Art, propaganda and the role of the novelist

Dean Koontz is a renowned novelist, known for books such as Devoted, The big black sky, and Odd Thomas. His books top the New York Times bestseller charts and, at 77, he doesn’t plan to quit the fiction business anytime soon. He is also a longtime proponent of intelligent design and human exceptionalism, both of which find their way into his many writings. On September 12, Koontz was Featured on the Humanize podcast, where he and Wesley J. SmithSenior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Human Exceptionalismdiscussed Koontz’s career as a writer as well as some of the central themes that permeate Koontz’s work.

Dean Koontz and Wesley J. Smith discuss the Humanize the podcast.

For the first part of this two-part discussion of the podcast episode, I want to focus on Koontz’s remarks about the role of the novelist in contemporary society, because I think they rightly criticize the way in which many modern people see the purpose of art. In the follow-up post, I’ll cover Smith and Koontz’s thoughts on human exceptionalism, authoritarianism, and transhumanism, and how these themes play out in Koontz’s fiction.

Near the start of the interview, Smith asked about the novelist’s role in society, and Koontz responded by describing two primary (but not exclusive) functions of fiction. “The first is entertainment,” he said.

“We need to be away from the pressures of our lives, the concerns and the misfortunes of it all. Fiction can do this in a wonderful way. But if that’s all it does, then there’s something missing. The second part is about talking about the world we live in and revealing it in a way that just listening to the news [doesn’t]. I always come back to Dickens for this because there was no more entertaining novelist and yet no novelist who, say, in A tale of two cities, got the truth of the revolutions so correct.

Smith, appreciating the comment about the prioritization of entertainment, mentioned that if writers forget their obligation to entertain the reader, they end up “force feeding” a certain point of view or political ideology. Koontz agreed wholeheartedly.

“Yes, you don’t want fiction to become propaganda. And the moment fiction sells political vision, they know it’s propaganda. And this is no longer fiction. It’s no longer art, as far as I’m concerned.

Much modern fiction, according to Koontz, is overtly political and thus betrays the basic rule of the art, which is: don’t moralize! The late British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote succinctly about this issue:

“Works of art are forbidden to moralize, only because moralizing destroys their true moral value, which lies in the ability to open our eyes to others and discipline our sympathies toward life as it is.”

Roger Scruton, Beauty: a very short introduction. p. 111.

Like Koontz, Scruton also cautions against reducing art to entertainment without imbuing it with thematic reflection. He writes,

“Faced with a real work of art, it is not my own reactions that interest me, but the meaning and the content of the work… When I seek entertainment, I am not interested in the cause but in the effect. Anything that has the right effect on me is good for me, and there is no question of judgement, aesthetic or otherwise.

Same. p. 85.

Getting lost in a well-written novel is different from getting lost in a YouTube rabbit hole, for example. Plus, there’s a world of difference between watching porn and watching Botticelli’s movie. Venus. With entertainment, all that matters is how I feel. With art, what matters most is the meaning of the work, which ends up having its own entertainment value. Ultimately, it’s the storyteller’s job to… well, tell a story and try to both entertain and enlighten the reader.

I enjoyed Koontz’s insights into the role of fiction and art in general, and hope readers will take the time to listen to the interview to dig deeper into this topic. In part two, I will focus on Smith and Koontz’s discussion of human exceptionalism, how it plays out in writing meaningful fiction, and further, how the belief in the uniqueness of humanity is essential to build a just and equitable civilization.