Politics and today’s gutless novelists

Are English and American writers missing an opportunity to write political novels? And Jo Nesbø talking about the ethics of a fictional treatment of last year’s mass killing in Norway.

Last week was rough for novelists. First their ability to write philosophical novels was questioned, now they are being taken to task for their inability or unwillingness to write political novels. What will novelists be disqualified from next? Sex scenes? Self-indulgent autobiographical bildungsromans about becoming a writer?

To be fair, the philosophical novel argument was flawed to a large extent by the way the works of contemporary Anglo-American writers stood for the novel as a whole, whereas Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in The Guardian from a festival devoted to Rabindranath Tagore, specifically designates English and American novels as “gutless,” (though whether that means writers from other countries have taken up this particular gauntlet isn’t addressed).

It’s interesting that this article appeared the same week that a renowned and well-known Nobel Prize-winning novelist wrote an extremely political text – granted, a poem and not a novel – one so political that its controversial take on very serious issues is likely the only factor that would compel someone to read it all the way through.

Another odd thing is that for an article pointing the finger at novelists, Chakrabortty’s examples of “engaged” westerners from the good old days of the 1930s are Orwell, Auden, Spender and Pound – in other words, only one novelist whose best political writing was non-fiction, a poet who referred to this period of engagement as a “low, dishonest decade” and an American poet whose engagement would manifest itself as support for Mussolini and his Axis allies. Because when journalists talk about dealing with political and social issues in novels they are almost invariably talking about one side of the political spectrum.

“This is a time when, from the environment to the economy to the hollowing-out of so many public institutions, there are many big crises that need addressing – and not just by the desiccated imaginations of frontbench MPs or in 800-word columns,” Chakrabortty writes, lamenting the lack of reading options for those who want their novels to provide political and social commentary.

This demand for writers to be political always makes me think of Kafka, and how on the day the world war erupted he noted in his diary that he went swimming. Kafka is often described as an all-seeing prophet of what the 20th century held in store, yet of all the big crises that he could have addressed first-hand – the splintering of Austria-Hungary, the tenuous place of Jews between rival Czech and German nationalisms, of how or whether Europe could avoid another destructive war – he didn’t write about a single one. Granted, there were contemporaries of his who did devote novels to these political questions, perhaps most of whom were far better-known than Kafka at the time. Yet as their issues became historical so did the reasons for reading many of them.

Political genres

On Monday April 16, the trial of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of last year’s mass killings in Norway, begins. Norweigian crime fiction writer Jo Nesbø spoke in Prague last week and was asked about a writer using the 2011 massacre as material for fiction. Nesbø responded that it depends on the writer’s motives.

“It’s something that Norweigians will think about and should talk about. It’s a date and something in our history that no one in my generation will ever forget. About myself I can say that I won’t write about it directly, but I can tell when I’m writing now that it’s already become such an important part of our national psyche that it’s impossible not to touch on it in a way. It will creep into the writing.”

Although Nesbø’s work doesn’t have the overt politics of a writer such as Stieg Larsson or the previous generation of Scandinavian crime novelists, he feels that his work, and Scandinavian crime fiction generally, offers an opportunity for social critique that is a very important feature. “Sometimes writing fiction about it, it’s easier to say something that’s true writing fiction than about something than in documenting it,” Nesbø said.

Political positions

And for those who live in London and want more insight into political novels the Slovo Russian Literature festival has a discussion titled “Cultures of Dissent, Cultures of Control” with Alexander Kabakov and Rachel Polonsky talking about “the complex relationship between literature and politics” on Friday, 20 April, 7pm.

The festival starts Monday, April 16 and ends on Friday April 20. Other Russian writers appearing in the festival include Boris Akunin, Zakhar Prilepin, Irina Muravyova, and Alex Dubas. There will also be a UK premier screening of the adaptation of Boris Akunin’s The Spy Thriller, for which he wrote the screenplay.

The full festival program is here.

Coming up on literalab – An interview with Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, who is in Prague now for the Prague Writers’ Festival, in which, among other topics, he talks about the relationship of politics and the novel

Photo – From the Akunin-scripted Spy

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Categories: Literary Controversy, Literary Events


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