Literature and Politics: Is All Writing Political?

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This post is the start of a series of posts inspired by the Big Book Festival, which took place this past June in Warsaw. These aren’t a transcript or even summary of the meetings that took place, but more themes that stood out to me that I wanted to explore. I’d like this series to be more a discussion than me telling you how it is, so I encourage your comments and counterarguments.

We all know what political writing is, what it looks and sounds like, but isn’t all writing political? Writing can be a political act in itself when writing while living under an oppressive regime – the regime doesn’t even need to be oppressive to warrant the writing act to be political.

Which books are read, which books receive good reviews and which are panned by the critics is connected with the political situation of a country. The current sociopolitical climate either welcomes a book, because it reflects its views, or shuns it. Obviously, it usually isn’t so cut and dry and rarely clear which (fiction) books reflect the current climate.

Books can shape and influence. They help readers see the world from a different perspective, form new ideas, question their reality, and dream of a better or different future. Books can be weapons, mightier than any gun or bomb. The Nazis knew this and burned books that didn’t fit their ideology in the 1930s and during WWII.

(Side note: A video of the Nazi book burnings is one of the first times I learned about the Nazi regime. I was about 6 or 7 at the time. I don’t discount that this may have had some influence on me wanting to be writer. There’s something exciting about books being dangerous.)

The power of books is undebatable, considering all the book burnings and bans throughout history. Even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has not been safe. Do a Google search on book burnings and banned books; it’s a fascinating read.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, put simply, is a story of an affair, but it is political to its core. The affair is presented within the context of the sociopolitical climate at the time. The story would go much differently if it was set in the US in the 21st century. Beyond that, there is much discussion of politics in Anna Karenina; Tolstoy used Levin to express various political views.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is also political literature, as one of its main themes is class, which is explored on many levels throughout the novel. Brontë explores relations between different English classes, the sexes, as well as foreigners and the English.

In the sense that literature gives us a glimpse into the sociopolitical climate of the time it is written, it is always political in some sense. The writer could be reflecting or criticizing the political views held at that time. The themes the writer chooses also reflect the times.

Although it is an introspective meditation on the subconscious vs. reality, even Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is political. Like most, if not all, Murakami novels, it reflects current culture in several ways – mainly through pop culture references and literary tropes. Also like many Murakami novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World touches something deep inside contemporary humans.

But what about literature written for pure entertainment? Literature with a small l.

Let’s just simplify things, and say that some books are written just for entertainment value. Surely, this kind of literature cannot be political. Well, if we continue with the above argument that the writer’s culture and sociopolitical climate affects their work and influences what and how it is written, then yes. I’d also like to posit that being apolitical is political.

What do you think? Is all writing political? Is my definition of political stretched too thin?

 

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16 thoughts on “Literature and Politics: Is All Writing Political?

  1. I’m in no position to say if all writing is political or not, but I’ll tell you this. After writing my first few stories, which I thought of as just fun stories, I started to realize that the beliefs I was expressing in my writing were often different than the political beliefs I thought I held.

    After a few years of this, I ended up changing my party registration. Even though I never intended it, my writing was political and helped change at least one mind: my own.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It is an interesting question you pose, Ula. I know some of my writing would be considered political, for example when I discuss the system of education. However, whether intentional or not, I think most writing reflects the political environment in which I live. If I lived in a society were there was much more oppression and less freedom of speech, then I’m sure my writing would reflect that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Norah, writing reflects the society at the time it is written. When i wrote my first book set n 1976 I couldn’t include the sort of racism that was pretty endemic at the time because the readership would judge the people not by the standards of the day with the ignorance that pervaded but by today’s mores.

    Liked by 1 person

      • In a way, yes. The mother figure, very much based on my mother in this regard was by the standards of today a racist. Homophobic too. Back then in the little Englander corner of rural Hampshire it was the norm. But they were dealing solely with what they had been taught and heard and had a generous and understanding approach to everyone they met. I was strongly advised that it would be better to avoid losing sympathy so I toned it down.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting question, Ula. I agree that writing can be political even when it doesn’t tackle straight political topics, but I’m uneasy with the proposal that ALL writing is political. Some is so light and fluffy the words float straight out of your mind, but I suppose it could be considered political to give this type of writing to space. But then if the concept is widened too much does it lose all meaning?
    This is one I’m going to reflect on some more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your input, Anne. The questions you pose are exactly why I wanted to explore this topic further. I was amazed at how much politics came into play during discussions at the Big Book Festival at times I didn’t expect them. Even Zadie Smith admitted that her writing is political to some extent. That isn’t surprising as she does write about race and class. I’m curious to know what a genre writer would say – for example horror or romance.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think writing is an act of speaking up and in that way can certainly become political. I think what makes it critical is the greater dynamic of what literature is — an idea expressed in writing, read and discussed. I believe in the value of all three. If we read only “approved” writing we stop thinking for ourselves. Reading teaches us to think, at the very core to ask if we agree or disagree. Neither is important. It’s the act of thinking about our agreement (or not) that is vital to our thought process. We probe at “why” when a book gives us “what if…” Books are not dangerous. The lack of variety in books is!

    Liked by 2 people

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