Saturday, March 30, 2019

All Art Is Political: Yes or No?

Lately something I've seen a lot on Twitter, where I follow a lot of writers and other creative types, is the notion that "all art is political." Here is a detailed explanation of this belief from someone who popularized it and here is a rebuttal. I first heard of this notion many years before from a college acquaintance who's now a minister in a very conservative non-denominational church and an active Christian home-schooler (he said that all art has "a message" and essentially there's no neutrality), but it has gained especial prominence in recent years with the rise of various social justice movements online.

Coming from who it does (conservative Christians and the Internet social justice crowd), the whole idea sets my teeth on edge. Although historically the former has had more power than the latter (disapproval by the Catholic Legion of Decency could doom a film), political criticism of art and culture has become more prominent lately with the young-adult fiction controversies. The author-withdrawn novels Blood Heir and A Place for Wolves (the links go to discussions of each controversy individually) are two significant examples. Seriously, the apologies the YA community (or at least some of its more belligerent members) have extorted from the writers in question sound like something out of a Cultural Revolution "struggle session" (I'm not the only one to think that) and speaking as a historian this also brings to mind things like McCarthyism. It sets a precedent for political critique of works not intended to be political and, at worst, political control.

(The U.S. constitutional arrangements make legal censorship all but impossible, but the outrage machines on both sides of the political spectrum can lead to books or movies getting shelved, creatives' careers getting ruined, etc. Criticism isn't censorship, but it can become that de facto if the critics can intimidate the object of their critique or convince gatekeepers like agents, book studios, movie publishers, radio stations, etc. Look how #NoConfederate is threatening to deep-six HBO's first alternate-history project since Fatherland or the hammering of the Dixie Chicks' career.)

However, whether all art is truly political or not depends on how one defines "political," as the rebuttal article above points out. Some books or films are clearly "message fiction"--Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale as a response to the growing power of the Christian Right and the Iranian Revolution and the TV adaptation is clearly about Donald Trump, while It Can't Happen Here is a warning of possible fascism. Get Out is about how even white liberals can be dangerous to minorities and Starship Troopers was written in response to the US limiting nuclear testing and the Soviets breaking their promise to do likewise and has a lot of commentary on citizenship and responsibility. Less subtly there's Orson Scott Card's Empire and the neo-Nazi The Turner Diaries (nope, not linking to it) or the gun politics of Newt Gingrich's 1945.

(German commandos mow down nuclear scientists and their families in Oak Ridge while gloating about how banning guns from the site only made them defenseless against armed attackers and are ultimately defeated and left hogtied by Tennessee good old boys led by either the recently-demobilized Audie Murphy or the retired Sergeant York. I'm not a fan of gun control but this is seriously overplaying one's hand. I would have depicted the good old boys ambushing the Germans, killing a bunch and slowing them down enough for the scientists to escape, but not defeating them so thoroughly and not without taking significant losses themselves once they lose the element of surprise. Considering how poorly 1945 sold, a bit of nuance would've probably been helpful.)

By the above standard, most literature isn't political. I can't think of any sort of "message" in the monster movie Deep Rising or The Hobbit (the book). Tolkien himself objected to the idea that The Lord of the Rings was "really" about World War II or that Mordor was Germany and even described what the story would have looked like if that were the case.

However, if you define "political" to include "reflective of the author's values" or "reflecting the historical or cultural context in which they're written" rather than explicit author soapboxing, things get a bit broader. Tolkien's work in general is all about human fallibility (and there's a lot of criticism of industrialization and nostalgia for rural England) and the story of the hobbits in particular is about how the humble can be more important than the great. The film adaptations of The Hobbit included the new character Tauriel because Tolkien's original book lacked female characters completely and although there were a few women in The Lord of the Rings, their roles were not substantial compared to the men. Meanwhile, Highlander has a moral of self-sacrifice--the Immortals are sterile and Connor's refusal to abandon his wife leaves her to grow old and die without the children she wanted (something she blames herself for). To avoid repeating this mistake (and save himself the pain of watching his lover age and die while he remains young a second time), Connor eschews romantic relationships for centuries.

Now to examine some of my own currently-available work to see how it counts as "political," especially if one incorporates a more expanded use of the term.


The Thing in the Woods-I didn't intend for this to be a "message book" but it does reflect my values in that it's pro-gun and anti-racist. And the context of the early 2000s in the United States plays a major role in the characterization of most of the cast. Although I didn't go in intending to write a "message book" (I was inspired by a Call of Cthulhu scenario about "Lovecraft country" getting suburbanized and wanted to set it in Georgia and not New England to be different), the tale grew with the telling. The immediate sequel The Atlanta Incursion (with the publisher now) ties in with Black Lives Matter, while the in-progress third novel The Walking Worm ties in with the opiate crisis. Early 2000s cultural-political context ahoy!

Nicor-The story is antiwar even though it's on the surface an action-adventure monster story. Also a commentary on the things a man will do for women, particularly in a warlike and patriarchal society--the protagonist hopes to get enough loot and glory from going a-Viking to get a wife "or two."

Ten Davids, Two Goliaths and Discovery and Flight-Two novellas written in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe, during the rebellion against the tyrannical Sarellian Empire rather than the troubled aftermath. Although my stories avoid the shades of gray of Buroker's work (which I've noted resembles the Arab Spring), that the Empire created its own enemy by drumming the protagonist out of the Navy for disobeying orders by destroying the bridge of a hijacked ship with beam weapons rather than blowing up the whole ship with a torpedo and his friend is a recovering drug addict who'd been sentenced to personality-altering medical treatment of questionable value is a moral judgement. The world-building I did for Buroker goes into detail about how the Imperial system and its Alliance successor state function and that's definitely political. Basically the Empire is corrupt and abusive toward dissidents, politics and big-big business are incestuously entwined, and many of its economic policies are focused on make-work projects to keep the masses busy while the Alliance in seeking to avoid the tyranny of the Empire is rather weak militarily and perhaps a little too hands-off.

Lord Giovanni's Daughter-I didn't plan for this to be a "message story" either, but Adriana is deliberately characterized to not be a passive "damsel in distress." I also wanted to subvert the fantasy-barbarian stereotype with protagonist John Fiore, who wants to build a library with his mercenary wages. Encouraging women to take initiative? Statement on the importance of education?

Illegal Alien-This started out as a joke about the different meanings of the word "alien," but I wrote it at the time of the Si Se Puede immigrant marches and deliberately hoped to play on that. Plus the protagonist and his friends wouldn't be trying to sneak into the U.S. illegally if there was a guest worker program like the WWII braceros and the hero's back-story touches on NAFTA's effects on Mexico.

Ubermensch and Needs Must-Two stories featuring an Indian-American supervillain protagonist and his rivalry with the hero Silverbolt. I did write an Indian-American protagonist because I actually agree with people's concerns about the lack of representation. The superhero antagonist Silverbolt hates guns due to a domestic violence incident in his past and one character is a stripper and totally unapologetic and unashamed about it. Plus there's a whole lot of Nietzsche quoting. :)

"Coil Gun"-Part of the Pressure Suite collection, this one depicts global nuclear war as survivable (albeit still extremely, extremely sucky) with proper civil defense preparations and ground- and spaced-based missile defenses. It's also critical of racism and religious bigotry, as is the Afrikanerverse in general. You can see my discussion of that here and here.

Picking Up Plans In Palma-This one gets more into religion than politics in that a character (a Catholic) being in a sexual relationship with another (a Protestant) but not married is a major plot point, but it does share the same anti-bigotry moral of "Coil Gun." There's also the added twist that it's a critique of complementarianism and "biblical patriarchy" from a Christian perspective, something I also discuss in the above blog posts.


Melon Heads-Not written with any political intention. However, the frat boys of Pi Iota Gamma are much more dangerous (and morally worse) than the titular Melon Heads, who are already suffering from diminished mental capacity and have been reduced to an essentially animalistic state by medical mistreatment and decades living in the woods. A #MeToo story written nearly 15 years early? And in the original draft the frat boys were a drug dealer and a couple of his goons, so you could argue the story makes moral judgments on drug dealing.

The Beast of the Bosporus-I started writing this as essentially "a Lovecraft story in the Ottoman Empire and not New England," but I elaborated on Sokolli's Janissary bodyguard a bit due to concerns from members of my writing group that the story could be interpreted as anti-Muslim. Now there's a Muslim character who isn't a drunk (Sultan Selim II) or a practitioner of dark magic with possible anti-Semitic tendencies (the protagonist Sokolli). Still not a "message book" and not intended to make a statement about anything.

Not Really

I am the Wendigo-My first story for which I was paid and most definitely not a "message book." However, it's also incredibly short. Furthermore, one could wring a moral out of it--the human father is a predator (albeit under utterly extreme circumstances) and is prey himself. However, that's really pushing it.

Lord of the Dolorous Tower-Two young men go meddling in the tomb of a fallen Dark Lord and trouble ensues. One of the two is clearly the dominant party in the relationship (stronger personality and somewhat more educated) and both parties' motivations include impressing girls so one could make some kind of sociological commentary, but really?

Sam-A Doberman vs. a monster that only it can detect. Perhaps a commentary on not being believed when one warns of danger? That's pushing it too.

So getting back to the original point, based on my own work alone I argue that not all art is political, but the stories that are longer and have more depth often touch on significant political, social, or cultural themes. And in the long run, it's these works that have staying power. The Handmaid's Tale will be discussed for years to come, while many schlocky paperback space opera or monster books written at the same time are sold at library book sales for a buck each. It is my hope that The Thing in the Woods is and its sequels are remembered as "horror of the early aughts" and discussed by cultural historians and the like in the same way as, say, the horror of the 1980s.

What do you think?


  1. Interesting thoughts! I guess, using your list as evidence, not all, but most fiction writing is political in a broad sense, and the longer it goes, the more are the chances that it will become so, even by accident.

    1. Fair enough. However, there's defining a word broadly and defining it so broadly that it essentially loses its meaning (i.e. "political" becomes anything trying to make a deeper point).

      If you were one of the readers of "Lord of the Werewolves" you might recall the conditions Lupin offers to Shacklebolt at the end--they explicitly touch on the tension between the right to do business with or hire whomever one likes and the problems this could cause integrating marginalized people into society (i.e. the werewolves wouldn't be able to get housing or jobs due to social prejudice).

    2. I don't remember this bit from "LotW", but I've read it years ago.

      I think a compromise can be reached by saying that most deeper fiction usually has to take on society - ours, or of a fictional world. Even if it's as simplistic as "good space republics, evil space empires". And it's a fairly easy jump from society to politics. So, "most fiction can be credibly interpreted as at least partially political, in a way that can't be called stretching it".