In part two of my interview with Kalinda Ashton on issues to do with politics and writing, we discuss the changing role of the novel, the current political climate and writing with purpose.
Of course, you can catch up with part one that was published Monday.
For me, working out how to approach writing from a political point of view has been confusing and bound up with opposing pressures. How do you think the current political climate and how ordinary people view politics as a whole affects the general attitude to how people think political fiction should be approached?
This is a very tough question and I’m afraid my response will seem pessimistic. As a writer, perhaps because of my background, perhaps because of activism and occasional moments of pure outrage, politics seems to have always been part of the fabric of how I write – I often seem, for one reason or another, to write about people on the margins. (I am envious of those authors who manage to address the centre of things since this is, after all, where most people live and where change must be made, where struggle often happens.) Yet we are in a dire political climate and the book is becoming increasingly irrelevant as newer leisure forms such as digital technologies, video games, blogs, tweets and cinema take over. (I am not disapproving of this, by the way, merely noting it). Within that framework the novel in particular is suffering, being read less and less, while forms of literary non-fiction, often explicitly political are faring better.
A strange, strange time to be a political writer.
And yet examining the implosion of the US economy, the madness of the Tea Party politicians, the almost unbelievable impossible cuts posited in the UK, it is also a time where politics cannot be elided, where the gaps between rich and poor can no longer be brushed past, a time where the ostensible offerings of liberal capitalism (wealth, prosperity, some hobbled notion of the welfare state, freedom of expression, free markets) are rapidly being exposed as untenable dreams, being unable to deliver many of their supposedly most safe and least controversial claims, particularly when it comes to the economy. Then we see in Wikileaks the tortures happening in Iraq or in Cambodia – where I am – the disaster the UN and debt have left after the Khmer Rouge where a child can be bought and sold for sex and the divide between rich and poor is stark. It is a time we should be writing about. Some of the events are so dramatic and so unpredictable they seem the stuff of wide-ranging, ambitious, almost-unlikely novel plots. I think the next few years will be very important to global politics. There may be a new generation of struggle or there may be a new Right that gains followers. We could see people flocking to be involved in resistance because of these events or utterly fearful and cowed. Defeats now will leave their legacy for decades into the future – think of Labor’s current position on the refugees, or Britain’s insane attempt to slash housing support, benefits, university funding (the list goes on) in horrific proportions. Not to mention the struggles in Latin America and the third-world.
In the end, it’s always activism, always people on the streets that changes a culture not novels even popular and challenging ones. We’re very far from a lively political literary culture which engages with politics in new and meaningful ways that is supported by organisations and networks.
I am surprised at how few novels there are in English that have explored the world of the stock market, the short-sellers, the wheelers and dealers. There is a handful and it seems perfect territory for Left-wing authors (with its laughable reversals and intricate structures, its naturally dramatic structure and its unveiled greed) but we’re yet to see a more recent exploration of that. (Well, I’m in Cambodia. I’m not entirely up-to-date and don’t have my notes with me. Perhaps I’ve missed a critical work along the way.)
I think it is useful, too, to distinguish between “working-class novels” and “political novels from the Left.” As Raymond Williams points out, the trouble can be that in order to write about some of the oppression and repression and struggle to get by in working class homes and lives, one can end up writing a relentlessly bleak book that removes the potential for struggle and hope. It is a paradox – the more plausible the exploitation, the marginalisation, the more unlikely engagement with struggle that can have a victory appears, especially in these days when working-class activity is (generally) lower and union membership is (generally) declining. We don’t want to pathologise the working class but nor to return to some implausible Pollyanna triumph over the man through organised mass action cliché that rings false. I think that’s why many dystopias or, for instance, the fantasy writing of China Miéville, is such a successful form for political critique, because it works through allegory and analogy and defamiliarisation rather than ‘truth to life’.
It is not as if political fiction is being denounced by enemies far and wide. It’s too small an area, too tiny a form, so far from being any sort of movement that it might almost be said not to really exist. There are pressures and challenges but predominantly political fiction is often viewed by readers or publications with benign disinterest, reading against the grain or mild distaste. I was lucky that so many reviewers did actually take up, with quite an acuity and thoughtfulness, the sorts of political problems and conflicts I was trying to expose in The Danger Game. In fact, the reviews willingness to read the novel as a form of critique surprised and heartened me.
There is not polarisation regarding political fiction and that has its gains and its losses. The greatest risk to political fiction is that it becomes irrelevant. I often wonder why I didn’t write screenplays or in some other form that has more of a relationship with mass culture. Novels are increasingly ghettoised subcultural things despite some promising recent exceptions.
Often the pressures and confusion in so-called “political fiction” come from the self and sometimes from political activism and its demands. Writers raise the degree of difficulty when they wish to intervene in the world. The role of fiction – its forms, its audiences, its mode of dissemination in the cultural “industry”, and place in the realm of reception – is a complicated sometimes confusing question to explore.
I think getting an education in the political fiction writing that has gone before, as well as in our political climate now, is a form of protection for new writers who may be full of fury and energy but who need to ask how their political outrage might translate into a book. Certain forms of critique have come and gone. Certain ways of approaching the novel have really had their day. It is important not to be naïve about what’s possible, artistically or politically. This can be a sobering contemplation.
Novels have to do something that newspaper articles, or campaign leaflets or placards cannot. But if you are involved in revolutionary politics one pressure will always be, well, why write this novel nobody may read instead of making leaflets for the next demonstration or painting banners? Political involvement helps you view the world in complex ways and see all sorts of alternative possibilities – utopian and practical – for the world we have now. This can be a gain for fiction, assisting its richness, its contrariness, its sense of “enough”! But it can also make writing feel impossible or lead to a concern about whether the writing is “Left-wing enough”. This is not a spurious concern but as a writer you still have to be led by the demands of the work, by an artistic sensibility – is this sentence working? Am I being authentic to the work I’ve put into motion? – as much as by your own political desires. And even when the novel is published, you can’t control how people interpret it or what they make of it: you will have blindspots, oversights and confusions. If you are taking risks with your writing there will, or should be, moments of political ambiguity, moments where the reader has to read beyond the text or through it, and you have to give yourself permission to find these encounters with the murky, or the transgressive or the uncomfortable. (At least I do. There are plenty of moments in The Danger Game where I felt the risk was that the characters would appear too pathologised, too damaged, too self-destructive and that I might be accidentally writing the working class as a fucked up mess; but the novel needed that darkness even if it meant the politics were less straightforward and less clear.)
It helps to keep perspective on what a novel can and can’t do. This curbs the temptation towards impatience or over-simplification. But evidently I am no expert. This is a conversation Left-wing writers will keep having with themselves for decades to come (assuming the printed book still exists in decades).
One of the main criticisms of political fiction is that it can be ‘preachy,’ or ‘shove your point down the readers throat.’ Is this a valid criticism? If so, how do you avoid it? If not, where do you think this comes from?
Sometimes this accusation is just an excuse and people – critics, readers, editors – just don’t like what it is you have to say. I am not myself allergic to the notion of didacticism. I don’t have a problem with ‘writing with purpose’ or having something to say. However, I do think a good political novel raises as many questions as it answers (or ought to). Perhaps some of the discussion concerns form. Experimenting with form, rather than favouring realism, might help avert didacticism. Finding the layers, the complexities, the contradictions, the ambivalences is important (just as it is in making a sophisticated argument in politics). I don’t think Left-wing authors can worry perpetually about accusations of didacticism from people who think that the middle-ground is the space authors should occupy, or who have an inherent distaste for polemics. But it is worth asking yourself whether you are writing with the detail, ambiguity and contemplation you want. Perhaps this has something to do with the novel form – Brecht, after all, wrote self-consciously didactic plays (“learning” or “lesson”) plays that were highly imaginative and successful – of course he also broke with the naturalistic emphasis in theatre. Perhaps the biggest probable risk is to think that writing from the Left means saying everything directly with no room for undercurrents or reversals. If you are doing this, then you may as well write an opinion piece or deliver a speech (both worthy activities, but then, why write a novel if you don’t want to find the personal investments and losses, the painful changes and ruptures, the way good intentions can lead to purgatory or perversion?)
I’ll post the final two parts next week.