Friday, November 17, 2017

Politicizing genre fiction and why it bothers me

    I've been debating whether to do this blog post for a long time. Basically, I didn't think it was an issue and didn't warrant discussing but I've seen a lot of the sentiments I strongly disagreed with being echoed without argument. Basically, it's the argument of fictional conspiracy theories being dangerous, reactionary fantasy, or the idea of superheroes being a right wing power fantasy. It seems like three separate ideas but they both relate to the idea of a certain, let's call it an "idea" of politics and how it interacts with genre fiction as well as whether there's a responsibility for writers to support things they may believe in with their work.

    Before we begin, speaking as a Master of Literature, this is stupid. I believe it was Larry Niven who said, paraphrased, "There's a word for people who assume the writing of an author reflects their worldview: that word is moron." A writer has no responsibility to reflect any specific ideology or worldview with his writing than anything else. A man who loves democracy can write about the divine right of kings, a man who hates tyrannies can write about dictatorships, and a person who absolutely hates romance can write characters who are deliriously in love. There's a reason why it's called fiction after all.

Conspiracies are my bread and butter.
    However, the ability to appreciate an existing work of art is often influenced by outside factors. A lot of people can't read The Chronicles of Narnia as an adult because they have a nasty reaction to being evangelized to and dislike C.S. Lewis using Aslan as an allegory for Jesus. I have difficulty with Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass because he reverses the effect in his writing. David Weber's early Honor Harrington novels trouble me because he somehow believes welfare created an underclass of super-parasites who went on to conquer a chunk of the galaxy.

    On March 3, 2015, Lindsay Ellis (the former Nostalgia Critic) wrote an article about why she couldn't get into the X-Files revival because conspiracy theories were cute in the 90s as well as harmless. However, she argued conspiracy theories like the Birthers, 9/11 Truthers, and John Birch Society lunacy like the United Nations plotting the takeover of the USA were things which had caused serious issues in the United States. They were the bread and butter of people like Alex Jones and contributed to the way some people chose to vote in the then-upcoming election. She argued the X-files gave a legitimacy to the ideas and conspiracy theories shouldn't be indulged.

    Given that a massive number of my books depend on conspiracy theories with Agent G being about corporate conspiracies, Esoterrorism being about the secret mages who rule the world, and The Supervillainy Saga's protagonist routinely dealing with corrupt cults or supervillains hiding behind legitimacy--this kind of annoyed me. Even more so, it reflected a blindness of literary criticism which is really what's annoying me here. Basically, it looked at the surface elements of the characters without bothering to follow them to their natural conclusion--conspiracy theorists=Right Wing nutjobs ergo bad. Which is ridiculous.

A sci-fi novel written by Hitler.
    The weird thing, though, was we live in the time where if you're a Left-wing nutjob like myself then it's a perfect place for all manner of conspiracy theorist protagonists. The past two decades have included: assassination orders carried by government sanctioned murderbots, secret prisons, mass government surveillance, wiretapping everyone's cellphone as well as laptop, murder cults trying to bring about the return of ancient kingdoms, and the fact corporations really do run damn near everything. I even made a list about how we live in a cyberpunk future. Indeed, the original conspiracy theorists were Woodward and Bernstein who turned fantasy into reality.

    This isn't about whether there's any real life conspiracies. That's utterly irrelevant as there will always be conspiracies as long as power or money is to be gained by lies while equally there will always be theories that are just plain stupid. No, this is about politicizing tropes--which bothers me. The attempt to turn tools of genre into things which have some innate bias to them. It's a clickbait sort of argument that is meant to make the people making the accusation look smart while also making the people consuming media look dumb.

    This is nothing new as J.R.R Tolkien has often been accused of being pastoral, conservative, and Medievalist. He was some of those things but the accusation is based on his writing versus his personal beliefs. Attempts to argue the orc is racist, he supported the divine right of kings, and he was preaching about the terrifying horde of "foreigners" entering Middle Earth are just some of the things I had to deal with in academia. These were interesting discussions when I was in college but the idea of the orc being an orc was always a nonstarter the way Freud's famous saying about cigars was. Michael Moorcock discussed this in his "Epic Pooh" essay which I disagree with completely but enjoyed reading.

    As mentioned above, sometimes authors really are trying to say something or making a statement with their work. As with Lewis and Pullman above, sometimes they're attempting to convey ideas via metaphor or allegory. Lots of fantasy/science fiction deals with exploring big and deep ideas. Unfortunately, confusing portrayal with endorsement is something that I think people need to get over. Robert A. Heinlein has been accused of being a fascist because of his work in Starship Troopers for decades. However, he's also the guy who wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which is radically libertarian and Stranger in A Strange Land which is--well, what it is. Even authors fall prey to this with The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad being a critique of the supposed fascist underpinnings of sci-fi. This despite the fact he had to write the idealized fascist sci-fi novel in order to talk about fascist underpinnings in sci-fi.

    It reached something of a nadir for me with the frequent accusation of superhero fiction being innately right wing. The argument, so to speak, being that vigilantes take the law into their own hand so they're a crime busting power fantasy. This argument immediately falls apart with the fact Superman started as a socialist New Deal Icon and Batman targets rich mobsters (as well as clowns) rather than the poor. Wonder Woman and the X-men being right wing is about as ludicrous an argument as you can make if you know anything about the characters. Its a surface detail accusation that warps an entire genre into fitting a narrow category.

Sometimes authors incorporate DO politics--badly.
    Now here's where I'm going to reveal I'm an enormous hypocrite. I'm an intensely political author myself and my characters have very strong opinions on the world around them that often (but not always) reflects my biases. Agent G in the above mentioned novel is a man who lives in a society controlled by corporations and is a cog in a pre-cyberpunk work, The Supervillainy Saga's Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless is a left-leaning anarchist who often comments on the world's screwed up nature (many times referring to things only true in "comic book" worlds), while Cassius Mass in Lucifer's Star is a man who grew up in a fascist military aristocracy only to realize he was the bad guy. They have very strong views because characters who don't are pretty dull.

    The thing is, all of these elements are inherent to the world created in my fiction. They don't necessarily reflect the actual world but just the character's own. Protagonists must be dynamic to hold the audience's interest even if their beliefs are wrong--narrative or otherwise. I also make these themes overt and part of the narrative--I don't need to "trick" readers into ascribing to my view. I also think readers can't be tricked into it. It will either fit with their views already or will be something they use as allegories or applicability for their own views. Like the police in my state who have a raging mad-on for the Punisher. In simple terms, sometimes an orc is just an orc.

The Punisher's hippie creator made him as a villain.
     So does this mean genre fiction has no value for discussion of real life issues? Not at all. I think Tolkien said it best that his books were endlessly applicable for discussing ideas through metaphor. He was furious, though, when people said his books were ABOUT WW2 or the environment. Stephen King also had serious issues with his own literature professor (which was fictionalized in It) who insisted his stories couldn't just be stories. I think it's important to make sure you take a step back whenever reviewing fiction before seeing patterns that may or may not be there--before deciding how to use fiction as a talking point or deriding a work as pro or against any one thing. There is plenty of fiction which has a big message behind it, plenty of good fiction, look at Star Trek--but trying to turn literature into another weapon in the cutlure wars is a mistake.

    In conclusion, I just spent a page ranting about people trying to turn tropes into tools and dismissing genre fiction based on surface ideas. I also have mocked my degree given politicizing fiction pretty much is the basis of literary criticism. There's plenty of meaning in fiction and plenty of politics that is informed by reading works--but you should always keep a certain distance. Every book is something created by both what the author puts in as well as what the reader takes away. Now I return you to your regularly scheduled review blog.


  1. So obviously, the best comeback to these criticisms is accuse them of being shallow.

    1. I call it like I see em. Mind you, I fully acknowledge I'm putting down my own degree here and that I'm speaking hyperbole.

  2. Excellent arguments. Is this in response to certain authors rant about Ned Stark being the true villain in GOT?

  3. It all does come down to the reader. Not only was The Punisher a villain (Judge Dredd also) in the comics originally but also in the underappreciated Warzone movie. Ironic that Blue Lives Matter used Castle's logo when he was a cop killer. DC has pretty much answered the question of what would happen if Batman killed The Jokerwith The Batman Who Laughs (Cenobite Judge Death). In the end, it is fantasy. Logically, all the criminals Bruce Wayne caught would walk as our system is pretty clear on vigilante justice. The one thing I will give the "Starship To is right wing" theory though, is that it made the movies better as the scriptwriters turned it into parody. Which made for a more watchable experience. A lot of the criticisms have a strong American slant. Thatcher made the same mistake as Monarchists tend to have a negative view of capitalism especially as it is seen as Americanizing and by extension, ruining their culture and traditions. Like the conservatism of Eliot and Pound (until their split over fascism) which had a dim view of America. Orwell is praised by right and left for speaking against Communism in his work but the Nazi police state he liked. Heck, Bradbury was not even arguing against censorship in Farenheit 451 but attacking (by his own admission) television. The readers brought their own feelings about what writers should be saying.

    1. Orwell, notably, was a communist. He just hated Stalinism for becoming identical to the oppressors he loathed. I agree with you about the censorship matter.

    2. Orwell wasn't a party man. He fought with POUM (kinda anarchist) in Spain.

      And about STarship Troopers ... it's hard SF. He's talking about responsibilty to yr community and that. It's an absurd argument from the start ... an extreme. With big guns in space in starships.

  4. Soldiers using symbolism to intimidate their enemies is nothing new. It is pretty much as ancient as human culture. Greek hoplites painted their shields with all sorts of mythical creatures and frightening faces, Picts fought naked with only woad dye on them, Celts wore the heads of their defeated enemy on their belts, Viking berserkers wore bear pelts in fact that is how they go their name, Polish hussars built wings of ostrich feathers, etc. Even the deaths head, Punishers symbol, is quite old. Pirates used it on their jolly rogers and it was adopted by Hungarian Hussars in service to Austria - Hungry and Prussia. You can find skulls in the iconography of many armies, not that unusual for an occupation that mainly deals in killing.

    There is also that famous C.S. Lewis quote about who he would rather be ruled by. He was quite aware about the not so great aspects of religion.

    It is pretty much a good idea to not read political views into a work of art unless it is expressly political.

    1. The Punisher as a symbol for soldiers makes perfect sense. It's just a little more bothersome with my local police--I wish they'd used Captain America instead.

    2. For what it's worth, Cap being a symbol for the army would make even more sense.

      Of course...some of this has to do with Punisher being something of an insult backfire in general. The idea of the Punisher IIRC is to show how scary a "soldier" would be as a domestic crime fighter.

  5. Yeah, I really didn't like DEMD using the term "Aug Lives Matter". It's a case of "too soon" and trying hard to sound relevant in a way that really just dates your work. And similar to how you shouldn't have to explain a joke, you shouldn't have to explain a metaphor.

    Of course, with political allegories I've noticed it's pretty common for people to give them political meanings even if they lack one. For example, in my own sci-fantasy setting the main villain was frequently compared to Donald Trump despite them being a critique of the left. Though in hindsight there is a lot applicability.

    The main theme of the setting is a sort of deconstruction of cyberpunk tropes and "tech dystopias" in general; the main villain is essentially a reactionary whose criticisms of advanced technology are fairly shallow and arbitrary, which definitely gives off Trumpish vibes. Though I envisioned her more as a sort of quasi-new ager.

  6. Another thing worth noting is that you can't necessarily prove yourself right in a work of fiction. For example, you can write a book of fiction which portrays X group as acting a certain way; but it doesn't actually prove that X group acts that way.

    This is part of why metaphors are better, ironically-you don't prove x group does y thing; you just create fictional group z and have people realize group z is a lot like group x.