Monday, January 23, 2012

The Perilous Mix of Politics and Prose: A Rant





Let's all be thankful that we have the right to free speech (for the most part) in These United States. We can say whatever annoying thing, whenever we want (for the most part), and not live in fear of government censorship. It's the right that has kept us from bottling up our complaints and aggravations until they reach the bursting point and we start taking over television stations and holding government figures hostage so we can get our message out into the world. Yes, the right to blather on is a Very Good Thing. But it doesn't follow that we should open our mouths every time something we think is clever occurs to us.

I'm talking about writers, here, primarily, but also anyone who wants to sell something to the general public.

The temptation has never been greater. We have unlimited opportunities to speak our minds: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, blah, blah, blah. The available material is priceless-- particularly political material. Some boob is out there providing absurd sound bites, secretly recorded rants, ridiculous hair, or risky ideas every twelve seconds. One could easily come across a hundred hysterical or outrageous items a day that beg to be shared. But should you indulge?

My thought: Not unless broadcasting your political or social opinions is way, way more important than putting food on your table. If you're already famous, no, it doesn't really matter. If you're a non-fiction writer, or a writer whose fiction is necessarily topical, and people pay for your opinions, then go ahead and sound off. Those are pretty small groups, though. The majority of writers, bloggers, visual artists, freelance folk, etc., can't afford the luxury.

Put yourself in the position of the reader--say, a reader who has never read your blog, or picked up or purchased one of your books before. Reader Y has just read a review of your work in the Happy Valley Times or seen an ad on Goodreads. Reader Y thinks, "Hey. Wonder if this writer is on Facebook," and trots with enthusiasm over to your page. And the first thing Reader Y sees is an uncivil rant excoriating So-and-So Politician's position on universal health care or illegal immigration. Reader Y may love your position and click right on the handy link to your website and then on the big, fat purchase button. Yay! But what if she's on the OTHER SIDE OF THE ISSUE and, to top it all, you've declared that anyone who would vote for So-and-So Politician is dumber than pond scum? Then, you've just given her a reason not to buy your book, and maybe even inform her friends that you sound like a big, thoughtless jerk.

You might say that you don't want some crazy bitch who occupies such a ridiculous position to buy your book anyway. So, there! You might say that anyone who would let something as important (or trivial) as a political joke or point or rant interfere with their appreciation of your Golden Word isn't worthy of your time or attention or energy. You might say that people don't really care about that kind of thing, that they just care about THE WORK. Yeah, maybe. That happens. But it also happens the other way 'round. If you're a writer who isn't already established as a big earner, are you willing to take the chance of alienating a large percentage of the book buying community?

Readers--particularly readers of fiction--invite the writer into some pretty intimate spaces. Not just their living rooms, but their beds, their kids' rooms, the inside of their heads. As writers, we're already head-cases from the get-go. We get to let the crazy out in our work: our extremes, our tender insides, our freaky visions. That's what people are looking for--but professional work is always edited for content and style by ourselves or professional others, so that it's entertaining, or at lease consumable. As human beings, we writers live in ways that most readers find unfamiliar and a little odd--for example, our habit of sitting in rooms for long periods of time communing with invisible people...well, let's just say, some of us make for awkward, real-life dinner guests.

Am I advocating self-censorship? No. I'm advocating self-control.

When I go to writer conferences, and hang around with successful writers--people whose names are way bigger than the titles on their books--they rarely talk politics in the bar, and (almost) never on panels (Though I have witnessed some cringe-worthy moments when the writer didn't read the crowd well at all). Why do they stay reticent? Because conferences are still professional events, even after a scotch or two (or three...okay, maybe not after three). The professional writer knows that there are editors, publishers, other writers, and, most importantly, readers in the vicinity. The key word here is professional. Professionalism has to extend to social media as well.

Facebook--as large as it seems--is like high school, and everyone wants to be popular, witty, and beloved.  It's easy, when you're in close quarters, to want to take up the popular call, and to get caught up in the emotions of the crowd. (And don't start with the "I'm there because I have to be." FB and other forums are vast exercises in exposure, and not a little vanity. No one likes the people who are there for negative attention--that's just creepy.) Resist the impulse. Be an original, not a joiner.

Of course, the openness of the interwebs means that the personal lives of very few people are completely opaque. If a reader is very curious, a little digging will probably turn up a writer's religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, marital status, children's names, favorite place to buy books, or pizza. Some people would call that research, others might call it, uh, stalking. That information is available, not advertised. And they're facts, not opinions.

If you're a rebel-writer, and you don't give a damn about selling books to more than a few like-minded people, or don't care what anyone thinks, more power to you. But it doesn't take a whole lot to give the appearance of professionalism: Just sit on your hands until the impulse passes in order to stay the hell out of your own way.

Readers: Do you agree? Would you rather know a writer's opinion on issues of substance, or would you rather just read their work?

Writers (If you're speaking to me at all): What's your experience? Do you agree it's unprofessional to mix politics with promotion and social networking? Or is it important that a reader know and understand your positions and principles?


14 comments:

Coolkayaker1 said...

I'd rather just read their work, Laura. That's why my favorite writers --JD Salinger and Cormac McCarthy--have the public personality of a bol weevil.

Sue said...

I dont mind reading a opinion piece or even a well worded or snarky rant. But there is a line...usually when the person starts using the general "you" to describe a certain type of people. I dont mind if someone makes their position clear, but dont start calling the readers names if they see things a different way.

I once read a blog written by Diana Gabaldon who wrktes the Outlanders series. So far, she is the only author who i vowed not to read because her personal opinion blog on a particular topic was so appalling. Most authors...even if i disagree im still inclined to read theor work. But that is just me.

Judy Bobalik said...

I agree with Sue. It's fine to have a different opinion and to voice it. But I draw the line at calling all people who disagree with you names.

Jane Ellen Freeman said...

I've been on Twitter less than a year. Sometimes I read comments related to current politics that make me want to respond with a sharp rebuttal. But I resist. I even have a rule for myself. Positive comments only, especially about others. And NO political comments EVER!

carmar76 said...

this was a tough one for me. had to think about it a minute. and i wrote out a whole comment & then deleted it because it didn't make sense. *laugh*

i like knowing what ppl think, even on politics, as long as they don't attack those who disagree w/ them. i like discussions on different pov's but not attacks!

Neliza said...

I'm a teacher first, because it pays the bills. I'm a woman, too, as is the MC who currently lives only on my hard drive. Policies affecting women & teachers/education affect me personally, far more than writing. And I have trouble staying silent on those. Because my students are predominately poor & many are immigrants, those ideas, too, afffect what I do. And education, especially, is important because so many people think that if they've ever been a student that they know what teachers are being told to do these days.
Writers' beliefs come through in their writing, whether they intend them to or not. Knowing, generally, where a person stands would indeed help me make purchasing decisions, unless I'd read the person before. *shrugs*
Then again, I never get these social things right.
*crawls back in cave*

Laura Benedict said...

I really appreciate the comments, you all. I know this is a sticky subject.

And pity the boll weevil. He always gets such a bad rap.

Cindy said...

I've never vowed not to read someone because of their political opinions. In fact, I've picked up books on opposing political viewpoints because I needed to know the other side's point of view.

Still, I completely get your point. Offending readers narrows the pool of potential readers and may make it more difficult to find them.

That said, I think anything could potentially offend someone and I'm not particularly good at keeping my mouth closed :)

Pop Culture Nerd said...

This is such an articulate piece, Laura. I don't want to hear my friends' political views, much less those of a stranger. I never discuss politics or religion in public, even if it's just an intimate dinner with three pals. Too many times, I've witnessed normally well-mannered people morph into screaming lunatics because they don't agree with each other on politics. And then I'm left scrounging for my coat so I can make a hasty exit.

I'm not saying authors shouldn't discuss politics at all, only that I won't be reading or listening to them if they do.

emc said...

This post is a real bummer, Laura! But that's because it's right on the money. I don't mean I think we should not talk about politics; in fact, talking about politics passionately is part of my search for the meaning (and possibility) of justice in this life. That all said, there's the writer issue...which is a bit unprecedented. That is, the number of ways you can "know" us is higher than ever; also the number of ways I can offend someone. Do I care about that as a person? No. But as a professional writer, I must, you're right.
And if not because I may turn off an audience that may otherwise be enlightened by/enlighten me, then because I have now taken all my anger and fear about the future and where the world is headed (handbasket) and diluted its potency, which could have otherwise gone into making a fictional world.

Or as Woody Allen said Balzac said after sex: "There goes another novel."

Make your next post How To Scrub Your Online Presence, please.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hi pretty,
I'm always very reluctant to express political opinions in such a delicate age. I feel that I am such a strange mix of conservative to deeply libertarian with a touch of old school liberal that I can hardly understand myself. Writer and their politics couldn't interest me less (ditto for actors) and if they get involved in causes, that's fine, but I'm not sure it makes much difference to me as a reader. As a teacher, I'm very careful to walk the line between being myself and being neutral so that the students can express themselves freely without fear. I also think that too much expressing one's opinion interferes with actually getting to know people and relating to them and if one is so inclined, helping them. I'm big on loving individuals, but I tend to dislike groups (whether I agree with their mission or not) and try to love people where they are, whatever they happen to believe. I'm not good at it all the time, but it seems like a worthy goal. xo

Chris Hamilton said...

There's a guy who used to blog on a group writers blog. He's fairly well-known and seems well-respected. Except much of his work outside the blog seems to consist of little more than how stupid, evil, and worthless the other side of the political debate is.

I'm no political zombie, but I agree with the other side more than I agree with his side. And because he thinks so little of people like me, I will spread my money elsewhere. Why shouldn't I?

It's not that the guy has to agree with me. But I'd expect more than a constant barrage of snark-filled invective about how worthless everyone on the other side is. That's more than expressing your opinion. That's demeaning people who disagree with it.

Joshua Corin said...

Laura, I agree with you very almost mostly. You're right on the money in that it's never ever wise to bite the hand that (you hope) feeds us, and when if/we refer to any group of people as moronic just because their political views, we're behaving, yes, moronically.

That said, aren't our novels already littered with our politics? I mean, they can't not be, can they? I know I never go out of my way to make any character a mouthpiece of my beliefs, but I also know that I try to make sure that the overall themes of the work are ones with which I would agree...

Hmm. Maybe life is simpler for the bol weevil. I should look into that.

L.J. Sellers said...

For the most part, I try to keep politics to a minimum in my social networking. I may post links or articles that support, say, Planned Parenthood, but I don't post personal tirades that would offend some readers. It's not worth it.