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.


Virginia Moffatt said...

I suppose it depends what you mean about political writing?

I think the finest political writer today is David Mitchell. Have you read Cloud Atlas? Excellent book, brilliant structure (6 stories within stories) & a wonderful critique of the struggle between oppressed and oppressor, what it means to be savage or civilised...And his futuristic world where clones are servants is a chilling picture of where multinational corporations might go.

Will Self also does some interesting things with ideology and religion in the Book of Dave.

Ian McEwan asks some interesting questions in Saturday about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, but I think the novel fails because he loses character & story to argument.

And I think that's the problem with political writing, it too often gets lost in the polemic. Which is why people who play with narrative as Mitchell does & Salman Rushdie in Shame (having his authorial voice critique the politics of the story) is probably a good solution...

Don't know many women writers tackling big political subjects - but I'm trying...(watch this space and wait another couple of year probably!)

Sulci Collective said...

I think Mitchell is political small 'p' in that it's decontexualised. "Gulliver's Travels" was distanced from actual names and personalities, but they were still recognisable to their readership. I don't think Mitchell is operating at the same level of transposition.

I agree with you about polemicists, this particularly affected the British playwrights of the 70s & 80's like Brenton, Edgar, Hare and Griffiths and they couldn't respond to the challenge of Thatcherism and the political play struggled for oxygen after that. Compare the brilliance of Dario Fo's political farces based directly on Italian politics.

McEwan seems to flirt with politics, but I don't buy it. "Solar" is not about renewable energy, but the bloated ego of the professor and his craven stealing of a dead man's designs. Peculiarly old fashioned in many ways.

Self is political, but I think too canny to paint himself into a reputation for political fiction that he may not be able to back himself out of. "The Book Of Dave" sends up a belief system, rather than a political ideology I feel.

And I can't wait for your novel Virginia. Please be sure to alert me to when its published & I'll be at the head of the queue.

Thanks for your views.



Simon said...

Good subject.

The recent American books you mention, such as "Primary Colours", are about politics as spectacle, which is what it has become. In the UK the total apathy created by a Centrist Vs Centrist two-party system has turned everyone off politics.
I read McEwan's "Saturday" but the book seemed to be about ignoring the political rather than confronting it.

Political fiction, like politics itself, is almost dead in the UK.

Sulci Collective said...

Yes I would agree with almost all of your analysis. But then that ought to be a subject explored by novelists in itself.

There is one recent political book, Simon G Kearns' "Virtual Assassin". It's an interesting read, but maybe like most political fiction, is pegged by its time- it concerns the Blair era and though many of its themes of political action hold true beyond the time, the book is very contextualised with Blair.

henneke sharif said...

Interesting blogpost. Have posted a link to it at my blog page on politics and culture Jump Seat: Politics for Normal People at

I agree that we're not great at putting politics in our fiction. Jonathan Coe might be a good exception.

My view is that most UK writers don't have the first clue about how politics really works. So when they write about it, it's excruciatingly naff - McEwan is a case in point.

All is not lost. Other art forms are cracking ahead, in particular drama and poetry. Ignore the dreadful David Hare, but check out the extraordinary Blackwatch at the theatre, or David Harsent's poetry collection, Legion. Crikey they're good!

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks for visiting. I rather gave up on Brit theatre for its mixture of polemics (stop the drama I want to spout off) and then its complete inability to rise to the challenges posed by Thatcherism. It seems a completely hidebound art form now. Though there are some great visual & physical practitioners, they don't on the whole have coherent political content.

I think there are some writers out there who do possess the political savvy (I'd like to think I counted as one). But I think they are too easily discouraged by publisher's indifference and also practice a market-led self-censorship where they don't take the plunge and write the political novel assuming it will never see the light of day.

Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

The eighties did produce superb political dramas, I'm thinking of A Very British Coup (which was of course a fine novel by Chris Mullins), Edge of Darkness or the one based on the Gaul.
Now though? I think in some wats it's a reflection of British society's wider disengagement from politics. That politics is actually about marginal differences in management detail, rather than any form of actual belief, change or ideology. Perhaps this extremist coalition will reawaken people (and novelists). I'm not hopeful though, as I perceive a cynicism... "they're all the same, doesn't affect me...." I suspect the best (most) we can hope for is satire in the vein of The Thick of It.
However, Henry Porter wrote a superb political thriller in 2009 or 2010. "the Dying Light" is well worth reading.