It is often considered a dangerous folly to throw politics into ones writing. Anyone who indicates their wish to go down this path will often be confronted with the spectre of Atlas Shrugged, as a dire warning of the potential consequences of such intellectual meddling. Of course those who are revolted by Ayn Rand’s objectivism are also likely to have read Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty Four, a book which both challenges the mind and raises more questions about authoritarian regimes and the relationship they have with their citizens, than it answers. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), Nineteen-eighty Four is rightly ranked among the best novels of the twentieth century.
This series of articles will attempt to clear up some of the misconceptions about the false dichotomy between politics and fiction, and explain how the two are invariably connected. For as long as man is a political animal, then his art will reflect this simple fact. Even the most apolitical of stories will have some form of statement to make, even if it is as banal as “the world is virtually a utopia, and all I need to do to fill this gap in my life is to find a lover, and have a few healthy children.” Whether this statement is valid or not is open to question, yet its implicit championing of the family and the importance of love and procreation as a means to finding happiness makes it political, if uncontroversial.
Politics in Writing: Part One – The Setting
The setting of any story is important for a number of reasons, and is something which all authors should take special care to develop. It creates a cultural context for the story, providing the reader with an important point of reference. This encompasses everything from the values, customs and traditions of the society, and to the state itself and the world at large. This complements the character’s own values and goals, and how he or she expresses it. If the main character of a given story is a vegan who volunteers in an animal rescue centre, then it would prove enlightening to know how common vegetarianism and volunteerism are.
Firstly, the setting forms the basis for all the established institutions within the book. Institutions matter because they govern how individuals, groups and communities interact with one another, and provide another important frame of reference. Is the government a democracy or a monarchy, or something else? How do local communities organise themselves? Does organised religion exist? What form does the family unit take? Does mass education exist? Who’s standing up for needs of the working classes? Who’s standing up for the self-made men and women, who’re being taxed out of existence to pay for the great unwashed? Maybe the institutions able to deal with the challenges, of the day and need to be torn down in a French-revolution style bloodbath!
Of course no story has any overriding obligation to concern itself with answering all or even some of these questions, but the very existence of institutions within society ought to be at least recognised by its author. More on this will follow in point four.
This brings me to my second point: the importance of ideology as a point of reference. Ideologies partially derive their legitimacy from the perceived failures and successes of the institutions in managing the world. If it wasn’t for unequal wealth distribution and poverty in the early capitalist system, we wouldn’t have communism. If it wasn’t for the failure of the nobility to take advantage of the industrial revolution, we wouldn’t have capitalism. So we see that when an ideology appears deficient in solving the problems of the time, it will be either modified or replaced. These struggles happen on a daily basis: the liberal who supports gay marriage, for example, subscribes to a particular ideology, as does the conservative that opposes him. The social democrat, who proposes in universal healthcare as a means of improving equality and social mobility, is opposed by the liberal, who proudly champions the free market.
And now we come to my third point: the means by which ideas (and by extension, ideologies), once created, are expressed, shared and destroyed are perhaps a more basic consideration. The print revolution and the spread of literacy indirectly led to the Protestant reformation, and the wars of religion. More recently, the Internet is often cited one of the main driving force behind the Arab spring.
Technology isn’t the only factor at play here though. There are also cultural considerations – some cultures may place a great importance on rhetoric as a means of persuasion than others, newspapers might be boycotted for their invasion of the private lives of celebrities, the Internet might be a gigantic pornography network, and books might only be the preserve of the introverted, academic elite. Yet in the end of the day the principle is the same – ideas originate somewhere, and must be spread for them to have any impact.
Now, once these ideas are disseminated, we get to my fourth point – what response, if any, do they provoke? This relates to my point about institutions as well, since our judgement of new ideas is influenced by our experiences within the established order. Perhaps members of a family will debate Karl Marx’s latest writings over dinner, or perhaps these debates will take place in the local political party or trade union. It is also possible that existing institutions will be abandoned in favour of 1960s style mass protests, strikes and sit-ins. Another relevant consideration is how the establishment view these new ideas, and how it reacts to them? Will it respond with dialogue, repression, capitulation or a hostile stand-off?
What I have presented so far may seem complicated, and one may be inclined to dismiss it as the sole preserve of political fiction. Yet escapist fantasy literature is strewn with evil, brutal empires, which commit acts of torture, murder and genocide on a regular basis. We’ve seen spy thrillers in which the “good guy”, an employee of liberal democracy, heroically thwarts the evil designs of a repressive (and probably communist) autocracy. Stories in which young adults seek to gain independence from their parents are also invariably political, given their portrayal of the family in the face of an inter-generational struggle.
Though politics might not be the main over-arching theme of many novels, it would be wrong to assume that their settings are free from value-judgements, expressed or implied. To those of you who wish to avoid controversy, the important lesson here is to identify these value-judgements and to ensure that they do not offend your target audience. For those of us who are more adventurous, we can expand upon these normative judgements through use of narrative and character development.
More on this to follow in Part Two: Characterisation