Middle-grade author Mike Jung was recently on an AWP panel about diversity in children’s book publishing and said:
[C]raft is about more than just pure mechanics… Craft is inextricably linked to socio-political belief, self-understanding, cultural understanding, and the historical scaffolding upon which our society has been built.
I admit I didn’t know what to make of this the first time I saw it because I was trying to sort out how overuse of adverbs (for example) had anything to do with a sociopolitical belief. But after thinking it through, I can see how any aspect of craft from word choice to point of view (first person? third person?) can be mapped to conscious or subconscious sociopolitical beliefs. E.g., first person became popular at a time when self-hood was more in vogue. The purple prose of the late 19th Century conveyed the erudition of the literary elite. The development of “believable” or “relatable” characters comprises a host of sociopolitical assumptions.
One of the more transparent connections is the interrelation of character and theme. When a writer has a message, it’s all too easy to create flat characters to make the point. Good guys fight for the good thing against bad guys who fight for the bad thing. The good guys are charismatic and varied and the bad guys are ugly and indistinct. The consequences are explicitly sociopolitical and for me represent one of the worst artistic failings.
For me the best representation of this habit is Ayn Rand, who wrote political arguments in the shape of novels with tall, smart, beautiful characters espousing her ideology and a slew of badly-complected, shamelessly corrupt, stupid characters opposing them. You rarely see a scene with such a character without passing description of the puffiness of his neck or spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth. Forget her politics. It’s lousy writing. It’s bad fiction. Her character development is utterly lazy and incompetent!
Remember the Seinfeld episode where his dentist (played by Walter White!) converts to Judaism so he can tell anti-Semitic jokes? “This offends you as a Jewish person?” a priest asks Jerry. “No, it offends me as a comedian!” he retorts. While Rand’s politics are simplistic and self serving, she doesn’t offend me as a human, she offends me as a writer.
The most compelling characters to me are morally ambiguous. I like Han Solo (he killed a guy to avoid a debt, remember?), Gollum, and Snape. Reading The Black Cauldron with Byron, I’m utterly taken with Prince Ellidyr, who is brash and offensive and keeps saving people’s lives then reminding them that the life he saved has little value to him. Byron, being five, is less comfortable with such ambiguity. “How come a bad guy is riding with the good guys?” He wonders. “Because it’s a good book,” I tell him. (So yes, I believe in good books and bad books with more certainty than good guys and bad guys.)
And ultimately that is both an ideological and aesthetic value, to see things as complicated and nuanced and wanting books (even fantastic ones) to convey the uncertainties and moral struggles that come with life. To own that even this comes from a sociopolitical and historic context, call it the abject confusion of early 21st Century straight white male, knowing all the ways one can go wrong, and seeing nothing manifestly evil to rail against that isn’t encoded in his own DNA.
I recently read an article (old, pre-Harry-Potter) about the tendency for “weightier” children’s books to win awards and critical favor, whether epic fantasy or the then-popular “problem novel.” The critic, Deborah Stevenson, unites books across genres with the dichotomy of “heroic” vs. “everyday,” using Ramona as representative of the later set (why do you think someone sent it to me?) It teases out an idea I’d had that books were trending away from Ramonaism and toward Harryism and gives a vocabulary to that distinction. Both realistic and fantastic books can be certain in a way I don’t care for, and heroic feels like a value-neutral way of describing them. Everyday represents another idea: that one’s struggles are interior and exist within a non-epic backdrop of people who are all plodding along with the same struggles. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but I think heroism can give way to Randism. Chronicling the everyday represents another strategy: this is not universal truth, a writer says, but it is true for this character. There are dangers there too, of relativism, of navel-gazing, of being boring. But I think being mindful of it, to challenge oneself to see others (and portray them) as complex and multifaceted, to accept yourself as your own antagonist, leads to richer books and wiser writers.