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Should Novelists Avoid Expressing Their Political Opinions?

shut-up-1Literary agent Wendy Lawton, who’s a member of the team I’m agented by, recently cautioned authors about publicly voicing their political opinions. In a Facebook post, she wrote:

Guess what? You can’t win if you discuss politics on Facebook. No matter how passionately you feel about an upcoming election it is potentially damaging to open the subject in your news feed because (a) half your “friends” will be irritated with you, (b) they may post incendiary comments taking your feed to a full fledged flame war, (c) those who agree with you will stand up for you and challenge those who commented negatively, pouring fuel on the fire, and (d) you will change no one’s mind.

If you are an author, as many of FB friends are, you can’t afford to tick off half your potential readership. We can all name authors we cringe to read because they’ve become so political.

It’s a question I’ve thought lots about. While I’m a very opinionated person, I have intentionally stepped back from posting — whether on this blog or in my social media feed — a lot of political commentary. Please don’t mistake that as me not having an opinion. Also, don’t mistake this for me necessarily fearing that I will alienate some readers. In my case, I’m just extremely fatigued about the state of our country and the fracturing of relationships this election has caused.

But, in a way, even THAT’S an opinion which could get me into trouble.

As much as I respect Wendy Lawton and those authors who choose a similar approach, I’m unsure about the basic premise that an author “can’t afford to tick off half [their] potential readership.” Sure, I understand not turning your writing platform into a political advert (especially if you’re a novelist as opposed to a non-fic author). Problem is:

  1. Lots of creatives are vocal about their political opinions
  2. Being a public person inevitably demands a certain degree of transparency
  3. Your art will inevitably reveal your values, morals, beliefs, and opinions

There’s a good argument to be made for novelists keeping their mouth shut and letting their art speak for itself. On the other hand, there’s lots of writers who are transparent AND popular. In fact, you could say that someone’s art is an organic part of who the artist is. Although the reader can separate the art from the artist, the artist can’t really separate her opinions from her artistic output.

The pop cultural consumer eventually learns to separate the art from the artist. Either that, or they choose build their library around ideology rather than art. Good art can be made by bad people… much less, people I disagree with. I disagree with many novelists about politics. But it hasn’t stopped me from reading their novels. I mean, the “goodness” of a piece of fiction / film / music has nothing to do with whether or not its creator meets my ideological standards.

The problem is when the art becomes a vehicle for the ideology.

Some of my favorite creatives are people whom I often disagree with. The point which I stop buying their stuff is when it subsumes their art. When your story, song, or film becomes a megaphone for your politics, I check out. Other than that, go ahead and voice your disdain for a political candidate. As long as you keep creating good stuff. Truth is, I avoid some artists who never publicly share their political opinion, not because of the content of their art, but because of a perception (on my part) of the philosophy or worldview driving them. In this case, public opinions are moot because the art does the talking.

Point is: Your novel is going to express its own worldview and opinion which, in one sense, is going to self-select your readers.

All that to say, building a readership and marketing yourself is obviously a tenuous thing. Like many walks of public life, the broader the audience, the more we must temper what we say. To what degree we temper our opinions is another story. Either way, people come to fiction, film and music for what it does for them, not the political, ideological views of the artists. Of course, some of those views may or may not expand their audience. Still, a good story, well told, trumps ones political affiliation.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Heather Marsten October 21, 2016, 6:21 AM

    I agree with you. I have friends who get passionate about their political opinions. I prefer to keep my opinions to myself. Who I vote for is between me and God. I am looking forward to a few weeks from now when the news will be on a different subject from politics.

  • Tim George October 21, 2016, 8:16 AM

    Good thing that I’m not as opinionated as you are I wouldn’t be the best-selling author that I am 🙂
    There was a point where I nearly bought into that line of reasoning expressed by your agency. Then I realized one of my all-time favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption and I can’t stand Tim Rollins politics. I started reading Asimov when I was 12 and he was an atheist (unlike me). I will probably even go see Tom Cruise in his new Jack Reacher movie and he’s a flat out loonie tune. I have read the majority of Orson Scott Card’s works and began to see his Mormon theology subtly woven into some of his later stories. Do I still go see Ender’s Game? Of course, I did. I have gotten a little tired of Hugh Howey posting pictures of his naked butt and preaching to his choir about the evils of national borders and a carbon-based economy. About the only way I can fully enjoy his novels now is to skip looking at his blog. It’s worked for me so far.

    I think you’re passion for what you believe is a big part of what makes you a solid writer, Mike.

  • R. L. Copple October 21, 2016, 9:12 AM

    I think going to extremes can be problematic for an author. It is one thing to respectfully offer your opinion and thoughts. Another to swamp your potential readers with your political opinions, especially if those opinions are cast in a divisive and antagonistic manner–especially when it goes into questioning the salvation of one category of people or another.

    But the agent you quoted reminded me of a book I read on selling. Don’t have it handy or remember the title, but it is a popular book on the subject. But it makes the point that too many people in selling their product or service make the error of not targeting those customers with who we have a comfort level with. So much so, we are afraid to say “no” to one customer or group with who we are not compatible with and fail to focus on those we are.

    In the context of this discussion, expressing one’s political opinion may certainly lose an author readers. But likewise, it may also gain an author other readers who agree with you. And it means you may be attracting readers who are more compatible with your political worldview, and thus are potentially attracted to your moral/spiritual worldview that comes through in your novels. Finding the readers who will enjoy your style of writing is key to marketing, whereas the shotgun approach tends to be weak and ineffective.

    And of course, as you point out, a reader that knows your political position, who happens to be different from their own, doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t read your books. If presented respectfully, it could even be a positive draw for those on the other side of the fence, for in the end, they’ll buy your books because they enjoy them. Only when the political POV causes a reader to no longer enjoy your writing does it mean they’ll stop reading because of it. Though admittedly there will be those who are so politically extreme who will dump an author they discover is on the other side of the political fence no matter how much they liked that author prior to knowing.

    So I would suggest that voicing your political opinion, if done right, can be a positive marketing tactic. My own methodology has been to post my political opinion on a blog–http://politicalmosquitos.blogspot.com/–and when appropriate, I’ll post a link on FB and maybe other social media so if someone wants to read my thoughts, they can, if they don’t, they can ignore the link and move on. On occasion I may share a news article or meme on a political topic on FB, but those are far and few in between. I make an effort not to make my timeline feed to be mostly political issues.

  • Erica October 21, 2016, 2:24 PM

    Great post!

  • JaredMithrandir October 21, 2016, 7:33 PM

    I tend to have a character in the story who voiced my views, but others with other views, and leave who is right up the reader.

  • Jessi L. Roberts October 23, 2016, 6:22 PM

    I once stopped buying an author’s books because of his political opinion during the ’08 election, in part because he’d said something along the lines of, “If you don’t like the choices you’ve got, you should have tried harder in the primaries.” This was hurtful to me because my family had tried very hard in the primaries. (I wasn’t able to vote yet and had just gotten into politics and felt very passionate.) The lesson I’d take from this is 1. Don’t tell your readers how to vote and 2. Don’t criticize the reader.
    At the same time, another author had a similar view to mine. This made me a more loyal fan because I felt a kinship with him.
    When it comes to what I’ll share on social media, I’ve pretty much decided that my facebook account is my personal platform, so I’m not going to be afraid to share there. (A large percentage of my author friends agree with me anyway.) On my other platforms, like Twitter and my blog, I’ve decided to keep somewhat quiet on politics, though I’m not going to shy away from them if they’re related to a book I’m blogging about.

  • Anita Cooper October 25, 2016, 8:49 PM

    “The problem is when the art becomes a vehicle for the ideology.”

    ….and that’s why I have such a hard time watching modern movies…agenda, agenda, everywhere and no relief in sight! 😉

  • Jill October 26, 2016, 7:30 PM

    I dunno, I observe people with loud and acerbic views finding huge success simply because they are outspoken, and people are attracted to authorities who aren’t wishy-washy, lukewarm centrists. Having strong convictions is a good thing. But as far as in writing itself, it really depends on how it’s done. Politics is like religion; it can serve the book or the other way around.

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