Saturday, April 14, 2018

Some Thoughts on Opinions and Reviews

I'm old enough that I can remember the time when politicizing everything was the province of cranks and curmudgeons - like my dad. He wouldn't watch a Jane Fonda movie or read anything in the New York Times by Anthony Lewis or Tom Wicker. He would never think of buying the old New York Post when it was run by Dorothy Schiff. Today, though, way too many people submit everything to a political litmus test. If a writer disagrees with a reader's politics, than that reader is willing to avoid any of their work completely.

I'm also old enough to know that feeling strongly about politics and social/cultural arguments is serious business for many people (though far, far fewer than reading social media might lead you to believe). Sometimes I'm one of those people. I have very strong beliefs and opinions on a whole host of topics, and I also know I disagree in some way with every single one of you reading this right now. Trust me, I do.  

Most of you are probably blissfully unaware of the brouhaha surrounding the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic a few weeks back. It's not something I want to talk about specifically, but I do want to point to an article, "A Dissent Concerning Kevin Williamson," by one of the magazine's writers, Conor Friedersdorf. While it was written in support of not firing Williamson, what made it important for me was its call for everyone to back up, simmer down, and don't force people you disagree with out of publications and spaces in the middle. It reduces conversation to an echo chamber. I think it's a valuable article for the fraught and stupid times we live in. If we can't live alongside people we disagree with, - and residential self-sorting means we increasingly don't have to - what will we become?

I don't want to talk politics, especially here. I started this blog to write and talk about swords & sorcery. If I had to judge a book by its writer's politics, there are lots of books I wouldn't read. Sure, there are lines an artist might cross that'll exclude their work from my consideration (think Marion Zimmer Bradley or Bill Cosby). Few, though, actually cross those sorts of lines.

The thing is, lots of artists say vicious things or stupid things without it making their art vicious or stupid. Many live less than exemplary lives. So where do you draw the line? Do you not read Republican writers? Or do you not read Democratic writers? What if you're a Socialist, does only China Miéville make the cut for you? What about men who treated women like garbage? Where do you draw the line?

I'm bringing this up because a commenter on my recent Black Gate post lamented the political tweets of Cirsova's editor, P. Alexander. His posts are political, but they're only as political as those of plenty of folks on the opposite side of the spectrum. I generally avoid the more political comments from writers and editors I follow. Mostly because they bore me. It bores me deeply when people feel the need to be some sort of activist should crowd out their artistry and they have to expound on everything under the sun. Be political all you want, just don't expect me to care.

I care about and am intrigued by an artist's politics where they intersect with their art. Steve Brust and Jerry Pournelle's stories are infused with their politics. That's where I want to see what a writer believes come out - in the stories they tell, not in a series of tweets. I want to see how it affects his work aesthetically and thematically.  

If a writer engages in polemics, does her artistry enable her to create an engaging and rewarding story? It can be done, but it's difficult. That's why when that's achieved, I can enjoy a book even if it's pushing an agenda I disagree with. With that sort of book, I'll be more than happy to discuss the author's politics, heck, it's imperative that I talk about the politics. It would be unfair to the work and the writer if I didn't. I'd be doing it as a critic of art, not of politics, though. 

In my reviews, I will not allow myself to get yanked into political discussions that don't have bearing on the actual works. If you think Isaac Asimov's or Robert Heinlein's politics sucked, good for you. Unless you can show me where how they're important to a better critique of Second Foundation or Rocketship Galileo, move on.

Most of what I review is entertainment, no matter its author's views. I don't know and I don't care what Karl Edward Wagner's or Fritz Leiber's politics where, and I'm glad. I'm sort of pissed off that so many contemporary writers insist on telling me and everyone where they stand on everything.

I'm getting off track, though. As much as I don't want politcs everywhere, it seems like that's how things are going to stay for the time being. If we don't want to be at each everyone else's throat, we all need to step back when someone says something we disagree with we need to step back and think instead of screaming that the speaker should be cast out or running away. We need to learn how to engage with people we disagree with and discuss and debate. 

I came across another valuable article, this time at Psychology Today. By Pamela Paresky, it's titled "No Decent Person..." In it, she describes the response of someone to an innocuous tweet from conservative writer, Charlie Sykes.

The general response she got on Twitter was "Not a chance." One person tweeted:

“I can't consider someone who favors stripping healthcare and food from those who need it a 'decent person.' Ever.”

I'm not going to get into the politics of Sykes, the tweeter, or the larger political debate here. What matter to me is, if you want you're political views to succeed and to be accepted by enough people to bring them to bear in the public sphere, refusing to talk to or see anyone on the other side as ever being decent, you'll probably fail. If you persist as seing everybody you differ from as an enemy, you're going to work yourself into a constant state of fury. 

Instead, for all sorts of reasons, - as an American, as a man, as a Christian - I strive to start by seeing people as decent and go from there. Sometimes it isn't easy, but I have to try. If I learn we differ on how we think healthcare should work in the US, I will not send you to Coventry. If you want to discuss and debate it, cool. I'm not going to scream and holler at you. If I do that, I'm treating you like less-than-human, and I'm giving up control over my own actions, the only ones I can control. Things improve by how we treat each other face to face.  

If you're going to say I'm naive or foolish, try to think of a novel way to tell me. I know what it's like to be deeply caught up in politics, both as someone with deeply held beliefs and as someone who has logged thousands of hours workign for politicians and on campaigns. I take politics incredibly seriously. What I don't believe is that it's the sum of who I am. They're only a part. Most of the people I've known who are the sum of their politics are people I'd rather not spend my time with. They're dull, monomaniacal, and rarely know less about the issues than they should. But, yeah, I know what it is to be completely wrapped up in politics and it's a lousy way to live.

I'm rambling here, so I'll bring it to a close. But, if it's not clear already, here's where I stand: I'm not going to not read a book because I don't like the author's views or what he or she tweets. All of us are far more than our politics. We owe it to each other to listen and try to understand where someone is coming from and why he believes what he does. If these things are important to us, whatever we're talking about, then we should be willing to explain explore them with someone who holds the opposite opinion. Right winger and left wingers, evangelicals and atheists, straight and gay, libertarian or Marxist, apathetic and apolitical, you're all welcome in my library. The one caveat is, you have to write a good book.


  1. My waiting to be read pile grows ever larger. Why should I give money to people who obviously hate me?

  2. I appreciate that, and I sympathize with that reaction. My take on actors, writers, and other artists is that they're not my friends and never will be. Not in that we wouldn't be friends if we met, but simply that we never will meet. It's almost as if they're not real, simply a name on the cover. But, yeah, when someone openly hates you, or at least people who believe in what you believe (because, like I just said, you and they will probably never meet), it can be hard to justify giving them your dollars.

  3. My reasoning for ignoring the works of people who I perceive as appaling is not in any way related to their work, but on my desire not to give them a greater platform to share their revoting ideas with the rest of the world. If I buy their books, I give them money. I make their books rise in best selling lists, and when I talk about their books I make more people aware of them. When I don't want that, I simply ignore them. Ranting about their erroneous ways would do the opposite thing, though.

    I don't care what some people might be thinking about the way governments or states should function, what to do with public spending, innfrastructure projects, or even the finer details of public education. There is not one true way to do these things and any disagreements are about efficiency. Where I draw the line is with matters of life and death. That is matters of basic human rights. Not just medical services or "defense" (which really is offense), but the mere tollerance of other people existing.

    My opinion is that it's irrelevant whether someone is a decent person. Some people very certainly are not. But what I consider most importannt is to maintain a form of civility. It's not that bad people deserve to be treated polite and with decency, but it doesn't hurt either and where do we end up with when we don't act by the standards we expect our oponents to conform to? Screaming and insults have never done anything good to improve social issues. If you want to have a better world with more decency, you first have to live it yourself. If all those people who are making life hard for others who are different from themselves would simply ignore them, it would already be a huge improvement.

    And why do I enjoy Lovecraft? I don't really know. I think his mental world seems so messed up that I don't hold him capable to take responsibility for his words. It doesn't make his opinions any better, but I somehow don't hold him responsible for it.

    1. "Matters of life and death," mean what though in the case of an author? We seem to have reached a place where an outspoken conservative is persona non grata in many places or where liberals get dismissed as SJWs. Too many people are all too willing to put anything that deviates only the slightest from their personal orthodoxy on the forbidden list.

  4. While I agree with a lot of this, I think it misses the main point. Politicizing everything is a distinctly leftist tactic with a specific purpose. By politicizing everything, everything becomes a loyalty test. Do you read the correct books. Do you watch the correct movies. And do you hate the same writers and artists that we hate.

    1. I don't think I miss the point at all. I know my audience at this site is probably more conservative, and I know who's politicizing everything these days and who has more cultural power right and is pushing for some sort of orthodoxy. Whatever, I'm not going to be cowed by anyone. But I'm not going to walk away from interaction with people I disagree with either - or not read their books.