I am part of a loose network of published women writers. Lately, we’ve been discussing whether to discuss politics, and if the answer is no, in general, is this election and this particular historical moment too important–should we make an exception?
In debating this point, the NEA has come up as one specific organization that will be handled very differently under McCain than under Obama. But so, too, has the nearly inevitable extinction of polar bears under global warming been raised as a consideration. Rightly so, if you ask me. I mean, we have to write about something, and if the whole world evaporates, that will dramatic for a while and then deadly boring, with an emphasis on deadly.
I myself have been thinking about politics, and what role they might play in the life of my blog. Can one extol the virtues of casting against type in one’s novels (making the plumber a thin, gay Dartmouth dropout, for example), without explaining that one ought not go out-of-bounds in one’s own life and cast the small-town mayor as Vice President or the anti-choice hunter as a feminist trophy? Can one be clear that in a novel, choices must be real–between two goods or two evils, between a clear A and a clear B, rather than A or not-A–and still find oneself tormented by the fact that what seems from here a choice between good and evil, the exact wrong kind of choice for a novel–is being played out nationally and internationally with great suspense? (More on choices in fiction in a future blog.)
Panic has driven much of the argument for getting together to support Obama, even if some of our fellow published women writers don’t agree with these politics. (For the record, no one has come forward to say that they do not agree, though some have remained quiet and some prefer to do their politicking somewhere different from where they do their writing conversations.)
But I woke up this morning thinking that for the first time since I was thirteen, I feel excited about this election–not just panicked. What happened when I was thirteen? Well, the Democrats nominated a woman to be vice-president. I grew up surrounded by rhetoric about change: self-help change (change yourself, your organizational system, your bad habits, your eating patterns, your karma, your own tires . . .), spare change, and the inevitability of change. For one thing, it was Berkeley. For another, it was the era of the Cold War (the first Cold War?), and we knew that the choice was change or die. (This is another choice that doesn’t quite fit with the equation about choices in novels, above, but which made for a lot of earnest marching and learning of Russian lullabies and the making of several terrifying movies.)
Hence, as a child, I thought change was inevitable, and that a number of specific changes having to do with justice and peace and equality were right there on the horizon of my young life. Twenty-five years later, I am not excited to find that another woman has been nominated for vice-president, but I am hopeful–if you will–that the next president might be someone brilliant and nuanced and concerned about some of the major things that concern me. That seems like a change. And I will be glad if this country breaks out of its bass-ackwardness and elects a man of color. Maybe in eight years, we can then elect his wife. And get over the idea that we have to choose between having a woman OR a person of color as a candidate.
Anyway, I guess this choice thing is actually the crux of the matter. We are all trying to convince each other that one choice is the good one and one is the evil. It’s like sports–how the game plays out and what it means depends on who you are rooting for. In novels, you try to get everyone rooting for the same team, and yet you still want to humanize everyone. (James Baldwin was brilliant at loving all his characters.) Maybe that’s one of the great pleasures of reading: the reader gets to be the sole consciousness. No one else is there saying, But I agree with Miss Havisham. I liked the old Scrooge. Jean Rhys did write from the point of view of the crazy wife in Jane Eyre’s Rochester’s attic, but that was a different novel (Wide Sargasso Sea).
When we read novels we are subtly, pleasurably manipulated; in politics, the manipulation can sometimes be as subtle, but it’s rarely as pleasurable. If politics is a “choose your own adventure” story, as it claims to be, what can we readers do? Campaign, make calls, donate money, call in to radio stations, drive to Nevada, throw fundraisers, forward ghastly little emails . . . I don’t think we can market another story where the “drill, baby, drill” folks win another round. We have to hope for something new.