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Politics in (and Outside of) YA

Any personal politics in this post are mine, not necessarily those of the rest of YA Highway.

99% of people do not agree with every one of these signs
Tuesday night, I stopped by Occupy San Diego (my local branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement) and sat in for the general assembly meeting. At one point, the topic of outreach to teens came up. Before I knew it, I was speaking through a megaphone (augh!), defending teens and their capacity for Deep Thought and other things about which, as an author of books for teens, I am decidedly and breathlessly biased.

That episode of political adrenaline got me thinking about politics in the YA industry; what political opinions authors choose to vocalize -- and whether or not they should.

Politics are tough, man. They unite, they divide, they alienate. But they're so, so important to follow, no matter our age or occupation. I try my best to stay politically engaged, and I've always been vocal about issues I care about, though I try to be choosy about what I share. We all have that Facebook friend who links ten flamebait posts per day. After a while, it becomes white noise, even if you agree with his or her politics. And if you don't, it can be a huge turn off.

But what about when it's not an IRL friend, but an author whose book we enjoyed? What about when authors get political outside the pages of their books?

That's another tough one. Some people believe authors – and actors, and singers, and so forth – should not be public about their politics. I understand this logic. They're not politicians, or pundits, and just because their voices have farther reach doesn't make their opinions more valuable. If an artist has gained a following – even more literally nowadays, via Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the like – through a non-political art, should they really impose their opinions upon that audience?

I think that's a valid viewpoint. But then again, I also think there's a difference between being a fan of a book, and being a fan of its author. Though it's easy to forget, when we follow an author's blog, or Twitter feed or whatever, we're following the author – the person behind the book, who has the same right to discuss politics in public as anyone else.

However, for authors/artists, getting political does carry extra risks, because it's difficult to separate the art from the artist entirely. Truly, there are certain authors whose outspoken politics – in particular, sentiments I found bigoted – have retroactively turned me off from books I once loved.

With the United States presidential elections looming, politics will continue migrating to the front of our thoughts and discussions, both offline and on. I don't judge those who choose to keep politics to themselves – it's a personal decision, and one I very much respect. While I choose to be vocal on political issues I'm passionate about (like gay rights, women's rights, social inequalities, baby sloths and so on), I'm aware I'm sharing with thousands, instead of hundreds like a few years ago. As a result, I try to put extra thought into anything I share publicly – which I don't think is ever a bad thing, for all of us, no matter the topic.

What is your opinion of authors/artists who are politically outspoken and/or active, or vocal on non-industry-related issues? What about you -- do you share your politics, or keep them to yourself? Will you change this once you're published?

Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. I'm all for authors, celebrities, etc. voicing their informed opinions, because hey, at least it provides a model of people having informed opinions. I wish they were asked why they believe as they do a little more often, rather than just showing up at rallies as persuasive eye candy, but whatever. And yes, as a reader I do sometimes make my choices based on what I know of the author (in fact, I've been waffling for about a year now on whether to start reading a certain classic YA science fiction series because of positions that the author has taken politically that I find pretty offensive.

    What frustrates me is that as a public school teacher in New York City, I am not allowed to show support for any candidate or party in school (or probably, I guess, on my blog, since it's part of a school activity I lead.) Although I try to live my politics, so I'm thinking my students could probably guess where I come down.

  2. I think it's ok as long as it doesn't become the #1 thing the author talks about. We like the author for writing above all else. It's important to not become militant or arrogant in your beliefs. A good example is John Green. He is a very political person and while his vlogs often have a political or economical message it's not the main focus of his channel.

  3. I think most people have issue with public figures pushing their politics on their fans. I honestly think most public figures don't do that. That said, I don't mind when public figures are political. In a world that seems obsessed with realtiy television and other things that just don't matter, I appreciate anyone that is taking an interest in the things that do.

  4. I agree with Mrs. S. that I don't mind *informed* opinion. Too often, the writer, actor, musician in question spouts his/her opinion without once being challenged to back that opinion up. They're just eye-candy for the cause, hoping that their fans will agree because so-and-so says it's the correct opinion.

    As far as writers are concerned, again, informed opinion outside their novels is fine in my book. Will I read an author whose opinions on politics and religion are different to mine? Yes, and I do quite frequently! What I appreciate most is when an author can represent accurately differing views in the characters he writes. If his/her characters are nothing more than shills for the author's agenda, then I'm sorry--you've lost me.

    That's what I think, anyway. :)

  5. This is tricky but I'd have to agree. If the author/celebrity is informed, has a reason for their opinion, they should tastefully share it and live it.

    What is really horrible is when it becomes bashing those that have the opposite opinions. We want to encourage people to go out and discover their own opinions, not make them frustrated with the whole system in general.

  6. Celebrity opinions do give me a big fat rash. But I will listen to writers on these topics more readily.

    What's hard is when fiction becomes overtly political. That is a very difficult act to pull off in a way that avoids preaching.

  7. I think it's great if authors/artists voice their political opinion, actually. When people with influence take up a cause that matters, it's always a good thing.

  8. First of all, I totally agree with your position; I've always been interested in politics, even as a teenager. As a result, I'm now doing a master's in political science...

    So instead of answering your question directly, I would just like to talk about what "politics" is, and, consequently, whether it's actually possible to "stay out of politics".

    Indeed, politics cover much more than political parties and politicians; they're every opinion that has to do with the concept of living together as a human society. Politics deals first and foremost with determining what is fair, and unfair, legitimate, and illegitimate, true, and false, right, and wrong.

    Staying really, truly out of politics would mean not be able to position oneself regarding domestic abuse, molestation, murder, etc. You may think that such issues are not political anymore, because they are already defined by law, but law IS political in essence. What we're discussing now as "politics" is what will be defined by tomorrow's laws. Back in the 18th century, slavery was a hot political topic. So... not voicing one's opinion, does that mean refusing to say if you are in favour of or against slavery?

    If I may use a metaphor, it's like seeing two people beat each other up (maybe one beating the other worse), and stay out of the fight because "you refuse to take sides". I think just staying out of it is already a political choice. Either it's the choice of violence, or it's the choice of the better fighter/the winner. Because you let it happen.

    Parties and the people in power, they're such a tiny, tiny, tiny part of what "politics" is.

  9. It's funny, because I was thinking just yesterday about blogging on this exact topic. I'm one of those authors with strongly held political opinions, but for the most part I hesitate to express them. Sometimes I feel like such a wimp. I fear that by speaking my mind, I'll alienate and anger people, then they won't like me, then they won't want to read my books, then, then, then. I'm always creating a worst-case scenario in my mind.

    But I do speak up/tweet/retweet/blog sometimes when the injustice just seems too great. And the world has not ended.

  10. While these authors do have the right to voice their opinion about politics I wish some of them would remember that they might be turning readers away. Like you, an author I really liked was really vocal with some pretty hateful stuff. It turned me off of said author, and I'm not sure how I feel about reading books by them again.

    I sometimes feel like it takes advantage of the platform they now have with such a large following (same way I feel about actors blabbing about their politics). At the same time, sometimes it's voice like these that actually get stuff done. Tough call...

  11. Oops. By 'like you' I meant 'in a similar situation to yours'. Hope that wasn't unclear :)

  12. @Mrs. Silverstein : I know exactly what you're talking about and felt the same way - but read them anyway! They're brilliant.

  13. I've been thinking about this on and off all day, and I've decided that I'm okay with authors getting political as long as they find a way to walk that line between having opinions and insulting people with different opinions. I've gotten turned off in the past when authors say something mean about a big group of people when they're *really* angry with a small subset of that group-- and I happen to fall into the larger category, so they're unintentionally insulting me.

    I guess I just try to remember that dwelling among my Twitter/blog followers are really nice, great people with different opinions, so I try to always post or tweet like I'm talking to them, instead of the people who agree with me.

  14. That was supposed to be paragraph 1: as a reader, and paragraph 2: as an author. I'm confusing myself. Wahhh.

  15. I think it's not just ok for authors to be both politically informed and vocal and politically active, but it can be a very positive thing. I think this is especially true for YA authors.

    If we've learned nothing these days, it's that biased information is everywhere on the web, and that people are getting less and less informed about the political issues and candidates. I would say that's probably even more true about teens who aren't yet sure of what issues ARE important to them and what issues WILL be important to them in a few years.

    YA authors have the unique opportunity to break down information for an audience who needs an informed, well rounded source who can explain to them what the heck is going on. Author John Green is amazing at this, so is author John Scalzi. They are pretty clear about what they believe, but they don't stop with that. They cover large, confusing topics and break them down into its important componants. They don't try to sway one way or the other, which is perfect.

    I'm not saying that YA authors should be talking about things they themselves don't quite understand, but on those topics that they've got the background on, the resources, the understanding? I think they have a unique opportunity to offer up the best resources to help others make informed decisions for themselves.

  16. this discussion is fascinating! so many of you make great points. I so agree that staying informed is what's important, and being able to back up your views instead of being bandwagony. that goes for everyone, but of course authors are much more public.

    Veronica, I agree for sure. I know I've been guilty of criticizing a group when what I really meant was a subset, and it's lazy semantics at best.

    Mrs. Silverstein, I have a hunch we're talking about the same author. O.O

  17. This is an interesting question for me, mainly because I come from a very political family. When my older brother was a little kid and people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he always answered, “A Senator”. Right now he’s happy working as a public defender and I don’t expect him to run for office anytime soon. But he still could. And nobody in my family will be surprised if he does run for something a decade from now.

    Growing up, I always thought of myself as un-political. Because I had no desire to ever be a politician. But I still have opinions. I have friends and family members with opinions. And I have friends and family members with political connections. I know lobbyists. I know politicians. And I know people who have good reasons to distrust lobbyists and politicians.

    I understand how complicated the issues are, and always try to see all sides of an issue before forming an opinion. That is the main reason why I have never shared my political beliefs publicly. But that doesn’t change the fact that I used to watch C-Span in junior high. Okay, not by choice. C-Span was my brother’s favorite channel, so I only watched it when he had the remote. But I knew a lot about politics as a kid. I probably knew more about politics before I was old enough to vote than I know now.

    I think it is good to include politics in YA fiction. There are kids who are very passionate about the environment. There are kids that are affected by war. There are kids who think about the economy. There are families that would be affected by immigration reform. There need to be books for and about those kids. I personally don’t plan to turn my blog into a political soapbox, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never write a “political” book.

    That is what I expect of other writers too. If you feel strongly about something, put it in your book, not your blog.

  18. I think for so many authors and artists freedom of speech/ expression is such an important right. One of the first things I learned about in journalism class in high school was that freedom and the importance of defending it, for everyone. So I think that is important.

    I'm passionate about politics but I don't put too much political stuff on my blogs but I share a lot on Facebook and sometimes Twitter. I think I feel as a writer who hasn't been published yet I have to be more careful about that.

    I'm in a union. I believe in the rights of workers to a fair wage, health insurance, and retirement. I don't think that the only people who deserve this are the people who are CEOs or people who work on Wall Street.

    I think when we give all the control to the wealthy/corporations then they will control what gets funded and produced as art, music and writing so I think it is important to stand up. I guess the best example of this would be shows on Nickelodeon versus Public Television.

    Glad you added your voice to the movement in San Diego. I'm glad to see people standing up and taking to the streets to say that corporations and the wealthy should pay their fair share.

  19. I know I am incredibly political and never shy away from that on social media or in life. I think it is the responsibility of those who pay attention to everything that is going on to try to show others. So many people "don't care" or say that it "doesn't affect" them...and those of us who are active should show them that isn't true.

    I am all for writers talking about long as they are not hateful. I also will not read anything by that certain science fiction author because of his/her hateful comments about a group of people. But as long as they are respectful, authors should be vocal, even if I disagree with them

  20. I think there is a difference between celebrities/authors taking up social causes and getting political. Many bring attention to worthwhile charities and causes.

    Artists cross the line when they get political, especially around elections. Many times, celebrities say things for attention - Morgan Freeman calling the Tea Party racist, Rosanne Barr saying all bankers should be beheaded, Kanye West saying President Bush doesn't care about black people.

    The worst part of celebrities getting political is that they are so hypocritical. Exhibit A: Kanye West going to the Occupy Wall Street protesets wearing gold bling. Most celebrities criticize Republicans/Wall Street, yet they themselves make millions of dollars. If they are so bent out of shape about the economic inequality, then why do they keep demanding such high salaries? If they care so much about unions in the US, then why do they film so many shows in Canada where labor is cheaper?

    I'm of the belief that political beliefs are personal decisions. I don't want to know the political leanings of authors I read. I'm not looking to them for their political thoughts, and I don't want them to tarnish the way I feel about their books. I turn to books for an escape. I don't care who Suzanne Collins voted for in '08, or Stephanie Meyer's thoughts on gay marriage. It's none of my business.

  21. I'm not going to lie, I think there is a large block of the YA community, including agents/editors, who share similar (obviously not exactly the same) political leanings. I'm basing my opinion of this on things said in social media platforms. While I totally agree that people have a right to express opinions, and that it is wonderful to be informed and politically active, there is clearly a backlash that can happen to an author who expresses political opinions. Our unnamed-but-famous science fiction author is a good example. Especially if the opinion shared is different from the majority of the writing community.

    Someone already mentioned this, but as an unpublished author I fear sharing my political leanings not just with potential readers, but also with agents and editors. It worries me that a difference in opinion could so color their view of my work they would not be willing to take a chance on me. At the same time some causes are important enough to me that I want my voice to be heard. But the what if has always stopped me.

    Bottom line for me is I end up keeping my mouth shut. Which sometimes helps with writing YA--peer pressure still present in my life :).


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Item Reviewed: Politics in (and Outside of) YA Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard