Politics and Literature

Recently, Orson Scott Card wrote an inflammatory essay that’s about as vile a screed as one can write. However, he is also the author of Ender’s Game (a good book) and a solid writer. Maud writes that she won’t be reading him. Jessa notes that a novel and a political essay are separate conduits. I’m inclined to agree with Jessa. If politics was a factor in my own fictional choices, then I’d have to discount Action Francaise member Andre Gide, Nazi Knut Hamsun, right-wing isolationist Robert A. Heinlein, and fascist Ezra Pound (or, for that matter, anti-feminist Dave Sim’s strong early Cerebus work), to name just a few. And that would, in my view at least, be a tragedy.

While I can understand it when someone is bothered by the poltical motivations of an author (name a single person who really wants to read another bloated Barbara Kingsolver essay), I’m troubled by the idea that an author’s political viewpoint spreads like a vicious cancer into his work. This morning, Mark posed a question about whether politics makes for great art. The only immediate examples that came to my head were Elizabeth Gaskell, Arthur Miller, and Margaret Atwood. But even in these offerings, the politics is relatively subdued, more subject to a reader’s individual impressions. It’s a far more subtle thing for Atwood to point out the politics of gender in Cat’s Eye by showing us how girls are reluctant to touch bugs in a university building, implying that 1940s society carried an unspoken stigma that an entomologist’s line was verboeten to women. The great thing about Willie Loman is how both the lower-class can identify with Loman’s struggles for success, while the successful businessman can relate to Loman’s sense of failure. It is human behavior which guides art. Sometimes, the behavior is politically charged, but more often or not, it is the reader’s own political sensibilities that make the connections.

As amusing as David Kipen’s Tanenhaus column is, there’s the deeper question of why Tanenhaus’s politics matter so much — at least, in relation to the fiction coverage. (And full confession: I still have concerns that “liberal” nonfiction books won’t be covered as abundantly as they were under Chip McGrath’s tenure.) In all the top ten lists listed at Barnhardt’s, is there a single political one on the list? Although a case can be made for Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, there’s the question of whether it’s a politically charged novel with echoes of Huey Long or a novel about seduction and selling out. Again, personal sensibilities determine the individual reader’s distinction.

So add me to the list of curious bystanders. Can anyone take up Mark’s challenge and name a Great Political Novel and explain why it succeeded?

[UPDATE: Maud and Rasputin respond.]


  1. I suspect that in about, oh, 20 or 50 years, Ross Thomas’ books will be seen as Great Political Novels. It’s just that he couched all the political maneouverings in the thriller construct and by employing characters on the fringes–campaign managers, publicity hungry types, greedy senators and their aides. But take a book like OUT ON THE RIM, set in the Phillipines in the dying days of Ferdinand Marcos’s rule, and I doubt there’s a better analysis of how corrupt things had become. Or MISSIONARY STEW and how it deals with running a campaign that’s getting pressure on all sides–of the blackmail and double-crossing kind.

    But I think what holds a lot of people from writing the so-called Great Political Novels is that a) they date quickly and b) non-fiction accounts are often far more compelling in that regard.

  2. In a similar vein, there’s Donald Westlake’s KAHAWA, a heist novel which is also a pretty seering indictment of Idi Amin’s Uganda.

    But I’m also a pretty big fan of Robert Tressell’s THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS, ever since the Significant Other gave me a copy as a gift. An English laborer with socialist leanings talks to his coworkers and annoys the hell out of his foreman, and the character studies are buttressed with strong details of setting.

  3. Mark asks for American contributions, but since you don’t have any such restrictions I offer at least some suggestions here. Juan Goytisolo’s “The Marx Family Saga” seems to me to still be the defining novel of the post-communist era transition in Europe and a seminal political novel (and just plain a good read too); Goytisolo is almost always deeply political — and pushes literary invention in all directions (in terms of form as well as content). Peter Weiss’ “The Aesthetics of Resistance” — still not yet available in English translation — is, as we’ve often insisted at the Complete Review — one of the most significant post-war German novels, and again a largely successful (and certainly intriguing) effort to combine politics and art (an effort that dominates the book).

  4. I’m not unduly troubled by an author’s political viewpoint until it DOES spread like a vicious cancer into their work. I was reading one of the new editions of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters in which there are more than a few statements readers of a liberal persuasion are likely to find hair-curling (e.g. he felt the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies went to unnecessary extremes but was not opposed to them per se). It’s disappointing to read that sort of idiocy coming from an author you admire, but I’ve read the old Selected Letters and am familiar with HPL’s less-than-liberal theories, and I am usually able to put this to the back of my mind when reading his stories. Unfortunately, there’s no denying that his art was not immune from infection by his political and racial ideas; and whatever the artistic/literary merits of a story like “The Horror At Red Hook” may be, the racial ratbaggery is impossible to overlook.

    That said, I’m with you, in that Lovecraft has been a writer of vast importance to me and for me to cast him aside because his politics are opposed to mine would be wrong. Yet I can appreciate Maud’s viewpoint too, in that, had I read the Lovecraft letters first, I might’ve given the rest of his work a miss. Card’s novels may be different propositions to his essay, but the essay doesn’t inspire me to read him further.

    As for politics and art, neither has ever mixed and the combination has never worked unless the art took precedence over the politics.

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