Art, be it written fiction, music, canvas or digital print and videographic media is a reflection of life. The creative mind doesn’t exist in a vacuum, artists are inspired by the things they see, hear and read and the questions those experiences provoke. Many of these works seek to provide an escape from the humdrum of the world we know through grandiose visions of far future or fantasy landscapes, others dare us to question our place in our culture or society while still others throw images of what might be in front of us and ask ‘Is this what you want?‘. Art find it’s birth in many places, tragedy, comedy, drama, beauty and horror. As a beautiful image can beget a more beautiful artwork, so a scene of horror and violence begets a darker, more tragic and disturbing fiction.
In the time of the ancient Roman senate politicians would employ street artist to graffiti images on walls, enhancing their own reputations or lampooning their opponents, they’d commission playwrights to satirise those with whom they had disagreements. Art has a long history of political commentary. The Tudors, Henry the 7th or 8th, are believed to have commissioned or doctored images of Richard the 3rd (the last Plantagenet King) to show him as hunchbacked, enhancing Tudor propaganda that Richard was an evil man and a bad King. Shakespeare’s Richard the 3rd holds more Tudor influence to this same effect. More recently art has diverged from the influence of the establishment. The anti-war movement, protests against Vietnam gave birth to a colourful music scene. Punk is all about non-conformism and rage against the inequalities of society distilled from Rock and, at the very least, and influence for Grunge and Rap, giving voice to the dissatisfaction of generations. Satirical Comedies like ‘Yes Minister?’ and ‘The New Statesman’ are as relevant now as when they first aired back in the 80’s and 90’s and, all along there has been written fiction commenting, chastising and warning against the abuse of political power.
Orwell’s 1984 published in 1949, Moore’s V for Vendetta – 1982, Yvegeny Zamyatin’s We – 1921, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – 1962, Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale – 1985 and many, many works by Phillip K. Dick. More recently The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – 2008, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – 2015 and many, many others. It’s almost a joke now that writers of dystopian fiction have to struggle to keep up with the everyday horrors of real life, but if you spare a little thought for it, it’s a sobering joke.
So, if fiction is comprised of ‘life through a lense’, where the lens is those unreal aspects of the fictional world (in the works of Terry Pratchett his lens is the Discworld for example) how do we make our statements clear to the reader? In most cases it’s really not that hard. When dealing with big issues like Corporate malfeasance and greed or the abuse of Political or Social station and influence it’s easy enough to make a corporation, politician/political party or wealthy society figure ‘the bad guy’. It’s easy to take inspiration from real life events too.
It’s a known and published fact that medical practitioners and scientists where identifying the link between smoking and lung cancer as early as the 1950’s which led to the introduction of filters on cigarettes even while the tobacco industry as a whole denies and causal link. By the mid-sixties tobacco industry scientists universally accepted the link between smoking and cancer but still the industry as a whole denied it to the public even while regulations demanded the addition of warning labels to the packets. The industry didn’t really publically accept the link until 1998 and the ‘Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement’, basically a pay-off to stop the ongoing lawsuits that had been levied against them.*
So, in a setting that you have created, giving voice to your frustrations and calling-out the injustices of the real-world is something that you can do unhindered. However, I’ve speculated before as to whether Satire still carries the weight it once had. I attended a panel item in Dublin that questioned whether the industrialists and politicians who support and promote the Capitalist Right-Wing agenda even read fiction, let alone fiction that comments upon the nature of the evils, both petty and grand-scale, that they commit every day. So the temptation rises to target the individual, the focal point of the body attacking our liberties, equalities and support mechanisms. When I was writing Dragon Fire I felt that I had to say something about the apparent ineptitude with which the UK was being governed by the conservatives. It helped that my setting was a not-too dissimilar London in places and so I set-up a character to mirror the role of Theresa May, the then PM. Sarissa March (in the book) is a figure guilty of all those things May was at times accused of, a focal point for my frustrations, finally being held to account in a way that just never seems to occur in real life.
That kind of gets to the heart of ‘Why’ we comment on these things and there are a couple of reasons. The first is to make our readers think, ‘Is this what we want?’ do we want the world to be this way, to become this? We warn of what might be if people don’t take a stand. The other (though far less likely) reason is to put this message to these people who we fear, distrust and who have this ultimate authority and ask them, beg them, to take a look in the mirror and ask ‘What have I done? What am I doing? What have I become?’ because, it would seem to me from everything I’ve read and heard that, apart from a fairly specific socio-political section of society, politicians like May, Johnson, Gove, Hunt, Trump and Pence are the monsters they fear. They are the face behind the DWP who have the power and, potentially, the drive to withdraw the social benefits that you rely upon to survive, they are the face behind I.C.E. who might break down your door to drag you away to god knows where. They are lobbying to remove your right to healthcare, work, to even exist in the world. And so it is right in my mind that, via the platform of my work, I try to shame these people and provoke real thought in their supporters about what is being done in their name.
So, if you (like me) are outraged and feel that outrage bleeding into your work there are areas where you need to tread carefully. If your work is contemporary, if your fiction takes place against a modern day/real world backdrop and you want to call out actual figures (and I do, I really do) then words like ‘Slander‘ and ‘Libel’ start to creep into my awareness. Now, the first is a misnomer for the author, slander is spoken, libel is written and, in fact, what you really want to be thinking about is whether you’re opening yourself up to claims of Defamation of Character. It’s important to state here that, as an author of a work of fiction, you’re very unlikely to be vulnerable to such litigation. Cases of Libel are drawn against journalists who make false report of events or skew facts to sensationalise a story, essentially, lying about the facts. The basis for Defamation of Character suits is based in the intent of ‘Actual Malice’ (although, in the cases I’m outlining, an argument can be made) but, cannot be founded upon someone sharing their opinion. Where you to tie the political figure into a nefarious, genocidal plot, making them the villain you might (and I stress *might*) be open to allegation but doubtful if it would stand in court. You’re writing fiction and not publishing an allegation of actual events, however you can reference validated events or allegations already in the public domain, just as if you were sharing a Tweet, without fear. Likewise, having one of your characters share an opinion of a public figure, company whether or not you share the opinion, whether or not it is malicious, isn’t grounds for defamation.
I think the most important thing, when entering into this kind of socio-political commentary, is not to cause yourself unnecessary stress. The likelihood of the Prime Minister or the President coming after me for things I’ve written in my works of fiction are miniscule (even though Trump has been evidenced to be a petty individual) but, if it’s likely to cause you anxiety, thicken the veil between fact and fiction. Increase the distance between your work and reality until you are comfortable. I’m sure your readers will still get it.
Image: John Stillwell/pa wire Nov 2015
*Ref: Tobacco Explained. The truth about the tobacco industry… in its own words. – Bates & Rowell
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