Monday, January 14, 2013

Opinion — Writing With A Point Of View, The Other Kind Of POV

The words “point of view” for the writer usually relates to the storyteller.  We’re talking first person, second person, or third (usually the omniscient).  But that’s not exactly what I mean by POV. 

We live in a contentious world and we live in a contentious country.  The incredibly clear line between what is called red states and blues states, which bears a strong resemblance to the North and the Confederacy, indicates a country almost equally divided with each having passionate opposition to the other.  The closeness of the presidential elections, the stalemate between republicans and democrats in congress, the great gun debate, same-sex marriage and the possible teaching of creationism as a science in public schools seems to have split us pretty wide apart. 

There are a number of non-fiction as well as “literary” works that put these problems before us.  Many of them try to explain the origins of the arguments and some suggest the superiority of one point of view versus another as well as potential paths to victory of one view or other.  These are, some more obvious than others, social commentary. But what about the genre writers?  If we write mysteries are we in any way obligated to keep our stories free of politics or personal opinions?

Focusing on the word “obligated,” I’d have to say, of course not.  But as a matter of pragmatism, perhaps it is wise, in “our entertainments,” to keep from alienating a good chunk of the population.  Readers, or consumers, as they are sometimes called, may very well avoid those views with which they disagree.  

How Do You Take Your Crime Fiction?
In a slight variation of Hoosier philosopher Kin Hubbard’s comment, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”  If you write a book that is little more than a political diatribe, then that is what you have and you will take your chances with book buyers and reviewers. Most readers, myself included, certainly don’t want political rhetoric in my evening read.  We may have picked up an escapist bit of crime fiction in order to avoid the constant nattering.  At the opposite end, if your book is completely “relevance free,” then you take your chances with book buyers and reviewers, who might see it as without substance. Though we all may differ on our preferences, personally, I want contemporary, realistic crime novels and it doesn’t bother me at all if what I read causes me to contemplate a larger picture. 

What many writers do, I believe, is touch upon something particularly relevant to the times, but gloss over the larger moral or ethical significance. They do so by focusing on the puzzle of the mystery itself or on one person and the wrong done to them, a wrong that by and large, we, of nearly all political persuasions, can agree is wrong — premeditated murder, blackmail, rape, fraud and any kind of deception that takes advantage of the innocent.

But individual writers are as likely to be political as anyone else, though less likely to make their persuasion public.  Would you buy one of so and so’s books if you knew he or she gave $10,000 to the political party or candidate you abhor? Would you suddenly look at the story he or she told with a more cynical eye?  Has the writer’s political point of view crept into the novel? Might we think it has, even if it hasn’t?  And why would you want to provide financial support to someone who gives financial support to those who might be trying to screw you over.

And there is this question.  Is it even possible for our POV not to have some bearing on the stories we tell?  I can’t imagine that one’s views on the issues of our times aren’t a factor in the creative process.  We create situations, or rather define them, and build characters who make choices. And the book ends. 

But one person’s revolutionary is another person’s terrorist.  For one, an immigrant may be a noble being, willing to suffer hardships and risk imprisonment in order to seek a better life for his or her family.  For another, an immigrant may be a criminal. The law is the law.  

One question to ask is:  Do you know the politics of your favorite authors?  Can you tell what they are from his or her writing?  Does it matter?  Even in the slightest?

Since I asked, I’ll try to answer the question.  I don’t know the politics of any of my favorite mystery writers — and by favorite I mean those who I regularly read.  To pick one, I’d be willing to guess that my politics were not far from James Lee Burke’s, though I don’t and probably can’t know that. I pick up something about him as he writes about the people in his novels and the actions of Robicheaux and Purcell.  There is a sensibility to his writing and characters that I find comfortable — essentially a point of view.  Michael Connelly is another prolific writer that I keep up with.  And here, I have no idea of his personal politics or really the POV of his main characters.  Perhaps it is his journalistic background or perhaps it is on purpose, but other than “get the bad guys,” I have no sense of Harry Bosch beyond wrestling with evil and of the Lincoln lawyer himself, who has learned to live with it. 

Because of the fact that I’m fascinated with politics, and even though I have absolutely no right to know, I would find it interesting to know which of today’s popular mystery writers voted for Romney and which for Obama.    But the truth is: Sadly, if I did know what is clearly none of my business, it might very well influence what I purchase.

Incidentally, the notion of relevance plays a part in Friday’s Film Pairings.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

Well said.

But I agree with author Richard Russo, who said that the end of literature is empathy, then compassion.

As you say, thrillers and mysteries are often escapist or comfort reads. But readers have to start somewhere. Many thrillers rise above the cliches of the genre make readers think and make them identify with protagonists outside their own personal box, thus expanding the readers' empathy--and perhaps later, their compassion.

Most authors (and most readers) are liberal, simply because liberals have by and large a greater sense of empathy.

There are exceptions, such as the best-selling political author Vince Flynn, who, before he was diagnosed with cancer, appeared on Glenn Beck's Fox News show several times. Like Beck and Rush Limbaugh, his protagonist rails against "the Socialist agenda," going back to FDR's New Deal.

And there are a couple of other thriller writers whose protagonists are obviously inspired by the Ayn Rand Utopian Philosophy, though they are thus far less successful than Flynn.

Nearly every other crime fiction author I know is either a liberal or apolitical. And I expect it to stay that way.

By the way, I was able to obtain a hardcover copy of NICKEL-PLATED SOUL, new in the large-print edition from Amazon. I read a bit of it when it first came in, and what I read was very good.

I went back to the book I had been reading, but I plan to back up and read NICKEL-PLATED straight through from the beginning before the week is out.

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks for the comments. Also, hope you enjoy Nickel-Plated Soul. For me, it was the most fun to write. And though it came out much later than book four, it is pretty close in terms of the time period.