Monument or room?

A few weeks ago GalleyCat had an interesting article up discussing politics in fiction. It wasn’t about that directly. The point of the post is actually a rant against the science fiction reviewer at the New York Times Book Review. The complaint is that reviewer Dave Itzkoff is not up to the task of intelligent analysis of sci-fi works. John Scalzi’s works are the material in question, and GalleyCat takes issue with how Mr. Itzkoff compares them with Heinlein. The argument is that Mr. Itzkoff is unable to handle nuance. For the purposes of this post that argument is irrelevant. What caught my eye was the response that Mr. Scalzi gave on his website, a quote of which GalleyCat provided:

John Scalzi has his own response to the review, and while he’s largely thrilled at having been deemed worthy of notice in so high-profile a venue, he strongly disagrees with Itzkoff’s claim that his work “plays both sides of the fence” in terms of its politics. Instead, Scalzi suggests that putting political content into a novel can either be like building a monument or building a room:

“If you build a monument, what you’re doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader’s attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren’t accessible and aren’t debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don’t… If you build a room, what you’re doing is inviting people in—with all their baggage, political or otherwise—and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile… As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you’ve let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you’ve got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.”

This struck me as a useful and important idea. I am currently working on a novel which involves political elements (note: I believe that all writing includes political elements, I studied too much Derrida and Foucault to think otherwise, but that’s a bigger issue which would require a bigger post, and would probably shrink my audience in reverse proportion to the length of my argument, so… whatever), and have wrestled with how to keep political ideas in the book without it becoming a screed or polemic. I’m still trying pin down how to do so, but this metaphor of the room and monument is helpful in my attempts. For instance, rather than make direct attacks on political ideas or politicians I am creating proxies, stand-ins who need not be the real world target of my ideals. Also, I’m not naming specific parties, or ideologies. I am creating a scenario which the protagonist is caught in, one which is a recognizable one that we all see in the papers everyday, but it is not a carbon copy of it. I have no real-world actions or events portrayed. It is, even though it’s a “real world” setting and deals with “real world” problems, as if I’m writing something otherworldly. I’m looking at it in the same way that Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be viewed as a statement about sexuality, women and immigration in England during the late 19th century. I’m trying to make statements which invite discussion without seeming to shout down the reader’s own politics. This also allows me to raise the stakes–by not tying myself to real world people and places, by not being tied to specific instances of fact I’m finding that I’m allowing myself to follow my own arguments to their conclusions, and am raising questions against them myself.
In the end, I’m trying to build a room. Enough people are building monuments every day, on both sides of the political spectrum. We don’t need another one muddying up our pop culture.

2 thoughts on “Monument or room?

  1. It’s obvious when a writer sits down and thinks, “I want to write a story that educates ignorant readers about the moral implications of x issue.”
    Dogma is not a writer’s best friend.

  2. Jaye,
    Agreed. That was my dilema. I found myself thinking more and more about a man in a troubled situation and wondering how he’d get out of it. The politics surround the issue, but are not the “point,” and teaching readers is what many writers have tried to do in novels that don’t age well and stop being read.

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