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