Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Writing Activist Fiction (An #Amwriting Polemic)

This piece started to come together for me because of a post I saw on a friend's Facebook feed, about how characters who argue for bigoted, insensitive, or just problematic things pull them out of a story, and how they occasionally have to set aside a book because of such moments in the story. I have a lot of feelings about this, because I have had those moments with television shows and books. At the same time, though, I can name plenty of instances where I saw a character arguing quite genuinely for problematic or bigoted things and kept going, content that the character was not representative of the author's views and that the author was not taking the easy route by presenting all viewpoints as equal.

I believe in both of these things. And I believe that I am not treating all viewpoints as equal. Still, finding a way to discuss the difference between a character arguing for Problematic Things and an author using a character to present an argument for Problematic Things is not easy. There's a fine line between the two events, and it is entirely possible that an honest reader could mistake one of these things for the other.

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth repeatedly brings up this and related phenomena when discussing reliable vs. unreliable narrators, distance and impersonal narrative, the use of morality in narrative, and generally throughout the book as he treats various examples of literary techniques and what they might be used to accomplish. In the text, Booth is quick to admit that his interpretation is just that, and also that many other ways of reading are possible. He also admits that in a work of sufficient subtlety, a large number of charitable and well-intentioned readers would find themselves incapable of discerning the author's "actual" viewpoint, and that unless the writer makes it explicit elsewhere, there might be works which are constructed in ways that make this determination impossible.

I bring this up because I think that Booth gives us both the most detailed discussion of the problem of this kind of viewpoint presentation and also its solution. As a way of reading, I find his methods intriguing, and they have helped to enrich my understanding of the context of various authors' worldviews as I read the histories of their lives and times alongside their contributions to literature. I join him in the belief, though, that rhetorical readings can not exclude other readings, and that they function best alongside a diverse body of other interpretive styles.

As a writer, however, I subscribe completely to the methods outlined in the book, and I believe that for writers who seek to impart an impression of an activist worldview, the understanding that he lends to the various techniques that can be used to manipulate the contextual environment of stories is totally indispensable. Booth writes about impersonal narrative, the omniscient third person, as a method of creating distance from the character and increasing the ease with which the reader judges, rather than identifies with, characters. This is important, but it is not everything.

It is entirely possible to present an impersonal, third person narrative in a polemic through the use of environmental rhetoric. We see this kind of thing in novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Jungle, where even if the author's explicit philosophizing were left out, the authorial point-of-view is clear in the lack of naturalism and the one-sidedness of the presentation. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is easier to dismiss this as an artifact of the third-person limited point-of-view, which does only present us with Winston's interior. In The Jungle, it is more difficult because there are multiple characters being followed.

What Sinclair manages, in his use of the impersonal narrative, is to divorce us from identification with the subjects by writing in a third person that does not reflect their interior lives, but that instead invites us to view them in a narrative format that has more similarity to a lay history than to the conventional modern novel. Still, Sinclair's rhetoric in The Jungle is unmistakably polemic, and the selection of scenes and incidents in the book is more of an exhibition than it is a contest. There is never any doubt what the conclusions will be or what the ultimate lesson is. Nor is there, really, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As I work my way through the Shaping Clay series, I am finding that the real use of Booth's text is not in the interpretation of literature, but in its creation. My work is no less explicitly rhetorical than Sinclair's or Orwell's--and my methods are much the same. I present the work in the third person to divorce the character from the reader, forcing the reader to consider his choices at a greater distance. Even before I read The Rhetoric of Fiction, this was something I had a tendency to do, as much of my early reading about writing and dramatic structure was based around an extended journey through the essays, plays, and personal papers of Bertolt Brecht.

From him, I learned the ways that "objective" discourse and/or "naturalistic" depictions could be subverted by nonverbal rhetorics when narrative is not allowed. From Booth, I learned how to control those elements in fiction without reducing the texture of it to the present-tense pulp nouveau style that reads much like an adapted screenplay. Injecting introspection, imagination, and personal thoughts from the characters, but in a distanced way, allows for the reader's examination of their states of mind in ways seen in early modernist writers like James Joyce, but the intentionally polemic shaping of the story helps to keep us from the identification with the character's viewpoint that causes many otherwise brilliant stories to lead readers into escapism.

The next layer to add is the layer of cultural rhetoric, which is something I do wish that Booth would have included more in his discussion of rhetorical fiction. References to texts, historic events, political struggles, and cultural attitudes contemporary to the time period, often seen in the genre of historical fiction, are another way for writers to control the rhetoric in their texts, and to shape the reader's perceptions in ways that help to illuminate my own point of view, while also providing an environment for the characters to react to, allowing them to define themselves through their interaction with these cultural elements.

The key to working in this layer is to incorporate these referential moments into the dramatic arc, to make the characters' choices about how they interpret cultural events and artifacts important, without making it into the point of the entire plot. In my current serial Imaginary Friends, the work of Orson Scott Card is juxtaposed against a child's untutored experience with the Bible, a brief brush with Amy Tan, and exposure to another fairly conservative Christian writer (C.S. Lewis), in order to establish both similar traits in his personality that serve to set up choices made throughout the plot and also the motivation for his feelings of guilt and despondency.

It is not merely my inclusion of these texts that constructs the rhetoric in Imaginary Friends, though. Instead, it is the moment of tension wherein the reader can witness Clay interpreting, misinterpreting, and later re-interpreting the messages in these texts. Through his realization of his own mistakes, his guilt when he finds himself satisfied with actions that he knows are destructive, and his horror at the implications of the character choices in other pieces of literature, the rhetoric of Clay Dillon is not in his role as a hero, but in his existence as a part of an environment. If we identify with him, it can not be for his strengths, and it should not be for his choices.

To bring this around to the original point: What about authors whose characters openly argue for very problematic things?

My reply to that is this: We can definitely tell how much the writer might be sympathetic to or even tolerant of these kinds of arguments, and the way we tell is by examining the rhetorics in the story. Look at what the writer shows us of history, how the writer presents power dynamics between characters, and whether or not there are negative consequences for negative attitudes and choices. If the writer does as Orson Scott Card does and rewards colonialist attitudes, authoritarian reasoning, and self-centered logic, then it is absolutely reasonable to conclude that the writer's inclusion of a problematic viewpoint is because the writer views it as at least valid, even if they do not explicitly agree with it.

If, on the other hand, the rhetoric of the story reveals such characters for what they are, either through the social disapproval that would be part of their environment when they encounter other characters or else ironically, through the unintended consequences of their actions, then we should not walk away from the story just because it represents an odious viewpoint--after all, that viewpoint is being shown in its full context, with the awful results and unintended consequences fully in place.

Lastly, if we are to write activist fiction, then we should take care not to present our radicalism in ways that seem thin or one-sided. Sinclair is, in his way, just as problematic as Card because of his lack of attention to the epistemological standpoint of the working-class characters who do cling to capitalism as their model for economic survival. His failure to understand the depths of their despair and the sheer force of the pressure placed upon them by their economic circumstances is every bit as dehumanizing in its way as a colonialist adventure story that blithely dismisses objections to violence as a way of resolving disputes, because it seeks replace or to reason past, rather than to experience, understand, and reject its opposition.

To write a truly activist piece of rhetorical fiction, we must render an environment that presents everything in context, and that does not shrink from identification with the abhorrent, because that is the only way to break the cycle of ideological dehumanization that marks explicit polemic as being less naturalistic than other forms of storytelling, but we must do so carefully, and if we do so incorrectly, then we should expect that readers put down our books in disgust.