Question – which of the following is true?
- Stories which deal with political ideas need not be stories about politics.
- Stories which show the struggles, jealousies and rivalries, or alliances and betrayals of politicians, may not be about political ideas.
- Most fiction is about power and its balance, so all fiction is about the political.
All three, as far as I’m concerned. It depends, of course, on how you define politics and the political. The dictionary definition is ‘the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation; and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs. ‘
While that encompasses an awful lot, it is actually quite a narrow definition.
Yet, as Orwell said in Politics and the English Language his essay of 1946, ‘There is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’ Since 2019 the UK has had a prize, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.
I will be addressing these questions and lots of similar, related ones in Politics & Prose, a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Libraries on Monday 25th January at 18.30 GMT. It’s a FREE event, but you have to register with Eventbrite if you want to attend ( you can do so HERE ).
My novel Plague (Claret Press, 2020) has been described as a ‘Westminster novel’, and, I am proud to say, a page-turning read, but is it political fiction? It’s commercial, not literary fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent it dealing with ideas. It deals with crime, with torture and murder, but also, something of very topical moment, crony capitalism. As my hero says to the villain, ‘you’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies.’ (P246) There are real legal cases underway claiming that the current government is using the COVID emergency to indulge in exactly that.
As the pandemic began early last year I believed that Plague had lots of resonance with reality and, of course, its title attracted attention. Yet, as time has gone on, it has been the politics, not the pandemic, which resonates more. The crony capitalism, the link between political policy and making money on the financial markets and manipulating the media to influence the public that seems more apposite. Plague‘s successor, Oracle, is much more of a ‘classic murder mystery’, though I hope it has the same page-turning quality. Yet it too has the political at its heart and, already, some of its themes are hitting the real-life headlines, like questions about the politicisation of the police, something which surfaced again after the assault on the U.S. Capitol. I suspect that this issue is something crime writers will be incorporating in their stories for the next few years.
I’d also like to answer the following question; in an age in which the novel is arguably no longer the dominant force in story telling and when social media allows us all to be citizen journalists and political commentators, what place does political fiction have? An important and relevant one, in my view. And I’m not alone – see this piece of graffiti, found in London, NW7 earlier this week ( thank you John Johnston for the photo ). Is the political image of our age the age of the boot on the face, or the pill and the palliative? Orwell or Huxley?
I hope some readers of this piece might come along and contribute on Monday. Here’s a book list of books which will be mentioned.