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03 May 2009 @ 08:58 am
The Problem of Politics  
I
n fiction, the problem with the hot-button topics -- politics, religion, sex -- is that they have a higher resting volume level. The reader will hear what you say about any one of those things much more loudly and clearly than what you say about beauty, sorrow, the exploration of Titan or The Interconnectedness of All Things.

In my own case, the problem is politics. I've had a number of nice character-based ideas that depended on a political backdrop to get them going. In one case, the political dilemma the character faced pushed him into a new romantic relationship; in another, the political situation eventually drove the protagonist to self-destruction. In each case it was the developing relationship or the self-destruction that really interested me, but the political setting gave it the energy; or to be more precise, it was because the character cared so much about the political conflict that the action moved forward.

In both cases, though, various editors (though not all) have referred to the stories as being "political," and a few have even hinted that they were polemical. One editor said that hers wasn't the best market for "slippery-slope conceptual stories." As we know, many markets specifically caution against submitting fiction that is a thinly disguised political argument. But that's not what either of these stories was supposed to be.

At the moment, I'm working on a story that depends on the occurrence of a genocide in the recent past. For the story to work it doesn't especially matter where the genocide takes place or who the victims are, because it's the fact of the event itself, and the characters' memory of it, that are the real center of the conflict. But when I think about using a real genocide (lord knows there are enough of them :( ), I'm certain that the story will be taken as making a political statement about that particular event. And if I make up a new genocide (imagining that Group A wipes out Group B, although they haven't done so in the past) I think the story will be taken as making a political statement about those groups.

Now, of course, in a vulgar Critical Theory sense, all fiction makes political statements, yada yada. But that's not what I mean. Does anyone see a way out of this dilemma? How do you use political conflict as a literary device without appearing to make a statement about the "right" outcome of the conflict?
 
 
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hhbarmaidhhbarmaid on May 3rd, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
No answers here but the question interests me. I am working on something that is... not exactly post apocalyptic, the event is maybe not big enough to be an apocalypse but it is big enough that there is an old world, an old way of living, and a new one. Exactly what happened and exactly what the politics of the "new world" might be is not what is most interesting to me. What is interesting to me is playing with the ideas of how people find interesting ways of living within and between these two worlds.

Some of that has to deal with power relationships and I find that fun and interesting. But... I sometimes find that as I create these conflicts I am also creating something that sounds very political and frankly sometimes seems to be making a political statement that I am not even sure I agree with!

All that to say that I too have been vexed by the political in my writing of late and am not sure what to do with that.
Kenken_schneyer on May 3rd, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Aleta. If your characters have strong political disagreements, then I think you just let them at it. Have you ever read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy? Talk about characters engaging in protracted political debate!
Michael Merriam: Typemmerriam on May 3rd, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I think you can't worry about. I think you have to go on and write the story you have, write it to the best of your ability, and let the chips fall.

Once you start worrying about what an editor might think, once you start worrying about "Is this story sellable?" that's when you start to freeze up and second guess yourself as a writer.

Write the story. If it's a good story, well-written, it will find a market.
Kenken_schneyer on May 3rd, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
Ah, but it's not the editor per se I'm concerned about, but rather the editor as stand-in for the reader. One writes to communicate, after all; if the reader doesn't get it, then one might a well be writing in one's diary. So the concern is that one aspect of the story might so overwhelm the reader that the rest of the story doesn't come through. Overt sexual scenes can do that, as can intense religious scenes or graphic violence. My worry is that the political content of the story will always be overwhelming.
Michael Merriammmerriam on May 3rd, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
I don't think you can avoid triggering some readers if you write politics, sex, or religion. I still think you have to just write the story and take your chances with the reader. If you can see a way to dilute the political part down without compromising the story, then do so, but if not, you have to tell a story that's true to itself.

I take the approach of, as long as one reader somewhere gets something out of it, that's good enough.

Edited at 2009-05-03 06:40 pm (UTC)
quasi randomkaolinfire on May 4th, 2009 02:02 am (UTC)
I agree here. And if you're not connecting with _any_ readers on the level you want, then maybe it's something to re-visit a few years down the line.
ndanukiwi: lost marblesndanukiwi on May 5th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Not a fiction writer here, but it occurs to me that SF does offer you the option of making up Groups A and B. That doesn't address your overall concern about being pigeon-holed as "too political" for incorporating genocide at all, but it would at least de-politicize it a bit by not directly tying it to any real group and/or genocide. Just a thought.
Kenken_schneyer on May 8th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
Interesting. I'd considered that option, but either they'd have to be on some other planet, or else I'd have to put them so far in the future (or in an alternate history) that unrecognizeable names of groups would be believable. I think I'm going to go to some location that Genocide Watch says is on the "serious" list, but not the "critical" list, so that the reader can imagine that things have got worse during the intervening years...