Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Sep 29, 2008 in Blog, politics, Writing | 25 comments

Should Fiction Writers Write About Politics?

I just posted some of my problems with the Sarah Palin vp pick and Aaron posed this interesting question:

Serious question, Paolo: Do you think authors blogging about their views on the election can undercut their fiction?

It is very difficult to experience the fiction of Orson Scott Card or John Scalzi the same way after reading their political posts. Catherynne Valente is a brilliant writer, and I am trying so hard to forget the rant on her blog where she fervently wished that a falling tree would crush John McCain’s skull.

No political commentary I have ever read has caused me to question my worldview as much as reading “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin. But I wonder if that story would have lost some of its effectiveness if I had read it alongside a blogpost by LeGuin listing reasons to vote for Jimmy Carter.

I posted my own answer here, but I’m wondering what other people’s perspective is on this?


  1. Well, I did say it in the context of him rushing to a hurricane site where such things might happen in a blatant grab for attention. It seems silly to point out that such things are hyperbole.

  2. I’d have to say Aaron’s on the right track, and not just with political blogging. The fiction writer’s task is to disappear behind the illusion s/he spins, not to dance in front of it. Don’t show your hand: that’s at the heart of the craft. But every time an Author blogs, we catch a glimpse of the little primate pulling the levers, and the worlds s/he creates lose a little of their sheen as a result.

    Blogging politics is worse because it’s so horribly reductive. Even if you’re one of those rare people who can write well-rounded, thoughtful political commentary from outside a partisan box…well, chances are it doesn’t matter because I can only read it from within my partisan box. The second you write political opinion, you’ve pigeonholed yourself. And your work.

    Think about that. You’ve spent how long working on a book? And it’s not just a novel, it’s a vision, a hugely complex AESTHETIC endeavor undertaken with pathological effort. Do you really want it reduced in the eyes of your audience to a mere ideological statement?

    So let me reframe your question: What does it gain a fiction writer to blog politics?

    That being said….love your blog, dude.

  3. For me, at least, posting about politics is cathartic. I’ve got things that are rattling around in my head that probably won’t make it into fiction, but they’re there, so a blog is one place to put them. Op-ed is the other option, I suppose.

  4. Cat, will you forgive me for mentioning that if I tell you I was up late last night writing nice things about you on the Fantastic Reviews Blog?

  5. I recently stopped posting political things on my blog largely because I realized that I come across sounding like a total lunatic in them–not so much in content as in tone.

    For whatever reason, politics is a topic I can’t discuss without hyperbole and–these days–anger.

    I’d hate for someone’s introduction to me to be one of those blog posts; it’d be like every terrible movie where the boy meets the girl’s crazy family for the first time and Uncle Herman is flinging feces from the far end of the table.

    From a practical perspective, too, I figured out I wasn’t really convincing anyone who didn’t agree with me so I didn’t see the point of merely raising an angry fist in solidarity with those who do.

    I’ll admit that I can’t always resist, though!

  6. Sorry Aaron, didn’t mean to put you on the spot with Cat. I thought you nailed a question that I’ve been struggling with. The whole idea of how much of oneself do you really want to share online is still something that I don’t have good answers for. Is this a place for my thoughts? Is it a platform to connect with fans? Just a place to digitally hang with friends. I have no idea, but I do have a feeling of exposure when I post my thoughts online, and I’m still testing the winds and trying to figure out where my comfort zone is.

    BTW, Cat, I quite enjoy the hyperbole, personally.

  7. If she changes her mind about doing an interview when Palimpsest comes out, I’m blaming you, buddy. I’ll expect you to put on a dress and talk to me about structuring multi-layered stories-within-stories.

    It is an interesting quandary how much of yourself to share on a forum like this. It doesn’t bother me if I disagree with an author’s politics, but I am troubled when someone’s fiction seems to feature social commentary that is very intricate and subtle, and then they put up a political post that is not at all. It makes me wonder if I invented all those subtleties myself — your analogy of the pretty girl across the room is a good one.

  8. I rarely write about politics on my blog, my theory being along the lines of Will Ludwigsen’s comment: you convince no one who doesn’t already agree with you, and you run the risk of alienating readers. But, yeah, once in a while I get upset enough to say something. Except my political rants usually take the form of ranting about what I see as an unfortunate deterioration of argument to the level of name-calling. Someone can disagree with you politically without being evil. Indeed, it seems odd to me that so many writers who wouldn’t dream of creating a one-dimensionsl villain in their fictional works have no trouble at all viewing the politicians they disagree with as one-dimensional villains.

    I dream of a world where everyone agrees that it is possible to disagree with someone politically without making the leap to that person being a closet Nazi, enabler of terrorists, or what have you. But I don’t expect to ever see it. (I once heard Joe Haldeman say, of Robert A. Heinlein, that true gentlemen never let political differences get in the way of a friendship. But I think we all know people who are so blinded by certainty that they despise anyone who disagrees with them politically so strongly that they will cast aside long-time friendships should that friend choose to vote for the “wrong” person.)

    My other problem with blogging about politics? I hate writing things I haven’t researched properly, and by the time you’ve dug into both sides of every issue, you’re likely to either (a) lose the certainty you needed to blog emphatically about it in the first place or (b) missed an important writing deadline–you know, the kind you actually get paid for.

  9. Only one author has turned me off with his politics (and it wasn’t Scalzi, who is amusing). That was Neal Asher and his right wing ranting about Muslims and immigrants in the UK on his blog. After one or two of these, I had questions. After a few more (and some interactions with him in comments), it seemed pretty clear how far out there (to me) his views were. Suddenly, the benefit of the doubt that I’d given him in some of his novels concerning the politics they espoused as their undercurrents evaporated. I could no longer separate the views of him as a writer and how they seemed to wind up in print.

    I recently read your collection and certain political aspects seemed pretty clear to me. I actually appreciated them quite a bit because I think you’re showing a viewpoint with characters in your tails that is often lacking. That said, I don’t know what your personal politics are (though I could probably guess some opinions based on commonalities in your writing).

  10. The way I see it, if you allow someone’s personal life to ruin perfectly good literature, then you’re being silly. I hate Orson Scott Card’s politics, but he’s a good writer. I don’t agree with Scalzi on a lot of points, but his books are good, and I’ve disagreed with Tobias Buckell in the past, but he’ still a fantastic writer. I don’t let such petty things like that ruin the reading experience. Unless OSC, Scalzi, or Buckell turned out to be Hitler reincarnated, I’ll keep reading their work. OSC, especially, may have stupid opinions that defy logic, but he doesn’t exactly have power. We didn’t vote him as President or anything…

  11. The problem with Card inparticular is that his books contain a great deal of politics. If one disagrees with an authors opinions on a fundamental level (which many of us do with Card) it’s difficult to read such books in the same way. As Aaron said, it makes the reader question his interpretation of a work if the authors opinions are simple and contradictory to the message they extracted.

    Of course, being on the authors side can make knowing their political views an advantage. There are probably plenty of conservatives who feel the same way about Iain M Banks, Ursula LeGuin or China Meiville

  12. Funny you should mention it. I just broke my own no politics rule on my blog. Well, it’s really more of a guideline than a rule. It felt good to get that off my chest, and now I can get back to talking about time travel and wookies and the like.

  13. While I do have a few favorite authors I know by name, I read fictional stories to connect with the characters (to have a personal experience), not with the authors. I have bookshelves stuffed with books I’ve read over the years but I doubt I could name the authors of even 5% of these books. Point being, I could care less about the authors let alone their personal politics….it’s all about the product. (Sorry, and yes, I’m an author myself). But then again I tend to judge most fiction/content (and most everything else) on its merits, not its source. That’s my “bias” if you like….the way I’m wired. I also recognize that a significant percentage of people come at things from the opposite direction…brand before content. Realistically, I doubt the vast majority of readers would care enough to make a material difference in book sales.

  14. I always find this topic interesting as I have strong feelings about it. SF Signal recently did a Mind Meld about it and I shared in detail there. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/007167.html

    In short, I think a SF writer should absolutely share their political and other personal views if they want to – of course they should also be prepared to suffer any consequence as well. Over all, I have had more favorable reactions to authors who share their views than unfavorable – of course this could be due to several different reasons.

  15. “Serious question, Paolo: Do you think authors blogging about their views on the election can undercut their fiction?”

    Yes, it can. That because most people are scared of anything that challenges or disagrees with their world view. That doesn’t mean it is the RIGHT thing. The fact that your fiction can be undercut amongst a certain segment of your readership should NOT NOT NOT be a deterrence in the slightest. I am a far-left wacko, but I still love Gene Wolfe. Yes, even more than that China Miéville guy. ;) I still enjoy Dan Simmons. I still enjoy some Heinlein. So what their politics don’t agree with mine? I am also a diehard atheist, but Mary Doria Russell’s fiction is excellent.

    Reminds me of Michael Moore’s documentary SICKO. I am a 200% supporter of universal health care, but I completely disapprove of his portrayal of the British NHS. He makes it look like fantasy land perfection when it is far from the truth. The problem is in our world people NEED propaganda and lies to motivate them. You cannot criticize the British NHS and still be 200% pro-NHS, because then people only remember the BAD! Instead of reforming the NHS because of its problems, the response will be PRIVATIZE PRIVATIZE PRIVATIZE!!! When the USSR collapsed, people didn’t think about reforming socialism or looking back on the ’56 or ’68 movements of socialism with a human face. No. They full-scale abandoned Communism and went to the other extreme.

    Sadly, people often make little sense. Sorry, I was rambly. My point is it will undercut your fiction, but why would you let that deter you? If people cannot handle it, you shouldn’t let that cause you to lose any sleep.

  16. *laughs* Sure, Aaron.

    I make it a policy never to post about politics, I slipped that once because I was so angry. It’s too much grief.

  17. Maybe the question should be: should Aaron read blogs by writers whose fiction he enjoys?

  18. I don’t mind so long as the story does not veer into editorializing the writer’s views. If you are right of center, you’d soon find your shelves bare if you were not willing to read different points of view.

    That said, there is nothing I hate more than hearing the same sermon I’ve heard a thousand times over the last twenty years, especially if it is virtually the same thing I can see for free at the writer’s blog.

    It is boring, annoying and rampant, especially in the American SF community.

  19. Karen wrote:
    There are probably plenty of conservatives who feel the same way about Iain M Banks, Ursula LeGuin or China Meiville.

    Well, perhaps — speaking for myself, I don’t have a problem with Ursula Le Guin’s politics (which, for the most part, I don’t share), I do have a problem when she uses her fiction as a didactic bludgeon where the story-telling and characterisation is thin, and the thematic content is banal. Gee, Ursula, sexism and racism is really really bad? Do tell… on second thoughts, don’t bother. (And I find Iain Banks, with or without the initial, fundamentally unreadable so his politics are neither here nor there.)

    Aaron wrote: Catherynne Valente is a brilliant writer, and I am trying so hard to forget the rant on her blog where she fervently wished that a falling tree would crush John McCain’s skull. I don’t think the issue there is political, but simply being a creep. Don’t know about you, but I find those who who wish death or dismemberment on total strangers are to be avoided.

  20. So, Paulo, now I’m on Scalzi’s shitlist too. Next time I come here with some insightful question, please just tell me to shut the hell up.

  21. Hee hee. I actually meant to link into his post earlier. I really liked what he had to say about the need for everyone to be politically involved, and to stand up and treasure the fact that we can in fact express our political views, when many can’t. Orhan Pamuk, anyone?

    That said, I’m still quite interested in the interaction between someone’s fiction, and the overt political statement. It does seem to offer a shortcut for a reader to pigeonhole your ideas as they are presented in fiction, because you’ve essentially boxed yourself in, politically. Given that a lot of my fiction does have a deliberate message aspect to it, I don’t necessarily want to undercut those messages because I’m flailing around with my rantings over here on the blog.

    I still don’t like the Palin pick, though.

  22. Another bit, this from Maureen Johnson who posted it on Scalzi’s blog: Scott Westerfeld on talking about “real” politics at YA for Obama.

  23. >>Maybe the question should be: should Aaron read blogs by writers whose fiction he enjoys?

    I agree with this recasting. The vast majority of readers will never read one word on an author’s blog. Those who seek them out should be prepared—and willing—to encounter a person with thoughts that go beyond plot and character. I much prefer that to the authors who merely use their blogs as advertising for their product (I can see the value to them, but there is none for me).

    Are you at risk of having your view of an author changed by interacting with them outside of their fiction? Absolutely. But I would argue that you are being brought more in line with reality, and that’s a good thing, even if relinquishing the fantasy may be somewhat painful. And if their political thought offends or upsets you excessively (i.e. Orson Scott Card), you can simply quit reading their blog and move on.

  24. I agree with the original post. I can’t help but be colored by author’s politics. There are authors I don’t read because of their politics. But there are also authors I don’t read because of their personalities. To some degree an author’s deeply help opinions, political or otherwise, are going to leak into his/her stories regardless, don’t you think?

  25. Thank you for the Windup Girl. What a wonderful read. It has been a long time since I have stayed up pasted 1:00 am to finish a book. I don’t have to tell you that the story must continue.


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