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So, this is going to be just my not-entirely organized thoughts on a topic that engages my interest generally, but for various reasons is turning up in conversations lately. (Read those links. No, really.)

I’ll start with an assertion: There is no such thing as apolitical fiction. No such thing as “just a good story” without a political message.

Any story more complex than “I went to the store and bought milk” contains assumptions about how the world is, or could be, or ought to be. Hell, even “I went to the store and bought milk” is embedded in a particular context, and will be received differently depending on that context. And the context always includes politics. The story always has a message.

Most times, when someone complains that they just don’t like stories with politics, or with a message, what they mean is they don’t like stories with messages or politics that disturb or confront their own assumptions about how the world is, or could be, or ought to be. This is worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to assert that Reader A only likes Work Z because it contains a fashionable or approved political message, while you, Reader B, value a good story, thank you, without all that political crap. Guess what? Those good stories you love are crammed full of that political crap–it’s just the politics are different.

Now, I’m not going to tell anyone they have to like something they don’t like, or read something they don’t enjoy. You don’t like the politics on display in a given work? Put it down. Fair enough.

More than fair enough. There are a lot of books out there, a lot of stories, and life’s too short to slog through ones you don’t like when you could be reveling in the stories you love. And that’s even before we get to the question of stories (or authors of stories) that actively advocate your erasure or destruction. I personally don’t think anyone is obliged to give any kind of consideration to such works or authors. Unless, you know, you want to. It’s totally up to you.

And here’s the thing: nobody reads objectively. I’m not going to say that “it’s all subjective” or claim that there’s no way to measure quality that isn’t subjective. The word, here, as Nick Mamatas has often reminded us, is “intersubjectivity.” (Thanks, Nick! I did not know the word before. I like new words, and that’s a good one!)

The thing is, none of us can read from any position but our own. We can’t have a god-like, omniscient view, we do not come to reading without any previous training or prejudices or expectations, and on top of that we all have particular buttons (“Giant robot squids! I’m all in!”). But some readers are very, very lucky–most of what they read caters to their particular training, prejudices, and expectations and often as not tosses them a giant robot squid or two. Some people can spend much of their reading lives this way, surrounded by fellow lucky readers who reinforce their impressions. So when they happen across something that doesn’t cater to them, it can feel like some sort of horrible deviation from what Nature intended. They can say so objectively! It’s just a fact!

Well, you can’t, and it isn’t.

So I’m not really down with calls to read objectively, as though that’s the obviously superior way to read. As though those who can’t or won’t are just being too emotional, or overreacting, or not really thinking it through. “Objective” isn’t the lofty, superior, moderate stance, it’s the obviously status-quo-supporting one.

As a related point, I would suggest that if you truly believe that Reader A only likes Work Z because it doesn’t punch them in the face, you might want to carefully consider your opinion of Work Y, which does All The Punching and is a general favorite. Why is that? And why is it okay for Reader A to be punched in the face for the sake of art, but not for you to have a story point out that someone is maybe being punched in the face and maybe that’s not good? Just something to think about.

As another related point, I don’t agree with writing advice that advocates avoiding politics in your work. For one thing, you just can’t. And it’s the thing you don’t look at, that you don’t realize is there and don’t name that will haunt you. Your politics will turn up into your work no matter what. You might was well be clear with yourself what those politics are, so that you can make a conscious decision about how or whether certain bits of that turns up in your work. Pretend it’s not there, and all kinds of things could splat onto the page, things that if you thought about it, you’d rather not have said. I mean, that’ll probably happen anyway, because none of us is perfect, but seriously. Try not to have that happen. That’s my advice, anyway.

***
I realize, of course, that the upshot of all this is that if you find the politics you see in my own book offensive or tiresome, that I have given you my blessing to put it down and never pick it up again. Even to resolve never to read anything I write again, ever.

You have, officially, my blessing, freely bestowed. Hell, if you don’t have a problem with (what you see as*) the politics, but still find my book a slog, well. Life’s too short. I’ll say this much–I’m seeing a number of comments that many readers who found the start slow (not all have, it’s worth noting!) got to around page 100, where [Pivotal Spoiler Event] occurs and found themselves hooked. If you arrive at [Pivotal Spoiler Event] (and you’ll pretty much know it when it happens) and you’re still thinking, “Nah,” well, you know, it may not be your book. Thanks for giving it a try! If you give up sooner–hey, that’s life. Sorry it didn’t grab you. Read something else that you’ll enjoy more.

____
*I have seen some assertions about what I intended by various things in the book, or what I was attempting to do, or what I believe, or what I meant to espouse and/or preach by means of the book that have left me like this:

a puzzled-looking owl

Well, not all feathery and adorable like that, but you get what I mean.

7 Responses

  1. D
    David

    I think we do need a punch in the face the way you describe it. I don’t think books are the most effective medium though. Instead I think formats like Youtubes Feminist Frequency does that job much better. I thought I was on the feminist side before I saw them, but I still got a punch in the face, or rather a wake up call, when watching her Tropes against women in video games series.

    BTW, I have read your book, and I loved it from start to finish. If I hadn’t been punched in the face by Feminist frequency, I am not sure I would have undestood why it was worth to get used to how you treat gender though. I guess my point is, we need a punch in the face now and then. Books are often just too slow to deliver the punch to be effective.

    With that said; I am thouroughly convinced that reading the way you treat gender was very healthy for me in that it was normalizing and cementing concepts that needs to be more deeply rooted in the subconcious than they were, it did take three or four chapters before I got used to it after all. But at the same time I was thouroughly entertained. So Thank you!

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  3. delagar

    I’m a giant feminist, and your book punched me right in the face! In a good way. I loved the punch. Now I am giving your book away to everyone. Seriously.

    But mainly I am commenting here just to say yes! Yes! to this entire post.

  4. jennygadget

    “I think we do need a punch in the face the way you describe it.”

    Nooooooo. I mean, obviously Ms. Leckie can speak for herself, but I’m pretty sure she means it in a very different way from how you do.

    I really don’t think I NEED to read works that argue my gender makes it impossible for me to me intelligent, capable, etc. after all.

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  6. Dann

    Hi there,

    Drive by in process here.

    Thanks for this. I’ve read some nice things about your book. And even though it is part of a trilogy*, I believe you just earned some of my valuable reading time with the above.

    Positive word of mouth and a classy approach to the thorny issue of politics in fiction will (or should) get you readers all day long.

    What I dislike is the perspective that books must contain certain political perspectives to be considered “good”. I don’t mind being confronted with alternative perspectives if the work is good. I mind very much slogging through some very marginal writing that is strewn with contrarian ideas.

    A spoon full of sugar and all that.

    *I see way too many trilogies or series that begin with an author’s first book that really isn’t worth the reading time. Heck I see way too many trilogies/series to begin with. I know that crafting a fictional world is time consuming, but I’d really prefer to read one very good book written in one fictional world than read three so-so books.

    It’s my hang-up so I might as well own it.

    Regards,
    Dann