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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Is the Political Novel Dead?

Friday, April 13, 2012

In a controversial article that has been doing the rounds, Aditya Chakrabortty argues that by comparison with the India writer Rabindranath Tagore (whose 150th anniversary is this year) literary writers today have no time for politics. Where, Chakrabortty asks, are the Orwells, or Spenders, or Pounds of today? Perhaps only Arundhati Roy or Dave Eggers fall into the category of author-turned-activists that any rich literary culture should possess. English and American novels are, on the whole, "gutless."

The blame for this, he suggests, lies with the commercialisation of publishing and writing:
Literature too has been professionalised, so that authors now go from their creative-writing MAs to their novels to their relentless promotional work. Contemporary literary writers, it sometimes seems to me, are so tightly wedged behind their Apples that they have no time for politics. Unless you count signing the odd letter to the broadsheets as a political activity.
Perhaps it is an indication that Chakrabortty is primarily an economics journalist rather than a literary scholar, but I find his view naive.

Let us start with an obvious counter-example to his complaint above. The most prominent and respected product of the creative-writing academy that he so laments is the novelist Ian McEwan, one of the earliest graduates of the famed East Anglia MA. Virtually every one of his recent works has been a direct response to a political current.

Solar (2010), for example, was an exploration of the environmental crisis. It may have looked, on the face of it, like an excuse for comic treatment, with its corpulent sexual buffoon, climate scientist Michael Beard, as its protagonist. But in fact the comedy is used as a vehicle to highlight the hypocrisy and double-standards that reside within the liberal community of scientists and literary intellectuals who are, allegedly, supposed to be most concerned about climate change. Remember, the inspiration for this work came from his experiences of the chaotic boot room on the Cape Farewell project in the Arctic, and thus the book was an immediate outcome of McEwan's public "political activity."

Or take Saturday (2005), a study of the uneasy climate in the post-September 11th era. Again, through setting the novel on the day of a protest against the Iraq war, McEwan engages directly with a contemporary moment. Through this, he exposes the hypocrisy of the anti-war movement, and the failure of the liberal intelligensia to escape from the ethical quandary in which preventing the war might also effectively licence the ongoing dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Given that this observation might be expected to antagonise McEwan's natural audience, the liberal Guardian reader, it was a strikingly non-dogmatic pose to strike. And, on this note, as with Solar the novel can trace its roots back to an article McEwan wrote just two days after the September 11th attacks for that very newspaper, in which he gave voice to the pained sympathy with which many of us viewed those images.

Or go further back, to The Child In Time (1987), which offers a caustic critique of the blind inequalities of Thatcherism, and a laissez-faire world in which everyone from children to tramps is under the assault of free-market ideology.

McEwan is of course only one example, though handily because of his background as a "professionalised" writer he offers an easy counterpoint to Chakrabortty's stereotype.

But I would take things deeper still in a critique of Chakrabortty, beyond any one novelist to the medium itself. The novel, I would suggest, essentially is politics, right in its very bones. It is easy to forget that the novel is a comparatively new genre of writing, originating in the eighteenth century, alongside the scientific and economic enlightenment. Ordinary experience - which in the parallel scientific enlightenment would be labelled as empiricism - has equivalent interest in the sphere of art. The novel lets us see and feel the world from the point of view of other minds and bodies, something no other genre can achieve so directly.

Inherent to its generic abilities, the realist novel asserts that the quotidian and ordinary is as worthy of a sustained narrative account as the religious or epic. Of course, the cast of novels over the past three hundred years still includes its fair share of princes and heroes. But the novel also turns for its material to everyone else, from the ordinary woman without good fortune who is in want of a husband to the merest Pip of an orphan boy. From the simple seamen of Conrad, to the sons and lovers of Lawrence, from those who live across a wide sargasso sea, to those symbolic madwomen in our attics - the novel as a genre explores and evaluates the experiences of those who are aligned differently to the normal only by the merest fraction of a degree.

Sure, the characters of novels may not be political activists, world-changers; they do not always directly damn the establishment, make a clarion call for environmental responsibility, critique consumerism or hold a colourful banner up for a fairer life. But the idea that the life of the ordinary person is worthy of examination is perhaps the starkest and most profound political claim of all, the very definition of democracy. The idea that these mundane lives, too, are worthy of our empathy strongly contends that by extension the experiences of those who are dispossessed and marginalised must matter even more.

The novel may make these points only implicitly - but it is precisely the obliqueness of its argument that gives the novel form its power. The head-on collision of novels with politics often ends up as a noisy shouting match, held in the street for all to hear. The best novels slip their ethics in quietly, through the back door of what they do naturally. So quietly, indeed, that Chakrabortty has failed to notice.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:21 pm

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