At the time I write this, we have no idea what the political future of America looks like: with the conclusion of voting in the 2020 U.S. election imminent on November 3rd, I’d venture to say no modern American election has ever quite looked so uncertain from so close a vantage point.
But politics isn’t just elections, and there’s a lot more than U.S. Presidents to consider when one thinks about politics.
This topic rose to the top of my brain recently when I was reading a fairly recently published romance novel. I love romance; I’d say I generally read books in four or five genres in any given month, and for the past couple of years, romance has regularly been one of those genres. I enjoy both the way category romance always delivers on its promise (happily ever after, or at least happy for now!), and the ways a wonderful author can bring inventive, surprising new elements to the form.
I was midway through a contemporary romance from an author I’d never read before, featuring a hero who’d moved from one of the Dakotas to a major West Coast city. At some point it is revealed that not only does the hero own a gun, but he retrieves and loads it in the presence of the female love interest, whose only reaction is one of clear approval and appreciation.
And I thought: wow, that is not something I expected to see.
But why didn’t I? Because although I grew up in a Midwestern rural setting, where hunting was common and so were guns, a lot of things have changed since then. I’m now far more concerned about the prevalence of gun violence in American society. The negative influence of the NRA. The fact that even after Sandy Hook, after Vegas, nothing seems to have changed. I respect the idea of responsible gun ownership but worry that it may be impossible to ever agree on what, exactly, counts as “responsible.”
And I thought: wow, I could never put a gun in a book in such a casually approving way.
That’s why I can’t agree with the idea that we should keep our politics out of our books. Because I don’t think the author of that romance novel thought, “Gee, I want to put something positive about guns in my book!” I think there’s a very good chance that she put it in there without even really thinking about it. The heroine is worried because she heard someone rattling the knob of her locked back door a few nights before, in a house where she lives alone; when she tells the hero, he immediately jumps into action to protect her. That’s presented as completely positive. And given that in this same book, the author takes pains to break down stereotypical gender dynamics – while her ex-boyfriend was not cool with purchasing feminine hygiene products for the heroine, the hero doesn’t even blink at it! – I found it especially glaring.
They say that when certain readers tell authors to “keep your politics out of your books,” what they really mean is, “keep politics I don’t agree with out of your books.” Because you tend not to notice the politics — the beliefs, the mores — that an author puts in their books that happen to align with your own.
These days, it’s much more jarring for me to come across a book that excludes LGBTQ+ or POC characters than one that includes and embraces them. And because I think we should always be reading and writing toward inclusivity, I’m going to embrace books that align with those beliefs. But I know there are plenty of readers out there who feel differently. And because the publishing world is so vast, those readers have hundreds, even thousands, of books to choose from that don’t challenge their worldview.
Can you keep your politics out of your books? Maybe, if you really, really try, it might be possible. You can scrub your writing of anything even remotely controversial. But at the same time, even the exclusion of “controversial” elements is, in itself, political. Because politics is about belief, and while you may not believe exactly what your characters believe, the way those beliefs are presented is controlled by only one brain: yours, not theirs. And you may not realize just how much of you is in them until a reader who thinks differently stumbles across your book and says: Wow, that is not something I expected to see.
Q: Do you try to keep your politics out of what you write? Do you expect the same of the writers you read?
About Jael McHenry
Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.
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