Monday, 7 March 2011
Whatever Happened To The Political Novel?
In my second post on politics and culture this week, after yesterday's Academic History is Politics , I just want to consider why UK authors rarely produce political novels. After all in the US, virtually each presidency sees an anonymously penned best seller about goings on in the Whitehouse, such as"Primary Colours" and even now "O" already imagining the shape of a re-election campaign for Obama. Furthermore everyone can also play at guess the writer's identity to keep the interest bubbling.
Then there are those American Epic novels such as Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" or Don DeLillo's "Underworld" which are profoundly political works looking at generations of recent American history, or Roth's "The Plot Against America" which though smaller in timescale, is no less politically charged as it looks at an alternative history of an America under a pro-Nazi Lindbergh Presidency and remaining isolationist throughout the Second World War. There have been books aplenty about the Twin Towers, terrorism and the like, but very little over here in Britain, despite the fact that our suicide bombers were homegrown.
Britain used to have a fine history of the political novel, from Swift's satirical "Gulliver's Travels", through Dickens, Orwell and Koestler. But no more it seems. Maybe it's a by-product of us belittling and eviscerating our politicians through TV drama from "Spitting Image" through "Yes Minister" to the various Michael Dobbs' creations all of which DID start life as novels.
I will read any book I start all the way through to its end. No matter how much it stinks, there is always some redeeming element of it no matter how tiny. EXCEPT in two instances, though I still did crawl my way through to their sorry conclusions. And both were POLITICAL novels.
The first was "Demo" by Alison Miller which had a promising premise of starting on an anti-(Iraq) War demo, but turned out to be about the angst, loves, lives and gripes of a couple of Trustafarians. (For those unaware of the term, it refers to rich middle class kids who slum it, buttressed by the surety Daddy's trust fund when they tire of not having running water). The political backdrop was soon forsaken for a bout of navel-gazing little more sophisticated than a sixth-former's jottings in their creative writing notebook. There was still one - albeit happily tangential - redeeming feature of the book, in that the photo of a demo on the cover of the paperback edition I have, provided me with the title for my own political novel about demonstrating, the limits of opposition and homegrown suicide bombers.
The second book is by a Nobel Laureate no less. It made the Booker list for the year it came out. "The Good Terrorist" by Doris Lessing was a knockabout, overlong cartoon sketch about delusionary Far-Left radicals forming a terrorist cell. It was set in Brixton, a cliché which sets the tone for the novel's sledgehammer cracking of a walnut. All the characters were odious and you could almost visualise the author's sneer at her creations while she was writing them. I was so irritated by the book, that on reaching the conclusion I actually hurled it across the room towards the bin, a manoeuvre I have never done before or since. One of the inside leaves ripped in flight, the one and only time I have damaged a book.
So there we are, a metaphor for the lamentable state of the British political novel. I'll happily take recommendations of any you have come across in the last decade or so. I will accord David Peace's "GB84" a worthy mention as it dealt with the Miners' Strike, but even then it is really only Peace's remarkable writing style that carried me along, rather than the narrative content itself.
The question has to be asked, is the dearth originating because authors aren't writing these novels in the first place. Or is it that the publishers and arbiters of taste are knocking them back consistently. Or of course, that combination of the two, whereby authors look at the market and seeing the lack, deem that they'd be wasting their time penning a political novel and thus censoring themselves.