, IMHO, social issues *are* the background conflict in our work. Conflict is why we write. Right? Otherwise we’re writing children’s books with daisies and bunnies.

    Sounds like the Kirkus reviewer:
    1. usually reviews books with daisies and bunnies, or
    2. he’s jealous because you are published and he isn’t, or
    3. (my personal fav) he *felt* the conflict. It bothered him so he blows typed raspberries at you. In which case, you did your job.

    As a favor, I’ll mentally moon him for you. No, wait, not me. My muse. My muse is mooning him. (smiles) Now that should make your day!

  • Hm, a lot to gab about in this one…before I go back to chipping away at the ultra-rough film script I was given to totally rewrite.

    I wasn’t sure what to expect here when I saw the heading and read the first couple sentences, but you’ve pretty much nailed it, exactly how it is for me as well. I’m not big on discussing social/political issues because one person’s debate usually ends up being another persons arguing. In my mind there’s a distinct difference, which lies in the ability to at least see the other’s point of view, but I digress already. 😉

    I don’t really think of that stuff when I’m writing, but those kinds of political themes will surface in nearly any writing because they are ever present in any society. You’re 100% correct in that. I also don’t go into reading a book looking for those points. I prefer to just shut that part of my brain off and just enjoy the tale for the entertainment it is. A book is to be enjoyed in total, for the entire story it tells. I don’t read for social commentary. As you said, there’s other parts of the bookstore for other people’s views and opinions, or I can just pick up a rag mag or the newspaper…or go read some blogs.

    I don’t like getting deluged with the RL issues of our society when I’m trying not to be. Books are sort of an escape from that for me. I get bombarded enough with it every day. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with it in my pastimes too. Sure, the worlds I’m reading about have their own issues, but they are their issues and integral to creating a good plot. What fun would it be to read about a Utopian society where nothing ever happens because there’s no such thing as internal strife or conflict? There needs to be some sort of conflict to make a good story and the issues we face every day are likely the same issues other societies would face.

    Now, I don’t go into my writing with plans on weaving the most prevalent and immediate RL social issues into a story, nor do I place my viewpoints into them or try to sway a reader to my way of thinking. I tend to separate myself away from my own feelings, preferring to look upon the story as a whole, understanding all the beliefs in the tale, and putting myself in each of their shoes. And I don’t have a hive-like life. However, as mentioned before, it’s those same social issues that are going to make for a good story. A corrupt leader, a prejudice leading to war, anger for a slight, an all powerful dictator wanting to rule the world, murder, madness, mayhem. It’s all there, in nearly every film, novel, short story out there. It may not be the flavor of the day, but it’s still integral to good story telling and cutting every social issue out really leaves you with not much of a story.

    You’re writing a world, an entire world complete with their own lives, viewpoints, loves, hates, prejudices, fears, religions, beliefs, and all that adds up to strife if even one group of people have differing beliefs. And if there’s no strife, there’s no story.

    Here’s an interesting exercise I worked out once, while role-playing a “monster”, actually. A goblin (orc, troll, whatever) is thought of as evil because he raids caravans, kills people, enjoys humanoid flesh, etc. What of the paladin who goes right into their lair (home), kills all their clan (women and children included), lets others in their group pilfer their pockets, and leaves their bodies to rot where they fall? Should they not be considered evil as well? Whether they follow a God of good and light or not? And that’s a social issue. An extreme one, to be sure, but one nonetheless. Who’s to say that the goblins don’t view the other humanoids as evil and the goblins are merely doing what they (in their minds) feel they must to survive? It’s those moral quandries that I like to think about when writing.

    Likely you hit some sort of nerve with the reviewer, or he went in looking for it. I could see the prejudice in the excerpt I read, but just figured it part of the world they live in and didn’t give it another thought. Chalk it up to not being able to please everyone. 😉

  • Just an unrelated PS —
    We have a guest bloger on Friday. Be watching for blurbs about him!

    Bart Leib is Co-owner and Editor of Crossed Genres SF/F magazine.

    Watch for more!

  • Sweet! I think I have them bookmarked somewhere. Been wanting to get a print copy of one. I’m not a big ‘puter screen reader.

  • Mark, thanks. Good to know I hadn’t tipped my Socialist hand with my books. 🙂 I agree with you: a realistic world has problems, and while some of those problems ought to be unique to the creation, others are going to reflect universal truths and issues. And yes, one universal truth is that everyone loves donuts…..

    Radish, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bad reviews per se. I’ve had plenty and will have more, many of them deserved. But it was the mockery in this one that got me, because it seemed to imply that I was opening up issues that were settled, that didn’t need to be explored anymore. Yeah, maybe I touched a nerve.

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. I thought it might have been you, but I couldn’t find the question itself and wasn’t sure. I appreciate the remarks and agree with you that any created world is a) going to have issues that b) reflect the concerns of the author. And I’ll try to stop by Nathan’s site.

    Thanks for the support, Faith. Yes, your muse mooning this guy is perfect. Thanks. It really hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if I’d pushed this guys bigotry buttons in some way, but lots of people are suggesting that and it does make sense. And just to reiterate what Faith said, all of us at MW are looking forward to Bart’s Friday post.

    And Daniel, I appreciate your comments, always. At it’s best fiction doesn’t bludgeon, but it doesn’t just entertain either. If you’re looking for entertainment and nothing more, great. But the books I love most are the ones that entertain me while I’m reading, but leave me still thinking long after I’ve turned the last page.

  • Social and political issues shape the setting of the book. A story set in a world without any issues would be dreadfully dull, since it wouldn’t have any of the primary sources of conflict.

    I’m reading books on WWII and the Conquistadors to get the social issues right in my current project.

    And the real reason I posted: I’m in the processing of buying one of those incredibly shiny new Macs myself. I’m glad to hear you like it!

  • True again, but I guess I think from the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t feel a tale has to make you think on some issue or do any soul searching to be great, but if it does while being entertaining, then that’s a bonus. However, I rarely have to be forced to think. My head’s usually far more energetic than my body, alas. One of the many reasons why I don’t get much quality sleep. 😉

  • I do like it, Phiala. I spent today learning to do a few things I could do on my old PC and needed to be able to do on this, too. The more I learn, the happier I am. I’m sure I’ll soon by one of those insufferable Mac zealots…

  • Daniel, I think we’re coming at this from opposite places but coming to very similar conclusions. Entertaining good. Thought-provoking good. Entertaining AND thought-provoking very, very good…..

  • Insufferable, *moi*??

    After having only used a PC before, I got my MacBook two years ago just so I could use Scrivener for my writing — and became an Instant Convert.

    Once you go Mac,….

  • heh!

    Hey! You got your thought provocation in my entertainment!

    Hey, you got your entertainment in my thought provocation!


  • Yeah, Radish, that’s what I hear. I’m beginning to see why.

    Daniel, LOL! I love that; books as Reese’s Cups….

  • I had a Mac once upon a time (my first computer – 5mb of ram and an 80mb hard drive, for which I paid considerably more than I’m paying for this one, and out of a MUCH smaller income). But I needed scientific software not available on Mac at that time, so switched to linux. Now, though, the intel Macs will run anything my geeky little heart desires, so it’s time to switch back.

    I adore my teensy linux netbook, and it’s great for first drafts, but I can’t edit on a screen that small.

  • Quick unrelated note: For any P&P gamers on here, Dave Arneson has passed away. He and Gary Gygax were not only the creators of D&D, but the founding fathers of RPG gaming. Hopefully wherever they both are now they’re still playing.

  • Phiala, I’m working on a screen now that’s nearly as big as the family television, and I thought it might be too much when I ordered it. But I LOVE it!

    Daniel, thanks for passing on the news. I met Dave at a con a few years back. Fascinating guy.