by Will Viharo
“Everything is politics,” or so declared the great German author Thomas Mann.
He may have a point, and since he is widely acknowledged as a literary genius, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of any doubt.
But when it comes to creativity, the lines between art and politics can be either distinct or blurred, depending on your agenda and audience. Just ask any comic that refuses to play college campuses these days...
In this digital age of instantly shared information, it’s way too easy to get caught in the crossfire of competing ideological viewpoints. I recently decided to avoid the subject of politics on my personal Facebook page altogether, in order to avoid contentious public debates that only serve in pointlessly distracting my followers (and me) from the main purpose of my social media platform, which is the promotion of my pulp fiction.
But that’s just me. It’s certainly not a general recommendation. Everyone needs to remain true to his or her own unique idiosyncrasies. And that includes your fiction (and non-fiction) output.
As a “pulp” author, I tend to indulge (but not over-indulge) in gratuitous sex and violence, though in a rather stylized, surrealistic fashion. Being a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male and self-described “politically incorrect progressive,” I have no personal problem graphically describing erotic encounters between voluptuous, sexually liberated women and either men or monsters, or even other women.
My work is heavily influenced by “grindhouse cinema” as well as classic pulp literature, both of which are characterized by deliberately exploitative subject matter. I am not a fan of subtlety and do not shy away from the more extreme elements of my signature genre.
This uninhibited approach to often taboo topics can backfire in terms of sales, even if Erotica is one of the most popular categories for indie authors. Sex sells, but as with any product, it depends on how it’s marketed, and even more importantly, to whom.
Plus, if you choose to engage in risky (i.e. risque) literary behavior, you need to prepare yourself for potential backlash from readers and non-readers alike. You can’t make everyone happy, so there’s no point in trying. It's much easier to piss people off than to please them, actually. That’s why I always suggest pleasing yourself first. As it were.
If It Feels So Right, How Can It Be Wrong?
I am a fan of many self-professed “right wing” crime fiction authors like James Ellroy and Mickey Spillane, and while I may strongly disagree with their personal politics, I still enjoy their fiction, even if it contains a worldview I do not share. It’s not being forced on me, even subliminally. I can still parse the entertainment value from any objectionable subtext, though in truth, I am never “offended” by pure artistic expression, unless it’s intentionally bigoted.
Another example of this apparent dichotomy between art and artist: personally I am an advocate for gun control legislation. At the same time, many of my characters employ guns during the course of their activities, inside and outside of the law. This has absolutely nothing to do with my own convictions, but everything to do with the characters’.
Human nature is often contradictory, and I’m only human. So are my characters. Even the werewolves and vampires. That’s what makes them relatable.
There is a strong distinction between fantasy and reality, in life and well as in art. And as an artist commenting on the real world in a fantastical context, one should ideally be open to all points of view, even if many members of the general public are not.
"Fire at Will!"
To be honest, I haven’t been accused of anything as egregious as outright misogyny due to the feminine promiscuity that is so prevalent not only in my work, but right there on the book covers themselves. I admit I exploit sensuality as a promotional device. But I am also a strong proponent of truth in advertising. When it comes to my book covers, what you see is exactly what you get. Take it or leave it (and unfortunately for me, too many opt for the latter).
I am also staunchly anti-censorship when it comes to Art.
My wife, best friend, and partner of nearly two decades, Monica, is an avowed “raging liberal feminist,” and while she is far too squeamish to fully appreciate my more outré work, particularly in the horror genre, she has never taken offense at my depiction of women.
Of course, she not only knows me better than any other human being, but she may be a tad biased, cutting me some slack she may not be willing to afford a total stranger accused of the same “politically incorrect” objectification of her sex.
I concede society’s appalling exploitation of women on a general basis, and it extends well beyond the hot button issues of equal pay for equal work and workplace harassment. Rape, torture, violent victimization (especially in Horror) and other examples of abusive behavior are rampant in our culture, particularly in mediums defending themselves as “art.”
So am I contributing to this widespread problem with my fictional portrayals of fetishized “femme fatales”?
In a word, no.
Not that I’m being preemptively defensive, but the female characters in my books are always strong-willed, independent, and even dominant over their male counterparts (including in bed)! They are not submissive, just sexually liberated. Are they products of a feverish heterosexual male imagination? Well, yes – I can’t deny my own identity in my work. Everything is written from my individual perspective. But that’s what I expect from any author, working in any genre or form.
In a word: Honesty.
Sure, being “honest” in your art (and life) may run the risk of offending certain sensibilities, but truly groundbreaking art (not saying my stuff is that, just making a point) always defies borders and “safe” standards of common acceptability, pushing the envelope both morally and philosophically, and in so doing alienating a substantial portion of the piece’s potential audience – while attracting those that appreciate the work’s boldness and authenticity.
Fork in the Road? Pave Your Own Path
As my wife once pointed out, I am not a businessman by nature. A businessman finds out what the public wants, and then gives it to them. With my fiction, I do the opposite: I write whatever I want, then try to find the readers that share my interests. That’s a much tougher road to hoe, trust me.
It’s a path some (maybe even most) writers aren’t willing to pursue, especially if they’re trying to earn a decent living as an author by tailoring their work for mainstream tastes.
But I maintain that in itself is a form of artistic integrity, since commercial reality often dictates the perimeters of your work, and honoring those boundaries as a matter of survival is sound. You’re only “pandering” to the demands of a particular crowd if you’re a professional politician!
Bottom line: always be aware of your audience, even as you indulge your own darkest fantasies. Just don’t be surprised if not everyone wants to take that journey with you.
Some may even launch an official protest or organize a ban of your work.
I should be so lucky.
PHOTO: SCOOTER HARRIS
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New Orleans, LA