Write it now: do writers always perch on a soap-box?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a history student at Victoria University, one of the other students took me aside and nodded towards the lecturer. ‘D’you know he’s really a Liberal?’

Hmmn

Hmmn

The Professor in question was one of New Zealand’s leading historians of the day on the Liberal party, which was in government 1891-1912 and imploded in the early 1920s. The world had long since moved on, rendering interest in them academic. Which, I suppose, is why this Professor was studying them.

That didn’t make him a Liberal, personally. But the distinction, it seemed, was lost on his students, to whom interest and personal advocacy were one and the same. The idea’s not unique to universities – though on my experience the angry, sanctimonious and half-educated youth who inhabited the history department at the time set the gold standard.

Post-Vietnam anti-war rhetoric was well entrenched. Post-colonial thinking was on the rise. Failure to advocate it was a fast road to social ostracism, buoyed on unsubtle intellectual bullying that enforced conformity to the breathless ‘new order’. Those who failed to conform lost out socially and found that career doors were not opened.

Conflation of interest with advocacy happens in the real world too – for writers it’s an occupational hazard. Freelance journos are bound to crash into the social no-no de jour sooner or later – they write on such a wide range, and even those who focus their brand into a particular subject get tarred eventually. Non-fiction book writers hit it. Want to write a book on how the Nazis took over Germany? Be careful.

Novellists hit it – I recall reading that Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven took a lot of stick for setting  The Mote In God’s Eye in a human Empire. Were they advocating Imperialism? Not at all. This was simply the setting.

That’s not to say that writing can’t be a soap-box. Often it is. But it can also be abstract – and it’s important for the writer to understand how that works – to signal the difference. Also for readers to appreciate it.

For me the trick is stepping away from the bus. Looking back and figuring out just what it is that frames the way we think. It doesn’t mean rejecting that – but it does mean understanding it. From that, it’s possible to be properly abstract. Or, indeed, to get back on the soap box, this time in an informed way.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and fun. Check it out.

10 comments on “Write it now: do writers always perch on a soap-box?

  1. symplysilent says:

    Matthew, if we write fiction, we want to tell a story.

    I keep turning pages when compelling characters have an overwhelming stake in the outcome, and are thwarted at every turn, with the situation becoming ever more dire, with shrinking alternatives.

    What easier way to do that than take someone, place them in their worst nightmare, and watch them overcome the obstacle?

    Thank you, Silent

    • Quite right. The issue is not having the reader think that the author is trying to advocate the obstacles for real.

      • symplysilent says:

        Yes. Don’t be preachy…keep the dialog snappy without speeches. Keep the situations as believable as possible. And don’t…ever…make any judgments.

        I wonder if that is why Steinbeck and Hemingway are such good writers. They wrote about people, and helped us to understand them and care for them. Especially Hemingway’s characters who might be caught up in some world-shaking event, they were still just people.

        You write great blogs and I look forward to reading them.

        Silent

  2. No sense of humor? Problem. No sense of historical perspective? Bigger problem. Not willing to look inside your skin and see who’s really living there? Oh, boy.

    I’m to the point where “labels” make me extremely uneasy. Too much nascent Newspeak for my taste!

    But I do seem to climb up on that soapbox more and more often these days. I don’t mind what people want to believe so much as the fact that they don’t seem to want to think about what they believe. So, before I start a rant … good post, Matthew!

    • My university experience goes back a generation now, but it was an eye opener. The issue at the time was portrayed as left vs right. But really it was about authoritarian followers vs reason. I think most of them grew up. Despite the door opening, only one or two actually went on to careers in history. I did too, but I had to do it the hard way, without any support from that community and at times in spite of active efforts to block me.

  3. Wise words. It makes me think of the reaction to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem – and I definitely see this issue in students as well. They get very confused when we study figures who oppose each other, as if they must necessarily be reconcilable because a single professor has put them on one syllabus. It’s tough to overcome, sometimes!

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