Zestful Blog Post #238
Writer’s Digest magazine has just published a feature I wrote called “Should You Go There?” It concerns writing about politics and religion in your fiction—how to decide if you should do it, and how to handle it if you want to give it a go. As we in the U.S. are about to celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday when families meet, eat, and sometimes squabble, I thought it would be appropriate to excerpt some of the article for today’s Zestful Writing post:
Most of us learn fairly early in life that starting a discussion about politics or religion with a stranger will lead to one of three things: cheerful agreement; silence ranging from uncomfortable to icy; disagreement ranging from mild contradiction to fisticuffs. The odds vary.
But what if you’re a writer of fiction? If your work gets out into the world, it/you will be ‘talking’ to strangers all the time.
Why do so many authors shy away from dealing with politics and religion? Several good reasons:
► Those subjects are loaded with strong emotion. Many of us picked up religious and political tenets at a young age—or rejected them. In maturity, you figure things out for yourself, and it can be a complex road.
► It’s hard to be well informed, and impossible to be perfectly informed. Nobody has witnessed every conflict, read every history book, examined every religious text, and prayed to every god.
► Religious and political references—especially political—can date a work of fiction. Which can be fine if you’re writing a Civil War romance and somebody swears “by the President’s beard!” But if you’re writing a contemporary novel and a character condemns “that guy in the White House”—well, in a year or few, nobody’s going to be sure who that character is talking about. And using the names of real political or religious leaders timestamps your work from the start.
► Readers can become alienated if they feel pressured or manipulated. They might also write a nasty review or ask for their money back.
► Doctrine can be tedious. Hammering on the rightness of your beliefs in your fiction—by putting your pet dogma into the mouths of your characters—gets predictable, and therefore boring, fast.
That’s the downside. What’s to be gained by embracing themes of religion/politics?
► Let’s say ten people read your book today. If five of them are either left cold or ticked off by your biases, you’ve risked losing them. However, if the five that remain are precisely the demographic you want, well, then, that’s different. When readers find an author whose work resonates with their ideology, they can become loyal, die-hard fans.
► If you lead an active, engaged life, you feel the impact of political ideas, of government, of the movements within your particular faith or of the movements within other faiths. Therefore, if you want to write about your world, you may feel moved to explore such themes in your art. After all, we artists are supposed to be pursuers of all things true and real. We must find things out for ourselves—and art is our vehicle.
► These themes, if done with sensitivity and restraint, can bring great depth and immediacy to fiction.
Let’s look at some fiction that successfully navigated these dual minefields—what they did, how they did it, and how you can do it too.
Realize that the issue is not by itself the story.
Upton Sinclair’s progressive-era novel The Jungle exposed the dreadful conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry around the turn of the 20th century. He hit lots of targets in this one, and became famous. But the reason the book sold so well was because he wrote a good story. The plot follows one man, a dirt-poor Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus, as he makes his way into the dangerous ‘jungle’ of inhuman working conditions and slum life of his new country. Sinclair took pains to make Rudkus sympathetic—a good man caught in a nightmare of false promises and treachery. However, Rudkus does make mistakes. He permits wishful thinking to overcome his judgment, he takes to drink and self-pity—and thus is not entirely angelic, and not entirely blameless for his pain. Everyone can relate to this!
The takeaway: Trace the story of one person against the odds, and don’t make your hero unrealistically perfect for fear that readers will reject the story, saying, “Huh, look, he wasn’t as smart as he should have been.” Perceptive readers will not throw the baby of your story out with the bathwater of realism; they will appreciate reading about a flawed hero thrown against a series of challenges.
Also read: The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, The Yellow Wallpaper (short story) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
[Good old research can always help when tackling these subjects. Here be the reading room at the NY Public Library. How can such a grand place feel cozy at the same time?]
Challenge the status quo by seeming to support it.
Flannery O’Connor was, personally, as religious as they come, and religion infuses much of her work. But she never set out to tell readers what to believe. In the enduringly disturbing novel Wise Blood, she explores mysticism, madness, courage, and cowardice. Although the thirst for redemption is a major theme, O’Connor also rams home the ugly turns faith can take: hypocrisy, violent fanaticism, and self-justification/self-deception. The journeys of the disillusioned preacher Hazel Motes and the terrifyingly clueless and increasingly unhinged Enoch Emery are compelling for their unpredictability and backwoods brutality. Faith is questioned throughout, and answered in varying degrees of certitude. When one turns against one’s own tribe, humans know on a very elemental level that trouble is just around the corner.
The takeaway: Let your characters plunge down their spiritual paths, even if zealotry is the end game. Allow them crises of faith. In real life, believers question themselves; nonbelievers question themselves. A life-changing event can shake a foundation, or create one. Also, be aware that faith and religion are not one and the same. Characters can have lots of spiritual adventure figuring that out.
Also read: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
For the rest of the article, hike out to your local newsstand...
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