Monday, March 25, 2013

That Power of Accurate Observation Is Called Political By Those Who Have Not Got It

I'm glad to say that most of the Amazon customer reviews for my new short novel, London Twist, have been positive.  Among the negative ones, there's an interesting theme:  that the story is either disturbingly pro-gay or disturbingly anti-drone, and in all events too liberal.  I think it's worth examining these claims, and the premises behind them.

1.  The Story Is Disturbingly Pro-Gay.  I suppose if someone in the story made a speech in favor of marriage equality, or if I depicted the unjust suffering of gays due to discriminatory laws, there might be a basis for the claim that the story is pro-gay.  In fact, the story involves (among other things) two straight women who, while circling each other on opposite sides of an espionage operation, find themselves attracted to each other, and wind up acting on that attraction.  It's hard for me to understand how depicting something like this could be pro-gay.  I'm guessing that some people find implicitly political a depiction of same-sex attraction and of gay sex itself?  In other words, if you don't try to deny the existence of homosexuality, or if you don't try to depict homosexuality in a negative light, you're doing something political.

There might actually be something to this view.  Because if marginalizing gays in fiction is political, then mainstreaming them must be political, too.  If depicting gay sex as immoral and unhealthy is political, then depicting it as normal and healthy must be political, too.

What's revealing, though, is that I don't think I've ever read a critique of a story that has no gay elements as "too pro-straight" or as "anti-gay."  I doubt, for example, that anyone has ever posted the "it's too straight" equivalent of this reviewer's thoughts:  "Eisler's usual good work. But I get a little bit tired of the social cheer leading for gays.  I hear and read enough of that stuff already."

I think what causes this odd reaction is this:  Prevailing political prejudices are rarely recognized as political at all -- an insidious blindness that permits one side to attack the other as "political" when in fact a more honest criticism would be "political in a manner that differs from my politics."  So if you're straight and would prefer to live in an all-straight world, fiction devoid of gays won't feel political to you.  It'll feel normal, comforting, a reflection of the world you take to be true.  But fiction with gay characters or gay sex?  Political!

By the way, I have to add that the odd phrase "pro-gay" is my attempt to paraphrase some of what's been written about the story.  In fact, I don't think of myself as pro-gay any more than I think of myself as pro-straight.  What I am is pro-equality-before-the-law.  And while certainly that means I'm not anti-gay (I'm not anti-straight, either), some people have a worldview in which if you're not anti-gay, you're pro-gay -- one more manifestation of the condition in which someone is blind to his own politics and finds "politics" at work only in those who disagree with or otherwise challenge his implicit assumptions.

2.  The Story Is Disturbingly Anti-Drone.  I have an easier time understanding the basis for this claim than I do for the "pro-gay" one.  After all, one character, Fatima, a Pakistani living in London who lost her two younger brothers as "collateral damage" in a drone strike, gives a speech at an anti-drone rally, and two other characters -- a Mossad operative and an MI6 operative -- discuss the way drone warfare increases hatred for the west.  So here, at least, critics can point to something more political than the mere possibility of a same-sex attraction or the depiction of gay sex.

But is it really particularly political to create a character who lost two brothers in a drone strike and is motivated to take revenge as a result?  After all, it's simply a fact that drone strikes kill civilians.  And it's simply a fact that making war on Muslim countries increases hatred against the west, as a 2004 Pentagon study, undertaken at Donald Rumsfeld's direction, concluded (did we really need an official study to figure out that bombing, invading, and droning people makes them hate us?  Apparently so).  Now, you can logically (if not persuasively) argue that the civilian deaths and hatred of the west are worth it, but you can't reasonably argue that the civilian deaths and hatred don't exist.  So I can only conclude that people who favor drone strikes as a response to our fears of terrorism would prefer to deny that drone strikes cause civilian deaths and hatred, and that such people therefore feel that to acknowledge that drone strikes in fact do cause civilian deaths and do produce hatred is to do something remarkably political.

Again, I wonder:  are stories depicting brown-skinned, dark-bearded Islamic fanatics trying to slaughter innocent Americans solely because they hate us for our freedoms typically criticized for being too political?  Not that I'm aware of.  And this is so because the "we're blameless, they hate us for our freedoms" narrative is the prevailing narrative in America today (easy to peddle because it flatters and comforts its audience), and because prevailing narratives aren't viewed as "political" by the people who've adopted them, but rather simply as "truth."  Only people who challenge that "truth" are guilty of committing politics.

In fairness, I think you could argue that any depiction in a novel of the causes of terrorism will be inherently and unavoidably political.  But what's interesting, again, is that charges of "too political" are typically leveled only in one direction.  What's even more interesting is *which* direction.  Because while there is actual, empirical, Pentagon-sponsored evidence in favor of the incredibly obvious proposition that people who are bombed, invaded, and droned tend to hate the people doing the bombing, invading, and droning, there is no evidence I'm aware of for the proposition that our policies have no causal connection to terrorism and that terrorists simply hate us for our freedoms.  So between depicting something evidence-based, obvious, and accurate on the one hand, and depicting an evidence-free, self-pleasuring fantasy on the other, which depiction is more fairly termed the "political" one?

It's enough to make you suspect that charges of "political!" might themselves be an insidious tool of propagandists, akin to charges of "bias" in journalism.  Because like bias -- which is just the accusatory form of the word "viewpoint" -- everyone's got politics, and there's really no way to avoid it.  Even trying to avoid being political is political.

But more commonly, I suspect what's going on is simply projection.  And more commonly still, just ignorance.  As the saying goes, "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity."

3.  The Story Is Disturbingly Liberal.  This is another one that's a little hard to figure out, given the absence from the novella of anything about abortion rights, a decent minimum wage, universal health insurance, or other such classical liberal issues.

Instead, at the heart of the story is an Israeli spy whose assignment is to get close to a Pakistani woman, learn the whereabouts of the woman's brother, and provide the brother's location to western governments so he can be killed.  During the course of that assignment, the spy increasingly comes to care about the woman and to feel increasingly ambivalent about the devastation her own actions will cause to the woman and the woman's family.  I'm not sure what would be liberal about such a storyline, but my guess is that anything that acknowledges the humanity of The Other, or that otherwise might render The Other sympathetic, is at the heart of this particular political transgression.  Or perhaps it's unacceptably political to depict any ambivalence on the part of western spies and soldiers about the efficacy of their means and the morality of their ends?  If so, you'd have to argue that only depictions of spies and soldiers untroubled by conscience can be deemed non-political.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I'd call a story like that worse than unrealistic.  I'd call it boring.

And of course it would still be political, too.

It's not that I don't think my stories are political.  They are -- that's why I call them political thrillers.  It's just that they're no more political than are stories faithfully depicting prevailing political narratives.  And while I don't mind my novels being criticized for being political, I do hope that people will recognize that on some level, probably *all* stories are inherently, unavoidably political, and that criticizing someone else's politics for being "political" while believing your own politics are nonexistent betrays an unfortunate lack of candor, or, more likely, a lack of self-awareness.

Another paraphrase, this one of George Bernard Shaw, who was referring to cynicism:  "That power of accurate observation is called political by those who have not got it."


J said...

Barry, it never occurred to me that the book was pro gay, anti-drone, whatever...

Case in point: I used to read Brad Thor, but stopped. His stories were still interesting, but it got to the point that I had to read fifty pages of Fox News hysteria to get five pages of plot.

As it is, you're the only writer of the political thriller genre who ever gives a different viewpoint. So keep doing that.

Randy Johnson said...

All I know, or even thought about, was that it was a damned good, and well written, story. Period.

people that cast their thoughts onto a writer's work may actually be looking into a mirror whether they realize it or not.

But what do I know? I;m an old geezer anyway(sixty-four later this year).

Bridget McKenna said...

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that if you're getting the hairs up on folks like that reviewer, you must be doing something right. I'm intimately familiar with people who are blind to their own political stance because it's the only way right-thinking people could possibly think, and therefore if someone thinks differently they're not thinking right. The loop is as closed as their minds. When one quoted G.K. Chesterton on the subject (“The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”) to show that close-mindedness was a virtue, I felt any chance to prevail on that subject, as well as all hope of future discourse, was lost.

melbov said...

Erudite zinger. Thanks from a bookseller.

Sheff said...

Hi Barry,

Disclosure: I haven't read London Twist yet.

I think what people may be responding to is the feeling they're being preached to rather than being entertained. The sensation sometimes when reading a piece of fiction, especially one drawn from current headlines is that if the author has a clear position about where they stand on a particular issue, the implication is that the reader should as well.
People sometimes read to escape, not to be confronted with things that are ugly and real. You might argue that if someone really wants escapism, they should read something else.
While reading The Detachment the first time, I felt this way. I felt that I was being urged to take a position on the Presidential hit list and attacks on personal liberties. While I have since formed an opinion about it, I didn't want such a thing introduced to me when I was expecting to be entertained. The second time I read the Detachment was far more entertaining than the first.
However, reading some of the early negative reviews put me off from buying London Twist when it first came out.
I think the best parallel comparison to this might be to be watching the news and witnessing a story about a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student that leads to a murder. Then immediately afterward watching an episode of Law & Order which is a story about a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student that leads to a murder. That kind of blurring of the lines between reality and entertainment can lead to fatigue. I suspect I enjoyed The Detachment more the second time around was because some time had elapsed. It was also after Sandy Hook that I reread it. So now there's a prescient quality to The Detachment that wasn't there when it first came out.

I do intend to read London Twist. I enjoy the quality of your writing even though I don't always enjoy confronting the issues that you bring up.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Every story is a collaboration between the author and the reader. And reviews usually say more about what the reader brought to the experience than what the author wrote.

The reaction you've gotten to London Twist seems to be a fine example of this.

shugyosha said...


you know I've been a tad busy, of late, so I haven't been able to get to your work.

However (there's always one of those, isn't it?), if I may, some years ago I went to watch "V, of Vendetta" with a butch acquaintance of mine (could have been friends, but it didn't work out). Yes, butch. To the narrow. She considered it (along with GLAAD, IIRC) a great pro-gay movie.

Er... _why_?

Also, "What I am is pro-equality-before-the-law." Well, that makes you an activist judg... er, writer.

Take care. Ferran

Patrice said...

Hi Barry: This is a phenomenal post. Why haven't I read more of you? (And FWIW, folks who are disturbed by "gayness" are often quite in favor of two women getting it on--perhaps they think it's all for the guys observing?)

I've sent the link to your post to Andrew Sullivan of The Dish. He always writes provocatively on issues of politics, as well as same-sex love.


P.S. If your fans want a light political thriller that is definitely on the liberal side, I invite them to check out my first novel, RUNNING, about two women vying for the Presidency. No sex between them, though! Hmmm... maybe in the next book.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts, everyone.

Sheff, I agree that at least some of the time, "what people may be responding to is the feeling they're being preached to rather than being entertained." But that's exactly what I'm talking about -- people don't typically feel preached at when a story's politics mesh with their own. It's when the story's politics challenge their own that people typically cry, "preachy!"

Likewise, agreed on how people read to escape, and I can see where reading a story with elements that don't mesh comfortably with the reader's politics would make escape impossible. But it doesn't follow from this that the books a given reader can escape with aren't political; it's just that these books are comfortable for that reader and so the reader doesn't notice their politics.

To put it another way: the day my Dox stories start getting criticized by gays for being too "pro-straight" is the day I'll revise my opinions on all this. Similarly, I tend to pay more attention when someone who agrees with the politics in one of my stories suggests I might have been heavy-handed in the way I executed (I think there was some such heavy-handedness at one point in Inside Out, and I learned from it). But someone offended by the politics in my stories criticizing the stories for being "too political" is, I think, not making a coherent claim.

To be clear: if someone were to say, "I read to escape, not to be confronted by disturbing issues of the day or by politics I disagree with," I would absolutely respond, "You probably shouldn't read my books!" But I'd say the same to someone who said, "I don't like books with edge-of-your-seat action, exotic locales, realistic spy craft, and steamy sex." :)

Bob said...

I find it odd that these same people don't cry foul the other way. As former special operations and a thriller writer, I wince at the constant presentation in novels and film of soldiers as single-minded, patriotic automatons who believe America is always right and the other side always wrong.

Tom Clancy, a former insurance salesman, has no clue what it means to serve other than to swallow the company line that is fed him by DOD. If he were as patriotic as he pretends to be, he would have enlisted many years ago.

The drone issue is extremely disturbing. Many people are extremely naive-- we are at war, and if a foreign power was flying aircraft over our head and firing missiles without warning, I imagine most Americans would be incensed, yet they pay little heed that this is exactly what we are doing, often paying no attention to national sovereignty or even the citizenship or guilt of those killed. When a country begins to kill its own citizens without due process, it's a very, very slippery slope.

Frankly, as an author, I'd rather have people upset with what I write than apathetic. At least they are engaged.

RaisedbyWolves said...

Fully one-fourth of the US population is authoritarian. That is to say, they prefer a fascist-style form of government and a retrograde social ethos (sexist, prude, bigoted, anti-intellectual, anti-union, pro-crony). In addition, their personalities can be described as such:

1. Poor logic and reasoning skills
2. Poor integration of ideas and beliefs (beliefs come from different sources but don't fit together)
3. Double standards (heavy use of rationalization to justify conflicting opinions)
4. Hypocritical (want standards for themselves and their beliefs that are different from "others")
5. Poor self-awareness (tendency to overestimate own abilities and strengths)
6. Ethnocentric (the belief of "in" groups and "out" groups based on their personal belief system)
7. Dogmatic - unjustified certainty, opinions not able to be backed up with facts but they don't care

I am not aware of any recent surveys, but most experts predict that the one-in-four statistic is rising. They are certainly becoming much bolder, if not in number.

For more info, see research and findings:

Unknown said...


I agree with your politics. I'm a Glenn Greenwald-reading Wikileaks-supporting left as left can get.

But when I listened to your read of The Detachment (I'm recording my own audiobooks, and was curious about your audio work) I felt preached at.

What's the Hollywood phrase? Too "on the nose"?

I have to agree with David Mamet in Three Uses of the Knife. The writer of satisfying drama must accept his inability to change the world before he can touch our souls.

THE CRUCIBLE is a fine example of this. A political play attacking Joe McCarthy would not only have flopped at the box office, but would probably have gotten Miller blacklisted.

Instead, he dug deeper, and explored the human trope to witch hunt. And in so doing, unearthed something mysterious and terrible about being human that transcended the petty details of 1950s America.

Do I practice what I preach? No. But I try. And when I fail I consider it a failure.

Tragedy -- and here I'm thinking about THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD -- is about admitting our inability to change the world, and allowing ourselves to mourn.

I would love to see you write a novel like that.


karth said...

To be honest, while reading this story, I was increasingly surprised by what I thought was your lack of bias. I am very well aware of your political views, and agree with the vast majority, but felt that you did a superb job of not favoring one viewpoint over another, or even presenting a viewpoint other than a character's.

ryan field said...

I was once accused of "promoting the gay agenda." Well, duh, I'm gay. What should I do, knock the gay agenda...if there even is such a thing as a gay agenda? I'd rather think of it as equality.

I'm going to make a point of reading this book now.

Unknown said...

It is not my purpose to get into a religious discussion here, I only site the on top of because it tends to illustrate my earlier point of a gay lobby and a strong "gay agenda.