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Tim Chapman Asks Is All Art Political?

Time Chapman is the author of the Sean McKinney series and the editor the literary journal LitBop. You can find out more about him on his website timchapmanauthor.com, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and find his books here.

Do artists have a responsibility to speak to the human condition? Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks so. In his December 2019 article in The Atlantic he writes, “Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it.” He goes on to use The Sound of Music as an example. The story of the singing von Trapp family, he points out, isn’t so much do re me as it is an indictment of fascism.

Examples of political novels for essay by Tim Chapman

Toni Morrison takes the idea a step further. In a 2008 feature in Poets and Writers magazine she calls out her fellow authors. “Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

Are Miranda and Morrison right? And what do we mean when we say something is “political.” Is politics merely voting every few years for the yutz who might inflict the least amount of harm on the world? Is it community involvement? Is it culture? At a time when people are voting for or against book bans, censorship, teaching uncomfortable histories, and recognizing issues of sex and gender, I’d say that culture is as political as it’s ever been.

I recently finished reading Saffron Street, a middle-grade novel by fellow Blackbird writer Sherrill Joseph. In it, a group of thirteen-year-old friends, the Botanic Hill Detectives, travel to Hawaii in search of a missing black pearl necklace. In the course of their investigation, they learn about the bombing of Pearl Harbor that precipitated U.S. involvement in World War II and the resulting internment of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent by our government. Joseph’s novel blends a fun adventure with an instructive, and political, message. Like Santayana and Churchill warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Are stories in the detective canon political? Sherlock Holmes? Phillip Marlowe? Maybe. Conan Doyle’s and Chandler’s sleuths often traveled between the classes, touching on the economic disparities of their times. Or, as Freud may have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

There are, of course, plenty of people who don’t want artists to comment on politics or culture. In 2003, the country group Dixie Chicks voiced their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and were told, ironically, to “Shut up and sing.”

Book Cover. The Blue Silence by Tim Chapman. Murder New Orleans Style. Woman underwater.
The Blue Silence by Tim Chapman

So what, if any, responsibility does the artist have to acknowledge the political in our lives? One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, is famous for infusing his fiction with criticism of humankind. He doesn’t charge his fellow authors with this responsibility, but, as a witness to, and survivor of, the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, felt it was his personal duty. In a 1973 interview in Playboy magazine he states, “Mainly, I think (writers) should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change.” He would have agreed with Spider-man creator Stan Lee that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

But what makes us purveyors of little amusements think our opinions are worth foisting on our readers? Most of us aren’t political scientists or economists. We’ve simply learned to arrange groups of letters in ways that tell stories. Isn’t it hard enough to keep an audience interested for two or three hundred pages? My own writings are attempts to entertain, infused with small takes on subjects like bigotry, class, and greed. Putting up with a little pontification is the price (along with a few bucks) my readers have to pay. I often wonder if these are the parts where they skip ahead. ;^)

What about you? Readers: do you prefer an erudite tale or do you read to escape the woes of the world? Writers: does your writing reflect your political/cultural views, or do you save that for dinner table conversations?

Tim Chapman

Tim Chapman is the author of thrillers A Trace of Gold and The Blue Silence. You can find out more about him on his website, timchapmanauthor.com/, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 12 Comments

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    It absolutely depends on how it’s done. I’ve read fiction where I agree with what the writer is commenting on through the character, but it was so in-your-face that it bored me into giving up on the book.

  2. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    I don’t shy away from being political, but whatever our politics are, they come through our own personal filter. Some readers will agree and love it, others will hate it (I’ve had a few readers leave comments critical of my ‘left-wing’ PoV). Having said that, if we are not writing a political story, I usually stick to a more neutral stance–not changing my politics, but just not spouting them.

  3. Margaret Mizushima

    These are great questions, Tim. As a reader, I usually choose stories that help me relax and escape into a new place, stories that entertain me and give me a break from the daily grind. But I’m not opposed to reading stories that shine a light on political, social, or domestic issues, and often stick with authors who can deliver both spotlighting and entertainment in the same book.

    As a writer, this is exactly what I set out to do in every episode: I try to spotlight a social or family issue while immersing the reader in an outdoor setting that they might not typically get to experience. Thanks for a thought provoking post this week!

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    saralynrichard

    You’ve posed some great questions here. Early on in my writing career, I took a class from a writing teacher who urged writers to steer clear of politics. “You cannot afford to offend/lose half of your audience by inserting your political views into your stories.” My attempts to heed that advice were fraught with so many obstacles. Fiction is about people in society. Their problems and conflicts can always be construed politically, even if the author doesn’t intend that. I can’t count how many times readers have approached me, sure that one of my characters was based on Donald Trump, even though I wrote the book long before Trump was in politics. On the other hand, I heard Joyce Carol Oates say, at a conference, that writers need to write what is most important, what the world needs to hear. I agree that authors have a responsibility to write truthfully, ethically, and whole-heartedly. If that equals being political, then so be it.

  5. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I like my entertainment to be escapism, avoiding things like Game of Thrones because I don’t want to deal with the story’s politics. That said, I teach Shakespeare as political propaganda because no one writes (or reads) in a vacuum, and you have to address the reality of the timeframe.
    I loved Sherrill’s Saffron Street because of the lessons taught. On the other hand, I re-read Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot and could barely stand the author’s soapboxing (even if I agree with it), which I did not notice when I first read it. Subtlety, I suppose, is what I long for.

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      Avanti Centrae

      Excellent question in these polarized times. I prefer my reading and writing to have lessons more germain to the human condition, and like some other authors, prefer a subtle approach to “the moral of the story.”

  6. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Great post, Tim. I grew up in the ’60s when musicians, artists, and writers proudly displayed the banner of Change Agent. From that and from my experience as a teacher, it seems nature to me to infuse my writing with the world around me or its history for kids’ sakes. The late children’s author Beverly Cleary would not have liked my work. She believed that kids’ books should be humorous and entertaining, not filled with lessons. But for me, once a teacher, always a teacher. I just try to “sugar-coat” the learning now by meshing it with, I hope, a fun mystery. And thanks for the shoutout about my book Saffron Street: Island Danger.

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    Laurie Buchanan

    Great questions, Tim! I prefer my reading entertainment to be escapism. It’s what I dish up to readers of the Sean McPherson novels as well.

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    Laurie's Story

    What a thought-provoking post, Tim. Thank you. As a writer, I can’t help but infuse my work with commentary, however subtle, about the issues that fire me up. As a reader, though, I tend to want to forget those same issues.

  9. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Excellent conversation starter, Tim. And I wonder, can’t all art be skewed to find the viewpoint you’re looking for? I prefer escapism as entertainment too, but I won’t actively avoid something (or a topic) because it’s too sensitive or it bothers me. As Writers we make a choice to put our messages out there. Whatever that message may be. Readers, I believe will see themselves in it, or not. The experience (in art) is two ways. What is portrayed, and the lens through which it is viewed. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for.

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    Alan Abrams

    let’s not forget that the converse is true; that politics is an art. For all that is despicable about his politics, Trump is an accomplished artist.

    Conversely, politics without art is mean and ineffective. Just as a poem that is purely polemical is like death warmed over.

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