No work of fiction is safe from an accusation of political meaning these days, even the most blithely apolitical of them. But then that’s been true for a while. George Orwell made the point in his 1946 essay Why I Write. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics,” he wrote, “is itself a political attitude.”
He was alerting his readers to what he saw as an act of evasion, the complacent belief that writers might find some place from which they could look down on political struggle from above, unsoiled by its commitments (“Check your privilege” might be the phrase he would use if he was writing now, had he not been a writer fiercely vigilant against cliché).
And that idea flourished. Something like it is at the heart of another durable cliché – “the personal is the political” – a product of the second wave feminism of the Sixties, which aimed at enlarging the field of political engagement from elective assemblies and parliamentary chambers into living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. And once you acknowledge that the personal is political then there’s no such thing as an apolitical novel, only novels that are too dumb (or too self-satisfied) to know what their politics are.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, as Chair of the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, a prize that necessarily raises the awkward question of what a political fiction actually is. My own first working definitions ran along these lines: a work of fiction that is about who has power and who doesn’t, a work that addresses the way individuals fit into a society of strangers and that is — even if couched as fantasy or historical reconstruction — in some way addressing the society that the reader inhabits. But this doesn’t get you very far, and barely excludes any books. There are writers eager to address current affairs head on but politics generally appears only as part of the landscape in which their characters live. It’s harder to think of contemporary equivalents of Anthony Trollope or CP Snow, writers for whom the processes of politics were a central theme.
For Orwell, one crucial marker of a political fiction was the writer’s intent. This was art that was proud to have designs upon the reader and a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society they should strive after”. This is commendably direct too, but, again, it doesn’t obviously seem to close the door on many fictions.
Take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example. Is that a political fiction? Manifestly not in the way that some prefer their political fictions, preceded by a large banner which announces the cause. But what about the relationship between Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as Austen depicts it? It is steadily and wittily subversive of ideas about station and deference which were fundamental to the society that Austen lived in.
Both are brilliant caricatures of individual human types (Austen is a caricaturist at times), but they do something else that any good political fiction also does; they create a template in the mind into which other real-world examples will readily slot. Mr Collins, particular and unique to Austen, has been followed by a trail of other “Mr Collinses”, subsequent place-seekers and bully-pleasers who, in matching what we’ve read, can more readily be seen for what they are. Did Austen want to “alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society they should strive after”? Not in the sense of rallying anyone to a barricade, certainly. But surely in the sense that she wanted her readers to depart more resistant to some claims of superiority. Orwell’s 1984, of course, is the great template maker – a photo-fit portrait of totalitarian control that has repeatedly provoked excited identifications ever since. Every time you recognise a CCTV camera as a politically fraught object, you owe that at least in part to Orwell.
What can be problematic for fiction is partiality and particularity, something that Orwell explicitly felt to be central to his own work. For him the starting point was always “a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice”. But he was wise – or lucky – enough to see that too much specificity was likely to lash the fiction to its target in a dangerous way. If the injustice disappears, the fiction may go down with it too, like Ahab fatally tangled in the lines wrapped around Moby Dick in Herman Melville’s eponymous novel. Benjamin Disraeli’s Sibyl, or The Two Nations, a book barely read these days, is a purely political fiction in Orwell’s understanding of the term, published in the same year as Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in 1844 and aimed – from a very different political tradition – at exactly the same injustices and exploitations. But it has left little behind it in the general culture except for its sub-title, and that only tends to get an outing when someone wants to make the case for a more empathetic kind of conservatism.
Orwell’s way of sidestepping the dangers of political obsolescence was to employ parable – as in Animal Farm – or dystopian fantasy – as in 1984. It worked marvellously well for him but hasn’t always been useful as a model. Too many current writers of dystopias fail to see what secures the success of the two great dystopian political fictions of the last 100 years – 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – which is that neither of them actually invented very much. Atwood famously restricted herself to oppressions that had actually been or were still being visited on women, while Orwell’s innovations, as Dorian Lynskey has recently pointed out, are largely confined to the technology of the totalitarian state, rather than its essential urge to absolute control.
In contrast, far too many modern dystopias reach into the future for something that is elaborately more atrocious than the injustices they aim at in the present. The conventional explanation is that this is prophetic extrapolation – a warning of what lies just down the road. But too often it feels as if an invented future is being forced to supply an indignation that cannot be guaranteed by current injustices, anger now being our most precious political commodity. They create the world they want to be furious at, because this one falls a little short.
The future can seduce in another important way too. In a chilling correspondence with the Russian writer Vasily Grossman, Maxim Gorky provided a neat example (it’s described by Robert Chandler in the preface to his new translation of Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, a companion work to his masterpiece Life and Fate). Grossman had written a novel about the Donbass coalfields, a novel whose realism about the working lives of these heroes of Soviet labour did not entirely tally with the official line. He sought the help of Gorky when he had difficulties getting the book published. “The truth can never be counter-revolutionary,” he insisted in his letter, only to receive a stern rebuke from his older colleague. “We know that there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates. But this truth is being replaced by another truth that has been born and continues to grow… The author truthfully depicts the obtuseness of coal miners, their brawls and drunkenness, all that predominates in his – the author’s field of vision. This is, of course, the truth – but it is a disgusting and tormenting truth. It is a truth we must struggle against and mercilessly extirpate.” Gorky’s notion of a political novel’s true duty is, unsurprisingly, entirely Stalinist. The engineer of the human soul must help to demolish unhelpful truths as well as construct new ones.
It should alert us to a continuing danger for any self-consciously political novel, which is the desire to represent the world as the writer wants it to be rather than as it is. It’s easy, reading Gorky’s letter now, to congratulate ourselves for our easy recognition of his offence against art. But we do it with the advantages of historical hindsight (not to mention the advantages of having read 1984). What’s harder is to recognise where our own inner Gorkys are at work, steering us away from political areas that might be problematic now.
In a culture where intersectionality demands ever finer delineations of partisanship, and where partisanships and injustices can find themselves competing for attention, even the most well-intentioned fictions are susceptible to the charge of recording the wrong kind of truth, or of omitting the right kind of victim. The balkanisation of human experience — dividing us into ever smaller statelets of grievance — makes it more difficult for the writer to propose that one kind of character might stand for others, of a different background or experience. And some political engagements remain stubbornly resistant to the calming distance that fiction can deliver. It would be interesting, for example, to see a writer tackle the intense – and inherently political – disagreements between transgender activists and gender-critical feminists, but it is hard to imagine any novel that could successfully broker a peace between those two opposed constituencies.
Grossman was wrong, in one sense. The truth is always counter-revolutionary in as much as it stands in opposition to the worst kind of political fiction – the stories that politicians tell to distract people from inconvenient realities. In contrast, literature’s greatest strength is something that lies at the core of its enterprise; it is its capacity to make us understand what it might be like not to be us, to peel away our inherited assumptions and unconsidered allegiances.
For the judging panel of the Orwell Prize, this was the definition of “political fiction” that eventually predominated in our choices; novels that, at a time of increasing polarisation and factionalism, let you hear voices that haven’t always been heard before. It is, in a way, just such a fiction that lies at the heart of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, his 1971 classic of political philosophy. In framing your principles of a fair social order, he suggested, you must first imagine that you could be anybody, rich or poor, talented or stupid, healthy or ill. For him this was an argumentative device.
For novelists and short story writers, helping readers make that leap is the foundation of everything. It wouldn’t really be that hard to define a political fiction in narrower ways, to insist that it aims at a particular reform or a specific excluded interest, or that it should be restricted to novels that deal with established political processes. Subsequent juries may well decide to do that. But I suspect they too may find themselves widening the boundaries, and recognising that the personal is the political in another sense too; that fiction has a unique capacity to give us the granular, individual truth of the lives which make up the larger abstractions of politics. Fictions which work back from the politics they approve of to telling stories which won’t disturb that politics are bound, in the long run, to fail.
Grossman answered Gorky in Stalingrad through a character called Novikov, a tank commander frustrated at the gap between high command’s grand strategy and the reality on the ground. The chapter in which his frustration is described ends with a sentence every writer of political fiction should bear in mind: “He knew that the sole true judge of formulas and theories was the flow of reality.”
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