So I was meandering through the interwebz the other day looking for something interesting to watch and I ran across this:
In the (admittedly long) discussion, Miéville and Schaefer ask whether fiction and politics make good bedfellows, whether politics and propaganda must always be separate or opposed and if not then, ‘What is it we’re doing, when we write (politically) committed fiction?’
Miéville concludes that the political intervention enacted by stories is a kind of ‘flag-waving’, such that ‘you can’t read them without knowing they come from a certain place in the world,’ and that this sort of statement of intent is what’s upsetting those readers who accuse political fiction of being didactic or propagandist: people who say that art and propaganda must always be opposed.
I’d be inclined to approach the question slightly differently, rather than ask ‘what is it we’re doing when we write politically committed fiction’ I’d ask ‘What is it we’re doing when we write fiction’ simpliciter. How does it work? And once we understand that, what kind of political impact does that mode of operation lend itself to?
Max Schaefer nails this later on in the video when he starts talking about empathy, because if there’s one key mechanism that keeps stories ticking that’s it – the emotional, and imaginative identification with character. It’s one of the things stories are for, and it leads people to approach them in a very different frame of mind to that in which they approach political debate.
Readers come to stories wanting to see a different point of view, they arrive at the text open, vulnerable, willing to be persuaded.
When I hear complaints that this or that book was ‘too political’ or ‘didactic’ I think it’s that vulnerability talking, especially if the text was encountered young. The best example of this I can think of is Narnia – How many times have you met someone who’ll declare in outraged, almost betrayed tones that The Last Battle was christian propaganda dressed up as a fairy tale, a christ in lion’s clothing? A lot of readers are very suspicious of novels that they perceive as being subordinated to a political dogma, and become unwilling to trust the story enough to sink themselves into it enough for it to work as fiction, for the empathy to take effect.
But that doesn’t mean that a story can’t work as fiction and be political. Why? Because empathy itself can be, and is a political act, a crucial one. Especially when so many political problems result from a failure to empathise. How many of those who’ve spoken out against changing the law on gay marriage, for example, might take a different line if they’d read a book that made them empathise with those they’re discriminating against? If a story had made them understand how it felt to be told that your and your partner’s loving union didn’t deserve the same name as another couples, just because of your genders.
I have no idea, and I have no idea how many people slanted that way on the political spectrum would read such a book in the first place, and how many of them would open up enough for it to do any good. But here’s the point, that act of imaginative outreach, that empathy-epidemiology isn’t at odds with the story’s role as fiction, it’s integral to it. And it is, at the same time, an intensely political act