The Politics of Apples and Oranges in Literature

As a writer, I am working hard at perfecting the art of procrastination. And as most of us know, spending time on the internet can waste away precious hours of our lives; time that we could be writing, connecting to loved ones, housework or doing something far more productive. One of my new favourite  haunts is a writers’ community on Google Plus: Literary Agents Hate Kittens (LAHK) (https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/115642714471343142243). I have been spending so much time in there that they  recently made me a moderator – as retribution to all the nonsense I contribute there. Well, writers can’t be serious all the time….except for right now.

The other day, one of the other newly appointed mods, Jane Turley (http://www.janeturley.net/) posted a very interesting and thought-provoking article (she is yet to be punished for stepping outside of the group norms). At that time, I just happened to have been going through an annoying situation where my rights, identity and core values were being irrationally attacked by a group who were stuck in shared worldviews based on white-privilege and ignorance; so this article struck a chord with me.

It brought up the following questions for me: Is there a difference between a writer and a creative writer? And should politics enter literature? Are all written works equal – can we compare apples to oranges – or should we instead be focusing on equity for all writers?

The article in question was published by the Guardian on 30th April 2013, and is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered by Olive Senior at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Trinidad (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/29/olive-senior-literature-political).

I urge you to read the article yourself, but for me the standout quotes are:

“As writers we live lives that are not navel-gazing but conscious, fully engaged with the world.”

“Literature is above all, storytelling. And, as Chinua Achebe has said, storytelling is a threat. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting tyranny, especially in spaces where such actions are dangerous and deadly. Throughout the ages, writers have developed and employed myriad literary devices and explored the fullest limits of language through satire, magical realism, fantasy, fable and so on. Writers over the ages have found ways of talking about issues – like politics – without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask “What is it about?” It asks “How do we tell it to make it real?””

Anyway, after reading the article I posted a long-winded reply to Jane in the LAHK google community, followed by another long comment. Rather than derail Jane’s post, I have decided to delete those comments and move them over to here, in my blog.

My first comment was a gut-reaction response to both the article and Jane’s question: “…how much does politics shape your writing?”

Comment One: 5 July 2013

I will never be ashamed to say that I live and breathe (small ‘p’) politics and thus my fictional and non-fictional writing will always have a (often subtle) political/human rights element; because these works are from and of me.

I believe that the purpose of art, including literature, is to hold a mirror up to what is and what can be. Creatives can plant seeds for change in ways that other advocates cannot. Writers of literature can and do change people’s perspectives, which can lead to a better future for humanity, the planet and all living beings. This is done one book/story/poem/article/blog post/word at a time.

My small ‘p’ politics are shaped by my values, worldviews and life experiences. And formed through my heritage and identity as a First Nations person in a colonised country; which includes a legacy of dispossession, and continued loss & grief caused by power & privilege . Thus my political ideals are driven by a firm belief in equity for all, acceptance of diversity, and empathy for others.

I respect those that write sans politics (small and large ‘p’) and I know the value of occasional escape within ‘lightweight’ books. And indeed the much-needed escapism that ‘places’ like LAHKs provides.

However, because of who I am, because of the shoulders on which I stand and those who will one day come after me, I will continue to learn how to one day embed seeds of change within my work (i.e. my writing). Living, and writing, in any other manner is not an option for me.

– End –

From here, the discussion started towards a new, but related, question of merit amongst writers: How can we differentiate between the works of writers without judging writers themselves? What is and isn’t art?

Comment Three: 6 July 2013

Although it’s not ‘polite’ or fair to categorise written works on the basis of artistic qualities, sometimes it needs to be done to aid discussion.

Perhaps where we are heading now in this discussion is the ‘politics’ of the written word and literature. All written works and their authors have a right to equity (i.e. to be read, appreciated, and not judged unfarily) – however not all written works are equal   Which is fine, as diversity is important in all areas of life.

I think you can find comparisons to this dilemma in the visual arts world. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and art is very much subjective but: – there is a difference between the squishy pottery ‘vase’ your 5 yr old brings home from school, the nice ceramic plates your neighbour makes and sells down at the local craft market, and that amazing ceramic sculpture you saw at an art gallery.

You might absolutely adore that squishy blob because your child made it; and you love using your hand-made plates because they match your decor. However that sculpture made you stop in your tracks: you examined it from all angles, it made you think, you were moved by its beauty/rawness; and your glimpsed the message hidden in its form.

How does this relate to writing? Well, we’ve probably all read a squishy book/poem/short story that a friend/relative/fellow writer has asked us to read. And just like with the 5 yr old, we put aside what we really think about the actual work, and instead we appreciate it because of our relationship to them and because we want to encourage them to express themselves/follow their dreams.

And then there are the works that are functional, which are all different; from rudimentary to well written. They are not literature as such, but they serve an entertainment purpose. The writers of such works are often happy with what they produce and are not interested, or unable, in producing works of literature.

So we move on to literature (see below definition). Again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, its subjective. However, the majority of readers would know when they read something that is different, a collective of words that is not squishy or solely functional (i.e. for entertainment purpose only). They may not like it or understand it, but they know its different. And those that feel the need will read this work and know it as literature. They will examine it, absorb it, search for the overt and covert messages – and put it down again – knowing that something within them has been changed from reading it.

And going full circle back to Jane Turley’s original question and linked article: it is within this last group that little ‘p’ politics flourish. (note: ‘p’s can exist in the other categories, if the writer chooses to venture into those waters)

I haven’t succumbed to snobby ideals of a hierarchy of writers or their works. Nor am I meaning to cast stones at roughly formed blobs of clay and pretty ceramic plates. Each and every work has a purpose……one is not better than another……just different.

I’m not ashamed to say that my ceramic plates are still somewhat squishy, but if I keep working hard I may one day have a fine set of plates. And in my heart, I long to find it within me to create an artistic sculpture before I depart this existence.

-End-

I hope that you find something of worth in the above, or at least forgive my meandering thoughts. Now its time I stopped my procrastination, and get back to writing and editing. Where did I leave that last blob of clay?

Google definition of Literature:
1. Written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit: “a great work of literature”.
2. Books and writings published on a particular subject: “the literature on environmental epidemiology”.

One thought on “The Politics of Apples and Oranges in Literature

  1. Thanks for the link, Karen. And thanks for taking the time to consider my question and the article. I agree very much with you – all art/literature provides some sort of purpose and there is a place for all types of works. (Although, admittedly, I struggled with that voyeuristic story in The Barcelona Review.)But for me the ones I remember most are those which have something valuable to say and where “art” is taken to another level – where it challenges my intellect as well as emotions in a thought provoking way. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is one such book. It is not enough for me to just write “fun” stuff though that it is a very large part of what I do – but there must be other times when what I write has something valuable to say about society or the human condition.

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