One of you recently asked me, “How do a writer’s political views show up in his or her fiction? When do politics in fiction go too far?”
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Authors most often reveal their political and philosophical views through selectivity. In other words: which stories they choose to tell, or which stories they are instinctively drawn to.
Let’s take the War on Terror as a thematic example.
A conservative author is going to be inclined to write a novel about heroic FBI and CIA agents stopping the next 9-11 terrorist attack.
This is a perfectly valid story choice. Islamic terrorists have staged attacks in the West, after all. Not just 9-11, but the London subways bombings, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Islamic terrorism is a real problem, and a fair topic for a story.
A politically left-leaning author, on the other hand, would take the theme of the War on Terror in a different direction. She might write a novel about collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. Or she might write a story about a peace-loving Muslim college student who was unjustly accused of aiding Islamic extremists.
These, too, are valid choices. There has been collateral damage from American drone strikes in the Middle East. And it is certainly not impossible to imagine a Muslim college student being falsely accused of aiding terrorism. False accusations occur in every legal system on Earth, after all—including the American one.
In the above examples, both authors are showing their political hands somewhat. Both (might) be accused, by hyper-sensitive readers, of writing stories that are “biased” or “political”. But neither of these authors has yet strayed into the realm of “agitprop”—which is something that the fiction writer wants to avoid at all costs.
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What is agitprop? The English word agitprop is taken from the Russian агитпроп. (If you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, you’ll see the immediate resemblance to the English word.) Agitprop is a combination of “agitation and propaganda” in art.
In film or fiction, agitprop is a story that exists solely to form the vehicle for a political message—which is usually one-sided and without nuance. Agitprop is not story informed by politics, but story subverted to politics.
Both the Soviets and the Mainland Chinese cranked out agitprop during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The storylines were always predictable, and designed to instruct the masses on the glories of communism and the decadence of the capitalist West.
Russian and Chinese storytelling have improved considerably in recent years. (I recently watched the Russian-Ukrainian film, Battle for Sevastapol. Wow, was it a good a movie!) But the North Koreans still create agitprop, and the results are predictably cringeworthy.
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In English-language literature, one of the most common genres for agitprop is dystopian fiction.
The setup usually goes something like this: Liberals/conservatives take over the government, and America (or the UK, etc.) turns into a leftwing/rightwing dictatorship. Rampant tyranny and pervasive misery ensue.
A specific example in this category would be Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t mind a novel with feminist themes, or a movie in which head-shaking male chauvinists get their comeuppances from a strong, capable female protagonist. (In fact, I rather like strong female protagonists in film and fiction—because they are usually far more interesting than their weaker alternatives.)
But Margaret Atwood’s story of women being turned into breeding cattle by evangelical white males in a near-future America is unrealistic, nakedly ideological, and…well, ridiculous.
Atwood wasn’t telling a story with The Handmaid’s Tale, she was going on a rant. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure agitprop. It is also one of the most overrated and overhyped novels in American literary history. (And—before you ask—yes, I’ve read the book. I’ve also seen the 1990 film adaptation.)
But there are rightwing versions of the agitprop novel, too. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes immediately to mind. While not technically a dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged has strong dystopian overtones. It is also filled with cardboard-cutout characters who exist as simplistic representations of abstract ideas.
Even worse, Atlas Shrugged is filled with long-winded political disquisitions. The most prominent of these—John Galt’s 60-page speech—is enough to compel the most dedicated of readers to seek out mindless distraction on Facebook or television.
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The fiction writer need not strive for complete political neutrality. There are some topics—crime, race, terrorism—that are nearly impossible to write about without pushing some readers’ buttons. (Especially in this day and age, when so many people are actively looking for reasons to be offended.)
And while the writer should strive to create complex characters with conflicting motivations, it is not always possible, or even desirable, to present “all sides” of a given issue in a work of fiction. A novel should not aspire to be a symposium, or a round-table discussion, on a sociopolitical subject.
Wonder Woman is a female superhero. By design, every Wonder Woman movie is going to contain a degree of feminist inferences. How could it be otherwise? And that is always going to annoy a small subgroup of male viewers, who perceive every assertive woman as a “feminazi” Likewise, every novel in which the Muslim character really is a terrorist (as opposed to a peace-loving, misunderstood humanitarian) will be panned by some readers as “Islamophobic”.
The writer shouldn’t worry about fine-grain distinctions like that. But the writer should not write a novel in which a ham-fisted political message completely overwhelms the plot and the characters.
When writing about political topics in fiction, always beware the pitfalls of agitprop.