Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talking politics

One of the greatest challenges a fiction writer faces is whether or not to include references to current events in one's work. If your story is set during a recent historical event, that's one thing.  It's also par for the course to include familiar sites and cultural touchstones to guide the reader and give them a sense of place. But what if you're crafting a world out of thin air?

There are many major works of literature that contain veiled references to contemporary political issues and cultural figures. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ayn Rand's books come to mind, and they weren't always straight-up allegories either. Those works can be appreciated if you don't understand the references, but reading through their entries on Sparknotes certainly fills in the gaps.

But in a few years (let alone 50 or 100), who's going to care about a spot-on caricature of a society matron or a send-up of an obnoxious political operative? Why risk future readers conflating an interpretation of the author's time with a message for all time?

Also, some authors who tackle political analogies in their fiction don't always get a warm reception. In A Dance With Dragons, the most recent installment of ASOIAF, George Martin was accused of modeling one of the book's subplots on the U.S.'s recent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. He denied drawing inspiration from those wars, but the perceived parallels made the already shaky subplot even more unpopular with readers.

That's he conundrum I've been wrestling with lately. So far, I've come up with one answer. Shoehorning in pop culture references is a sure road to irrelevance, but there's always interesting people in the world, no matter what era you live in. If those people have something equally interesting to say in your world, maybe you should let them in.


  1. There are important themes that run throughout past, current, and future events - i.e. a commentary on war vs. specific thoughts on a current war. If an author can reference contemporary events within a more general address of the big, sweeping issues, the material stays relevant. (I'm guessing that is easier said than done.)


  2. Don't all good books have socio-political commentary? I mean if an author doesn't have things to say about the world and its ways (be it power structures or just societal norms) then why would they write a book?