Last year, “Babylon 5” writer J. Michael Straczynski received a message on Twitter thanking him for treating people of faith with respect, despite being an atheist. He responded:
That I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I need to be disrespectful. Also, that allows me to be more objective about religion, I don’t have an ax to grind. Besides, the moment it becomes about advancing your agenda that’s propaganda, not storytelling, and the tale dies.
This lesson was learned 70 years earlier by Stalinist screenwriter Albert Maltz, who had been struggling to stay within the boundaries imposed on him by the Communist Party and write a good story at the same time. He found that an ideological “straightjacket” that treats art as little more than political propaganda produces “wasted writing or bad art.”
“The opportunity of the artist is conditioned by the nature of art itself,” Maltz wrote in a 1946 essay that almost got him thrown out of the Communist Party. “We read textbooks for facts, theories, information. But we read novels, or go to the theater, for a different purpose. The artist, by the nature of his craft, is able to show us people in motion. This is why we revere good writers. They let us observe the individual richly — a complex creature of manifold dreams, desires, disappointments — in his relation to other individuals and to his society.”
2007’s “Juno” was not about abortion and does not take a stand about the morality or immorality of abortion. It is a comedy about a teenage girl’s pregnancy and the couple who want to adopt Juno’s baby. The one scene that deals with abortion lampoons pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike.
But not long ago — as recounted by the Daily Wire’s Paul Bois — “Juno” writer Diablo Cody told a social justice warrior podcast that, in light of this year’s wave of new pro-life laws, she regrets the unintended political message people took away from her decidedly unpolitical film. “I don’t even know if I would have written a movie like ‘Juno’ if I had known that the world was going to spiral into this hellish alternate reality that we now seem to be stuck in,” Cody said.
Bois writes that “Cody described herself as being ‘as pro-choice as a person can possibly be’ and admitted that she wrote ‘Juno’ without considering any of the political consequences because she did not even think it would get made.”
While it is impossible to know, the fact that Cody checked her politics at the door is probably the reason why she was able to write such a good story. And “Juno” was adored by nearly everyone, save for a few self-appointed culture commissars. Attempts to pander to those cultural commissars fail, miserably. Bois notes that “Hollywood tried to create a pro-abortion alternative to ‘Juno’ (2014’s ‘Obvious Child’) and it completely tanked, despite universal praise from agenda-driven movie critics.”
In his 1946 essay, Albert Maltz argued:
A writer may be confused, or even stupid and reactionary in his thinking — and yet, it is possible for him to do good, even great, work as an artist — work that even serves ends he despises. This point is critical for an understanding of art and artists! An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or a logical or a progressive thinker on all matters. This is so because he presents, not a systematized philosophy, but the imaginative reconstruction of a sector of human experience.
Faced with the unrelenting scorn of the Communist Party’s literary enforcer, Mike Gold, Maltz was forced to retract his column. But other writers were unafraid. Today, one of the only things people remember about Mike Gold was a message that was left for him at his office. The message was: “Tell Mike Gold that Ernest Hemingway says he should go f*** himself.”
For the sake of the future of art and literature, let us hope that writers take J. Michael Straczynski’s and Albert Maltz’s attitude toward writing — and Hemingway’s attitude toward those who would tell them what to do and say.