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What is Too Political for Fun?

Every time I publish a book, I know I’ll get some angry letters, and readers response to Breakdown proved no exception. “I just threw away my hardcover copy,” one reader wrote. “Keep your politics to yourself. I read for fun,” wrote another. I will say that the positive mail outnumbered the negative by over 10 to 1, but the negative mail does give me pause. “Why do you hate rich people?” One reader asked. “They’re always your villains.” Another asked why I hate conservatives.

First of all, like Shylock, I bleed when you prick me, so angry letters do sting, but they also make me start wondering what my writing should and shouldn’t be.

Second, I don’t try to write political novels. I write novels that spring out of contemporary social issues, because those provide a fertile field for crime. I come from a place where radio and TV shows routinely call the President “A Muslim terrorist,” or “Muslim socialist.” The leader of the state legislature recently sent an email to his “A” list calling for prayers for the President’s death and referred to the First Lady as “Yo-Mama.” Tea party rallies, in their heyday, would show caricatures of the President with crude racial slogans.

These political/social realities caused me to create an African-American politician who gets subjected to the same abuse that has been ladled onto the President. I don’t know if that makes the book so political that it can’t be read for entertainment. After all, that’s what I am–an entertainer. Would my books be more entertaining if they featured disputed wills and missing children, instead of people struggling with First and Fourth Amendment freedoms?

My novel Blacklist actually featured a villain who had impeccable progressive credentials but some readers hated it because it also included an Egyptian boy who was a refugee on the run–for those readers, Blacklist was too political–they said I was siding with terrorists. Like President Obama, apparently.

I don’t know what the answer is, as I start work on a new novel. How much should I shape my writing, my story-telling, in response to your expectations?

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  • Kmutters

    Write whatever comes to mind…then have those closest to you give you feedback on the “political correctness” of it.  They will be honest —  so take their cues.  There are plenty of people who love and read your novels!  You can’t possibly appeal to everyone, including those who are radically to the right or the left… and everyone in-between.  When writing is too overthought it stifles a creative mind and the result is mediocrity.  Don’t settle for that.   You have a gift — so keep on writing and thinking of the nine out of ten who eagerly await your future novels. 

  • Errol

    Be true to yourself or your writing will not ring true to others.

  • Weaver Habl

    I read your books to hear your stories, not to have you channel my stories.  Challenge me, surprise me, entertain me but please don’t try to appease me.  No writer who serves up safe pablum could do what you do.

    In addition to the pure enjoyment of reading I’ve learned to love Chicago when I would have thought I couldn’t love a big city.  All from reading your books.

  • Rebecca Clayton

    This summer, I got out all your V.I. books and re-read them in chronological order. I’d always admired the way you got the “feel” of Chicago, but this time, I noticed how clearly you captured the “feel of the times.”  This would surely be lost (or diminished, at least) if you left out social and political issues. Your evocation of “time and place” is why I enjoy your books more when I already know “how it comes out.”

  • Alessandramignolli

    I’ll try to share my own feelings. I’m not American, but I love America, and I love your novels because they not only are great «entertainment», but because they also describe true American life , with the social problems and political contradictions of a big city like Chicago. Your books are for me a precious guide to thetrue and rich spirit of America, so please, start your new book and don’t change your approach to storytelling. You are a blessing and an inspiration for those who, like me, are in love with America. Love. Alessandra from Rome

  • Heather

    My expectations should not color or inform your writing al all.  You are an insightful, articulate woman who is an exceptionaly talented writer.  If someone doesn’t enjoy the story you are telling or the way you are telling it that is about them. 

  • Idzan Ismail

    Continue churning the stories. There are many more who love your books than those who hate. Readers have a choice. If they don’t like your book, don’t buy it. It’s as simple as that.

  • A Lerougetel

    Write stories that make sense for VI to be engaged in. Regardless of the details, those stories will always be worth reading because they are about a brave woman taking on a world where injustice comes in many different shapes and sizes, colours and commitments. Just keep writing! 

  • Kavik94123

    Thank you for many wonderful years of reading about V.I. , friends and Chicago.  You are a treasure and so very talented.  If people don’t like what you write let them shut the book and stop reading.  Don’t be bothered by rude comments.  Please keep sharing your gifts with those who appreciate them and write any way you please. 

  • Asa

    Please don’t stop writing political novels. I can honestly say that would make me lose interest. And your books are entertaining, just the way they are. I don’t really think people who bother to write letters are representative of the audience as whole, but they often seem a little nutty.

  • Stine

    Personally I don’t necessarily read novels to please my own personal beliefs, but I like getting wiser, when I read. Your books doesn’t only entertain me, offer insight into issues I know too little about, but I also agree with the basis for your novels. I hope you will have enough praise, so there will be no room for the negative.
    -Stine 

  • Pen

    “If it aint broken, don’t fix it!” Your books are entertaining Sara but also they reflect contemporary issues, political & personal, that we can identify with. Don’t change anything! You & VI have got it just right!

  • Sue Pasquale

    ” How much should I shape my writing, my story-telling, in response to your expectations?’ IMHO Zero!! But always be open to different ideas. You never know an intelligent, possibly somewhat sympathetic character to give V.I. an intellectual challenge might spring from you imagination :-)You’ve got a great series going. Try not to let that stuff bother you. I’ve loved all the V.I. books. 

  • Hawk3ye

    I think I would like VI and your writing no matter what my beliefs. When I first read Tunnel Vision and other early works my mom had, the political slant was not obvious to me. As I got older I really appreciated that part of the stories and what it taught me about the history of my city, Chicago.

    Separate from your fiction, I really enjoy your activism and commentary on your blog and Facebook. Keep it up!

  • The Bag Lady

    I agree with the commenters here – don’t try to pander to the few individuals who have made critical comments regarding your books. The rest of us love them and read them to hear the latest and greatest adventures of the inimitable VI.
    You must write what comes from your heart. When you start stifling your imagination to try to please everyone on the fringes, your writing will become mediocre. And you are nowhere close to mediocre!
    Your novels have entertained me and enlightened me and introduced me to a world I would otherwise not have known. When I learned that my company’s conference last year was to be held in Chicago, I jumped at the chance, not because I had a burning desire to listen to 500 women screaming, but because I would get to see some of the things I had only read about in your books. 
    (Seriously?? Prayers for the President’s death? Yo-Mama? WTF??)

  • You should write what you want. We should read what we want, and for many of us that means your books. I can’t see why the people who complain even read your books, unless it’s a first time ‘mistake.’

  • Thank you all for your very generous support. I think what I worry about is whether I’ve devolved into haranguing people, rather than writing stories. 

  • Kmutters

    Nope.  You’re just bringing contempory issues to the forefront and weaving them into interesting and very well-written mystery novels!

  • Bev

    Sometimes attitudes need to be challenged. I find some of the political commentary coming from the conservative side of US politics sounds more like racial vilification and in a different setting would constitute actionable abuse.  I don’t even live in America, I am Australian but I do have relatives in the US, so I am quite disturbed by some of the political views expressed there. 

  • KG

    Next time somebody wants to throw their book away, ask them to throw it to me, ok?

  • Hendra

    That is a question artists have asked throughout the centuries…and their answer often depended upon their financial situation and/or social standing.  If an artist had a patron, then usually said artist created art that pleased the patron, who was probably paying the bills.  That said, there have been many artists who insisted on creating the art they wanted to create, regardless of how their works were regarded by the public.  Each artist must answer that question for himself/herself.  Personally, I hope you continue to write the novels you want to write; even if readers disagree or are uncomfortable with what you’ve written, if your words have made them reflect on the social or political situations you’ve described, and have caused them to examine their own viewpoints, then you’ve done well.

  • Denise Pelletier

    Ne vous laissez pas abattre par les critiques réactionnaires. Ce sont des écrivains tels que vous qui sauvent l’honneur des États-Unis sur la scène internationale.

  • Ms. E

    I can’t tell you how to write, but for what it’s worth, from a reader who has every single V.I. book sitting in hardcover on her shelf: V.I.’s politics are part of what make her great as a character, and the more you showcase them, the more pleased I am. You’ve constructed a tough heroine with great moral courage, but if that courage ONLY showed up in reference to the crime at hand, I wouldn’t find her nearly so three-dimensional. I would guess that people who complain about the innate politics of the books are either 1. disciples of the Wade Lawlors of the world (their loss) or 2. people more in love with the standard mystery genre than with V.I. herself. I would think you have enough loyal fans by now to make up the gap.

    BTW (I’ve never posted here before, so I’d better make it good) thanks for giving us V.I. all these years. I’ve never been at all disappointed by a single one of your books, and that’s saying a lot, as my expectations are always sky-high.

  • Gloria in Pittsburgh

    Good grief, so a few people got upset.  I’ve been reading your books for decades, so have many, many people.  Your talent has deservedly given you a life that many dream of.  Your talent.  Over the course of decades. Loved by a big ol’ bunch of readers.

    Just keep writing, lots of us are digging it.  Thank you.

  • blue cat

    Well, I love the books just the shape they are!  I agree with the other posters that you shouldn’t shape them to meet ‘my’ or ‘our’ or anyone else’s expectations, but should go where your stories and characters take you. Personally I think I’d find books which met all my expectations rather boring, but that’s just me.

    More generally, I’m surprised at the attitude that ‘books shouldn’t be political’ which you have encountered. A friend recently mentioned that another US mystery writer had received similar negative comments (for a far less political novel!). I don’t see how a novel which claims to represent life in the modern world *can* be apolitical. Leaving the politics out would be just as strong a political statement. I don’t mean to be offensive, but maybe it’s a view more frequently expressed in America than over here (I’m in the UK)… how much of Shakespeare’s opus would be left if you cut out all the politics?!  Convincing characters will come with all of the annoying habits of real human beings, including holding and acting on political beliefs. The fact that they have done so sufficiently convincingly to annoy a handful of readers is a testimony to your skill as a writer.

  • Pameladoc

    I read your books because they are about my beloved Chicago are the best mystery novels I have ever read and inspire me to think about Important issues. You are the best. Keep true to yourself. No reader has the right to limit your creativity. I recommend you to all my friends. You have integrity. Keep it up!

  • Sara Paretsky

    These thoughtful comments make me very proud to know you read my work

  • Carmen

    I just found you, after 30 years reading thrillers! You came to me through Laura Lipman and Lisa Tucker, and yesterday I finished Fire Sale, my first. I was having dinner with a friend and told her how excited I was that I found a progressive thriller writer! I am Social Worker passionate about social justice and I say thank you for bringing it to your books. I love it that this is just my first, so many to go… Love, Carmen

  • Charlena

    I am a conservative in Kentucky.  That being said, I loved Break Down. It became obvious early on what your political views are. That is what is great about this country.  We differ politically but can still express ourselves.  I connect with VI in many ways. I love hearing more about her childhood.  She is truly a warrior for the “underdog”.  I have been the underdog and I have rescued the underdog. I am so glad that she has aged and seems very normal,  Keep writing from your heart.
    Charlena

  • TheonlyVIbookIllneverfinish

    Well, that was a disturbing read.  I read in some ways as an escape from the pressures of clients, paying bills, dealing with teen children and homework etc…..not to mention $4.00+ gas prices.  So when I pick up a book of fiction, I don’t expect to get hit over the head with extreme left wing radical ideology, nor would I expect extreme right wing radical ideology.  The political proselytizing I just experienced in reading some of this book was very unsettling.
    Coming from the most corrupt city in the nation’s most corrupt state has let me somewhat ignore the past politicalization of your novels.  I have to disagree with the “Oprah set” of posters on this blog that have already stated how they feel any syllable you write is just God inspired.
    I have loved the VI novel for years, being familiar with the place referenced and greatly excited when my own home town restaurant Louis’ Bon Appetit (where we frequently dined – and still do although in the location’s present incarnation).  I have not even finished Break Down after over a week.  Usually a VI novel is consumed in 2 days or less and I am barely 1/2 through.  As I pondered this I realized it is because I just don’t care about the character anymore.  This extreme political vitriol has made me no longer care about or empathizse with VI.  I guess I’ll never learn how it all ends because I just don’t have the passion to finish,
    Unfortunately the hatred, anger and lies don’t come from Wade whathisname, but from the author.

  • Elisabeth

    Definitely not! I loved Breakdown as I did all the others. There are some writers who seem to turn into cranky “things used to be better in my day and age” types, but not you. Not V.I.
    Personally, I’m not American and I don’t live in the US, but I love the politics in your books. People like you and novels like yours are what gives me hope despite all the bad news coming from America. So please please please keep it up!

  • Ann

    I confessed to feeling both irked and alarmed when I read posters to your blog suggesting your stories are too ‘political’ for their sensibilies and that you are telling lies. How anyone can read V.I.’s adventures and life back story and not expect a political element in each story is interesting. V.I. lives in a conflict ridden world, whether it be that of relationships,the street or the legislature. Conflict is the essence of politics and delivers its dynamic, even when its dressed up as consensus/coalition (you can tell I live in Britain). Living in Britain means we too, get a good dose of corruption in public life, but I don’t feel it blinds me to the political element of any novel I read.I most definately read V.I. because of her relationship with the real world and because of her back story. I am alarmed by the notion that simply because a character espouses political ideas, that character becomes unpalatable. Why should exciting, rewarding crime fiction have
    politics excised from its setting – the real world we inhabit. I dearly hope V.I. doesn’t move to such a calm, barren world. After all most of the rest of us aren’t able to avoid its realities and I appreciate fiction that does reflect the dynamic of the real world, warts and all. V.I.’s briar patch is interesting and vibrant because of the thorns.

  • Creator of the Blog

    These comments are all interesting and helpful, so thank you for posting. 

  • Mysteryreader

    Just read this….Yes, V.I is very political and yes I frequently find her incredibly annoying not to mention foolhardy and abrasive. But that is what she is! I love that she is deeply opinionated, flawed, rude, and all those other things. The books come alive because of that. To those offended by the politics, I say go read some cosies if you don’t want to be offended or challenged and leave Sara alone!

  • Lynn

    I just finished Breakdown.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I have all of your books since I started reading them in the early ’80s.  I think you should keep writing the way you do.  If people don’t like your approach, they can read someone else’s books.  Apparently many people do like your writing, so keep doing what you’ve been doing.  Cheers!

  • JoAnn Welsh

    My husband and I have been talking about this a lot, lately. I’ve been reading more mystery writers, ones I’ve never before read, and checking out reader reviews to see what attracts — and repels — people. There are a number of readers who are primarily interested in escape, but you don’t need to please everyone. We all have different ideas of escape — and glitzy, unrealistic stories don’t cut it for me. Certainly, anyone who’s read previous V.I. novels ought to know from the endings alone (with the customary lack of real punishment for the powerful-but-guilty) that these are not stories for those expecting fluffy happy-endings. 

    Fiction is a great way to explore issues in terms of their effects on individuals instead of with polemics. People who might turn away from a political debate can see what it’s like for those in different situations — those who don’t have the same options or voice — to deal with the realities of our current system. The V.I. novels have done a beautiful job of this, reflecting not only the consequences of American priorities for the poor and powerless, but also the effects on decent, caring people like V.I., who may not like what they see but struggle against their own limitations to change it. There are so many scenes that will stay with me — the meeting of father and daughter at the end of Indemnity Only; V.I. and Mr. Contreras rescuing the homeless victims of domestic abuse  from a flood; V.I. retching at the thought of why her cousin Boom-Boom died; the work ethic of dancer Kylie Balantine in the face of discrimination; the powerlessness of the women in Ballantine’s prison; and many, many more. 

    What attracts me to the V.I series is this mixture of social caring, individual’s stories and, of course, the mystery. If I had any quibbles, it would be that the recent novels (those after Fire Sale) seem to move a little on the spectrum from stories about people who are affected by social inequity to stories about social inequity, illustrated by characters. That doesn’t mean to me that politics don’t belong in fiction; it means only that it’s a fine line to walk. One that you’ve walked very skillfully for many years now. 

  • JoAnn Welsh

    oops, balladine’s prison not ballantine

  • JM

    Coming to this late (but then the books come to the UK late too) and after I’d actually been trying to articulate what I found irritating about this book to a book club I belong too. It isn’t the politics or social commentary – those have always been a key plus in the books for me – but something about this book (and to a lesser extent Bodywork too) has shifted those elements from being subtly interweaved into the story to becoming the only story, and as a result, I feel quite bludgeoned by them, and for me (although I agree with others here, you shouldn’t be writing for me) that made the book less pleasurable.

  • Sara Paretsky

    Thanks for all these helpful and thought-provoking comments. I am considering them carefully as I continue to work on a new novel.

  • acak

    NO author should ever change their writing to please their audience.
    If you can’t make a living writing what you want to write, it’s time to find another job.
    An author who changes with the whims of her audience will soon find herself looking for Fabio lookalikes for the cover of her next novel…

    That said, this is the first VI Warshawski book I’ve read that I didn’t love from the get-go.

    My problem with this book wasn’t politics in itself. My problem was that I think your political distaste for a certain brand of conservative, in this case, made one particular character not believable. Whenever that person was out of the picture, it felt like the “normal” Chicago of VI. This guy just didn’t fit. He felt like a two-dimensional cartoon cutout in a live-action movie.

    You write with such compassion about people. You catch people with a few quick strokes. Gabe, the butler, for example — small character but so alive. Your characters have history; there are plausible explanations for why they are the way they are. Even the villains. Except this one person. It’s almost like you hated him so much you didn’t want to write about him. Like you wanted to go take a shower after writing a paragraph where he spoke. Even when you gave him a history, there was no compassion. It’s like… you were as disgusted by him as he was by the people he demonized.

    I don’t think you have to love all your characters. But I think your reader needs to see them as persons. And this character, to me, never rose to that.

    VI has been part of my life for 20 years. She’s a good friend who’s seen me through some tough times and I love her dearly. And for that, I thank you.

  • Guyd

    I just finished “Breakdown”. Over the years I have enjoyed everything you have written. Your exposure of the dirty underbelly of right wing journalism was right on. Ward Lawlor is the “Glen Beck” type that makes responsible people queasy and afraid for our country’s future. Keep it up. I was disappointed with your ending. it felt rushed, improbable and and unsatisfying. I would have liked to see Lawlor and Global truly get the punishment they deserved. But…Hey you are the author…not me

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