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The Politics of Reading

So, I’m reading this book. And I’m pretty much liking the thing. As I’m wont to do, I search the author (I found this particular book through it being mentioned in some interview or other), because I’m starting to get intrigued about the other books he’s written, etc. I find out the writer is a right-wing radio show host.

Now, usually, I don’t let a writer’s personal attributes sway how I feel about the writing. I’ve gotten pretty good at this, I think. But now I’m feeling wonky about this book that I was liking. I’ve listened to some right-wing radio and it really turns me off. But there hasn’t been anything alarming so far in the book… beside a religious character (who I’ve been slightly frightened of dominating too much of the narrative). Now I’m thinking “Oh, man, what am I in for?” instead of “Oh, man, what’s going to happen next?”

Have you ever had an experience like this? Tell me to keep reading! Tell me it’ll pay off! Tell me I’m not being treated to subliminal propaganda! Or Tell me to put it down quick! My fate is in your hands!

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

31 thoughts on “The Politics of Reading

  1. Well, whatever you do, don’t read Céline. Or watch Triumph of the Will. Or look at any paintings by Degas.

    Conservatives can make great art just like anyone else, and great art can be despicable in its attitudes and opinions. And, to quote an extremely talented (and utterly abominable) right wing radio host, that’s “the way things ought to be.”

    1. yes, well that is kind of exactly my point. that i’ve never been adversely effected in my attitudes toward art when finding out this sort of thing before. so why now? why with this book?

      1. Have you listened to any of this chap’s radio shows? You never know, you might find yourself nodding along in agreement…especially once the mind-altering powder coating the book’s pages penetrates your system…

        If I read a novel by, say, Rush Limbaugh, I’d probably be suspicious, too. Although if it were a great novel then—hey, credit where credit is due. Limbaugh’s probably as capable as anyone else of writing well, and I’d rather read a great novel by someone I dislike than a bad novel by someone I like. Although if Limbaugh did write a great novel and I read it and I loved it, I’d want to be careful in what I said about it, because I wouldn’t want to sell copies for him, because I know what he’d use the money to do. (So I’d encourage people to steal it, perhaps.)

        This is a situation I often run into, because I like comics, and comics are often made by people whose politics I don’t support. For instance, I imagine I’d disagree a fair amount with Frank Miller, were I to ever discuss politics with him. But I don’t think I’ll be discussing politics with him anytime soon, so I don’t let that really bother me. (And I also think—hell, as long as I’m, fantasizing, why not?—that we’d be able to get along despite our differences. And that after we argued, he’d draw Batman on my back—in indelible marker!)

        I consider myself pretty political, but I’ve never really cared what artists’ politics are, frankly—even when they’re a big part of the work. That could be something right with me, and it could be something wrong with me. Meanwhile, an artist having “the right politics” has never done much to impress me, in terms of their work. If I don’t like that, then…

        1. there is no rationale to the immediate sense i felt creeping in. i haven’t heard or read any of this gentleman’s political opinions. i think in part it may be linked to my suspicions about how religious this book may get, given the introduction of the aforementioned character.

          i agree, i’m all about good writing above all. and this is well written, but i have been somewhat on the fence about it as a whole. liking it and then thinking i’m liking it less, then liking it, etc. i almost feel like maybe i was waiting for something, anything, to sway me one way or the other.

          and is this a personality flaw on my part?

          1. Yes, it means you’re a terrible person, and should stay away from cats. And money. You can’t be trusted with money. So send me any that you have, and when you want to buy something, I’ll buy it for you. (If I think you really need it.)

          2. No, seriously—hard not to let the things we know about authors influence us. I was just reading Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith—such a great novel!—but knowing what we know about her, of course one starts paying attention to particular passages, wondering how much of her own psychology is on display.

            But Highsmith was a very skilled novelist, and most likely a human being to book, and so she was as capable as anyone submerging personal opinions for the sake of the overall novel, of lying, of holding two contradictory opinions at once, etc.

            “Right wing radio host” can mean so many different things. Does this fellow think foreigners should be kept out of the country? Or does he think that churches should do more to strengthen community bonds? Does he campaign against science in the classroom? Or does he believe that we should build more national parks in order to preserve our natural landscape? Etc. etc.

            And what’s wrong with religion—or, more accurately, religious characters? I’m not religious myself, but I sure do enjoy Tarkovsky movies. And Scorsese films. Which are all very religious. I like that Mormon rock band, Low, too. They’re awesome!

            [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmo7tyrtGW0&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

            I’ll even admit to liking Pedro the Lion, if you get me drunk enough.

            And I have a Jars of Clay tattoo.

            1. Ugh, that should be “most likely a human being to boot.” My cat is my copy-editor.

              And she’s fired! Do you hear that, Miss Lucy? You’re fired!

              …She just said, “Eh.”

              1. I was exaggerating somewhat when I wrote “Mormon rock band.” Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are practicing Mormons, and their songs often directly address religious themes.

                I actually rather like the religious aspects of Low’s music. I’m not religious myself, but I enjoy hearing about religion from others who do practice it, have faith, etc. I’m liberal and agnostic etc., but I think there’s a lot to value in religion, and in religious thought. Although of course like all human endeavors it can also be despicable terrible foolish etc.

                In the case of Low, their faith leads them to create some very beautiful and meaningful music, and I think that’s really great.

  2. Politics may not be your problem with him, Ryan. Talk show host…now that’s bad imo.

    Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Highsmith- all anti-semitic, but great writers. that said, upon rereading the sun also rises recently- man, the anti-semitism really bothered me. Still- great book, but it made me go “Man, Hemingway was awful.”

    Philip Roth is an awful man and a great writer. He’s also a liberal.

    Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor were crazy religious. Good reading.

    But what all those writers have in common is that- they are not talk show hosts. So- my initial point.

  3. The most objectionable writer I’ve ever liked was probably Orson Scott Card, who is so aggressively anti-liberal and homophobic that he has actually been disinvited to science fiction conventions despite being, like, one of the most famous sf writers ever. I don’t like all of Card’s work, and a lot of it does have genuinely bothersome undertones … but some of it doesn’t. I’ve found that sometimes it’s a risk reading his stuff, because it may piss me off. But, on the other hand, that’s the worst that will happen. And if I’m willing to risk that, then it might turn out to be an excellent book that doesn’t piss me off at all.

  4. If this is a recently published novel, I think I know which one it is. I’ve been thinking of reading it myself.

    I’m not bothered by the political or religious views of the people I read. I am determinedly anti-religious and on the left of liberal, but one of my favourite writers is Gene Wolfe, who is a deeply conservative Catholic. What bothers me is when I see the views of the author corrupting the shape of their work.

    It is impossible for anyone to write without their personal views informing the work they produce. But when you see plots take a sudden shift, characters introduced, or some such event that is there simply to reflect the author’s views, then I find that corrupting and it destroys the integrity of the work for me.

    From what you’re saying, the introduction of the religious character might suggest such a corrupting effect. If it was coincidental with your discovery of the views of the author, that might just compound the effect.

    Keep it simple, if it’s bothering you put the book down. There are far more books out there than there are lifetimes available to read them, so why waste the time?

    1. this book was published in the 80’s i believe.

      the religious character worrying me came first, but i was trying to ignore it. when i later found the biographical information it seemed to compound the concern, for sure. i think i will finish the book, because i still find myself intrigued, but the initial feeling of impending dread was really something i felt needed exploring.

    2. Paul, because I’m a kurious oranj —what’s wrong per se with an artwork reflecting an author’s views? Or do you mean it’s only a problem when it shifts or corrupts the work somehow…? And what does that mean, precisely? (Is any kind of shifting bad, then? What if it’s part of the work’s structure?)

      (Forgive me if I’m being an obstinate oranj, but I’d like to unpack this a little.)

      For instance, Carole Maso’s The Art Lover is told in five chapters, and the fourth chapter sees her abandon the fictional narrative to interject herself into the story and comment on it. And then she recedes again in the fifth chapter. And a lot of people didn’t like that when she did it, but I think it’s her best book, and an amazing novel. Obviously that’s part of the book’s structure…but wouldn’t a steady progression toward a certain viewpoint also be part of a book’s structure? Don Quixote was produced over time and reflects shifts in Cervantes’s thinking; Book Two is very different than Book One, and includes more political criticism. And today most critics find Book Two superior to Book One.

      I’m thinking out loud here and engaging with this because while I think I know what you mean, I don’t know how to express it. So I think it’s worth pursuing.

      Here’s a possibly more relevant example for you. I’m a huge fan of Cerebus, the long-running comic by Dave Sim. He produced 300 issues of it between 1977 and 2004. It’s 6000 pages long, one of the longest fictional narratives in human history. I think it’s a remarkable artistic and literary achievement (and not just because it’s long).

      Part of what’s intriguing about the book is that in many ways it’s the product of very rigorous long-term planning. Sim announced his intention to produce 300 issues, telling the life of the title character, back in the late 1970s. And people laughed when he said that, but he really did go on to do that. And when you read the whole thing (all 6000 pages), you can see that a lot of it is very carefully planned.

      But Cerebus is a serial narrative, and it also changes radically over time. Issue 250, for instance, is nothing like issue 150, which is nothing like issue 50. All along, Sim himself changed as a person—rather severely. He started the book as something of a pothead atheist sorta-libertarian who wrote very strong and complex female characters. But by 2004 he had become deeply conservative, and an outspoken misogynist. And he was practicing his own fusion of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

      Not surprisingly, his shifting political and religious views deeply invaded and warped the text. That turns a lot of people off, understandably, and Sim lost a lot of his audience starting around issue 180, when his more objectionable views started becoming apparent (and changing the text’s direction). And issues 200–300 see a steady progression away from much of the earlier content. And the book doesn’t really go where Sim said it would, earlier on.

      Although in some ways it does. From certain points of view, Cerebus is a fairly coherent whole. The book is deeply concerned with experimentation, and it keeps changing all the time. That’s true even in the earlier issues. And Sim was never shy about his politics—the book is concerned with politics from the first few issues, and with gender issues—it’s just that those politics really changed. And throughout, the whole project remains extremely critical. (The title character is a real anti-hero, and at times extremely unsympathetic.)

      People tend to ignore the last third of the series, but I find it to be just as much a part of the whole thing as the first 2/3. In some ways, Sim is just carrying his ideas through to their conclusion—which turns out to be a very dark, bitter place. But he has the courage of his convictions! And there’s a real progression. And in serial work of any real length, we see the artist change over time, as he or she produces it. That’s part of the pleasure of it.

      (Sim likes to argue that what people really object to is the way in which he changed. Had he become a PC feminist liberal, he claims, they wouldn’t mind the shifts in the text. I think there’s probably some truth to that.)

      Meanwhile, the artistry of Cerebus, if anything, only increases in the book’s final third. It’s a real shame that most people are so turned off by Sim’s personal views that they ignore that aspect of the work. (Although again I find this understandable, as Sim’s ideas are pretty offensive to most.)

      …But I tend to like works that change radically at some point. The converse is also true: I also like extremely coherent work. Essentially, what I like is form, either conventional form or unconventional form. What I tend not to like is formless work—my own personal bias.

      1. Adam, we’re in the area of personal response to art, of course, but let me try and demonstrate what I mean with reference to two works by the same author.

        In Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Severian is a saviour figure, we know that from the start. He is an ambiguous saviour, and the ambiguity allows Wolfe to examine the nature and role of the saviour figure. But he is nevertheless a holy figure who moves through a holy landscape peopled by angels. Wolfe’s Catholicism is obvious in the book right the way through, but it is used by the author, it is in many ways what the book is about. At no point do you feel that Severian’s character, or the events that occur around him are being manipulated just for the sake of Wolfe’s religious perspective, it all forms a coherent, natural whole.

        Castle, in Operation Ares (Wolfe’s first and, until recently, weakest novel but one that can be read in many ways as a precursor of The Book of the New Sun) is also a saviour figure, but there is no ambiguity, no questioning of the role of saviour. Nor is there anything natural and coherent about it. Castle goes through a series of unlikely events, few of which feel as if they belong with any of the others, all of which come to conclusions that feel forced and unlikely within the world of the novel, and each one of which is designed to force Castle into the role of saviour. The reader doesn’t feel as though they are reading a novel designed to tell a story so much as a religious tract designed to highlight the author’s religious views. That is what I mean by authorial belief corrupting the shape of the story.

        It is not so much that the individual work changes radically at any point, but rather that it never works as a piece of art unless you accept unquestioningly the particular religious or political views that the author is using it to express.

        1. Hi Paul,

          I agree that we’re one foot into the realm of subjective response, and that this kind of thing can be hard to pin down.

          I haven’t read either of the novels you describe, but I wonder if the issue isn’t more one of storytelling. For instance, I think Spy Kids 3D is a terrible movie, because there’s no tension in it. The kids get stuck inside a video game, and must pass each level to get out. But every time they encounter an obstacle, they clear it immediately—the solution is always right at hand. They never have to work for anything, and they are never in any trouble. (Much the same thing happens in the first Harry Potter novel.) This has nothing to do with religious belief, necessarily, and everything to do with bad storytelling: no challenge, no tension, no suspense. It’s no fun when the protagonist is given everything. And it’s especially no fun when the audience isn’t given any time to wonder what might happen, which is one of the pleasures of the text.

          But I don’t think that has anything to do, per se, with religious or political beliefs. It can, because when someone sets out to write a religious tract they are not writing a story (they’re separate things). But I suspect the problem is more that the author is making something that pretends to be a novel, but isn’t, because it doesn’t satisfy readers in the way they expect a novel to.

          It should also be noted that we live in a time when allegories are not taken all that seriously, but that at other times they were considered high art. Since Modernism, there’s been a lot of suspicion of characters who aren’t plausibly psychologically complex, or who don’t “face” complex situations. But this is a convention of our times.

          Postmodernist writers routinely violate this convention, but they usually do so ironically or metatextually, not sincerely. And Formalists, who are open to forms like allegory, at the same time warn that the purpose of an artwork isn’t to “mean” anything, but rather to exhibit formal aesthetics. (I was just last night rereading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation.)

          I’ll try to illustrate. Many people dislike The Chronicles of Narnia precisely because it is a religious allegory. But I think Lewis is at the same time a good storyteller—he’s taken a lot of care to embody his religious beliefs in a rich world with rich characters, and then to tell good stories about all of that. For instance, in the Magician’s Nephew, the stretch where Polly and Digory ring the bell on Charn and reawaken the White Witch: it’s of course an Eden allegory. But it’s also suspenseful and imaginative storytelling. The ruined and frozen world of Charn is very evocative, and spooky, and the Witch is a compellingly evil character. Lewis does a lot more than just retell Genesis.

          So I myself don’t mind the big Christian allegory—I actually find it charming. For instance, I simply love how The Last Battle, Susan doesn’t get to enter paradise with her brothers and sister because she’s “no longer a friend of Narnia,” and “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” I suppose I enjoy this ironically, since I find a perverse pleasure in it that Lewis didn’t intend. And a lot of my interest in Lewis is purely formal; I like a lot of the narrative devices he employs.

          But I’m also charmed by the determination of his belief—the thorough sincerity of it. I don’t so much laugh at it as stare at it in wonder—and find it beautiful, in its own way, even as I strongly disagree.

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