Friday, December 18, 2015

Artists Are Neither Politicians or Propagandists

I probably shouldn't be writing this post. Not with my debut novel about to break and three more in the series due out next year. I shouldn't be writing this because there's a very good chance I'm going to upset some people, people who might be potential readers. It might hurt my sales and someone who might have enjoyed my work will never give it a chance.

What I should do is shut my mouth and post something that won't offend anyone, something that will get eyeballs and clicks and possibly entice someone to check out my other work.

Except, I'm not going to do that. I'm an artist, not a politician. And when artists decide that sales are more important than what they're trying to say, they aren't artists any more. That's not to say that everything an artist writes or paints or creates needs to deal with serious political or societal issues. Hey, that's the same kind of bourgeois attitude I ripped the other day in my post about Star Wars. Writing coaches suggest that every writer will explore two or three themes in their life, and that all of their work will revolve around those themes, whatever they are. Sure, they could be things like class issues or equality or religious bigotry, but they could also be themes like the importance of family, certain political issues, or sibling relationships. It could be any number of things that an artist feels passionately about, whatever it is that draws them back to the empty canvas.

The choice of theme is not important. What's important that we never censor our opinion on that which gives our work life. As soon as we do that, we might as well print ads for a car company, because we aren't acting as artists anymore. As soon we allow our concern about our sales figures to edit our work even a little, we've taken our first step to becoming a politician. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a politician or believing that you could make a difference in you ran for city council, but you can't be both.

ROBERT B. PARKER

I grew up in a small, white town circa. the 1980's, and the only thing I knew about the gay community was that they were sinners, perverts and gross. That's what I'd been taught. Don't get me wrong, my parents are extraordinarily kind, so were the people in my church, but as I didn't know anyone who was gay, and as there were no positive representations in the media (Ellen "Degenerate" Degeneres, remember that, ugh!) was still years away from getting her first sitcom on ABC), so I believed them. My stance tempered into my twenties, though I still believed it was sin. Still a perversion. Until I met Mr. Parker.

Well, I didn't meet him in person (That would have been great!), but I met him through his Spenser detective series, still my favourite all these years later. In his series, there was a minor recurring character, Lee Farrell, who was gay. He was tough and kind, a good cop. I'd never even fathomed that someone gay could be a tough cop. (Gay people were "fairies.") That didn't make sense. But it was my favourite series, and so the more I read, the more I started to question what I'd been taught.

That's right, my first positive gay role model was a fictional character.

I learned, years later, that Parker had two sons and that both were gay. Farrell was a secondary character, but for a diehard conservative like me, he was the first to crack open the door to my worldview and offer me a different look at the world. That single character would lead to further reading, and as I got older, I rejected my earlier notions about homosexuality. In fact, equality (a rejection of my misunderstanding of feminism as well) with regards to sexuality and gender and race is one of the prominent themes in my books.

THEMES ARE NOT STORIES
But a theme is not a story. As strongly as I feel about equality and class and serving the less fortunate (I'm pretty much a weight-lifting hippy), I write action-packed dystopian fantasy novels with a lot of violence and weapons. The themes originate organically from my story. Sure, idiots like Trump drive me crazy, and the Republican party in the US, as it stands now, makes me gasp in disbelief. That said, but I have a number of conservative friends who've read THE LAST ANGEL (Advanced Reader Copies) and loved it. I know a number of conservatives who loved Parker's books, too.

When theme dominates your story, you've sold out in the other direction. Instead of becoming a politician, you become a propagandist. Ken Follett has become guilty of this the past decade. After writing the brilliant PILLARS OF THE EARTH (1989), he wrote the sequel 18 years later, WORLD WITHOUT END (2007). It was completely unreadable. Essentially it was an essay on why he was right, and anyone who disagreed with him was an idiot. There was nothing organic about it. Understand, Follett is a leftist Atheist. Aside from not being an Atheist, I generally agree with his worldview and I was still massively offended. I've been known to say a time or two on Facebook that "you're an idiot if you think this way"(Trump, yup), but never in my stories.

Art needs to be prismatic, and the only way that happens if we explore our deep seated passions, the ones that will become our themes, and allow the story to bloom from them. As soon as we allow the other voices into our heads ("this will hurt your sales," or "people should believe this!") we lose the very thing that not only gives our work power, but the thing that defines us as artists.

It probably wasn't smart for me to tell you that I'm a hippy. Or that I dislike xenophobes like the popular Trump. Or that I'm a feminist who features minority characters in their stories. It probably wasn't the smart thing to do, and I imagine it can only hurt my sales this year. That's okay. The only reason I was able to write this series (four written in the past eighteen months) is that after many years I finally stopped worrying about what others might say. As soon as I stopped listening to those voices, my work took shape in a way I hadn't expected.

Why?

Because I'm an artist, not a politician.

-Steve