In Politics in Writing: Part One we examined the ways in which settings build certain types of political environments. We looked at how it provides an important reference point for moral and social questions, and creates the institutions that govern how characters interact with one another, not to mention the ideologies that prop up these institutions and attempt to tear them down. In this article, we’re going to look at another important aspect of our literary Capitol Hill – the character, and embark on a foray into the world of Personality Politics.
Human beings are political animals, an observation which doesn’t require any real explanation. We invented politics, and even when we appear disengaged from it, that can be interpreted in many political ways. This fact of life is almost impossible to escape, and it goes without saying, therefore, that characterisation plays an important role in defining the political direction of any work of fiction.
By their actions, the characters of your novel will change their world, and how they go about changing it will be influenced by their worldview. This worldview is in turn influenced by the setting, but its existence is fundamentally independent in many respects. Humans have the capacity to exercise logic and intuition, which is why society continues to advance intellectually. Society may have a great influence on the individual, but society is also made up of individuals, and they do not think like robots. They’re capable of critically analysing what they see around them, and learning from mistakes made in the past.
Thus politics has the capacity to create a number of interesting conflicts both between the individual and society, but also between individuals themselves. These conflicts can be portrayed as “live action” or metaphorically and symbolically, and the choice between the two falls down to the writer himself. However there are a number of important caveats which everyone would do well to observe.
Characters give readers important personal insights into the issues that affect the world, and this remains the same regardless of their position on any given issue. We live in a world of Personality Politics, where vice and virtue cloud our political discourse, and this is much the same in the world of characterisation. Every choice you make in building a character will send out a message to the reader, and not necessarily the one that you intend.
“Nobody is perfect,” it is often said. This may be an unprovable absolute, but by a process of logical exclusion, it’s safe to say that the population of morally perfect individuals is quite small and possibly even extinct. Nonetheless vice is scorned, and particularly strongly when it affects those in high places. This is not merely a feature of mass politics, but something as old as humanity itself. If it became known that a King slept with prostitutes, do you think that his subjects would be impressed? Probably not – assuming prostitution isn’t viewed differently to how it is in modern times.
Ad hominem may be looked upon with disdain in debating circles, but it is undeniably effective. Unsurprisingly it’s common in fiction for characters who espouse particular values that the author approves of to behave more virtuously than those who’s values the author holds to be suspect. Whether this is an entirely cynical exercise is subject to debate.
Firstly, there is a genuine fear of alienating the reader. If a character’s bad habits should invoke such disgust that the reader ignore what they have to say, then a lot of hard work is wasted. Secondly, there is a valid characterisation problem – actions speak louder the words. If the President of the USA is truly well meaning, then why won’t he stop cheating on his wife? Assuming of course, he shares traditional views of marital fidelity.
The opposite concern is also true. By giving villains redeeming qualities, the writer may legitimately fear that their ideas and methods could gain respectability. Yet however great these concerns are, there is another equal one – the creation of a Mary Sue or her “evil” and thoroughly unlikeable counterpart. Whether you like it or not, your characters cannot continuously occupy one extreme or the other of the moral platform, and it is up to ensure that this does not harm the message you are trying to put across.
Like everything else in writing, it’s all about balance and presentation – Clinton may have been a womaniser, but other aspects of his presidency might make up for these (to employ this overused euphemism) “indiscretions”. Hitler through his veganism may have cared a great deal for animal rights, but does that mitigate the murder of six million Jews? I doubt even Peta’s finest could sell that one.
Am I advocating moral relativism? Not exactly – rather that all fictional characters should be well rounded, but in political writing, this is especially essential. Make them flawed, but explain those flaws and never lose perspective. Constant and consistent goal setting should allow you to avoid the worst of the bumps along what is an admittedly rocky road.
Don’t worry, you’re in good company. I am – fortunately enough – an ‘absolute moron’ too.
I only started reading poetry for pleasure this Spring, actually – although I’ve written it for much longer as a tweenager, under the guise of ‘lyricz’ (ignoring common knowledge that I can’t actually sing and never intended to).
Most of us haven’t really approached it outside school hours, and since it’s rather a niche thing nowadays, once we’ve dumped the satchel and scruff-handed notes behind, most people actually have no clue how to go about it.
So, pretend you’re me. You’ve accidently stepped into a way-too-up-market-for-you, beachwood floored bookshop by chance, smooth jazz slurring outside a nearby radio (count the number of black people actually in the shop, I dare you), and picked up – inadvertently – a copy of Ginsberg because the cover looked cool. You leave as quickly as you can before someone noticed your jeans had holes in them.
You get home. You open it. It’s full of poems. You know how to read (please tell me you know how to read), and you know how to read books – in sizeable chunks, sittings, whilst getting involved with the narrative itself. But poetry? Well.
I’ve wondered to myself about this barrier. I think there’s some misconceptions and mystique about poetry which means that it remains a niche when it perhaps shouldn’t be. So, let’s take them apart:-
1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.
I must be part of the insane minority that actually enjoyed picking up a pencil and scribbling notes over poetry pages as a kid, picking out polysyllabic terminology such as assonance, epithets, polysyllabic, metrical feet, enjambment, polysyllabic. Maybe I’m just a sadist. I prefer the term ‘word mechanic’.
Needless to say my first instinct to Ginsberg was to dissect him. Tear him to pieces. But in doing so I missed a lot of fun that comes from the surface reading of poetry – listening the how the words bounce and flick about on your tongue, watching them slam into each other and spin backwards:-
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
Ignoring how canonical Ginsberg’s Howl has become in modern poetry and its endless parodies, and ignoring the vast swathes of context, melodrama, meaning which have perhaps transcended it in its original incarnation – ignoring all that pretention – there is a lot of fun simply to be found in the sheer exuberance of the language, its connotations, the pictures it paints, the emotions just on hearing the words without really recognising meaning behind them… Ginsberg, as evidenced, really isn’t a poet who writes by halves – although if you want more minimalistic writing, there is plenty out there.
An exercise I found myself doing at times was to lie back on by bed at midnight, Ginsberg held aloft in my left hand above my head, and swish through as many poems – or even excerpts of poems – aloud as possible. Part of the fun is just watching words dance about in weird ways. Poetry is often a lot of abstract wordplay and verseplay – emphasis on play.
It’s pissing about with language. And you don’t require pencilling remarks for that at all, to enjoy playing.
2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.
If prose is a long, winding river, starting with a spring, that eventually leads you to an ocean, with the joy being in the journey along the way and the small insights as to what lurks beneath the glimmering waters, then poetry is a natural well, a ravine. You can’t see to the bottom of it.
You could go diving for miles and die because of the crushing levels of water pressure and still not get to the bottom of it. You may never know for sure what’s actually kept down there.
You know what? That’s totally cool.
Part of poetry is being comfortable with the unknown. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable. You are not going to understand every nuance and technicality of a poem on one reading. That would be boring – you might understand what’s in a muddy puddle but you can’t return to it several times and expect to find anything different in terms of content.
Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean – for the writers out there – that poetry has to be incomprehensible to hold depth and flavour. It’s not a puzzle. It’s about conveying something in an interesting way.
A good poem – regardless of complication or how many layers you toss about it – will provoke thought or feeling enough for a reader to return to it again and again to attempt to re-experience it and see it from different perspective. A good way, actually of trying to get a handle of each line and each phrase and how it comes together is actually learning something by heart – line by line, one at a time.
Some poems might simply just be pure ‘play’, and little more than experimenting with emotions and ideas conjured up by that play – but even still, further treasures, witty asides, jabs you missed, references, new ideas – can be found on re-reading. If something’s a tad more ‘difficult’ (which doesn’t translate into better, regardless of what you’re sold), and you don’t know what exactly a poem’s trying to do, it’s no crime.
The journey in poetry, I believe, is not in following the river, but repeated dives into the pool to find for the pearls you missed out first time around. And part of the joy is the journey of re-reading and finding something new each time.
3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.
Well, that’s just daft, isn’t it?
A lot of poets put in loaded words all the time – deliberate double meanings – meaning that there’s an extra dimension to the original meaning. Sounds much less complicated than it actually is.
Double Entendre being a prime example which plenty of rock and hip-hop songs have mastered over the years (and sadly plenty have not). Simple things like running motifs – mentions, of say, clocks and datelines and time – can add information to what seems like a different picture literally.
And sometimes it’s ambiguous. Sometimes there is no ‘right answer’ in regards to the poem. And that’s something you have to learn to embrace and become comfortable with. Poets view their work in different ways: some ask questions, and some answer them.
Which does bring us to the other side of the coin. Whilst some poets embrace vagueness, others don’t:-
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Phillip Larkin’s manner here is rather direct, with a smattering of humour. Poetry often puts people off through its supposedly ‘artsy fartsy’ persona, but that avoids the fact that a lot of matter-of-a-fact poetry exists (and can also be filled with depth – certainly, the tone of the poet doesn’t necessarily speak for the content).
Often a lot of poems will have a firm direction – and a few ideas floating about it – although it’s incorrect to say that things are about mutant space octopi when they are obviously not. Art might be subjective but that doesn’t necessarily mean all interpretations hold equal weight.
So, to briefly recap:-
1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.
2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.
3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.
is all bullshit. Poetry is accessible, modern, and everywhere (what do you think music is full of if not for bad poetry?) – it’s a case of finding poets and styles you like and enjoy and tearing away old misconceptions. Because ultimately it can be fun and rewarding; it enriches the soul. And that, in a nutshell, is poetry for morons. Morons have souls to be enriched too, y’know.
And welcome, or welcome back, everyone! For those completely new new-comers, Hortorian shut its doors on August 20th 2011, after a broadly successful one and a half year run. The reasons for its closure are many – hacking, drama, slowly declining activity – but above all, I needed a break. Hortorian had accomplished a lot, but the end of the road had been reached. Afterwards, I vowed not to run another forum again.
And this vow is one that I’ve technically kept. Hortorian is back, but this time I’m not in the one in charge. In fact the only reason I’m writing this opening post is for nostalgia’s sake. This isn’t the only difference between the old and the new. The gulf between the staffing team and the membership is going to be abolished, and we’re looking for newer and more innovative ways to showcase our art and writing.
This is pretty much our content hub, where articles about art, writing, the universe and everything will be published. Hortorian has a dedicated content-writing team, to provide you with everything form the super-serious to the witty.
The Hortorian Coffeehouse is pretty much our community forum, and the choice of name is pretty significant. The goal is to provide a friendly, laid-back atmosphere where writers and artists can network and share their creations. Although rules regarding content and respect apply and will be enforced, there is no formal moderating staff.
ReWrite is the biggest single development in this new incarnation, though it’s yet to be publicly released. I can’t tell you much about it yet, because the developer is a convicted serial killer who’s escaped death row, and will murder me in my bed if I breath a word.* But trust me, it will be cool!
I really hope you enjoy this new incarnation! A lot of work has gone into it, and as with all evolving projects, a lot of work still has to be done. But right now, I’m off to grab a mug of tea from the Hortorian Coffeehouse! You’re more welcome to come for one too!
*May or may not be true. There really is no way of telling who someone could be on the internet, is there?
It is often considered a dangerous folly to throw politics into ones writing. Anyone who indicates their wish to go down this path will often be confronted with the spectre of Atlas Shrugged, as a dire warning of the potential consequences of such intellectual meddling. Of course those who are revolted by Ayn Rand’s objectivism are also likely to have read Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty Four, a book which both challenges the mind and raises more questions about authoritarian regimes and the relationship they have with their citizens, than it answers. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), Nineteen-eighty Four is rightly ranked among the best novels of the twentieth century.
This series of articles will attempt to clear up some of the misconceptions about the false dichotomy between politics and fiction, and explain how the two are invariably connected. For as long as man is a political animal, then his art will reflect this simple fact. Even the most apolitical of stories will have some form of statement to make, even if it is as banal as “the world is virtually a utopia, and all I need to do to fill this gap in my life is to find a lover, and have a few healthy children.” Whether this statement is valid or not is open to question, yet its implicit championing of the family and the importance of love and procreation as a means to finding happiness makes it political, if uncontroversial.
Politics in Writing: Part One – The Setting
The setting of any story is important for a number of reasons, and is something which all authors should take special care to develop. It creates a cultural context for the story, providing the reader with an important point of reference. This encompasses everything from the values, customs and traditions of the society, and to the state itself and the world at large. This complements the character’s own values and goals, and how he or she expresses it. If the main character of a given story is a vegan who volunteers in an animal rescue centre, then it would prove enlightening to know how common vegetarianism and volunteerism are.
Firstly, the setting forms the basis for all the established institutions within the book. Institutions matter because they govern how individuals, groups and communities interact with one another, and provide another important frame of reference. Is the government a democracy or a monarchy, or something else? How do local communities organise themselves? Does organised religion exist? What form does the family unit take? Does mass education exist? Who’s standing up for needs of the working classes? Who’s standing up for the self-made men and women, who’re being taxed out of existence to pay for the great unwashed? Maybe the institutions able to deal with the challenges, of the day and need to be torn down in a French-revolution style bloodbath!
Of course no story has any overriding obligation to concern itself with answering all or even some of these questions, but the very existence of institutions within society ought to be at least recognised by its author. More on this will follow in point four.
This brings me to my second point: the importance of ideology as a point of reference. Ideologies partially derive their legitimacy from the perceived failures and successes of the institutions in managing the world. If it wasn’t for unequal wealth distribution and poverty in the early capitalist system, we wouldn’t have communism. If it wasn’t for the failure of the nobility to take advantage of the industrial revolution, we wouldn’t have capitalism. So we see that when an ideology appears deficient in solving the problems of the time, it will be either modified or replaced. These struggles happen on a daily basis: the liberal who supports gay marriage, for example, subscribes to a particular ideology, as does the conservative that opposes him. The social democrat, who proposes in universal healthcare as a means of improving equality and social mobility, is opposed by the liberal, who proudly champions the free market.
And now we come to my third point: the means by which ideas (and by extension, ideologies), once created, are expressed, shared and destroyed are perhaps a more basic consideration. The print revolution and the spread of literacy indirectly led to the Protestant reformation, and the wars of religion. More recently, the Internet is often cited one of the main driving force behind the Arab spring.
Technology isn’t the only factor at play here though. There are also cultural considerations – some cultures may place a great importance on rhetoric as a means of persuasion than others, newspapers might be boycotted for their invasion of the private lives of celebrities, the Internet might be a gigantic pornography network, and books might only be the preserve of the introverted, academic elite. Yet in the end of the day the principle is the same – ideas originate somewhere, and must be spread for them to have any impact.
Now, once these ideas are disseminated, we get to my fourth point – what response, if any, do they provoke? This relates to my point about institutions as well, since our judgement of new ideas is influenced by our experiences within the established order. Perhaps members of a family will debate Karl Marx’s latest writings over dinner, or perhaps these debates will take place in the local political party or trade union. It is also possible that existing institutions will be abandoned in favour of 1960s style mass protests, strikes and sit-ins. Another relevant consideration is how the establishment view these new ideas, and how it reacts to them? Will it respond with dialogue, repression, capitulation or a hostile stand-off?
What I have presented so far may seem complicated, and one may be inclined to dismiss it as the sole preserve of political fiction. Yet escapist fantasy literature is strewn with evil, brutal empires, which commit acts of torture, murder and genocide on a regular basis. We’ve seen spy thrillers in which the “good guy”, an employee of liberal democracy, heroically thwarts the evil designs of a repressive (and probably communist) autocracy. Stories in which young adults seek to gain independence from their parents are also invariably political, given their portrayal of the family in the face of an inter-generational struggle.
Though politics might not be the main over-arching theme of many novels, it would be wrong to assume that their settings are free from value-judgements, expressed or implied. To those of you who wish to avoid controversy, the important lesson here is to identify these value-judgements and to ensure that they do not offend your target audience. For those of us who are more adventurous, we can expand upon these normative judgements through use of narrative and character development.
More on this to follow in Part Two: Characterisation
I like to lecture people. I do. I like to pretend that I’m wise and and that my opinion is something respected. So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to write an article and post it. This is what you’re going to do: You’re going to sit there and read it, dammit. My advice has value!
Something that I find to be common among the Preachers of the Internet is that when giving writing advice, they give pretty much useless advice. Why? Because they give advice on how to be creative.
This doesn’t work.
The creative process is a highly individualized process. I am, in a nutshell, a creative pluralist. Do you usually have everything planned out before you write? Or is it something you’re going to do because you received advice like that? I mean, if you like to spend a whole lot of time plotting it before hand, and that makes it easier for you, great.
But if you have to FORCE yourself to plot, well… I would suggest you try writing by the seat of your pants. Take me, for instance. I do a little bit of a mix. I spent about a year and a half crafting the mythos for something that I write on occasion (Pillar of Heaven, for interested parties) before I had any idea of where I was going with it. I would come up with plots every now and then, but none of them held any weight. But when I came up with a basic premise for the plot- the beginning and the end- with a few twists, I pretty much stopped plotting. I got a basic idea of what I was going to do with a few characters, who they were and whatnot, but my background-work stopped there. Ever since, I’ve been writing as I go along, with a general direction kept in mind, going off on whatever tangents and creating entirely new characters because, dammit, I want to! (Of course, make sure that you have an idea of what purpose they’ll serve, too.)
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. When you get everything set up before hand, it’s a game of dominoes, essentially, except that you have to make sure you keep writing. It tends to produce a neater, more cohesive narrative. Prematurely polished, you might say. Writer’s Block is more of a “I don’t want to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” than a “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing”. Of course, it contains elements of “I don’t know what to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” as well.
On the other hand, writing by the seat of your pants can produce a whole lot of dead ends. What you do is you go off on tangents and introduce new elements and characters and locales as you go along. Yes, that’ll make the writing process a sort of excitingly-spontaneous, “I don’t even know what’s happening next!” thing. And, on the other hand, it’ll make polishing a chore. There will be a LOT of fat you’ll have to trim, asides and tangents that didn’t work out. But quite a few people don’t like to work that way, meticulously working everything out in advance.
At the risk of sounding/being hypocritical, I think it’s best to TRY to retain an idea of where you’re going. If you lack direction, it’s probably going to show and your work will come out as a jumbled mess. So, if you can, understand what your work is, and try to figure out how it’s going to end, and then try to get there. The journey does not beat the destination, nor does the destination render the journey without meaning. Both are equally important.
Moral of the story? When writing, do your own thing. Do whatever you can to get the writing on paper. Because if you’ve succeeded in writing something and finishing it, you’re already better than most of us, so bully for you. No, you don’t have to do it the way sponsored by the author of this article. If I said you did, I’d be defeating my own argument (a somewhat counter-productive activity, in my esteemed opinion). If you DO do it the way I do it, don’t be an ass. Don’t say that your way is the one, true way because when it comes to bringing forth creation from the bubbling primordial soup of the mind, the only way is the way that works for the individual. And that goes for you too, Guy-Who-Can’t-Seize-The-Moment.
An alternative explanation for why I like to write this way is possibly because I’m just incredibly lazy. Knowing myself, this is not an unlikely theory. This blog article? Pulled out of my rather large butt.
I bid you pleasant mental images, reader.