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What’s the point of political fiction? Novels rarely make laws – but they enlarge our political vocabulary

Filming The Handmaid's Tale on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Filming The Handmaid's Tale on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

June 6, 2019   5 mins

The relationship between art and politics is often summed up with a line of Auden’s, from his elegy for W. B. Yeats: “Poetry makes nothing happen”; “It survives in the valley of its making […] a way of happening, a mouth.” Those with longer memories may quote Shelley’s view that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” – a pungent little phrase where the stress, and the burden of irony, fall on the word “unacknowledged”. 

Yet if this is so, why have people written and painted – and why do they continue to write and paint – songs, poems, novels and paintings with an expressly political agenda? There’s not much point in making legislation if nobody even acknowledges it, let alone enforces it. Shouldn’t they all just stick to, y’know, feelings and suchlike? 

Well, they don’t. And as a judge of the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, I’ve seen a lot of evidence that, 70 years after the publication of 1984, this tradition is alive and well. (What counts as political fiction? Answering that question – which isn’t a simple one – is part of the fun.) And it prompted me to wonder aloud recently (our wondering aloud is, of course, done on social media these days) how many novels could be said to have had a direct impact on politics.

I used a couple of examples to chum the water. One was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, set amid the Chicago meatpacking industry. It is (as I remember it) a compelling tale of human misery and suboptimal food hygiene standards – and it is, as with some of the best political fiction, a blend of fiction and reportage. If you’re going to write a political novel of the realist variety, its truth-to-reality matters: Sinclair really had worked in the stockyards of Chicago, just as George Orwell really worked as a plongeur and really visited Wigan.   

It’s also an example that flags up one of the problems of fiction as a means of political intervention. Literary meaning is, as all A-level students know, a creation of readerly interpretation rather than authorial intention. An urgent broadside against labour exploitation (Sinclair was a campaigning socialist), The Jungle didn’t have quite the effect its author hoped: it moved not its readers’ hearts, but their stomachs, and it sparked a vast public outcry against… all the revolting abbatoir-floor-scrapings that went into cheap food. (One particularly cheery scene sees a worker toppling into the rendering tank and being duly turned into lard for public sale.)

As Sinclair glumly noted, his novel caught attention “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef”. Catch attention it did, though: it led directly to the formation of what is now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America.

Another novel I mentioned was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel – which was among the bestselling books of the 19th century and is credited with having put rocket fuel in the abolitionist cause and helped pave the way for the American civil war. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln is said (apocryphally) to have saluted Stowe when they met with the words: “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Chalk some political impact up to Stowe, then.

Others soon chimed in with examples I hadn’t thought of – first among them Robert Tressell’s posthumously-published 1911 classic of breadline life The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. This – like the aforementioned – opened up to bien-pensant middle-class readers a world that they may have been barely conscious existed. The critic D J Taylor quoted Alan Sillitoe’s view that the book had “won the 1945 General Election for Labour”.

A J Cronin’s 1937 medical novel The Citadel is credited with having influenced the creation of the NHS. Charles Kingsley’s sentimental 1863 fable against child labour, The Water-Babiesis credited with influencing the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act of 1864, which proved ineffective but paved the way to successful legislation a decade later. And, in the animal world, Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty caused outcry on both sides of the Atlantic about cruelty to animals – and directly influenced the banning of the “bearing rein” in Victorian England.

Add to that Solzenhitsyn’s newsflash from the Gulag, One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich (the Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Korotich said: “The Soviet Union was destroyed by information … and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day”). Theodor Herzl’s 1902 utopia Altneuland set out his vision of Zionism in fictional form – and, in its Hebrew translation Tel Aviv, gave its name to Israel’s newly founded second city.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 socialist clarion call What Is To Be Done? not only led to the founding of the revolutionary Land and Liberty society but put fire in Lenin’s belly (he borrowed its title for his 1902 pamphlet) and has been credited with supplying, more than anything Marx wrote, “the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution”.

We could also say that Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Satanic Verses had a direct impact on politics – though in both cases not so much because of what they said as because of the legal and political storms surrounding their publication.  

But these cases of direct impact are relatively rare. I also mentioned Dickens, for instance – whose novels dramatised the plight of England’s urban poor and a range of social injustices – and wondered whether he’d had some indirect impact. Indirect it was. A few years back a number of scholars were asked by the BBC about the impact of his work and the editor of The Dickensian, Professor Malcolm Andrews, said:

“Although in his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets – Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, the brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, the law, government bureaucracy, lethargy and nepotism in Little Dorrit, extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times – it’s hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation in any of those areas to Dickens’s influence.” 

The other person I mentioned, by way of reminding everyone that not all writers of fiction are cosy liberals, was Ayn Rand. Her philosophy of Objectivism (as set out in her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) was a devil-take-the-hindmost creed of laissez-faire market individualism that, though it didn’t lead directly to legislation, has undoubtedly become a vital part of the intellectual genealogy of America’s libertarian right. She was once called the “novelist laureate” of the Reagan administration

And here, perhaps, is where the influence-on-politics-game runs into the sand. There are only a handful – maybe a dozen or so instances in history – of books whose impacts can be traced in specific legislation. And there’s a reasonable objection to treating them as flagships of the genre: bringing about legislation is not what political fiction is, usually, for.  

It usually does subtler and more indirect things. Like Dickens, like the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath, or like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, the impact is usually felt in terms of giving imaginative force to a set of people or situations or ideas whose audience will hitherto have ignored them. It more often takes the temperature of social change, gives voice to the voiceless, or makes injustice visible. “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally,” wrote George Eliot. 

Or – like Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Orwell, Huxley, Kafka, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale – it enlarges our political vocabulary, our stock of metaphor and archetype: it gives us a set of cultural reference points for making political arguments. 1984 and Animal Farm probably didn’t cause very many Stalinists to think twice about Stalinism. The Trial didn’t lead to reform of the German legal system. But we look to this day at our politics through the dystopian lenses they provide.  

So: long live the political novel. But don’t expect its prose to end up on the statute book any time soon. 


The Orwell Prize longlist can be found here.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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