I have long been engaged in writing-fiction and non-fiction- and I have always been attentive to politics. I have written non-fiction work about politics, and I have written fiction that had an underlying political resonance. Politics and writing are inescapably intertwined.
First, let me explain what I mean by politics. Politics refers of course to the forms and processes of government: elections, parties, media, dictatorships, democracies etc. But to me the concept has a much wider remit. It concerns all relationships of power. This covers the institutions and policies of government, but it also refers to human relationships. There is, for example, a politics of the family. A politics of gender. A politics of race. And so on. Fiction, which nearly always centres on human relationships-often within families- is thus necessarily a political enterprise.
This does not necessarily mean didactic or polemical writing, which often does not work as storytelling, but rather an exploration of the emotional power relationships between people, in a social context. There are for example a number of novels that centre on characters’ struggles within and against social norms and constraints. (‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ come to mind.) In this way, fiction is always a political endeavour of some kind, even where the overt politics of the time is ignored. Jane Austen’s novels appear to ignore the wider macro political world (No mention of the French revolution for example even though it was contemporaneous with her work), but there is very much a politics of gender, class and the family.
Is it possible to write good fiction that directly engages with politics in the governmental sense? I think it is, but it’s much harder. The danger of course is that political polemic is imposed on characters who do not feel real but appear as cyphers for ideas. This is not necessarily so, but it is a problem. Many years ago I studied the works of British playwright Trevor Griffiths, whose overt intention was to write political drama. For example, The Party (involves lots of political debate); Bill Brand (about a left-wing MP); Country (the politics of post-war UK; Reds (Griffiths wrote the script for a film about American Left) and others. For me, the subtle hints of Country work better than the overt debates of The Party. But he did demonstrate the possibility of writing political drama that works.
The politics of writing refers not only to ‘content’ but also to form. There is an argument that suggests that classical ‘realism’ positions the reader in the all-knowing God-like position of the author /narrator and makes this view the one and only Truth. Furthermore, it implies that there is a single Truth to be known. The argument goes that this positioning of the readers is authoritarian and intrinsically conservative in its closing down of possibilities. It is suggested that anti-realist (modernist) forms that disrupt the known narrative structures and show both the construction of stories and multiple viewpoints are politically more progressive (think Godard, Joyce, Fowles). In my view, this can be the case for some readers who are themselves well educated in questions of form, but for many the disruption of known forms creates a barrier to access and understanding. Modernist writing can illuminate, but is often obscure. It is only possible to understand disruptive work if one is already familiar with the language. For me, social realism talks the language of wider audiences and thus still has a role to play.
The bottom line for me is that writing is necessarily ‘political’ (in the wider sense), the question for writers is: how self-conscious and deliberate is this politics?