All Books Are Political

Over the past few weeks, we here at Book Riot have received a recurring complaint: that our coverage has been too overtly political, with recent posts on picture books about Hillary Clinton, the McCarthyist Professor Watchlist, and Trump’s victory through the lens of Hillbilly Elegy, among others. Why, some readers have asked, can’t we just talk about the books and leave the politics aside, especially during a time when we all need to come together to fix our problems?

It’s a tempting vision of the world and of the role of a bookish site. There’s just one problem. All books, all art, in fact everything at all, is inherently political. Even the request that we stop talking about politics is a political request.

Raphael, "The School of Athens"

Raphael, “The School of Athens”

At its base, politics are about how we organize human society and the rules we impose to maintain order. Every decision to construct, maintain, or tear down a system of order is inherently political. Sometimes the politics are overt, as when rallying behind a presidential candidate. Other times, politics can be subtle, as when one sits quietly while a racist uncle rants about Mexican immigrants. But politics cannot be divorced from human experience because, in the words of Aristotle, “man is by nature a political animal.”

I know, I know… At this point you’re saying, “sure, maybe that’s true in theory, but that’s not what we meant!” So let me give you some concrete examples of how politics infuse everything we read.

Everyone who has been reading books for longer than five minutes knows that there is a literary hierarchy, with the canon at the top, followed by literary fiction, and down through the genres until you reach those particularly hated by the literary establishment: Chick Lit, YA, and—especially—Romance. If there’s a surefire way to make sure a book will be ignored by the literary old guard, it’s to print “Romance” on the spine. And the hatred isn’t about quality, since even the best-written romance novel is still tarred as unworthy of attention.

A plot only qualifies as Romance until Ian McEwan steals it for his literary fiction.

A plot only qualifies as “romance” until Ian McEwan steals it for his “literary fiction.”

That dismissal of romance as a genre is a political act. It’s about dismissing women, their sexuality, and their relationship expectations (especially those involving men). By tarring romance as inconsequential, as trash, women are denied a prime avenue for exploring themselves and their world. Meanwhile, male-focused stories about love and sexuality are heralded as literary fiction, no matter how navel-gazing or masturbatory. If that’s not political, what is?

Here’s another example, from a medium that is reviled almost as much as romance: superhero comics. With comics become more diverse (at least on the page, if not necessarily behind the scenes), some corners of comics fandom have insisted loudly that the publishers should stop catering to Social Justice Warriors and just get back to the stories about white male heroes beating people up.  

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Action Comics #1, art by Joe Shuster.

But, that grim dark “realism” preferred by so many fanboys reflects an almost fascistic view of the world, one where a uniquely-qualified man can—indeed, must—ignore the normal rules in order to protect society. It’s the comics equivalent of an episode of 24. Meanwhile, the idea of superheroes as literal social justice warriors, who fight for the weak and against the powerful, has been ingrained in the genre since the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1, where Superman stopped an abusive husband from beating his wife. Again, these decisions, these preferences, are all political, whether they be the Punisher murdering criminals to avoid the justice system’s “loopholes” or Superman becoming a vegetarian because he could sense the life aura around animals.

I could literally go on forever, because in the end every decision is political. Hell, Goodnight Moon is full of political ideas about how children should be raised and who is responsible for doing it.

Book Riot might have been more overtly political recently, but that doesn’t mean the political content of the site has increased. We have always endorsed an inclusive vision of books and writing about books, and, like it or not, that vision is inherently political. If we were to jettison that now simply because of the results of an election, we would be betraying ourselves, our core values, and our readers.

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