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What Happened to Writing as a Political Act?

April 21, 2013 3 comments

What happened to writing as a political act?

I almost got embroiled in a lengthy facebook conversation a few weeks ago because I suggested that the act of writing should be political. The reply I received, of course, was that some people like to write for fun and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than launch into one of my usual tirades that generally lead to unceremonious facebook de-friendings I decided to sit on that thought for a few weeks; and a few weeks later I realised that I simply disagreed even more. Because whatever way you spin it, writing is a political act. And frustratingly authors and readers are in constant denial about the political content of their writing.

The recent self-publishing phenomenon has in many respects been one of the worst things to happen to my reading in a long time. It may be a great publishing model (I’m sure that I’ll be driven to self-publish something in my lifetime) but it has become a marketing and quality control nightmare, a constant cause of frustration and a huge reason for me to disengage with current releases. And frustrating because so many people want to engage with it for the very reasons that drive me away, they feel like they’re “sticking it to the publishing-man or something. As a fan/user of the popular reading site Goodreads and as a heavy Kindle user, one cannot avoid being bombarded every day by half-baked advertisements and half-baked literary content from a new author every day who advertises themselves as the next big thing in fantasy literature, or vampire fiction. Or romance. Or erotica. For myself I’m so staggeringly uncompelled to click, follow through or buy any of these (Kindle daily deal needs to die a death) that it just makes me loathe their very existence. Because Twilight is bad enough. 50 Shades of Grey is bad enough. The Hunger Games is … probably bad enough. I certainly don’t want to know about “The Lives and Loves of a Virgin Vampire Academy Princess” or “Fields of Thorns and Gods and Magic: The Drearily Pointless Overlong Saga of Magic Magic Magic and Dragons Part 5”. They’re not going to knock my socks off, I don’t need to read them to know I can barely get through the work of famed authors like Michael Moorcock for their derivative laziness, so “Hot Shades of Vampire Sex! Sex! Sex! vs Werewolves pt 9 for Young Adults” is clearly not going to work for me.

But it feels sometimes like that’s what the publishing – or self-publishing – industry has become. And of course someone is going to argue that popular literature is great and if people like to read it and people like to write then that’s great and we should embrace it and stick it to the man. And I do hate the-publishing industry as it stood pre-Kindle. And it is great.

Only, it kinda isn’t.

It isn’t because all of this writing is political and people are pretending that it’s not. Which means that an overwhelming ideology of not-caring about politics or society or life has flooded the book market. Readers are becoming lazy, writers are becoming lazier and reading and writing fiction has come to embody everything that I believed the act of reading not-to-be when I first opened Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre as an older teenager. Because reading Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and so on during my informative years, there’s one thing I couldn’t fail to notice and that was that reading is a political act. Reading JRR Tolkien or Stephen Donaldson and George Martin, Gene Wolfe or Robin Hobb as a fantasy aficionado there’s one thing I can’t fail to notice and that’s reading these books is a political acts. By that I mean that as both a form of literature and as entertainment the people who have sat down and written these books have an ethos, a world-view, an ideology and an interest in society that they wish to convey by writing those books, and as a reader if I pick one up and start to read it I’m subverting the expectations to conformity of those around me by allowing my world-view to engage with and be informed by another’s. Through the act of reading I can become something more than the person who wakes up, goes to work, carries out tasks like a drone, agrees with what they see and hear on the news, and then goes to bed.

This isn’t a distinction between high and low art in the sense that many literary commentators would have you believe that there should be. I’m not arguing for the distinctive turn of Joyce’s prose over the childish strains of a Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch. The psychological insight into the human condition of a Flaubert or Tolstoy over the petty concerns of a JK Rowling. I believe that “popular fiction” as it is called has as big a part to play in shaping who we are as the literary giants that make up the literary canon ever did and that one ignores either at their own detriment.

But what truly bugs me is the de-politicisation of the act of writing in an effort to allow more people to have more fun more of the time at better prices. An illusion of empowerment at the expense of a genuine political voice. If anyone ever asks me why I write – which generally they don’t because I’m unpublished – I tell them it’s because literature is important to me, because I’ve spent my entire life reading and engaging with it and I want some day to influence someone else – to change someone’s life – like many authors before me have influenced and changed me. To have someone say “I just do it for fun” seems to me to miss the point in the most fundamental way because it takes the act of writing and makes it a meaningless act, in a similar way to going to watch a football match. When people ask me why I criticise sport and prefer reading, and I respond that sport is repetitive and aimless and designed to stop one from thinking or questioning, they generally add into their argument “well you read stories and watch movies that are pointless anyway. Star Wars is pointless, Harry Potter is pointless” and so on, and it’s surprisingly difficult to respond to someone who holds theworldview, that “all art I pointless.” and to convince them that art, popular or literary, always has a point. Because to this sport-afficionado, whatever way you spin it we all live, go to work and die don’t we? So why not just have fun in the meantime?

And I genuinely want those authors to have fun and to enjoy self-publishing and I want people to enjoy reading those works. Only I don’t really. And I don’t want them constantly shoved in my face like the football results are. Because there’s a world of literature out there that doesn’t involve the narcissistic egotism that the self-publishing model so readily embraces. But how is someone to know whether they should reject a certain author/work – such as Stephanie Meyer (who isn’t self-published but reads like it and has been the dominant force in dumbing down attitudes surrounding popular literature in the last 10 years) – in favour of another if we reciprocate this idea that reading is for fun, as opposed to the idea that “reading is fun because it’s interesting and rewarding” it’s the difference between killing time and genuinely engaging with your reading.

How political an act it is to ignore politics!

It’s the ultimate political act, to say that politics don’t matter, engagement doesn’t matter. To essentially say that reading and writing don’t matter. It’s like voting by not-voting, since a no-vote helps the dominant political party of the day maintain power.

When I sit down to write if I thought that it didn’t matter I don’t think that I could ever bring myself to do it. The process would be akin to my day job and I’d be helping or enriching the lives of no-one. If someone ever reads my work and says to me “it’s a flippancy, it doesn’t matter” I don’t care if they enjoyed it, I’ll feel that I’ve fundamentally failed on some level.

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