Neither a Rant Nor a Rave

Hello, dear readers and writers. There is a literature related issue about which I’ve had strong convictions for a long time, so I thought I’d raise it here.

When you write or read a novel, do you prefer character-based stories devoid of politics or social problems, or do you enjoy reading/writing books where the characters and plot are engaged with socio-political topics?

I prefer reading and writing the latter and I attribute my preference to experiences I had a long time ago during my college years. The first experience’s setting was in a Spanish literature class taught by an instructor who delighted in showing us the personal and political messages concealed in Federico Garcia Lorca’s  lyrical but mournful poetry. Like a brand new sponge, I absorbed the instructor’s excitement as he drew the lines connecting Lorca’s symbolic imagery to the events of the Spanish Civil War and the oppression of certain of Spain’s citizenry.

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Federico Garcia Lorca

My second experience occurred when I made the acquaintance of the poetry of the Negritude Movement and immediately saw its parallels to the poetry and prose of the 1960’s-early 1970’s Black Arts Movement.

Most of the writers whose work filled both of those movements rejected the classic art-for-art’s-sake credo. They grabbed the belief that literature (as well as painting and the other plastic arts) needed to be functional. The written word had to fulfill a purpose beyond entertainment. It needed to be a tool. Leopold S. Senghor and Rene Depestre (Negritude poets,) Gwendolyn Brooks (whose work preceded the Black Arts Movement, but whose later poems embraced it,) Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez adhered to the premise that literature had the power to inspire change. Their poetry and prose was dynamic. It danced and jumped off the page. Their lesbian heirs, Audre Lorde, Alexis De Veaux, Jewelle Gomez, Cheryl Clarke, and many others have continued the tradition of writing “engaged literature.”

 

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Nikki Giovanni

Does my advocacy of functional literature mean I’m campaigning for most novels to stimulate change or force feed readers certain political messages? No, I am not doing that. I am saying it’s difficult for me to write  romance or mystery or general dramatic fiction without creating characters who wrestle with any number of real life’s social issues, like aging, racial discrimination, the inequities of health care, mental illness, homophobia. I’m saying also that it’s possible to write about these issues AND create stories with pleasant endings.

I want my fiction to serve a purpose. I want my readers to enjoy the stories, but I also want them to think about issues with which possibly they’ve not had to contend.

Two topics I explored in my last book, The Rules, were racial identity and the conflicts caused by colorism and class differences. These are well known issues in the African American community, but they are painful problems which we tend to hold close to ourselves and not often commit to the pages of our books. With few exceptions, (Michelle Cliff’s “Abeng,”) black lesbian writers rarely include these problems in our stories. Let’s face it, for those of us who are black and of a certain age, proclaiming one’s sexuality and  writing about characters who also own theirs is a political act in itself.

 

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We writers and our publishers have to be concerned about book sales. It follows that we want our books to be enjoyable. Can we create characters and plots that deal with social issues and still offer our readers the sweet combo of entertainment and brain food they seek? Yes, we can. We can offer stories with plot twists and turns, finely drawn characters with flaws as well as sterling traits, who in the course of living their lives are forced to encounter some of the aforementioned issues.

I want to write books that will serve a function other than decorate an end table for a short while. I seek to create books that will entice readers to ponder socio-political situations in general and the issues which affect them in particular. My books might not make my readers dance, but I hope they will encourage them to think beyond the books’ covers.

 

S. Renee Bess has written five novels: LEAVE OF ABSENCE; BREAKING JAIE; RE:BUILDING SASHA; THE BUTTERFLY MOMENTS; and THE RULES. Her website is: http://www.reneebess.com

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “Neither a Rant Nor a Rave

  1. I like both types of writing but I especially like Renee Bess. You know, if you keep writing these posts we’re going to start expecting them and will become demanding if you miss a week!

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    1. Thanks, Allison. I’m quite okay with writing one blog per month. Kudos to Andi M. and Jove B. for establishing this blog home.

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  2. I strongly prefer novels that have political content. In fact, what I find hard to read are lesbian novels that don’t address these issues when they would be relevant to the plot and subject or ones that are not just devoid of politics but actually exploit the very things many of us have tried so hard to fight against, such as objectification of women. Because I’m a feminist and a social worker, I can’t help but reference real issues in my work, abuse, violence, etc (which to me are political) and if I’m reading books by women of color, I tend to expect some sort of reference to the politics of oppression even though I know that some women of color are just as apolitical as their caucasian counterparts.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Allison. We are of the same mind regarding the existence of political issues in novels. Thanks also for recognizing there are women of color who are apolitical. While I have trouble understanding how that can be, I am glad you are aware there are differences amongst us.

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  3. I love this blog SO MUCH. I have addressed current political issues in some of my writing, from the experiences I’ve had with different intersections of my identity (-ies), and I’ll transpose that onto some of my characters. I’m interested, too, in having characters dissect privilege and all the myriad forms it can take. I haven’t written that work, yet, but I’d like to. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of escapist writing because I can’t deal with the current political climate. But that, too, is a form of privilege, that I can take time to “escape.” So many layers…thanks for doing this blog.

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    1. Andi, I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for such a long time. I suggested it as a topic for a panel (GCLS) more than once, but there was never any interest. Even as I wrote this blog, I worried no one would find it interesting. I’m happy to have found kindred spirits. Thanks to you and Jove for giving me the space to blog here at W&W. BTW, I haven’t done any escapist writing (due to the daily toxic political environment,) but I keep scanning the cable tv and Netflix offerings in search of old black and white flicks. I watched one of my favorites last weekend…All About Eve. All this past week I’ve been talking with George Sander’s dry, sarcastic, snarky voice.

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  4. Thanks, Renee! I’m with you. While I love to be entertained, I’m looking for meaning and engagement when I read. I want to walk away understanding more about the world and people I encounter. I want to be challenged to grow as a person in some way. Thanks for the post and I look forward to to the book. Well done!

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  5. I’ve been chasing the answer to this question for years through blogs, FB posts, and even the keynote address I delivered at GCLS in 2011, where I encouraged writers to venture off the beaten trail to write books that might stand out in sea of sameness, books that went deep enough to change a life. I challenged readers to come with us on difficult journeys out of their comfort zone because those are the books that will be discussed for how they made the reader feel and why, that will stay in the reader’s mind long after they’re finished. After a few efforts at taking the pulse of the audience, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t really asking a question about what readers wanted — I was letting them know I was weary of writing books that challenged neither of us, that I intended to branch out and hoped they’d come along for the ride. The realization freed me to explore the issues I care about in the context of romantic fiction. I’m convinced readers appreciate more a book the author really wanted to write versus one that pandered to the audience.

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    1. I agree with your conclusion, KG. Intuitive readers can detect a writer’s connection to (or, at least sincere interest in) her book’s subject matter. We risk losing the support of readers who seek entertainment only, but we’ve gained a more satisfying writing experience. You are a writer who is engaged in political ideas. As per some of your FB posts (i.e.voter registration tasks,) you don’t just talk the talk. You walk the walk. I’m smiling my appreciation of your efforts.

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    2. As I was reading down the comments … I was thinking about Trial by Fury and intended to mention the great books with “right now” topics by KG MacGregor …. hmmm and there popped up the fabulous author herself!
      Great blog, Renee!

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  6. Brava, Reneé, excellent blog. Perhaps a more developed and ‘mature’ GCLS is ready to tackled more complex topics such as this. Don’t stop trying!
    And, as always, I love your writing.

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