Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Politics and Religion in Writing

I sold a story in 1995 called "Crypto," and I was looking at it yesterday with the idea that I might try to sell it as a reprint. But there's a problem. That problem is politics and religion.

The story is meant to be humorous, but in making its jokes it pokes fun at political correctness and at televangelists. It also picks on congress. I was careful with the “congress” jokes to not attack one particular party, but the televangelist jokes could possibly be seen as attacking the more fundamentalist types of religion. And in today’s cultural climate, people seem to be unusually rabid in responding to even the hint of an attack on their politics or religion. Even when the story was first published a couple of readers reviewed it negatively because they took it to have an “agenda.” Honestly, there was no agenda, just an attempt at some jokes. In fact, I was completely surprised that anyone would have thought I had an agenda, although in retrospect I’m surprised that I was surprised.

I have a friend who got into trouble with some readers for her “agenda,” even though it was a “character” in her book that expressed some anti-government sentiment. I at least thought readers would not take everything the characters say or think as evidence of the writer’s beliefs. I was wrong. And in “Crypto,” the jokes (or insults) come through the narrative, which is easier to attribute to the writer’s personal feelings.

In the end, I decided that “Crypto” is going to become a trunk story. I’m going to put it away for now because I know that one reader who feels attacked is very likely to share that feeling with other readers. That outcome might not be good.

How about you? Do you avoid issues of politics and religion in your writing? In your everyday discussions? Does it turn you off if what you’re reading expresses a different perspective on politics and religion from your own? I’m curious.

Finally, in other news, Robert Swartwood is hosting an “Ultimate Flash Fiction Package,” in which you will have a chance to win 120 bucks worth of books. Check it out here.


laughingwolf said...

i've reached the age/stage where i don't care... if folk want to be upset by what i write and/or post, THEY own those feelings, not i...
long ago learned i can't please everybody, so i don't even try

i've lost a number of 'followers' for posting things i wanted to share, things i may not agree with, but needed posting...

no amount of rationalizing will change some opinions, cuz that's what they are: opinions... and everybody's entitled to at least one

Ron Scheer said...

In most parts of the world, writers are doing prison time for giving (or seeming to give) voice to unapproved agendas. Or worse, they've been permanently silenced. Here, "the market" has that power.

Chris Benjamin said...

I'm far too politically minded to avoid it, and my favourite fiction delves into politics. It's hard to do without coming off as preachy, but it's possible. The work of Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind.

Chris Benjamin said...

I just read Ron Scheer's comment - very astute.

sage said...

Obviously, I don't avoid religion in much of my writing, I do avoid some politics... Do you know L. E. Modesitt's writings? In several of his works (Parafaith War in particular), he deals with politics and religion in a way that sets out to start a good conversation.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, yes, and not all opinions are informed ones for sure.

Ron, that's true. I didn't really think of it that way. Guess I'm pretty lucky in that regard. Good input.

Benjibopper, I do have political commentary in my works at times, but in fantasy it can be disguised pretty well. Crypto was near term SF and that is probably part of the problem. The political and religious landscape is easily recognized.

Sage, I haven't read his work thoguh I've heard good things about it. I'll have to give it a try.

Ty said...

Charles, yes, I quite often intentionally avoid blatantly taking sides in my writing. 10 or 15 years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. Now, far too many people are far too thin skinned.

As an example, a year or so ago I had a flash science fiction piece set in the near future in Iraq. There was a battle scene in which a soldier sort of spazzed out and had to be taken back to the medics. Part of the gist of the story was this soldier had an implant that gave him some false memories, memories that theoretically were meant to urge him to fight better and harder. I never identified the soldier's nationality or race.

But at least two readers gave me grief over the story, one of them e-mailing me with quite the hateful diatribe about how un-American I am because U.S. soldiers don't need anything to make them fight better and harder for their country. Um, I'm sorry that's all you took from my story?

Just sick of the polarization in this country nowadays.

Travis Erwin said...

I used to, but more and more I am letting my mind fly. PC or not.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I know. It really bothers me. I often will have flickers of disagreement with something that I read in a book but I don't let one little thing like that detract from my enjoyment of the whole, and I don't take it personally.

Travis Erwin, I'm actually moving in the opposite direction from you. Most of the time it probably won't be a problem but it is hurtful when it happens.

Heff said...

Stirring the shitpot often leads to SUCCESS. Screw 'em. Put it out.

Steve Malley said...

No group of braying jackasses (or their Caribou Barbie leader) should be allowed to stifle civilized discourse-- including the discourse of satire.

That the asshats have been so successful makes me deeply, profoundly grateful that I emigrated...

Steve Malley said...

As you can see, I'm all about keeping my opinions to myself for fear of offending... ;-p

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is sad, isn't it? That we no longer have the freedom to poke fun or satirize aspects of our society.

ArtSparker said...

Ah, I don't know...people who are good at that sort of thing can find something to be offended at anyway. It makes me sad, I understand that you have no stake in getting people all riled up though.

This blog, which I looked at just before yours

quotes from a book of aphorisms by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg:

Nothing can contribute more to the peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatsoever.

Although her most relevant post to yours is the third one in, titled "The Mob is my Shepherd".

Charles, meet Sarah Jane.

Deka Black said...

In everyday conversation i avoid this themes. Mostly due to the fact in Spain there is till many people who remember the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. This, and also, the fact this two themes, in my experience, bring to light the worst manners and behavior of the people.

In my writing... never really. Maybe i should do it. The hard part is how to talk about it without look like a total idiot.

Evan Lewis said...

I wrote a story dealing with politics a couple of years ago. It almost sold, and I'm now glad it didn't. No matter what you say, someone is bound to take offense.

Shauna Roberts said...

I sometimes include politics or religion in what I write, but I always think carefully about it. I don't want to be slipshod and say something that I can't defend or that offends someone I didn't mean to offend.

As for whether reading different perspectives turns me off, it depends. I'll happily read George Will—even though I disagree with almost every conclusion he comes to—because he's entertaining, makes his arguments in a logical manner, and helps me understand the conservative viewpoint.

I avoid most other conservative nonfiction writers because the poor logic of their arguments, the gratuitous insults, and their poor understanding of the world outside their own little bubble infuriates me.

In fiction, I'll read what's interesting. I may cringe at the sexist or racist or homophobic parts, but if the author entertains me, I'll keep reading. In the real world, people have all different kinds of opinions, so I think they should in fiction as well, even if I don't agree with them.

Oscar Case said...

I don't know. I thought "the market" was large enough to absorb a few jokes or slights against certain things in society. And I don't understand why readers think its a personal belief of an author all the time when he has a character say something that doesn't go along with everyone. Blah!

G. B. Miller said...

I have yet to introduce politics and religion to my writings, and as for my blog, the few political posts I've made had a narrow focus of state guv'ment (which I'm a part of these days), and as for religion, I have a tendency not to touch on at all, simply because of the lasting negativity I'd experienced in the chat rooms.

I am relatively open minded about both, but I'm very careful on how I state my positions, especially on Facebook where a few people have a tendency to react very negatively to any comments that deviate from what is considered the norm in their circle of friends.

Deka Black said...

Must say it: I'm right now very proud of comment on this blog: First time in my life i see talk about this theme in a educate, well-mannered way.

Travis Cody said...

Some of the poems I've written that seem the most intensely personal or autobiographical have no representation to anything in my life. Sometimes the words just string together because they do.

I guess we don't always write what we specifically know or think, eh? Sometimes we just make stuff up and call it fiction.

Unknown said...

I am a pastor's wife and have had my work rejected because "You have negative traits in Christian characters. We can't publish that." I was absolutely shocked because the people I know in the church have both negative and positive traits. I am a bit shocked at the dishonesty of the "Christian Press"

I guess everyone wants their agenda to look lily white but unless writers can be honest (even in fiction) I don't see the point.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I write what I feel the muse tells me to write, and I don't intend an agenda-though I am chock-full of opinions.
I suspect some people will see what they want to see for good or bad.
When it comes to reading, I believe in a very diverse range of authors, otherwise I could become short-sighted in my own work and viewpoint.

SQT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SQT said...

The only thing that bothers me is when people trade in clich├ęs. I consider Steve a friend, but his comment here irritates the heck out of me because it falls right back on name-calling without offering anything substantial. Isn't that what we're really talking about here? I mean, how can you bemoan the loss of civilized discourse without showing a little civility? That's all I'm saying.

I think we want to see all points of view expressed in fiction the way we want to see them in real life. Treat different views as if they belong to a thinking human being and you might find that they'll return the favor.

Cloudia said...

I try to build from the commonalities.

Warm Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, you’re right about that. Sometimes spectacular success, although there seems to be some trick to it that I’m not sure about.

Steve Malley, in some cases it can certainly be embarrassing. In many cases it appears to be nothing more than a power play. And both sides can be guilty, although right now I’m really irritated by what some of the more radical Republican candidates are saying.

pattinase (abbott), people seem to be steadily losing their sense of humor and accompanying that with a sense of underlying anger at any who are different from them.

ArtSparker, that’s true. It doesn’t really take anything to get some folks offended. I’ll check out the blog.

Deka Black, I talk about them only with folks I know and trust. I never bring such things up in unfamiliar company.

Evan Lewis, I don’t understand how folks can often be reasonable in one setting and totally rabid nutjobs in another. Humans are just very strange.

Shauna Roberts, the gratuitous insults and personal attacks really turn me off. It happens on both sides, unfortunately. I agree with you on George Will. He says what he thinks in an organized way and I can enjoy that. Unlike Rush Limbaugh who simply goes for the outrageous insult.

Oscar, I’ve actually argued with a lot of readers over how you can’t make judgments about a writer’s personal opinions from the opinions of their characters. A lot of people understand that but some certainly don’t.

G, I’m pretty open minded about religion. Somewhat less so about politics. But I get easily frustrated with people to whom logical reasoning makes no difference. Often those are the ones who seem to go for the insult then. I was raised to think that the one who slings the personal insult first loses. That doesn’t seem how it is judged today.

Deka Black, definitely some good discussion, and some reasoned responses here. I like it.

Travis Cody, exactly so. I sometimes imagine a philosophical or religious position that I don’t actually hold and try to write from that perspective. It’s challenging and interesting.

Carole, very good point. I often see folks who paint religion as all bad, and others who defend it as all good. Well religion involves human beings, and nothing human is going to be that black and white. A little self evaluation is needed on both sides.

David J. West, I read a very wide range of folks too, with a lot of different opinions. I’ve had people ask me, how could you read so and so? And I’m more likely to say, how could I not? Reading something that isn’t exactly what you believe doesn’t mean you will suddenly lose yourself.

SQT, It seems to come down sometimes to who threw the first stone. But if we really start looking into that we’ll never find out who did it first. It’s more important that we try to tend the bruises and stop the next person from pitching a rock. It is not an easy thing to do, though. There are so many kneejerk reactions it seems.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, that seems best.

SQT said...

Charles, something occurred to me after I thought about this a bit.

It's been said that fear and greed are the two human emotions that motivate people. And right now there's a lot of fear going around.

The political debate is nasty on both sides right now. It isn't Steve's politics that got me going, it's the tone. I guess I'm just kind of up-to-here with all at the moment. (Sorry for picking on you Steve)

What I wonder is how political and religious fiction sells via the social climate. Do publishers stay away from those topics when people are scared? Something tells me it would be far easier to sell something controversial when the economy is good and people have the luxury of being relaxed in their opinions.

Jessica Ferguson said...

I hate to see you put any of your writing away for fear of offending, but it's a crazy world out there so maybe for your own safety. :) Lots of anger these days. A writer I know got some horrible letters because a character in one of her books accidently killed a dog. Key word--ACCIDENTLY. And it's just fiction!

We're living in a 'be careful what you say and do' world. It's a little scary.

the walking man said...

OH HELL NO>>>Amp that bad boy up to max velocity and publish it under a pseudonym on my blog! They can all go to hell, the very same one that want us in.

Dayana Stockdale said...

Sometimes I get the desire to attack people with my words. Heheehe.

I think that being concerned about 'Crypto' upsetting someone is not a good reason to keep it in the trunk. Maybe there's something else about it that merits trunkedness, or maybe it deserves light and fresh air?

Obviously, only you know that answer, but I would change the criteria for the decision.

There will be things in our books that upset people. The horny ones want sex. The prudent ones want kissing on the cheek. And so on.

But it sounds like your story does take some hits at specific groups of people. Maybe the reason its in the trunk is because you felt that way then but don't feel that way now?

As for me, I try to work through my beliefs and my agenda in my stories. Using, countering, questioning, but never NEVER injecting.

I was raised Christian, but am now a new age/spiritual/fairy-loving psychic. My current fantasy WIP has undercurrents of Christianity, so even though I'm not trying to, I bet it'll make the Christians happy. Funny how that works right?

Unknown said...

I agree with laughingwolf except I don't ever blog about politics or religion; however, get me into a conversation and you'll find I'll highly opinionated on both subjects.

BernardL said...

I never avoid controversial subjects because the 'offended' are everywhere. I may as well give them their fix. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, I know a couple of folks who have approached Christian presses about stories and have found their guidelines to be very very strict on what can be said. I actually understand that though, since a press should have the right to define itself. I do think that worry and anxiety about the economy is probably boosting the intensity of people's reactions to things published on the web or through the media. Still, a lot of people who are behaving rabidly, to me, appear to be doing pretty well economically.

Jess, that's just so bizarre to me. At the very least people should be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction, and between intent and accident. Craziness abounds.

Mark, a pseudonym might be a good idea. Hadn't thought of that. I have another story that I wrote when I was pretty toasted one night that is "really" amped out there, I'd say. I haven't even submitted that one.

Dayana Stockdale, I once wrote a vampire story that I actually thought was very supportive of Christianity. The point was that, absolutely, Jesus was God, but I've had a couple of folks tell me it was blashphemous just because it had vampires in it. I don't get that, I fear. I was raised Catholic btw.

Gaston Studio, I have some pretty strong opinions too, and in convos with the right person I'll let it rip.

BernardL, I am offended by that. :) (Just kidding)

ivan said...

I think your wife Lana would describe those easily offended readers as "sheeples." Easily led...So afraid of government, special interest groups and the thought police.

I keep hearing in my head that old Beatles song, "Back in the U.S.S.R."

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, she would, although she might use even stronger language in my company.

ANNA-LYS said...

I think it has an impact all over the world this days. You can loose Your job, or Your life it You don't be careful in Your written language. Every day and every moment You have to balance and be correct (while admiring those that stand up for their creativity and freedom of speech). Freedom of speech or writing is an illusion in contemporary society. Today we even have to hide research result that happen to collide with the political agendas, or religions.

I miss the free debate, the creative art, and the provoking literature.

G. B. Miller said...

Interestingly enough, I found on Facebook a few people who are serious intellectuals who got quite upset with me when I didn't agree with a particular point made .

In one case, a person called me a "deficient" because she insisted that hoarding was a result of over-consumption of available goods and got upset with me when I had the audacity to quote a reality t.v. show to back up my assertion that it was disease.

Go figure.

jodi said...

Charles, Politics heat people up to much and EVERYONE thinks they are right. Religion I can handle--much more interesting!

Charles Gramlich said...

ANNA-LYS, You're right. I've heard of a lot of threats going on in Europe over speech that is seen somehow as attacking a particular religion. The stiffling of free debate is a horrendous sin in my opinion, to put it in a religious context.

G, seems like no one wants to take criticism these days. As a race we are a tad bit oversensitive it seems. I know what you're talking about. I've seen it too.

jodi, I'm much more interested in religion too. Politics also just really bores me.

eric1313 said...

I grew up listening to both NPR and the right wing radio demagogues. Sure, I'm lefty-ish, but it's still good to hear other opinions, as well as know what the "enemy" is thinking. Opinions expressed don't bother me too much. I actually find it a bit upsetting that when I want to debate such views, some people will always take that as an attack.

Like the saying pretty much goes, it's impossible to please everyone (but remarkably easy to p*ss them off).

ivan said...


If I can put in my two cents, it sounds to me like your "intellectual" was an anal retentive and something of a hoarder herself. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, yeah, a lot of people don't seem to even understand the concept of debate.

Ivan, glad you said it.

Erik Donald France said...

Politics and religion are two genres I warm up to right away. And I write about them all the time. If people don't like it they don't have to read it.

But of course, it's best to contextualize things. I enjoy mixing it up with a variety of people.

Back at Algonquin Books, I remember the flap over a few mild Baptist jokes that caused Clyde Edgerton to be fired from a Baptist-run college. He promptly got another job at a rival university.

On the other hand, I'm not gonna be posting cartoons of religious figures or burning books -- for my own safety if nothing else.

Jodi MacArthur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G. B. Miller said...


This person has actually developed an intense dislike of me.

The last time I commented on a link that a FB friend/fellow blogger posted (about the military's don't ask don't tell policy), she started insulting me, then once she figured out who I was, deleted all of her posts on the link.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I sat on a panel at a convention with Michelle Segara or West, she goes by one name or the other. She is a reviewer at Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine. We debated whether or not sci-fi is still cutting edge from a political point of view. She maintained since no topics are taboo, that there is no need to veil discussion of politics with fantasy and metaphor.

I know you'll find this difficult to accept, but I vehemently disagreed with her. As did the audience.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I sat on a panel at a convention with Michelle Segara or West, she goes by one name or the other. She is a reviewer at Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine. We debated whether or not sci-fi is still cutting edge from a political point of view. She maintained since no topics are taboo, that there is no need to veil discussion of politics with fantasy and metaphor.

I know you'll find this difficult to accept, but I vehemently disagreed with her. As did the audience.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik Donald France, yeah, I don't want anyone burning "me." The blog is a bit different from a published book though in the sense that I want to sell those for money and I'm not really making money off the blog.

G, how could anyone not like YOU, Man? I don't get it. :)

micle, Never been to SF.

Stewart Sternberg, I've never known you to express an outrageous opinion, my friend. You must have really been pushed to your limits that day. ;)