How do you really know when a fiction, like a novel, is propaganda or not?
Philip Pullman, well-known British author, is writing a new trilogy set in the same fictional multiverse as His Dark Materials. The new trilogy begins with The Book of Dust, which comes out in October. (A TV-series based on Pullman’s His Dark Materials, his first trilogy, is in the works; it is being directed by the the same guy who put to paper J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.) Pullman, however, is also well-known for publicly hating The Chronicles of Narnia. He calls the books “propaganda” because of their Christian parallelisms. He thinks the books teach children that such things as magic apples, which can heal cancer, really exist; he thinks they teach children that little girls with stubby, fat legs are to be always ridiculed. Philip Pullman is either an atheist or an agnostic, he does not know which. But because his own books hatch out plots that work against things called “God” or “Magisterium,” he is also condemned for writing propaganda.
Neither Narnia, nor His Dark Materials, is propaganda.
All propaganda is insidious, undermining, deceitful. There is, I admit, a fine line between propaganda and what we call advertising. The important difference, as far as I can see it however, is that propaganda endeavors to warp the way you look at the big picture, whereas advertising just wants to get you to buy one toothpaste over another.
But there is also the difference between propaganda and the something more broadly called influence. We often confuse the two. The rule of thumb for telling the difference is this: propaganda is influenzal, not influential. It catches like a disease, i.e. while you’re not looking, and sickens your thinking capacities. There are no novels that can do this. A book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although sometimes called a “propaganda novel,” is not a propaganda novel,—no more than Lewis’s Narnia,—no more than any novel worth its salt. A novel’s narrator may endorse views, may be preachy, but preachiness does not make propaganda. And besides, fiction and poetry cannot be propaganda. And if they are preachy, they are never preachy without its hurting its art. Propaganda does not influence you to think illogic or bad thoughts; it sickens you and this makes you misfire when you are thinking. Propaganda exists in run-by slogans and in false news; it cannot exist in fiction. Again, novels like Oliver Twist or 1984 may inspire in readers certain emotions or ideas; this does not mean, however, that these novels propagandize. Propaganda, as I said, “warps” the way you look at the world; it prevents you from seeing things as they are. It does not make you think bad or illogical thoughts; it makes your thinking faculties go screwy.
If we were to use the word “propaganda” like Pullman uses it when he describes the Narnia books, the majority of books that exist would be propaganda; and not to mention, we would not then have a name for the Majority, but only for the Other Stuff. And probably it would be a derisive name too. We’d call it “Irrelevant” or “Thoughtless Art” or something shrewd. Propaganda means to manipulate; if propaganda means to influence, then that leaves only the uninspiring, un-relatable, irrelevant books as the “safe ones.” George Orwell writes somewhere that all writing is propaganda; but he is incorrect, and also being intentionally exaggerative and controversial. Most writing is not propaganda, and the difference is the difference between influence and influenza.
Last note: We Catholics and Christians and fellow-religionists have to stop reading and writing ridiculous books like The Pied Piper of Atheism or A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (both of them published and re-published by Ignatius Press). These are books written by well-intending Christians who ridiculously treat books like His Dark Materials as if they were propaganda. If you do not want your child to be “influenced” in a certain way,—and both the Bible and Aristotle can be said “to influence”—then either ban the particular book outright in your home, or read/read about the particular book and discuss it with your children. Or just ignore it, and maybe the kids will too. But stop treating works of fiction or even the novel form as if it propagandizes. Influence can be good, bad, or even a mix of both; but if it is “bad,” this does not make it propaganda. It can be many other things besides, and usually is. If “bad influence” meant the same thing as “propaganda,” we would then be back in Plato’s Republic and also (although he wouldn’t see it that way) back in his Cave, too, where Morality determines taste and also thought. And if you do not know why this is screwy, read a history of the Puritans. That’ll do it.