Friday, August 10, 2012

The Question of the Political Author

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about whether or not authors should be political. In May, Agent Jenn Laughran made this incredibly thoughtful post in response to outrage about Orson Scott Card, Reading with the Enemy. I’m sure she wasn’t the only one to post on this topic, but hers is the one that stands out in my mind. More recently, there was this post from Em’s Reading Room, which used a survey approach and broke it down by reader/blogger/author opinion.  Which then lead to this post by Maggie Stiefvater, which is a general reminder to be civil.

The topic of artists being political is an interesting one, but it’s not a new one. I promise you, there’s not a single author, musician, or actor who hasn’t spent many hours pondering the question of how much to say in the public eye, especially in the age of Twitter and Facebook, when your words are very quickly and efficiently dispersed. This is a new topic for the YA community however and so it’s worth paying attention to how it’s being discussed.

I think it’s particularly interesting that this question surfaced in the weeks following an example of OSC’s vicious homophobia and also in the weeks after Jackson Pearce’s vlog criticizing Chick-fil-a President Dan Cathy for his opinions of gay marriage.

This is incredibly troubling to me, because it looks an awful lot like the question isn’t whether or not authors should be political outside of their books, but whether or not YA authors should be political about Certain Things.

There are many topics about which authors get their politics on without this question rearing its ugly head: the whitewashing of covers, the presence of LGBT characters, the insidious nature of the “pink cover” on novels written by women…. There are tons of examples. The most recent that comes to mind is Cassie Clare’s discussion of the response to the casting of Magnus, a topic that (disturbingly) echoed earlier discussion of Rue and the Hunger Games.

YA authors are frequently political, some even about gay marriage, but I can’t think of  other examples as pointed and as widely-viewed as OSC’s opinions or Pearce’s vlog. I think the fact that the question of whether or not authors should be political has surfaced around each of these occurrences is significant.

I don’t think this is a coincidence and I’m uncomfortable that this is starting to look like a pattern.

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that this puts authors in the difficult position of having to weigh their beliefs against their pocketbooks.

I’m extremely uncomfortable with the fact that this points to a very specific idea of censorship.

There is always something to be said for engaging in civil dialogue. I am completely in favor of passionate, difficult conversations that move hearts and minds. I think it’s important to ask these questions about art and the artist and politics and I think it’s extremely important to watch how they’re being asked.


  1. How strange. In the UK, it is considered totally OK for authors to speak out on any political issue at all. I can say I am pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-state religion, left wing, pro-Palestine - whatever, it doesn't matter. Is it really so different in the land that champions free speech?

    1. I think the best way to illustrate this is to direct you to the comments on Jackson's vlog. While I can't say whether or not the commenters are all from the US, but it's an example of what can happen when you speak on on THIS topic.

  2. A cabinet maker runs the same risk of losing customers if he puts a political sticker on his toolbox.

    Personally, I prefer my artists distant and mysterious, mostly because when I find out Joe Author is a giant asshole, it's difficult to love their work in the same way. Conversely, an artist who reads as kind or enlightened will get some slack. I'll work harder to build a bridge between myself and their work.

    One issue coloring this debate is the forum the Internet provides for dumb people to spout off, or trolls to inflame dialogue, etc. once you've sold 100k copies of your book/song/whatever why should you care what 50 nasty commenters have to say about it? I guess I'm saying that I think the format amplifies the noise to a point where it can sound like signal.

    In short gay rights are human rights and anyone who disagrees deserves to have to read the comments on YouTube.

    1. Not exactly the point I'm making, but I agree with this completely.

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  4. Maybe outspoken artists engender feelings of general discomfort sometimes in their fans, but I don't think that should enter into enjoyment of their work. I have two examples:

    Card himself writes an awful lot about naked tweenagers, mostly male. I have read the whole Ender series and all of the Homecoming books. This bothered me a bit when as I was reading, but the books were so good that, well, I really read all of the others just because of Ender's Game. I feel I owe him some consideration based on how much I enjoyed and continue to enjoy that one book, despite a lot of barely pubescent male nudity that seemed completely gratuitous. I guess I feel like it's a deal I made: It's OK for you to make me a little uncomfortable and grossed-out because you wrote something great.

    Conversely, I met John Updike several years ago after he gave a lecture at my college, and I have a signed program from that lecture for proof if anyone needs it. I am a great admirer of his short story "A&P" but, in person, he came across as a really off-putting letch. I continue to admire "A&P" but did not go on to read the Rabbit books for this reason. Perhaps it was unfortunate that I had already read "Brazil."

    In short, I think the decision to read or not read an author based on his/her personal views/behavior is entirely a choice of the audience and not the author's personal responsibility, and, as such, it varies on a case-by-case basis for each individual reader. Authors should speak their minds as anyone else would. the audience will decide what is acceptable and what is not by their choice to read or not read more.

    1. I agree with all of this and I think these are the things artists have to consider. My main point in posting this isn't really to debate whether it's right or wrong for an artist to be political (that's always a personal choice that rests solely with the artist), but to pay attention to when the question of whether or not we "should" be political is raised. I worries me when artists are policed (dare I say bullied?) into withholding their personal views about any given situation.