A few days ago John Scalzi put up this blog post, commenting (in the usual tail-chasing fashion of the Internet) on someone else's Twitter comment about yet a third person's magazine article — all wrestling with the question of whether writers should or should not try to be apolitical. John says no. I disagree with him, and instead of giving him more free Web content, I'm putting my reply here.
I think the heart of the problem is that we are conflating two separate roles that writers play. As a man and a citizen, I have the right — and perhaps even the duty — to participate in the political life of my town, my state, and my country. That naturally includes the right to let others know what I think about issues of the day. As my friends and my poor wife can attest, I am seldom shy about doing so.
But my role as a writer is distinct from my role as a citizen. As a writer my political notions are of no greater weight than the opinions of a panhandler, a soldier, a farmer, a banker, or an actor. Maybe as a writer my thoughts about copyrights or the self-employment tax are of value, but otherwise I'm just another citizen.
The problem is that I'm a citizen with a bullhorn. I can use my fiction to promote my views. I have a better than average ability to come up with clever little stupid bumper-sticker slogans. As a writer, in other words, I can spread my opinions more effectively than an insurance adjuster or an engineer can. Other writers can do that, too — as can moviemakers, actors, possibly musicians and professors, as well.
Why is that a problem? Simple: I'm a moron. So are you. So are all writers. The ability to express my ideas in an appealing and catchy manner doesn't mean those ideas are correct. I'm a moron with a bullhorn. Just one moron with a bullhorn is unpleasant to be around; the last thing we need is a whole mob of them.
There's another reason for a writer to avoid politics while wearing his writer hat: it's bad for the work. There have been great "political" novels, but most of those are great because they tackle universal truths rather than parochial issues. George Orwell's 1984 was a brilliant polemic against Soviet Communism — but if it had been just a book about how big a bastard Stalin was, nobody would have bothered to read it after 1953. Because Orwell created a book which examines how people become complicit in their own oppression, and how tyrannies distort every aspect of human life, his novel will still be relevant in 2084.
But most of the time, a writer being "political" means that the action of a story must screech to a halt while a moron with a bullhorn wanders onto the page, gabbling incoherently amid feedback squeals. In particularly sad cases, the moron gradually takes over all the writer's work. Recall G.K. Chesterton's famous quote about H.G. Wells "selling his birthright for a pot of message."
So in the end, I'm agreeing with both Mr. Scalzi and the un-named original romance writer who inspired this whole chain of commentary. Writers — as citizens and adults — have the right to be as political as they wish, and make their opinions known to all. But as writers, they should be aware that it's a perilous undertaking. Be as much of a moron as you like, but don't switch on that bullhorn. You might start an avalanche.