This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.
I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass.
There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.
I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.
Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.
I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.
Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.
We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.
The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.
I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.
Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.