Monday, November 5, 2012

Purple Prose


By Reece Hirsch

At the 2011 ThrillerFest, I participated in the panel “Political Thrillers:  In a Red and Blue Country, How Do You Stay Purple?”  That title seems to assume that there is an advantage for an author to remain politically neutral in order to avoid alienating a large bloc of readers in a country that, as we're being constantly reminded lately by pollsters, is divided more or less 50-50 down party lines.  I am of two minds on the subject of being politically agnostic as a writer.

In my first book THE INSIDER, I never mention my protagonist Will Connelly’s politics.   It just never seemed to be something that the reader needed to know in the context of that story.  However, Will is an affluent, thirty-something resident of San Francisco, so that alone gives you a pretty good indicator of his likely political affiliation.

Nevertheless, THE INSIDER did have a political theme to it, which was what landed me on that ThrillerFest panel.  My book touches upon issues of excessive domestic surveillance in the wake of 9-11, and was based upon some real events.

In the early Nineties, the National Security Agency (NSA) developed a powerful encryption device known as the Clipper Chip, which was to be used to encrypt telecommunications transmissions. The encryption software was to be made available for use by private businesses and individuals.  However, the Clipper Chip was designed to provide government agencies with "key access" to all encrypted transmissions for law enforcement and national security purposes. The program was criticized in Congressional hearings based upon privacy concerns and was ultimately abandoned in 1995.

THE INSIDER posits that the Clipper Chip program was never really abandoned, but went forward through an undisclosed deal between the NSA and a private software company, and that the NSA continued to secretly monitor the communications of private citizens during the ensuing years.  My book also considers what might happen if the encryption keys that permitted government access to that vast volume of personal communications fell into the wrong hands.

As a result, THE INSIDER contained a few hopefully not overbroad swipes at the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s handling of domestic surveillance after 9-11.  In hindsight, the opinions expressed in my book are taking on a more purplish hue now that the Obama administration has largely carried forward the policies of W in this area.   So now we come to the first of my two minds on this subject:  if your story arises out of an inherently political point of view, then don’t be wishy-washy about it.  Readers can tell when you’re pulling your punches, and they can also usually read between the lines and discern where your true sympathies lie.

Now to the second of my two minds:  I generally don’t like political fiction.  There are people who do it brilliantly (David Simon and George Pelecanos come to mind), but in most cases if your focus as a writer is making a didactic point, then that probably comes at the expense of crafting an engaging story.  THE INSIDER wasn’t “about” post-9-11 domestic surveillance.  I used the Clipper Chip storyline in my book solely because I thought it would make for an entertaining thriller.   But once I’d picked up that plot device, I didn’t see any point in shying away from the political implications of that choice.  Does that make me as a writer Red, Blue, Purple or some shade in-between?  If a reader is asking that question, then I probably didn’t do my job as a writer.

12 comments:

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

My fav line in this post: "Readers can tell when you’re pulling your punches, and they can also usually read between the lines and discern where your true sympathies lie."

Generally readers are very smart and while they don't like being hit over the head with personal agendas, they also don't like being dumbed down to or teased.

Great post, Reece.

Wiley said...

To put it simply, I think unless you are writing a political thriller, (think David Baldacci) a writer should only use enough of the protagonist's political and religious beliefs to establish a background. For example: "I was born in the South and Mama and Daddy never could figure out why I wasn't like my sister, who always did what they asked her to do. They were staunch Republicans, and I always voted my conscience, whether it be Democrat, Green or Libertarian. I loved arguing about it with them just to see the steam come out of their ears." That sets the stage so you know a bit more about your protagonist, but it doesn't try to convince the reader to think the way she does.

Catriona McPherson said...

Great post, Reece. Agree with Sue Ann about pulled punches. It drives me nuts when reading/watching a story about an actual politician and no one mentions the party. I mean, we wouldn't allow such coyness about any other aspect of a character's make-up.

Reece said...

Wiley -- Thanks for stopping by. Good point (and excellent example).

Reece said...

Sue Ann and Catriona -- I figure that I must have managed to avoid climbing up on a soapbox because I have yet to be flamed on Amazon or other reader forums for my "San Francisco values." Maybe I shouldn't have said that, though ....

Catriona McPherson said...

It's odd, isn't it, that describing a character's politics can be seen as speechifying. It doesn't happen when we decribe acharacter's decision to kill people!

Reece said...

Very true. Readers seem to be okay with having our killers spout off about their sociopathic world views. But introduce a little Democratic or Republican ideology and watch out!

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for such an interesting post, Reece! I'm writing something right now that's rather political (in views) but not with any party identification--definitely a delicate balancing act! But I think pretending to have no opinions about the world can make your characters way too dull...

Reece said...

Thanks, Meredith! Since you're working on something with a political angle, I look forward to your take on the subject later this week.

Terry Shames said...

Reece, this is a very timely post. I agree with others about no pulling punches. I've stuck it out through books in which I disagreed with what I knew to be background political bent, but would never stick it out if I thought the writer way being coy.

My books are set in small town Texas, and as liberal, I don't want to do too much political coverage. But having lived in Texas I know that even in small Texas towns there are blues, reds and purples.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Reece. If I ever run for public office, I want you to be my campaign manager. We can have a "Pull No Punches" platform.

Reece said...

Thanks, Terry. I'm looking forward to that upcoming book of yours. Plenty of great material in those small Texas towns.

Alan -- It's a deal. Orloff 2016.