Ask the Aliens: How Political Should I Be?
[Ask the Aliens is a monthly feature on Misreader that attempts to contact aliens in order to answer life advice questions here on Earth. Read the open call here or check out the previous letters here. If you have a question send it to misreaderblog at gmail dot com with "Ask the Aliens" in the subject line.]
Hi, the Aliens,
I'm a fiction writer but this question isn't about craft. As far as my use of language and creativity go, number of publications, and recognition in the community go I'm doing okay, but something has been bothering me lately. It's about what I choose to write about. The kind of stories that I do are usually about troubled family members, things not working out, people adrift, hurt feelings...all of that. Realistic literary fiction. But lately, with this election year and with the current political climate, some people are saying that writers need to do more to engage in raising awareness about social problems. Something more than racing to social media to denounce or make a statement of solidarity, whichever the case may be.
Something about the internet reminds me of shouting matches with an angry family member over dinner. It all feels pointless afterwards. So why should I invite that into my writing? And why should I break something that isn't fixed (if that makes any sense)?
The aliens didn't answer your question, but consider that they also haven't received the Voyager Golden Record yet either. But your question reminds me of the record in more than just that way.
The Voyager record isn't exactly a political project, but then again it is. It would be hard for a multimedia project fully funded by taxpayer dollars at the tail end of the space race to not be political, even in the moments of its overt political silence. In the same way, I'm sure your writing is probably more political than you think. Even some of the plot points that you mention above skew political on their own, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to write more overtly political stuff.
As writers, we are in a position to say more than other people can because (if everything works out) we can reach an audience. The larger the audience you can reach the more important it is for you to use your voice to effect change. This is a responsibility that has always existed for creative people, not just now. Almost two hundred years ago Shelley called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and that hasn't changed. There are even times when writers' political power is being used without them realizing it: Throughout the 1950s some of the biggest literary journals were funded by the CIA as propaganda to advance America as a bastion of culture and class. Getting published in any of those venues that still exist is probably a goal—what would that mean for your work politically? That you were giving your voice over to someone else's activism? There is even a theory, possibly a conspiracy therory, that the entire creative writing MFA program was created by the CIA to turn out writers like yourself who avoid political concepts and ideology in their work by sticking to tangible Capitalistic things like sex and homes in the suburbs. It's a disturbing possibility, and one that proves how powerful activist writers can be.
Pull out far enough and anything that you write has a political dimension. So what if you write realistic literary fiction (I want to get the abbreviation RLF started so we can all refer to this more easily, like it was a political group, or a terror organization), it shouldn't affect your characters engagement in the world. Your characters exist in a web of social, economic, racial, political, environmental, and biological pressures that affect their decisions, their place in society, and the course of their (imaginary) lives. In the same way, all of those pressures are on you as a writer too. That can factor into your work, and it should.
There is a lot of danger involved in this. You don't want to preach, or deliver flat moralistic writing. And you don't want to write characters from different backgrounds than you in a way that is superficial, or worse, in a way that is offensive. You could also wind up alienating your audience because of your political stances. But if your audience doesn't want to hear things like Black Lives Matter Love Wins, it's even more important for you to say it in writing.
The question is how you want to present the world. What is the world you want to create, and how can your fiction make that a reality? The Voyager record was clipped by the administrators at NASA who were afraid that showing naked people or gays would get them chastised by prudes in charge of powerful governmental funding. But the record is still aspirational: it presents a world without strife, without war in it. That may be a lie of omission, but it is also an act of creative writing, a hope and a wish made real by the arrangement of contents. If your writing was the only thing left on the planet and alien archeologists arrived to analyze it, wouldn't you want it to do something more than tell a tight story?
[Top image: Originally posted to Flickr by The All-Nite Images as "Black Lives Matter Friday" at https://www.flickr.com/photos/otto-yamamoto/15741865779. Shared and altered under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]