American novelists are doing a brilliant job engaging with politics. Their British counterparts need to catch up fastby Emran Mian / December 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
It has been a year of extraordinary political events. In June, the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union and in November the United States elected Donald Trump as its first reality-television president. Our instant storytellers—columnists, news anchors, other politicians—are still reeling from the shock. But what can real writers do to respond to politics—if anything? Fiction, by its nature, cannot move at the speed of current events. But those novelists who are willing to engage with the world can bring a unique set of insights into the state of a nation.
Fittingly, in the year of Trump’s racially-charged triumph, both the UK’s Man Booker Prize and the US’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award were scooped by Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Oneworld). Beatty is an African-American writer born in Los Angeles in 1962, and The Sellout imagines a world in which America unwinds 40 years of political progress. The high-jinks, low-concept idea at the heart of the book is the re-segregation of a Los Angeles suburb called Dickens—the catch being that it is the black narrator who wants to divide the races once again. “Me,” as he is known, develops his stunt into a political programme with the aim of creating public spaces in which black people can feel more confident by living only with their own kind. “I’m not advocating segregation,” Beatty has explained, “I’m having fun pondering it.”
On Beatty’s telling, the plan works: the restriction is a form of liberation that improves, for example, the school results of black children. (The book starts with “Me” on trial at the Supreme Court, the elite taking its revenge.) What the book connects with profoundly is the rediscovery of institutionalised racism in the US that feels more relevant than ever.
Beatty’s success in writing about politics is unusual in modern novelists. We might hope that writers of fiction would catch something that pollsters, commentators and political incumbents have been unable to. But many are not. Some of the reasons for this are long-standing: professional rivalry between novelists and politicians, who usually studied together in Ivy League schools or Oxbridge, which brims over into writers’ contempt and condescension for political leaders (rarely the stuff of good fiction); or the challenge of hacking through clichés learned from political thrillers, or newspapers, of how power is exercised in Washington or Westminster. Notice how Beatty sets his political novel a long way from the seat of government, closer to what the philosopher Iris Marion Young has catalogued as the social movements outside formal politics. Young suggests that such movements have three main purposes: to challenge decision-making structures directly; to organise autonomous services; and evolve cultural identity.