Monday, August 29, 2011

Tim Powers via Cory Doctorow off William Gibson's twitter feed

‎"Literature is hostile to ideology. It doesn't have answers, but gives rise to inadvertent questions"

~Tim Powers

I love that statement. I've loved it ever since I first heard Mr. Powers utter it at the Writers of the Future 26 workshop in LA a year ago.

Photo courtesy of Author Services 

I love it despite the fact that it's probably more an ideal than a reality.

Obviously people do and have used literature to advance ideological agendas for several hundred years now, and the same is definitely true today. Even a fast glance at current day literature quickly reveals that "literature" itself has become a genre that for better or worse is dominated by the left. One in which sub-par individuals struggle and fail, and then fail again, and end the book in an enhanced state of despair.

The same polarization is true in much of genre fiction, with science fiction has slid sharply to the left since the early 1990s.

I suspect that the present marriage of literature and ideology is one of the ultimate factors that has helped drive a wedge between literature and the general public. At a time when reading already faces stiff competition from a variety of stimulating alternatives like the internet, picking up a novel is like being clubbed over the head with the big stick of humorless indoctrination. Much of science fiction these days oozes progressivism to the point of that I often feel that I'm drowning in cynicism and self-analyzing irony and post-colonialist anti-imperialism.

The remaining fraction of science fiction--for me--has becoming increasingly militarist and intolerant over the past decade. It often seems as though there is precious little literary space left over for the moderate majority who value science, empiricism, and issues that transcend the limited scope of ideologies.

No wonder the largely ideology-free genres of fantasy and young adult speculative fiction have continued to grow and thrive even as science fiction has seen its sales stagnate. Though that is likely to change as more and more established writers make the switch to young adult in order to cash in on its popularity.

Ideology will likely choke off YA just as it's helped to smother science fiction.

Aside from its soul-killing lack of humor and warm human passions, the short-lived appeal of ideologically driven writing can block a book from becoming a classic. Oh, it might be called a classic by like-minded critics or members of an establishment invested in the same side of the ideological spectrum, but it will not be a great story that ordinary readers pull off the shelf again and again to reread.

Go back and look the famous books associated with the ideological movements of the 20th century from social realism to left-leaning post modernism. You may find that a surprising amount of the 'great novels' and the politics they advocate feel very dated and rather silly. And they are rarely ever read by anyone aside from lit majors enrolled in university courses.

My favorite example of ideological silliness is from a few years back when I came across a series of 1950s right-wing tracts and novels in a used bookstore. These works painted a picture of the US Army of the time as dominated by the Soviet Union, and its generals and colonels being fully prepared to aid in launching a communist coupe in the United States.

Yes, for real. Apparently nearly two decades of working for the FDR and Truman administrations was enough to make the military suspect in the eyes of a segment of the American right.

Prior to that, my favorite example of dated ideological zaniness in writing was a set of papers, plays, and novel excerpts from a college class that looked at the 1960s. In that collection, several authors during the period railed against the impending execution of a plan to transport millions of black Americans and leftist dissidents to concentration camps that were even then being built in the countryside.


Future generations will think much the same of our present day, politically polarized novels and written political works.

Ideologies are at best black-and-white photos of a complex, colorful and evolving world. They may be useful in generating a common understanding withing a disparate collection of human beings and to instill the motivation necessary to act as a group, but they carry a heavy, heavy cost in simplification and erroneous suppositions.

It's often amazing to look back in time through the printed word and see the glaring failures of reasoning and the appallingly bad predictions that tens of millions of human beings embraced as truths because of an acceptance of ideologies. Especially when looking at the horrific consequences of totalitarian ideology on the fascist right and the communist left.

We should question our ideologies. We should question them often, be they left wing or right.

Looking back over the last century as both a historian and a reader, it's  clear that far more often than not writers do not have the answers the world needs. The solutions to the major dilemmas of history since the industrial revolution have arisen as a matrix of competing forces from activists, soldiers, statesmen, scientists, and engineers. Our present day world simply does not appear in works of literature from past decades. Even in science fiction we've come up amazingly short on predicting the shape of our current reality and technology base. As a profession and even much more broadly as a species we writers and humans lack the faculties needed to track trends more than a couple of years into the future.

But what we can do is ask those "inadvertent questions" that Tim pointed out.  If we can't deliver an accurate model of tomorrow, we can at least look at the trends and issues of today and say "what if?" to our readers through our characters and the plot dilemmas they face. We can take timeless human problems and try to show them in the new context of the near future, even if we dress up the setting as a far future. We can also attempt to depict worlds with competing ideals and ideologies that have strengths and weaknesses.

If we can not do a good job of telling people what to think, we can at least get them to start thinking and maybe even provoke them into building a better tomorrow through our what-if-ing. We can ask questions that will help inspire today's and tomorrow's activists, soldiers, engineers, scientists, and statesmen.

Literature that provokes people to answer such questions cannot be friendly to any ideology that explains the world in simple terms. Literature that is hostile to ideology is empirical in nature or at least Socratic on a level accessible to its readers.

Maybe Tim's quote ought to read "Literature should be hostile to ideology." Maybe it's an ideal to aspire to. An urgent ideal in this myopic, polarized age of ours.

Looking over my collection of books from the past thirty years, my favorites are the ones in which the characters and the choices they make do not fit neatly into dogmatic categories. These are books that continue to be good reads years after their publication precisely because they are hostile to ideology. They refuse to embrace any creed of the ideal. Instead they show people armed with flawed memes and incomplete bodies of concepts doing their best to make their way through one crisis point after another in an imperfect world.

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