Politically Indirect: Why I Hide My Politics from My Readers by Steve Hockensmith

Cadaver in Chief author Steve Hockensmith is one of those wonderfully gifted writers who seems as comfortable writing short stories (Blarney: 12 Tales of Lies, Crime & Mystery) as he does novels (World’s Greatest Sleuth!). He also has a delightfully warped sense of humor – Exhibit A: His author photo – which he puts to great use in explaining why he chooses not to share his political beliefs on social media.

Steve HockensmithAs a genre author who’s achieved a certain level of success (that level: “not much”), I’m expected to cheerfully embrace social media in all its forms. After all, technology has handed me these wonderful tools for making new connections and strengthening old bonds — and, more importantly, selling people shit — all while I sit in a cluttered home office/glorified closet wearing sweats so smelly they could throw bloodhounds off the scent two counties away. Surely every writer’s dream come true!

Yet Facebook and Twitter and the like can be a double-edged sword for an author. On the one hand, now your readers can get to know you on a direct, personal level. On the other hand, now your readers can get to know you on a direct, personal level.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not stalkers I’m afraid of. I still don’t have any even after publishing five mysteries and two zombie novels. Not a single Randy Quaid mugshot lookalike has carved my name into his arm with a razor blade, nor have any albino book hoarders sent me postcards with messages like “I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE” written with the urine of their own half-feral cats. It’s disappointing.

No, my problem with Twitter and Facebook has nothing to do with the obsessed, psychotically possessive fans I’m not lucky enough to have. My readers seem to be, for the most part, decent, balanced, intelligent people. (I’m excluding the guy who keeps trying to get me to play FarmVille.)

But here’s the rub. I’ve been followed and “friended” by hundreds of people who’ve read my books. And because I get to see the things they post and share and comment on, I’ve learned something important about them.

At least half of them would hate my guts if they really knew me.

It all comes down to politics, of course. You’ve been on Facebook. You know what I’m talking about. (I think it’s safe for me to assume that most folks reading an essay on a website are neither Trappist monks nor Amish.) The damn thing is clogged with stuff like this:

[PICTURE OF FAMOUS DEAD PERSON]
“[SPURIOUS QUOTE THAT SMUGLY CASTIGATES EITHER LIBERALS OR CONSERVATIVES]”
1,627 people like this
View all 382 comments
Arlene Kuhlenschmidt lol! that [famous dead person] really knew what [he or she] was talking about!
Buck Weaver BS! It’s the [people on the other side of the political spectrum] who r really [whatever]!!!
Penelope Welch What’s the problem, Bucky? Did [the famous dead person who probably didn’t even say the thing everyone’s commenting on] hit a little too close to home?
Sister Mary Magdalene Go fuck yourself, Penelope.

Etc.

Twitter is just as bad thanks to that virulent pox upon cyber-humanity, the retweet button. If I wanted to read the pithy zingers crafted by a hack politician’s communications staff, I’d follow [INSERT NAME OF SENATOR YOU DISLIKE] like every other [INSERT DISPARAGING TERM FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T SHARE YOUR IDEOLOGY].

Why don’t I come out and name a politician? Why be so cagey about my own political beliefs? You’ll find the answer in the first sentence of this post: I’m not that successful. I can’t afford to alienate half my audience. I can’t afford to alienate one-tenth of my audience. I can’t afford to alienate the guy who keeps trying to get me to play FarmVille.

I was only joking, dude! Please — keep telling me how many non-existent pigs you have on your f-ing non-existent farm!

(I’m pretty sure the Farmville guy isn’t a regular visitor to this site. Still…maybe I should go back and delete that.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my newest book — a satirical novella called Cadaver in Chief — gets all, like, political and stuff. I mean, I say things. There are critiques and messages and subversive subtexts and that kind of junk. Not that the book’s a didactic screed. It’s called Cadaver in Chief, for Christ’s sake. It’s about a reporter who thinks the President’s a zombie. I’m not trying to be [INSERT NAME OF HAM-FISTED, SELF-RIGHTEOUS PUBLIC FIGURE WHOSE FAN BASE I ALSO SHOULDN’T OFFEND]. But still — this thing could blow my cover and reveal me to be the diehard [REDACTED] I really am. And then what will I do?

Fortunately, no one’s accused me of demagoguery yet. One reader even wrote me to say he’d read the whole book wondering if I were conservative or liberal because I make fun of everyone. So I seem to be safe for now.

All the same, I’ll have to be careful about what I “like” and “share” and retweet in the days ahead. If you’re a friend or follower and you’ve already figured out my dirty little secret — you know, that I have deeply held beliefs and ideals — do me a favor and keep it under your hat, okay? Thanks.

Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t let on that I’m an atheist. If that gets out, I’ll really be in trouble….

Steve Hockensmith is the author of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After, the official prequel and sequel to the international bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He’s also written five novels and a slew of short stories in his “Holmes on the Range” mystery series. He lives in Alameda, Calif., with his wife, children, dog, goldfish, hopes, dreams, fears and neuroses. To learn more about Steve, visit his website or hire a private investigator. (The website’s cheaper.)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

19 Comments

  • Jenn Thorson

    August 31, 2012 - 8:53 am

    One thing I’ve found, however, is that if your readers like you and you are vague about your political nose-tweaking in a book, they will automatically assume your views are the same as theirs.

    I was amused to discover that an intergalactic protest scene in my humor sci-fi novel apparently satirized an event I hadn’t intended– and which occurred a year after I’d written the scene– simply because various readers figured, “Well, I like this work, so the author must be in tune to my political views.”

    I have no problem with that, of course. Readers bring their own narrative to a story. But it is entertaining.

  • Andy Straka

    August 29, 2012 - 7:00 pm

    Interesting post, Steve. This issue comes up on occasion with me as well. My novel A Killing Sky features a philandering congressman, for example, whose party affiliation is never named. One thought, though. Being more transparent about political beliefs doesn’t seemed to have hurt book sales for either Barry Eisler (Liberal) or Andrew Klavan (Conservative). Is it because they’ve broken out into a larger mainstream audience? Because they’ve managed to combine brilliant writing with powerful messages and still skip the preachiness? I’m pretty sure that outside of an election year the vast majority of fiction readers could probably care less about what any novelist believes as long as we’re not trying to ram it down their throats. They’re more interested in our stories. Even if we do have to set them on occasion in places like The White House. Look forward to reading CADAVER IN CHIEF. It also might make for some interesting election year bumper stickers.

    I’M VOTING FOR THE DEAD GUY – GUESS WHICH ONE IS WHICH?

    • Steve

      August 30, 2012 - 12:55 pm

      Hmmm…interesting questions, Andy. In response, allow me to posit something that’s perhaps kinda stupid. I stand ready to be told I’m full of it! But it seems to me that the thriller genre tends to be conservative both politically (in terms of the assumptions the works make about the world) and artistically (in terms of the style those works are written in). So I don’t think it’s shocking when someone like Andrew Klavan (or Brad Thor or Tom Clancy) goes public with conservative views. I’m guessing the majority of their audience is just fine with that…or at least they’re not surprised. Barry Eisler, I think, is a fluke. If not for his CIA background (and his considerable skills as a writer) he’d probably face a bigger backlash. But the guy’s hard to dismiss because he’s served his country and he obviously knows what he’s talking about. Another thing: Thrillers often deal with politicians and governments because they tell stories with huge stakes on a global stage. So all that political/policy stuff’s already right there in the books. That’s not necessarily the case with other genres. So if, say, the writer of a macrame cozy series starts tweeting about her support for the John Birch Society or the Communist Party USA, that’s probably going to alienate a lot of readers.

  • sabrina ogden

    August 29, 2012 - 4:12 pm

    I love this post… that is all.

  • Jason Halstead

    August 29, 2012 - 3:19 pm

    I feel your pain! I went through that transition a while ago where I had to reinvent the internal censor that I’d spurned most of my life. Gone were the moments of blunt truth where I could tell the occupiers to what I really thought they should be occupying. These days it’s ambivalence for fear of bad press.

    Then again, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. How about you give it a shot and let me know how it goes?

  • RD Meyer

    August 29, 2012 - 1:48 pm

    Wonderful post, and I couldn’t agree more! There is nothing more sure to split an audience than politics or religion. It’s okay to discuss in a public forum if that’s your focus, but if you’re a horror or sci-fi or romance writer, it gets dicey (what I say in private to my friends is another matter entirely. 😀 )

    I did a similar post a couple of months ago:
    http://rdmeyerwrites.blogspot.com/2012/06/stay-on-target.html

  • James Rada, Jr.

    August 29, 2012 - 9:48 am

    I also avoid political conversations on social media. My main reason is that even if I try to be polite and discuss something, it inevitably takes a nasty turn with follow-up comments. So even if I’m not being mean about my comments, they are part of a conversation that is nasty. I wind up alienating people. If I want to talk politics, I’ll do it with someone in person.

    Social media is my tool for connecting with readers. Since my writing isn’t political, I don’t use social media as a tool to push a political view.

  • […] can’t afford to alienate the guy who keeps trying to get me to play FarmVille. Link to the rest at Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White[…]

  • J. Steven York

    August 29, 2012 - 5:04 am

    Good post, Steve. This is an issue I have thought about a lot, and have struggled with as well, and for which I don’t have any brilliant and hard answers.

    On one hand, I do think that writers hammering people with their political beliefs in social media is a bad idea. It annoys people, and is unlikely to change people’s minds. If I have a political point, I’d rather make it in the form of fiction, and even then, I think it needs to be subtle. I don’t much like being preached to, even by people I generally agree with.

    But on the other hand, if you believe your opinions on important issues are correct, then is it moral and just to hide those opinions? I’m not talking about purely political stuff here, like how big a government we need, or the “Fogroth/Snooth Make America Strong Red White and Blue Job Creation Death to Al Qaeda Saving Puppies and Kittens Apple Pie Pig Manure Subsidy Act of 2011.” I’m talking about stuff that I consider basic moral choices that are treated as politics. Could, for instance, we look back at a writer in pre-Civil War America who held abolitionist views and chose not to share them, and say: “good writer, smart writer, moral writer, you didn’t limit your potential audience! Good job!”

    Or apply that to women’s right to vote, or civil rights, and so on. On some issues, not to stand up is at best timid, and at worst, cowardly.

    So, my compromise is this: I don’t hide my politics. I don’t often talk about them on Social media, and I don’t hammer my followers with my views. But I may mention them occasionally, and anybody who hangs around very long will know pretty well where I stand. If that alone is enough to cause someone to unfriend me or not read my fiction, oh, well. No great loss, I figure. I have many friends, associates and family members with whom I differ strongly on politics, but I am generally able to look past that and remain on good terms with them, and I expect that others extend me the same courtesy.

    And what a lot of people would consider politics does inform a lot of my fiction, to the extent that I believe in a rather liberal (oh, whoops, I said that word!) interpretation of the Golden Rule, that I believe tolerance is a virtue, that greed is bad, that helping others is a virtue, that life is a messy, complicated place where hard-and-fast rules often fail to work, that without the constant courage and sacrifice of good men and women, we are doomed to fail no matter whose ideology is in place, and that there is a sweet spot between order and chaos that is far more desirable than the extremes of either. It doesn’t seem like much of that should be terribly controversial, but apparently it is to a lot of people.

    Even so, no preaching in the fiction, or at least, I try not to. I try to tell stories in subtle shades of color and not black-and-white, and if they fail to entertain, then the message contained means not a hoot. But if I do my job right, then maybe somebody who disagrees with me on some point will be inspired to at least examine my position, and if not to adopt it, then to at least understand it. The oceans wear away continents, but they do it one grain of sand at a time. And I prefer small steps that may succeed over grand gestures doomed to failure.

  • Neliza Drew

    August 28, 2012 - 9:46 pm

    I can’t fathom ever being a good enough writer for this to be a concern. Which means, I need a day job…which means, I don’t actually feel privileged enough to not take a stand.

    I realize the word “privilege” had been politicized, but I don’t mean it divisibly.

    Rather, I mean that as a teacher and a woman, I’ve been feeling under attack lately, which makes my fight or flight reflexes kick in.
    And spending so much time working with poor children, with young girls who tell me about abuse and rape when they’re supposed to be doing math. After consoling friends after a miscarriages or after a boyfriend nearly killed her, some things don’t feel “political,” but rather intensely personal.

    I try to refrain from name-calling. I don’t always succeed. I’m human. I do, however, believe that if we can’t move back to discourse as a means of communication, this experiment in republican democracy is doomed to failure.
    I also will say anything to a face that I will say to a screen. It’s just usually less poised.

  • Mark

    August 28, 2012 - 12:05 pm

    You got that completely right. There is one author I gave a second chance to after he called me political names in his mystery. But after some of the nonsense he was posting on Facebook, I stopped reading him period. It’s a shame because I really liked his books. But if he thinks I’m that evil, then why should I support him?

    I think there are two reasons things are where they are right now. First, politics and religion are never discussed in polite company. Therefore, we tend to only discuss them with people who agree with us. As a result, the idea that people could disagree with us for very good reason is shocking because we don’t know anyone like that. Or if we do, we don’t know we know anyone who disagrees with us. So we conclude we are always right. So we broadcast our feelings and thoughts without even thinking about it.

    Then there’s the fact that people are much more willing to say things on the internet they would never say in person. I can’t believe some of the things I’ve seen people say or do. Forget nuance and tone and all that. I have seen some pretty hateful things come out on the internet over the years. The internet is great in many ways, but I think it has contributed to our fractured society.

    Of course, I do post some political stuff (more on Twitter than Facebook). I try not to, but darn it, I can’t stand those idiots who disagree with me constantly thinking they’re right when they are so obviously wrong. I can’t stand by and say nothing.

    And I’m just rambling at this point. 🙂

    Let’s just end with this. I would bet I disagree with most of the authors I read and enjoy. But I’m okay with that as long as you respect me enough not to call me names on the internet. You keep doing that, and it may leave a bad enough taste in my mouth that I won’t be able to enjoy your books any more. So you are making a wise decision, Steve.

  • Jack Getze

    August 28, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    I’ve dropped about a dozen writers from my Facebook feed in the last few weeks, not for choosing sides, but for calling the other side mean, spiteful names. It’s so stupid and boring. The last few Presidential elections tallied about 50 million votes on each side. Are 50 million people really all “morons” for disagreeing with you?

    That said, I understand Thomas’s POV. As a former financial writer, I believe I understand economics in a way some others don’t, and I can’t help defending capitalism when I see it attacked. This puts me in right-wing territory with a lot of writers, but too bad. It’s what I believe.

  • Steve Hockensmith

    August 28, 2012 - 11:53 am

    Thanks for the thumbs up, guys! Despite everything I wrote above, I do weaken sometimes and post/tweet something political. I almost always regret it, though. People don’t follow or friend me for current events commentary. And I know from personal experience that readers can take this stuff personally: There’s a prominent author I won’t read anymore because his political editorializing is so vitriolic and insulting. Why would people buy books from a dude who tells them they’re dumb and amoral?

  • Jennifer Leeland

    August 28, 2012 - 11:52 am

    I can relate to this. I was just tweeting recently (look at me using the appropriate vernacular and shit) that there was an awful lot of vitriolic political posts on Facebook. Like you, I try and stay faaaaaar away from that.
    However, I’m sure I offend people with my posts about drinking, spanky-spanky and other things so……
    Frankly, I’d rather be “run over” in the middle of the road than dug in on either side. What a great compliment from a reader! Honestly, Steve, as a reader, I don’t want to know an author’s opinions. Do I want to know that *insert best selling author* has given millions of dollars to *insert some special interest group that pisses me off*? No. I want to read their BOOKS.
    I can’t wait to read Cadaver In Chief.
    You’re a braver man than I. You can’t avoid writing SOME politics into a book about a Zombie president. LOL!

  • Rhonda Lane

    August 28, 2012 - 11:35 am

    I’d give you an “AMEN!” but you know. 😉 Saving it for the page is tough when everyone else is letting it all hang out on Facebook. Thanks for the smile and the feeling that I’m not the only one feeling the disconnect.

  • Patti Abbott

    August 28, 2012 - 11:30 am

    Maybe there needs to be a second outlet on facebook (or somewhere) for people to talk about politics. I think people yearn to be comforted by like-minded people when often their family members or neighbors are not of a similar mind. So that is why so much pops up on facebook. People need that thumbs up from somewhere.

    Mostly I defriend people on facebook who talk about their publications too often (quite a lot too) but I have also defriended several for political views. The problem is we are now so polarized I don’t think a middle of the road exists anymore. Those politicians disappeared in the seventies.

  • Dana Kaye

    August 28, 2012 - 11:27 am

    Steve,
    Great post and I’m glad that you recognize the consequences of being fully candid on social media. Unfortunately, there are many authors who don’t understand this and continue to alienate half their audience, whichever half that may be.

    The other difficulty is that tone cannot always be conveyed online. What seems like a joke or sarcasm to one will read as offensive to another.

    Glad you’re playing it safe!

  • Thomas Pluck

    August 28, 2012 - 10:30 am

    My wife loved Dreadfuls, and you cracked me up. I look forward to Cadaver in Chief. The middle of the road is the surest place to get run over. I don’t mind people knowing my principles. I think it gains you more readers than you lose, unless you are especially strident.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      August 28, 2012 - 11:17 am

      Though I don’t have the same concerns that an author may have about doing so, I actually take the same approach Steve does with regard to not talking politics (or religion or “hot button” social topics) on social media (it’s a totally different ball game talking to people in person in a more engaged, nuanced give and take scenario).

      I think there’s a very distinct difference between being in the middle of the road, which implies one is wishy-washy or has no opinion, and merely choosing not to broadcast one’s opinion, which may in fact be very strongly held. But hey, to each his own with regard to how engaged in the social media political fray they choose to be. 😉

      I’m reviewing Cadaver in Chief tomorrow, fyi, and it’s classic Hockensmith humor…on a timely topic to boot.