I’ve been revisiting an idea that has become somewhat foundational to how I write: art vs. propaganda. It’s a distinction not made enough I think, and it’s one of those distinctions that can be fairly helpful. You may now be asking, What’s the difference between art and propaganda? Does it even matter?
Propaganda is writing for the sole purpose to push an agenda (often a political agenda). Literature (art) is writing to focus on beauty and story.
Of course, literature can have themes that it centers on, and those themes may be part of (in some capacity) or related to an agenda. And I think that most people (if not everybody) have an agenda, which can be reflected in the writer’s work. We all have things we believe in, and those things will likely somehow get woven into our writing (even unintentionally). However, there’s a difference between including themes in your work (as in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead) and letting the beauty and story of your writing be sacrificed in order to push a specific theme. Propaganda is often an agenda thinly veiled by a fictional narrative. Allegories can be propaganda, though not all allegory is propaganda.
Why does literature matter?
Why am I making this distinction? Why is it important?
As literature is expected to become propaganda, the art of writing dies.
The stories contained within literature become turned into vessels for an agenda, and the beauty of literature disappears.
All those stories that impact us so deeply turn toward pushing a message.
Is propaganda bad?
I’m not actually arguing that all writing must be literature. There is a time and place for writing that exists to push a particular agenda. Political essays, editorial articles, &c. serve a role in society’s discourse. However, when these styles of writing become the mainstream, edging out literature, that’s where I have a problem. The distinction I would make between these types of writing and propaganda is that they admit what they are (i.e., writing that pushes an agenda) while propaganda masquerades as literature. And this is how propaganda manages to push out actual literature.
There may be propaganda that you like because you agree with it or because it makes a good point (propaganda can make perfectly valid arguments and points). And that’s fine—most of us appreciate reading things that support our viewpoints—but it’s more helpful to recognize this writing as one of the styles I mentioned above rather than as literature.
Am I writing propaganda?
Are you writing literature or propaganda? Is the major theme in your work moving into propaganda territory?
Here’s my strategy to write literature not propaganda.
Just write the story.
Don’t worry about themes or messaging while you’re drafting. It’s honestly a relief to not worry about having themes in writing. There’s enough to think about while writing already.
When you’ve got a completed draft, see if there are pieces of any theme present in the plot or character arc. Then, when revising work to see where you can make the theme more cohesive throughout the piece. Don’t worry about being obvious—keep things subtle. Your writing can speak for itself.