Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Melvin Burgess

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Melvin Burgess Keynote text: “Politics and the Novel”

Should novels involve politics?

You have no choice. How do you escape politics? It is all around us. It defines our relationships with government, with our employers, it shapes the exchanges we have with our friends and our families. Politics helps define what we think and even how we feel. In these days of massive industrialisation, it is present in the water we drink and in the air we breath.

We are social animals and since politics is the study of the power dynamics in how we organise society, it’s there right at the base of all culture, including literature of all kinds, whether it’s novels, plays, poetry or advertisements. Even your shopping list has a political nature. Of all the arts literature is the one most concerned with human behaviour, human relationships, human character. You may as well argue that you can have novels without characters in them. It just doesn’t add up.

That, however, does not make all writing political. To be political, which not all of us are, is a very different thing from being of politics, which we all are. I’d like to clearly differentiate between these two aspects of politics and novels. Let’s look at the former first of all – the political novel.

To be truly political, you have to take a stance, a position. This can be done in various ways. I’d like to quickly take a look at just some of them.

Firstly, there is the interpretation of events historically. History, as the saying goes, is always written by the winner. To that extent, fiction is not always to be found in novels; it can be found in the history books as well. But let’s stick to more obvious fiction for now. One example of a British writer who did this, is Shakespeare. Shakespeare was many things, but one thing he was not was radical. His most political role, was to praise the Tudor royal family of the day. He wrote, for example, Richard the Third, a play specifically justifying the very dodgy assassination of the Plantagenet ruler by the usurper Henry Tudor. He was, in short, a very effective propagandist for the government of the day.

That is the first role – the writer as propagandist.

A second, but related role for writers politically, is to actually play a role in the formation of the idea behind nationhood itself. Shakespeare also fullfills this role for England. Goethe and Schiller do the same in Germany, Rabbie Burns in Scotland, Pushkin in your own country. All these writers helped to create a romantic myth, the fictitious character, of the nations they were a part of.

That’s the second political role – nation building.

A third aspect, and a very important one today, is that of giving voice, in particular to the dispossessed. In the past as well as in the present, political elites have seen the value in suppressing the culture of people they see rule over, especially conquered peoples or minorities. Writers who have done this are your own Gorky – one of my personal favorites – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and a great many modern novelists.

A fourth aspect of politics in novel writing is satire – puncturing the myths of social groups, particularly elites. I could mention the Irish writer Jonathan Swift in this context.

Fifthly, an area of political activity that has inspired a huge amount of writing in the past fifty years is that of interpersonal politics. This is something that came out sexual politics, specifically, feminism;  the study of power in relations between men and women. Margaret Atwood, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir are examples of this. The rise of feminism has not just given us a new understanding of the role of the sexes historically and socially, it’s also given rise to a new way of analysing other groups. My own genre, writing for Young Adults – still a very recent phenomenon – is an example. YA wring is very much a grandchild of the feminist movement. It was feminism, for example, that pointed out how few books there were with strong, positive role models for and about woman. We can today say exactly the same for teenagers, who have such poor provision in terms of all media right around the world. There can only be one reason. Culturally, society doesn’t want teenagers to have a voice. In this sense teenagers are perhaps a hundred years behind younger children, for whom literature began to be produced at least that long ago.

Finally, I’d like to mention those writers who have tried to tackle political issues in their rawest state – to write about the methods the state itself uses to hang on to power. This is not nearly such a common approach and the reason for it is, that novels do not easily lend themselves to it. Novels deal most easily in the personal – in character and in relationship – in what is thought, felt and experienced by individuals. This makes it very hard for them to deal directly with the bigger social issues. But it can be done. George Orwell is one example, using allegory and also science fiction.

Those are all examples of political literature. But being overtly political is not for all writers. As I said at the start, politics is all around us, but there is a big difference between being political, and being of politics. So in what way does politics show itself in novels that are not specifically political in nature?

In the first place, of course, the politics of the day affect the characters  and institutions we write about. That is true of all contemporary and historical novels. Tolstoy, is all about social order. Dickens is all about class. If these writers were not politically aware, their novels would have been so much poorer – and the same is true of all of us. We cannot afford to be lazy about our knowledge of politics and how it affects people’s day to day lives.

That’s obvious. But what about other genres – science fiction, fantasy, books for children? How does politics show its face in this kind of work?

Let me give an example from fantasy – which of all genres you would imagine is the least political. Take Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings. I’ve heard various political commentaries on Lord of the Rings, but to take just one; the idea that Tolkien presents the concept of danger as always coming from without – that the ordinary, decent people in your community are not to be feared and always to be trusted. This is a political understanding even though it is actually about comfort reading – something you would think is as far removed as could be from politics. Tolkien is conflating safety with home – very successfully. I put it to you that if you want to write comfort fiction – and I have no argument with that – surely this is the sort understanding you need to be aware of in your work, if you are to be fully in control of what you are writing.

Tolkien has spawned a host of imitators doing the same thing. Some of those imitators may be aware of how they are using his concept of home and safety – some of them will not. Which are the better writers? Which are more in control of their material? I put it to you that it is our job as writers to be aware as much as possible of the mechanics of our work, and in the ways those mechanics affect the reader. That is what being a writer is. That’s our craft and our trade

If we ignore politics we are allowing a vital element of our writing, to pass out of our awareness and beyond our control. It’s our job to bring all the elements of a story to life and we can only do this by being aware ourselves. Character, relationship, situation … politics. It is a part of what we do.

To finish then; because society is political, readers and writers are also political, as least in as much as we are formed by politics.  To write and to be unaware of the political significance and meaning coming across in our books, is to be only half a writer. It is one of our tools. And anyone who tries to use a tool without understanding how it works is going to get their fingers cut sooner rather than later.

Copyright: Melvin Burgess, 2012