Dead Souls?

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Is the political novel dead? Probably not, but Ray Conlogue of the Globe and Mail suggests that it may be in a deep coma. He speculates that "courageous novels about the big issues of war and injustice" is a once-inspiring literary idea that "is now out of fashion."

Most of Conlogue's piece is built around a recent panel of international novelists who sounded bored by the notion that writers have a duty to their readers. "'That sounds so old-fashioned,' said Bosnian novelist Aleksandr Hemon. 'I can't imagine having a political agenda and then writing a book.'"

Writer Maggie Helwig ? a human rights activist—thinks "it would be death to my fiction to write a novel about one of my causes." Still, she says, "I don't agree that literature doesn't have any effect on history. It does make things happen. Unfortunately, the things that it makes happen are evil."

There are certainly examples of literary works with bad consequences. (Lenin's revolutionary and authoritarian zeal, for example, was fed by his fascination with Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel, What Is to Be Done?) The better argument, however, is that in open systems, literature ? especially "popular" literature ? plays a socially corrective role.

Thanks to: ArtsJournal

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  1. If you want to make up stories with a political slant, do what everyone else does–become a journalist.

  2. The funniest political novel I’ve read, btw, was Christopher Buckley’s The White House Mess. Absolutely hilarious.

    I haven’t read that one yet, but Buckley’s “Thank You for Smoking” was a great one.

    Anyway, satire aside, my take on “political novels” is: if you have a political theory, write a nonfiction book about it and I’ll read it. The only reason to use fiction to push an ideology is if you want to rig the game in your favor.

    Political novels were (and are) necessary in environments where you have to disguise the fact that you’re pushing an ideology that’s disapproved by the state. The United States isn’t such a place (although I’m sure someone will make the tiresome claim that it is). You can overtly plug non-fiction books of radical ideology here and get filthy rich in the process. So why bother using fiction?

  3. Good one, Ernie.

  4. What about The Great American Parade? That’s a pretty political novel. Granted, its… well… not exactly good, but the author Robert Burrows is a really nice chap (he even returned my phonecall and sent me a signed first edition) and its worth it simply to own the book the Washington Post called “The worst novel in the English language.”

  5. i don’t think it’s necessarily possible to separate politics from the writer. sort of bleeds through, as it were.

  6. How about all the various science fiction novels with blatently libertarian themes; latter-day Robert Heinlein, Pohl Anderson, F. Paul Wilson, and what anarchocapitalist can forget the works of L. Neil Smith?

    Or doesn’t sci-fi count as literature?

  7. I’d say dhex is mostly right. Though, recently over in The Corner (NRO) they had a discussion about “conservative” novels. As with most everything they discuss, it was mostly baloney. Everything is conservative if you want it to be. Some of their examples turned out to be by very left wing authors.
    Anyway, an interesting topic. I certainly can’t think of a modern day Ayn Rand.

  8. Ayn Rand might be an influential thinker, but as a novelist she is terrible. Cardboard characters stuck in inhuman plots with absurd dialogue.

    If you got something to say, go ahead, give it your best shot. But the message has nothing to do with the quality of your book; in fact, if you worry too much about getting a message across, the art is likely to suffer.

  9. And let the Ayn Rand pissing contest begin…

  10. you get writers who end up advocating political themes through their work that aren’t just boiled down to “x is bad, y is good” – or are complicated mish-moshes which don’t fit into typical political discourse. burrough’s homosexual, gun-toting (or fetishizing) utopian novels near the end of his life highlight dozens of political points of view, some libertarian, some extremely anarchistic, and some downright paranoid/batshit crazy. i’d never call them political novels, even though they’re filled with politics and satire of politics.

    and it’s very interesting (if maddening) to read queer theory writers try to co-op burroughs’ work (because he was gay) and try to ignore all of the themes in his book which don’t fit their politics – the guns, the denunciation of state power to modify behavior, a loathing of most homsexuals and drug users, etc.

  11. It’s ALL political.

  12. I like the bit about “duty to readers”- among authors, you’re not considered a real writer until a family member never talks to you again because of something you wrote about them.

    As for the “Political novel”- um, who exactly misses them? Is anyone really upset that “Primary Colors” hasn’t been updated for Bush? Or is he requesting fiction-ization like “All the Presidents Men”? For that matter, why the focus on fiction? Jarhead and Black Hawk Down are great books- because they portrayed the truth to the detriment of having a “message”.

    Finally, the most trenchant analysis of Ayn Rand, ever, is by Officer Barbrady in the South Park episode “Chicken Lover”.

  13. This is one of the reasons I don’t spend much time reading contemporary novels. Luckily, the Russians certainly were prolific.

  14. You said it, Bull! Reading “the Idiot” right now…

  15. I’m a voracious reader but don’t care much for political novels. The few I’ve read have tended to be just bad, because the author sacrificed story, plot, character development, etc. for preaching the message. Skilled authors who don’t sacrifice essential story elements can write good political novels, like 1984.

    The funniest political novel I’ve read, btw, was Christopher Buckley’s The White House Mess. Absolutely hilarious.

  16. Richard North Patterson’s work has evolved past the legal thriller genre and he has would up producing unashamedly political novels, albeit of a decidedly liberal bent. His protagonist over a series of novels has been Kerry Kilcannon, whose career arc takes this JFK-esque character from senator to president. Patterson’s earliest novels (the legal thrillers) are not as good as his later ones, although he does have an uncomfortable tendency to get preachy. Anyway, his stuff is pretty widely read.

  17. My English lit teacher would argue that all writing is inherently political, but he just likes sounding pretentious. American politics are (usually) an open book, so that kind of steals the thunder of a writer who wants to explore our political system. We see and hear about politics enough, so most of us don’t want to see it in our fiction, at least not blatantly. Most political fiction is bad anyway. A wonderful exception: Sometimes a Great Notion, by that crazy acid-popping Ken Kesey, is subtle in its ideology, bashing hypocritical unions and making a hero out of a rugged logger.

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