April 25, 2012

Are novels today gutless?


Fiction in which the author takes a clear political stance and argues for change seems to be disappearing from modern letters.  As Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian argues, the English or American “political” author is almost extinct.

Having attended a festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, Chakrabortty was struck by the absence of literary figures whose name and work are synonomous with confronting inequality and corruption.

“Even the most casual acquaintance with Tagore’s work cannot escape his politics. His novels attacked the oppression of women; his essays warned about environmental degradation; he argued with Gandhi about what an independent India should look like; and he delivered lectures in America on the evils of nationalism (“at $700 per scold”, as one newspaper sniped). Nor was the poet all talk: a believer in educational reform, he established a school, then a university in the Bengali countryside.”

Tagore certainly went to great lengths making his work mirror his beliefs. Today it seems that writers who can compare to Tagore in this way are few and far between. In attempt to uncover why, Chakrabortty argues that …

“Some of this is down to how economics and politics have been cordoned off from the rest of society: as stuff best left to the experts and the careerists. But 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.”

This may be true, but there are certainly other factors at work. As we have discussed here on MobyLives, self-censorship seems to be a growing trend. Especially when policitical and corporate figures have so much money and influence to throw around.

If you want to understand the difficulty of reportage on political figures, read Texas Monthly‘s indepth article on Dan Rather‘s explosive broadcast on the Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. According to the Monthly, “It was supposed to be the legendary newsman’s finest hour. Instead, it blew up in his face, tarnishing his career forever and casting a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion over his reporting—and that of every other journalist on the case.”

But if we are talking about English and American fiction, I fear Chakrabortty is right. I can’t think of many recent novels that clearly illuminate an author’s political opinion, and display a willingness on her part to engage in public political life.

Although one might argue that some Western contemporary fiction has dealt with the effects of the internet and imagined dystopian futures, I’d suggest this cannot be seen as taking a political position on life as it is now and crusading for change. Although I am happy to be corrected.


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.