This book is Political with a capital P

I am currently reading Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, BREAKDOWN. It’s set in the present day and sees the series’ long-suffering heroine chance upon some teenage girls who are in a cemetery performing a ceremony they’ve learned from a series of popular books which will call upon vampires. Or something. Unfortunately they’re also in the presence of a murdered man and in trying to shield the girls from the unsympathetic eyes of the police Vic opens up a world of trouble for herself.

I’m about a third of the way through the book and am increasingly frustrated by the political agenda it makes no attempt to hide. I don’t imagine anyone who’s ever read one of Paretsky’s books or seen her interviewed would be surprised that the book takes a left-of-centre view of things but here it is not much more than a diatribe against Fox News (sorry Global Entertainment Network or GEN as it appears in the book) and various thinly disguised commentators and politicians. The plot device used to clunkily wedge all the “we on the left are very hard done by” messages is that several of the teenage girls are related to important Chicago political figures whose opponents use the escapade to trot out hate-filled campaigns against them.

The frustrating thing about this dominant feature of the book is that I have no idea what earthly purpose it serves. It is surely only preaching to the converted as no one who is even vaguely right-leaning in their politics would read much beyond about page 50 unless they had a strong masochistic streak. And do those who share Paretsky’s views really need 430 pages of reminding that their world has gone to hell in a handbasket? The more worrying prospect is that such a book doesn’t just do no good, it might actually do some harm. Can it really help to have yet another extremist view of the world thrown thrown into the cesspool that is modern politics? Do we really need to separate out into “us” and “them” at every turn? Can’t someone take a more nuanced position? Please?

My ultimate concern as a reader is that the story isn’t great and the reason it isn’t great is that there’s too much preaching and kvetching and polarising going on. When Vic isn’t being bitter she’s being so bloody righteous that she makes me want to vote conservatively (and for the record I voted for The Greens in our last election because the mainstream left wing party wasn’t socially or financially liberal enough for me).

I like fiction that explores social issues but this book isn’t exploring in any kind of thoughtful way: it’s daring readers to disagree with its agenda and ridiculing them if they do. On top of being annoyingly superior that’s bad writing in my view, and exactly the kind of thing that “liberals” often get upset about when “the other side” does it. Tsk Tsk.

Have you read BREAKDOWN? What did you think about its political overtone? Do you like books that have this kind of political overtone? Should I finish the book (I am on page 116 of 430)?

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21 Responses to This book is Political with a capital P

  1. harvee says:

    I;ve had a hard time getting into her books for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. Though she is well respected as a crime writer. Maybe it has to do with my Having lived in Chicago for so many years and seeing, remembering the city in a different way,


  2. Bernadette – I couldn’t agree with you more about the negative consequences of using a book to push a particular political agenda rather than tell a story. I’ll be honest; I haven’t read Breakdown yet, so I can’t really speak intelligently to that particular novel. But I’ve read plenty of other books where it was very clear that the author(s) had a particular political agenda, and that that was the purpose of the book. It is off-putting even when I agree with the agenda being “pushed.” It would be far more effective I agree to tell the story and let the story explore a social issue. It’s more respectful of the reader, too.


  3. Sarah says:

    Breakdown isn’t published here until June so I can’t comment on the book. I too have noticed Paretsky’s work becoming increasingly politicised over the years. I don’t mind this as much as the fact that characters such as Lotti have become less prominent and I think the books have suffered for it. If the story isn’t interesting I would be inclined to drop it. I stopped reading a book the other day after a couple of hundred pages as it was getting such a struggle to keep going.


  4. Barbara says:

    I’m sorry to hear this about a favorite author, but yet I can’t say it’s unexpected. I too have noticed Paretsky becoming more outspoken about issues including politics in recent years. I know she has never been shy about expressing her opinions, but enough is enough. She apparently has crossed the line into shoving her beliefs down our throats and that is just wrong. For the first time I’m not looking forward to one of her books.


  5. Maxine says:

    I did like her earlier books but I found the same thing: increasingly the books read like political tracts rather than novels. The last one I read was called Burn Marks and I am afraid I decided that was it, I felt battered by the end of it. PIty, as these were superior thrillers, once.


  6. Norman says:

    Bernadette, the comments “annoyingly superior” and “shoving beliefs down our throats” were spot on with reference to the last Sara Paretsky book i read, Black Out. I used to enjoy her earlier books but I remember Black Out was so patronising I only just struggled to the end, and then said I would not read any more of her stuff.
    In Black Out she seemed to think her readers were so stupid that they regarded George W Bush as on a par with FDR, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and she had a mission to educate the reader.


    • Amanda Cholos says:

      Paretsky didn’t write a book called Black Out, so maybe you’re confusing her with Connie Willis who wrote Blackout? I confess I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it was a political novel or not


  7. Kathy D. says:

    For those who don’t live over here in the States, what we are witnessing right now is tremendous polarization among the politicians, the population and the media. Every day and night, the Republican presidential wannabes launch diatribes against poor people, immigrants, Social Security, Medicare, women and their rights, including to contraceptives, science and historical facts. It is never ending, on the news day and night. Fox News promotes the worst slanders and attacks civil rights and civil liberties, and every social grouping and government program that ever existed. I cannot watch the news any more. Congress is polarized. The state assemblies are polarized. It’s what we here live with.
    These are real, daily issues that are going on here. It becomes total insanity at times. Political figures in various states and in Congress are attacking every single right and program we have — from pensions to union rights to health care, etc. This is our daily life here.
    Sara Paretsky’s writing reflects a lot of the reality here. I agree with her point of view, yet I, as a crime fiction reader, want a good story. I’ve never found that she goes over the top. But she doesn’t shy away from the hard issues in the States. She is probably writing to a liberal audience or hoping to explore issues that are enlightening to others. (And believe me, it would be shocking to know what some people don’t know. I just explained to a science-minded university graduate student here who was president during the 1930s’ and 1940s here, when the New Deal occurred, and the line of presidents after that and what they did!)
    I am a fan. I like V.I. Warshawski. If I needed a buddy in a “bar fight” or wanted an investigation done, I’d want her to do it. She’s fearless and smart.
    I have Breakdown right here to read next and will withhold judgment until I’ve finished it.
    There is so much right-wing stuff going on here between the politicians and the media, and even reflected in fiction, including crime fiction, that it’s a breath of fresh air to read anything that cuts through that constant barrage. It’s like drinking iced tea on a 95 degree day.
    Everyone has their own reading taste, thankfully. But I’m glad for Sara Paretsky when so much over here is filled with gratuitous violence against women, mounting body counts on the road, and even pro-war stuff, that I’m grateful for her. But I understand others’ points of view.


  8. Amanda Cholos says:

    Paretsky herself addresses this point in her most recent blog post. You might want to check that out and to see how other readers react to the issue.


  9. Kathy D. says:

    I would suggest that the comments affixed to Sara Paretsky’s blog post also be read. There are many enthusiastic readers, several who know what it’s like to live over here under constant barrages on everything.


  10. Thanks for the link Amanda and to Kathy for your insight into the circumstances in the US. Though neither of those things makes me change my mind about the overall quality of this book.

    Although I don’t live in the US I have a brother who does and I have visited him regularly since he moved there in 1988 and talk to him all the time. I follow US news and politics almost as closely as I do Australian politics and I do have some sense of the circumstances there. What I don’t think this particular book does is add anything to anyone’s understanding of that situation – it simply reinforces people’s existing world view. The fact that Paretsky’s blog post on the subject has only attracted comments from avowed fans who all agree with her kind of makes my point: she is preaching to the converted. Of course that might be what she wanted to do and she is happy enough to have provided people who believe the same things she does that they are not alone.

    But that’s not nearly the same thing as writing a thought-provoking political book in which issues are raised and many sides explored which is what I would prefer (and sometimes what I think she thinks she writes which is where I would disagree). For me low-level insults and self-righteousness aren’t appealing no matter what side of the political fence is indulging in the behaviour.


  11. Kathy D. says:

    I think I will read the book before saying anything further about it in particular.
    I read that some of Paretsky’s commenters hadn’t known some of she she raises in her books but were glad about her political writing.
    Maybe it shows how glum and difficult the political scene is over here that one of my long-time crime fiction reading friends said last year,”We need more Sara Paretskys here, not less.”
    She does cut through the media hype and spin and — to me and my cohorts — tell the truth.
    That said, there needs to be a good story, a decent mystery.
    I’ll post again after I’ve read Breakdown.
    I love V.I. Warshawski, would like her to be my back-up in dangerous situations, so she can do little wrong in my book, but I’ll read the book and think about it.


  12. I liked the first couple of books very much, but like many others, I gave up on the series years ago because I prefer keeping political sermons & crime fiction apart.


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  15. Barbara says:

    I like politics with my fiction, but I also like nuanced, complicated characters. As idiotic as many outspoken right-wing politicians are, and trust me, they say things that make my jaw drop, I read fiction in part to understand the world (while being entertained) and seeing idiotic politicians in fiction doesn’t really let me understand them better.

    I haven’t read this book so can’t comment on it, but I have generally found Paretsky’s villains to often be straw men, setting up situations so that Vi can say wise things and do brave things in pursuit of justice. Maybe in reality these people are as weightless and witless as men made of straw, but something they are saying speaks to a lot of people, and I would like my political fiction to give me insights into that rather than reassurance that my opinions are correct.

    That said, I understand where Kathy is coming from. Election season brings out the loonies. I wouldn’t have the nerve to put in fictional dialogue things people say here every day. It would challenge the suspension of disbelief too much.


  16. Kathy D. says:

    I just finished this book and I could not put it down. I found it interesting, revelatory, with good characters and plot twists, and not too much politics to ruin it for me. There was still a main mystery involved with several murders and part of the book focused on the investigation without too much political commentary. However, one plot line led to an anti-Semitic slam at a Jewish businessman, which led back to anti-Jewish atrocities in WWII. That part was very sad and hit on a tough period of history where real events just like those described here occurred.
    I also found V.I. Warshawski was full of vim, vigor, feistiness, courage and wit. The one-liners came fast and furiously and I laughed.
    I have several friends who will react accordingly. However, the adage that no one reads the same book is true. It’s also true that no one has exactly the same taste in fiction as in any of the arts. What some of us may rave about may not affect another reader the same way.
    It does come down to individual taste.


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