September 1, 2013

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Purpose vs Agenda – a Fiction Writer’s Right...ummm

“While the main goal in publishing...books will always be to entertain, is it possible to aim toward a higher purpose as well?...activism in fiction is a tricky subject. No one likes being preached to, and we all know that a book can be easily closed and set aside, never to be opened again. Still, as China Miéville, author of the New York Times bestseller Un Lun Dun, put it to me: “If people are concerned about so-called ‘activism’ in writing, they might remember that all fiction, whether it knows it or not, comes with agenda.”

I...sort of agree and sort of disagree.

To clear up the waffling though, let me offer my definition:

PURPOSE is where a writer comes from, their base, their foundation, their belief system, their political stance. The purpose of their writing is to entertain, and though every writer has a purpose, IT DOESN’T REACH THEIR FICTION.

This I can accept as it allows for discussion, even argument. It takes place in open forum whether that forum is a blog, a convention panel or face-to-face. It has the virtue of being fluid and open and even in the loudest argument, it doesn’t have to be “forever”.

“’s possible to have your cake and eat it too, in my opinion, and there are numerous examples of fiction titles whose stories have managed to transcend their time, make a dent in popular culture, and help to create a new language of activism among readers—books like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, and even Huckleberry Finn are some of the more classic examples. These are books that manage both to entertain and aim their readers toward a higher purpose. In my opinion, that’s the best of both worlds.” (Chris Schluep)

There are writers who are good at this; ones with whom I can’t agree on their life purpose but can still enjoy their fiction. Writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, whose purpose is clearly that women MUST be allowed to throw off the shackles of biological childbirth in order to ever achieve true wholeness. Jon Scalzi embraces the entire left-wing agenda. China Miéville is an uncompromising environmentalist. Ursula K. LeGuin is a radical feminist. Michael Flynn embraces a mostly conservative, Catholic agenda.                                                                       

Yet none of them allow their fiction to be a vehicle for their life purpose. Their purpose certainly finds its way into story, but it isn’t the reason the story exists; none of these writers have allowed their personal agenda to subsume STORY.

AGENDA is the same as purpose – except the writer’s purpose SPILLS OVER INTO THEIR FICTION.

These authors have given in to the temptation of allowing that agenda to subsume the entertainment value of their work. Most of them began their careers with clear purpose then tumbled into the sweetness of using their strong platform to push an agenda. David Brin’s initial message was the wisdom of ecological stewardship. Orson Scott Card burst on to the scene with the horror of using children to fight and adult war. Michael Crichton’s brilliance in exploring the implications of applied science dimmed when his novels spun into polemic.

There’s no “fault” here – every writer is free to use his or her platform to plug their life’s purpose. British science fiction writer Adam Roberts points out, “I mean it's a puzzle for the genre. How can SF be both centrally about the articulation and exploration of marginalised and subaltern voices, and a projection of contemporary ideological concerns outward on to a cosmos in which the laws of physics themselves tell us to vote Conservative?”

The exploration of the edge is what SF writers DO. It’s what they are expected to do.

But that exploration can take one of two faces – the first is to open a subject for discussion. The second is to make pronouncements and shut down discussion.

My every effort, as I work to become a better SF writer is to open subject UP.


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