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Art, Propaganda, and the Role of the Novelist

Bestselling author Dean Koontz talks fiction, human exceptionalism, and transhumanism with Wesley J. Smith in new podcast episode (Part I)

Dean Koontz is a renowned novelist, known for books such as Devoted, The Big Dark Sky, and Odd Thomas. His books have topped the charts as New York Times bestsellers, and at age 77, he doesn’t plan on quitting the craft of fiction any time soon. He is also a longtime proponent of intelligent design and human exceptionalism, both of which find their footing in his many writings. On September 12th, Koontz was featured on the Humanize Podcast, where he and Wesley J. Smith, Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism, discussed Koontz’s career as a writer as well as some of the central themes that pervade Koontz’s work.

Dean Koontz and Wesley J. Smith speak on the Humanize Podcast.

For Part I of this two-part discussion on the podcast episode, I want to focus on Koontz’s remarks on the role of the novelist in contemporary society, because I think it aptly critiques the way 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 such themes play into Koontz’s fiction.

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

“We need to be removed from the pressures of our lives, and the concerns and woe of it all. Fiction can do that in a great way. But if that’s all it does, then there’s something missing in it. The second part is to talk about the world we live in, and to reveal it in ways that just listening to the news [doesn’t]. I always go back to Dickens for this because there was no novelist more entertaining and yet no novelist who, let’s say, in A Tale of Two Cities, got the truth of revolutions so correct.”

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

“Yes, you don’t want the fiction to become propaganda. And the moment that fiction is selling a political view, they know it’s propaganda. And it’s no longer fiction. It’s no longer art, as far as I’m concerned.”

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

“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 to discipline our sympathies towards life as it is.”

Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. p. 111.

Like Koontz, Scruton also warns of reducing art into entertainment without imbuing it with thematic reflection. He writes,

“In confronting a true work of art it is not my own reactions that interest me, but the meaning and content of the work…When seeking entertainment, however, I am not interested in the cause but in the effect. Whatever has the right effect on me is right for me, and there is no question of judgement—aesthetic or otherwise.”

ibid. p. 85.

Getting lost in a well-written novel is different than getting lost in a YouTube rabbit hole, for example. In addition, there’s a world of difference between viewing pornography and contemplating Botticelli’s Venus. With entertainment, all that matters is how I feel. With art, what mainly matters is the meaning of the work, which ends up having its own kind of entertainment value. Ultimately, it’s the storyteller’s task to…well, tell a story, and try to both entertain and enlighten the reader.

I appreciated Koontz’s insights on the role of fiction and art in general, and hope readers will take the time to listen to the interview for a deeper dive into this topic. In Part II, I’ll focus on Smith and Koontz’s discussion on human exceptionalism, how it plays into writing meaningful fiction, and furthermore, how the belief in humanity’s uniqueness is essential to building a fair and just civilization.

Here’s the second part of my reflection on this podcast: Human exceptionalism is a central theme for novelist Dean Koontz. He talks about human exceptionalism, the problem with animal rights, transhumanism, and why he loves dogs.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Art, Propaganda, and the Role of the Novelist