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?