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Thread: Politics and Fantasy
February 22nd, 2006, 12:27 PM #1
Politics and Fantasy
An interesting discussion regarding politics and fiction resulted from an article by Jeff Vandermeer which you can read here at Emcit:
and some recent dialogue around it:
I have my own very personal beliefs that tend to unfold in my approach to ethics as opposed to politics, but I certainly don't pretend to have answers that form the basis for any imperative of any sort. I don't allign myself with any political party or any dogma and I try to evaluate each situation that I encounter on an individual basis. I am a father. I am a husband. I am a friend. I am an author. I am a businessman. I try never to be cruel. I try always to be kind. I strive to be honest and I think always about my actions and their consequences. I don't need a political party or a movement or an ideology to inform me or to direct me, or to help define me. I'm a big boy now. I ask questions, always. I have far more quesitions to ask than answers to offer.
I write books that reflect my personal quest. I am humbled by the fact that they are beginning to find an audience that recognizes my effort without trying to pigeonhole me.
(Thanks Jay for pointing this discussion out to me)
March 9th, 2006, 06:14 AM #2
I had just started writing The Gift when 9/11 happened. 9/11 didn't come as as much of a shock to me as it might have to some other people; I'd been watching the world darken for a few years beforehand. But it was a shock all the same, and it did create a kind of focus point for me, as it did for many other people. Even at the time, I could see that it was going to be made into a fulcrum on which other things would be swung. I was more right than I wanted to be on that one.
My fantasy novels therefore grew partly out of a sense of depair with how the world is going. I thought I could put in a fantasy novel some of the things that I thought mattered about human ethics, and some of the things that concerned me in the contemporary world, and some of my thoughts about what it means to be a human being. It was a way of doing so that relieved me of a certain burden of obligation to facts, so I could turn to examine other kinds of truths. And I wanted to write for young people, because certainly at that point, I had basically given up on most adults. Those young people are going to have to live in the world we have made for them.
But what they are centrally about, all of them, is love: human love, not "romance", in all its difficulty and mundanity and contradiction and beauty and sorrow and variousness. That, for me, is a profoundly political exploration.
March 9th, 2006, 08:13 AM #3
I guess we could fairly say that everything is political. But then nothing is political, and we end up where we started.
I am on the same page as you Alison. After 9/11 (I live in NYC) I couldn't write for weeks. When I finally did, I wrote the darkest chapter I had yet written. I couldn't help it. And it too was about what it means to be human, to live with other humans, and what it means to be cruel, what effects cruelty has on others.
The bottom line is we are all humans living in the same world. Hate is manufactured. As individuals we have responsibilities to life. That's the only ultimate thing we have to give and take from one another.
When the other-world, the hereafter, becomes our raison d'etre then this one pales, and the significance of life itself is undermined. And worst of all, no longer sacred.
March 10th, 2006, 04:30 AM #4
Originally Posted by alison
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
It can get a little disheartening sometimes when you are bombarded with information on wars, poverty and how the world is going to have an environmental crisis in so-and-so many years. It's not very much more encouraging to have programs talking about teenage problems all the time. I have yet to see something that celebrates the capacities of youth. It projects the image that teenagers are inept and incapable of coping with the 'real world', and it makes one wonder if young people will think it themselves and never even try to do something.
Instead of having something that lectured me on current affairs and pressing into me how problematic they are (but not telling me how to solve them), it was really wonderful to read something that gave me a belief in the good things about humanity as well. God knows all we ever study are texts that emphasise the depravity of human nature. Very cheerful stuff. It felt really good to read something that reminded me of how people do care for each other, and doing the best one can to solve a problem. There is no guarentee that there will be a solution, but I can try. And I think that kindness and hard work are often overlooked when confronted with all the big problems out there, but they are there all the same.
I used to feel a little frustrated at times. Why should I, and all the other young people I know, have to deal with the problems that the grown-ups made? It's not our fault that they exist, yet we are the ones who must fix them. But then I realized how, when I was younger, my parents were always ready to apologise and take responsibility for me if I got into trouble. No matter how badly I might have behaved, they would have been the ones who tried to fix the problem, and try to discipline me and show me what it means to be a responsible person. It must be really exasparating and difficult as a parent to deal with your kids sometimes, but they did it anyway, whether because they felt it was their duty and/or because they loved me, it doesn't really matter. Some parents don't do that, sad as that may be.
My parents are not perfect, but they do their best by me and they do a darn good job. This world that grown ups have made is far from perfect, but I also think that most have done their best. I can do my best in return and try and fix these current problems. We'll probably make a whole new set of problems for our children to fix, but I think that is forgivable, as long as we equip them with the skills they will need to fix the problems. Your book reminded me some of the tools -- love, compassion and learning among them -- and I am grateful for them.
This turned out to be far more long-winded and sappy than I originally meant it to be. Ah well.
March 10th, 2006, 05:04 AM #5
Wow, Whitesilkbreeze; I feel a bit speechless, and all I can say is thank you. I'm very moved.
March 10th, 2006, 08:00 AM #6
Nice tribute Alison! Isn't that what you write for? To be able to generate that kind of a response in a reader?
You are particularly eloquent, Whitesilkbreeze, and I think it's no coincidence that you chose a name that reflects your spirit so aptly.
March 11th, 2006, 09:35 PM #7
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
Thank you, Gary, but I have to confess my name is not very original. (I am waiting for my as yet unfound originality to rear its head up one day.) The short story is that there is a perfume called White Linen Breeze. I'm not very fond of the word 'linen', and silk is closer to my ethnic roots than linen is. Coincidentally, I like white, silk and especially breezes more than I can say.
There, I've made a clean sweep of things and I can happily skip away now! I can't bear allowing other people to have a wrong impression of me, however flattering that impression may be. It makes me feel so guilty, as though I'm cheating someone.
March 12th, 2006, 12:10 PM #8
Vocabularies are finite so we all have to choose from what already exists. No need to explain.
March 25th, 2006, 02:50 AM #9
Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
I like to think that if there is some kind of afterlife, then it is all just part of a bigger picture alongside life itself; it is an extension of life, as adulthood is a progression from youth and childhood. To be alive, to simply be, I think is hugely important and the essence of living.
I find it difficult when people use the word "politics". I'm never quite sure what everyone really means when they talk about politics and everything it connotates. In one way, I find politics too complex and dangerous -- think of all the power one person could hold -- and in another, it's an inevitable part of society, so I can't avoid it either. It's very confusing, though.
If you mean politics by how society is run, how people treat each other, and so on, then I don't think any good book can have nothing of it. Part of the enjoyment I get from reading books is from seeing how writers think, even if I don't agree with them. It's also a privilege to be allowed an insight into personal beliefs and convictions, or self-discovery. As I've indicated before, it's even more lovely to come across certain views that really appeal to my core.
I am curious, though, and forgive me if this might be somewhat unrelated, but how do you, as writers, differentiate between writing what you want to say and what you think others may want to hear? Are there ever any times you find yourself wondering what kind of thing might appeal to and prove popular with readers? How do you keep writing for yourself rather than for others, or is it a delicate balance of both?
March 25th, 2006, 11:47 AM #10Originally Posted by whitesilkbreeze
When people come to an age (for some that age may come early, for others very late) when they realize how many problems do get passed on from generation to generation to generation, sometimes they conclude that some of these things can't be fixed. I, personally, refuse to believe this. A historical perspective shows that eventually a lot of things -- once considered unfixable, or worse, taken for granted as necessary and right -- do get fixed. (Sometimes they get unfixed for a while, because things go in cycles, but that's another story.)
Religious intolerance, for instance, is still creating a lot of misery in this world, but not a fraction of the havoc it created in centuries past. It used to be that even decent people thought there were only three things to do with "unbelievers": convert them or kill them, or (if society was feeling particularly benevolent) push them into a ghetto somewhere and leave them in peace until something unrelated happens to get people riled up, and then kill them. Even small deviations from the established religion served as an excuse to round up a few hundred people and burn them. Now there are enormous regions of the globe where practically no one has been killed over religious differences for hundreds of years. That's a huge contrast, but whether you focus on how different things are now in that regard, or how much they have stayed the same, I suppose it depends on whether you are a "the glass is half-full" or "the glass is half-empty" kind of person.
Being one of those people who believes that humanity is redeemable and society capable of change and improvement, that naturally comes through in my writing. Too much of it is subconscious, too much of ties in with my basic assumptions about too many things, to ever be entirely absent. Even if I sat down and tried to write a story filled with unmitigated gloom and despair, peopled with jaded, world-weary characters on the verge of perishing from sheer ennui, it would inevitably be less gloomy and despairing than a book written by someone who actually sees the world in that particular way. It probably wouldn't be very convincing, either.
I can't speak for Gary or Alison, but I suspect it's the same with them. In order to write honestly, I have to allow that gleam of hope to come through every now and again. For me to consciously suppress it would be a lie.
Last edited by Teresa Edgerton; March 25th, 2006 at 11:49 AM.
March 25th, 2006, 01:40 PM #11
Madeline always seems to sum things up so succinctly and with so much heart. I agree.
I don't know what motivates most authors to write. I can't speak for anyone but myself. But I can tell you honestly without any hesitation that I never write what I think others may want to hear. I write to ask questions and hopefully to find my way to some of the answers through the process. Each of my books is as much a quest for me as it is for my characters. I chose to write Epic Fantasy in a very traditional way because of my love for it and because it suits my personal sensibilities, knowing full well that the movement in the genre was away from the traditional and toward a darker, more graphic world. That would have been the popular choice. But that's not my style. It's not me. In many ways, I relate to the world I created and I relate to the sensibilities of my characters, both the heroes and the villians. In many ways I'm a romantic and in others I'm a realist. In many ways, I yearn for clear and distinct ethical principles and in others I'm a relativist. I don't have the answers, and yet i seek them all the time. To write in a way that didn't express that uncertainty and yearning, would be to write dishonestly for me. I couldn't do that.
March 25th, 2006, 02:26 PM #12
I think, I've finally found a way to write this story I've been mulling over for years. I've had three false starts, so far; the file the storie's in is called "yetanothertry.doc", to give you an idea how I felt when I started it.
The story was designed to explore issues of faith vs. curiosity; trust vs. taking a chance. The idea was to mix many characters from different social backgrounds/professions and see them work out the details of a gruesome phenomenon that rumour refers to as "the Aimless One". It's a quite destructive phenomenon, and it's quite strange, too, in that it takes forms that shouldn't be possible according to some, and shouldn't be possible anymore according to others. The background is that "magic" is slowly fading from this world, and people are beginning to forget/misunderstand the little that is still around.
Why do I post this in this thread?
The current try, the one that seems to work, derives its momentum from two factors; one, the story now has a plot that is much closer to a mystery than before (which, considering that no-one knows who or what the "Aimless One" is, should have been obvious from the start), and, two, I've made "magic" a kind of rare resource; a political currency. Three main factions are involved: a monotheistic Church, who has used "god-given magic" to heal (but which doesn't work anymore; although people who have healed with "god-given magic" still exist), an Academy, who have regulated the use of magic in the past (and have, therefore, often been in conflict with the church; one side claiming that it's illegitimate magic, the other side claiming human legitimisation means little to God); and a rather new faction, the Physicians, who have started mixing icky potions, and who do unspeakable things to naked corpses, and who aren't all that well liked, but if you're seriously sick they're your best bet to get healthy again.
Now, the phenomenon termed the "Aimless One" can only be explained by impossibly powerful magic; how will these factions deal with it? If one faction gets to the bottom of this before the others do that could re-write the political map in a heart-beat.
And, now, the Aimless One strikes in the Free Harbour City of Feyshore; neutral ground, politically, as it's ruled by a council of all three factions plus the "owner" of the town, who worries he might represent the Roving Village, a "gypsy nation" (they're not gypsy's and it's not a nation, but you get the idea) run by merchants, gamblers and Circus Folk.
The political content has always been there, but it's been in the background. I now think the story hasn't worked, because I neglected the political context for too long.
I'm not the world's most political writer, but I think I know what Vandermeer was saying in that article.
March 27th, 2006, 09:42 AM #13
Scott B and I were talking about this a few weeks ago and I directed him to Vandermeer's article. He wrote an interesting rebut to it that's getting some good air-play now at Emerald City:
Having the political content in the background may not be all that bad. If you choose to be overtly political that changes the sensibility of the book considerably. It may be more difficult to be subtle, and you may forsake some options with regard to how a reader may approach you.
Last edited by Gary Wassner; March 28th, 2006 at 09:19 AM.
March 27th, 2006, 02:01 PM #14
I've been thinking about this subject all day. I find it interesting that a debate is actually rising around politics and fantasy, when so many readers consider fantasy so frivolous to begin with. Of all the genres to initiate this kind of a discussion! Isn't it ironic? I've been saying for a long time that fantasy is an ideal genre for philosophical and ethical discussions. How can we write about characters who constantly make choices in their world, choices that have consequences, without either implicitly or explicitly expressing a point of view? And any point of view that portends to evaluate behavior could ultimately be construed as a political point of view.
Vandermeer was being quite sensitive in his article. He didn't say anything extraordinary or anything radical. His one contradiction or inconsistency elicited Scott's reply, and justifiably so, if for no other reason but to generate an interesting debate. But I am unclear about the intention of what Jeff wrote to begin with. Do we have a responsibility as authors to be careful? To not offend? To be politically correct? To worry that we may reveal inherent, ingrained prejudices in our writing? We are authors, not truth arbiters. We are human, we make mistakes. What if my role models aren't politically correct ones, and what if in fact they work for me, they nurture me and help me to continue to grow and evolve? Am I entitled to deify them if I choose? Should I have to make them all categorical imperatives? Need there be a rule behind my choices that works for everyone?
I agree that no one can write without being political, either in the obvious sense of that term or in the more sublte senses, as products of history and culture and as products of a political environment. But what obligation do we have as writers of fiction to be politically self-conscious? Who are we to determine what is right and what is wrong? And there are so many levels that influence readers, levels that we can't begin to control. Violence, sex, respect, religion, bigotry - need we make comments on everything? Or are we making comments on everything anyway by virtue of the worlds we create, their structures, their prejudices? If we are political because we can't help it, and if in that sense we are expressing a point of view unselfconsciously, are we responsible for it? And what's the alternative anyway? And it's interesting, isn't it, that part of what i gleaned from Jeff's words is that if you're a liberal then you must be concerned about preserving cliches, prejudices and stereotypes. In fiction? Must we? I hope that I do it naturally, but must we? Is that the moral obligation of fiction writer? If so, what rules do we follow? Whose right and whose wrong do we elevate above all others?
I find this part of the discussion more valuable than all the rest of it. What is the obligation of a writer of fiction to politics? Should there be one? And if there is, what truly are the consequences?
Last edited by Gary Wassner; March 27th, 2006 at 02:19 PM.
March 27th, 2006, 02:43 PM #15
The question is, I think, if you put aesthetics into the service of politics, or if you put politics into the service of aesthetics. I read Vandermeer's entire article as being about the latter. Having read City of Saints and Madmen probably helps. Politics is everpresent in that book, but overall it's used as a backdrop for "interesting" situations/ideas. The phrase about truths that transcend politics puzzled me, too, I admit. But after some thinking I read that somehow close to Shelly's "truth is beauty and beauty truth".
How do you approach such a statement? Is all political "truth" largly an expression of taste? Or is all beauty ultimately a device to ellicit responses (and therefore inherently political)? I think Vandermeer would slide towards the beauty side, whereas Scott would slide more towards the "truth" side. The difference may not be as pointed as it seems.
The question whether it is "important for fantasy, or fiction in general, to be relevant that way" is not the same question as "is it possible to write a story that isn't at least implicitly political". It's a matter of emphasis, IMO, not content.
If you stop and smell the roses along the way you may perpetuate a stereotype (and ultimately aid the Valentine Day Card Market, to name an example), but that doesn't invalidate the aesthetic experience.
The question is whether there is something about smelling the roses along the way that transcends political context. (And Vandermeer's phrase of "selfish pursuit of creature comforts" may provide a hint as to where he sees this transcendence grounded.)
Of course that's just my reading of the text: I think what Vandermeer's been saying is, if I don't write politics into the work I feel like something's lacking. So I put it in. But it's not the point of it all. I'm still an aestheticist.
And of course that's a political statement in itself.