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
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.
Benjamin Markovits’s novel You Don’t Have to Live Like This (Faber), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in August, also acutely observes the intersection of all three of these. Markovits, a US writer living in England, has his narrator, Marney, along with others help to take over a left-behind neighbourhood in Detroit. Marney is white and the city he is now living in mainly black, and the novel tackles issues of gentrification, racial politics, poverty and the way in which outsiders can help—or not help—struggling communities. This is the stuff of politics, but politicians play little part in it. President Barack Obama makes a fleeting appearance in the book—playing basketball rather than making speeches or negotiating amendments. Even the money to redevelop Detroit does not come from government but instead from tech entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers. The mission is inevitably economic as well as social—though for Marney it is as much about proving himself as it is about helping others. In a melodiously frustrated tone, signalled by the book’s title, he remarks: “There should be a better test of who I am than middle-class American life.”
This is politics, not as the Trumpian art of the deal, but as the dilemma of how to live a good life with others. That said the political schemes in both Beatty’s and Markovits’s books are riddled with problems. The difficulty of re-segregation as a basis for political utopia is obvious enough. The soft-hippy community envisaged by Markovits is more appealing. But the philanthropists behind it aren’t the ragged-trousered type. We can tell that something is awry and indeed much of the novel’s interest is the conflict between naive idealism and the messy real world. In addition, literary fiction rarely provides a happy ending. This doesn’t mean that it has to dismiss politics, but it will focus on its failures and follies.
One way to disguise that feature of the genre is to retreat into the past. Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel City on Fire (Vintage), published at the end of 2015, ends in 1977. The city in question is New York and the fire includes homophobia, racism, status anxiety and inequality. The political movement in the novel initially expresses itself through music and situationist stunts and gradually pivots towards the use of terror. But the folly we observe isn’t merely in the choice of tactics; it’s in how the egoism of Nicky Chaos, the leader of the movement, supplants the solidarity the movement supposedly believes in. Chaos comes to a sticky end—as does his mirror image Amory, the scion of a massively wealthy family. What we’re observing is the lose-lose politics of domination and resentment, the master-slave dialectic with a punk-rock beat. Forty years later, Hallberg might be asking, can we avoid the same mistakes?
Can we? The progressive view in politics usually claims that we can. But one striking characteristic of politics in 2016 is that “the shipwrecked mind,” as the historian of ideas Mark Lilla calls it in the title of his new book on reactionary politics, has fixed its eye on us. Whether there’s a shock of orange hair above that eye and a roaming mouth below it, or it takes some other form, the imperatives of “bring back…” and “things were better when…” are now incredibly powerful. The trouble for writers of fiction is that faced with such an outlandish phenomenon as Trump, they generally respond with superficial satire.
On Trump himself, the US-based Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had a go, in a short story published this summer in the New York Times Book Review. Written from the perspective of the presumptive First Lady Melania Trump, in the second paragraph, we are told that “taste, for him, was something to be determined by somebody else, and then flaunted.” It’s an observation that any creative writing teacher would strike out: is Trump likely to defer to experts? Later, there is a laboured passage about how Trump’s tweets are indistinct from his text messages to his wife. Adichie hasn’t done any of the work required to imagine the couple’s private life. So we’re bereft of a reaction to what she tells us. It might or might not be sad (sad!) that his text messages are impersonal. Trump’s tweets might be the best of him.
This is not to say that writers can only write about reactionary politics by seeing the best in them—empathising with pro-Brexit or Trump voters, as liberals have been repeatedly instructed to do in this revolutionary year. But what 52 per cent of UK voters have opted for, and tens of millions of Americans, is not beneath observation in literary fiction. Young describes the social movements of the left as “focusing on broad issues of decision-making power and political participation. Often they seek less to expand the scope of the state’s welfare services than to respond to the invasion of nearly every area of social life by both public and private bureaucracies.” We can recognise the purposes of the Occupy movement in that statement, or those of Momentum. The World Transformed, as Momentum called its alternative to the Labour Party conference in September, may as well be a literary slogan. But turning back the hordes of bureaucrats and taking back control is a familiar theme on the right too. “Here I am, Ishmael,” Daniel Hannan, one of the founders of the Brexit movement, told the Guardian recently. “Every man’s hand is against me.”
British writers are especially bad at capturing the stuff of politics. There are some low reasons for this. “His intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity; and he seems essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere.” So writes Martin Amis of the “undereducated” Jeremy Corbyn. Writers commonly believe that politicians are not as clever as they are, and not as broad either: rigid ideologues, rather than dashing flâneurs.
This might be true. (Though Trump does speak in a prose style that it would take any writer a decade or two to master.) Or it might merely be intra-elite rivalry. While Corbyn only got two Es at A Level, other leading politicians made it through Oxford or Harvard. On the face of it, they’re in the same intellectual league as Amis and Co. So they have to be put in their place. The poet Michael Rosen for example (who holds a degree in English from Oxford) has written open letters to scold successive Education Secretaries.
But, smarts aside, the deeper tension between the two tribes is due to their different frames of mind. Politicians presume to make decisions to improve lives. Whereas writers reject both that instinct for perfecting human affairs and that claim to authority. In Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday, the pretensions of the protagonist—as a surgeon and father—are dissected in slow motion. All the while, anti-war protestors gather to exhort Tony Blair that he must not intervene in Iraq. “I can only go one way,” Blair said later, “I’ve not got a reverse gear.” That’s the problem from the writer’s perspective: politics is all about remaking the world and unilateral presumption. Or, as the title of one of Rosen’s latest letters has it, “Dear Justine Greening, It’s time to stop hounding teachers and harness their wisdom.”
Not all writers will feel the same. Many might follow Norman Mailer instead, who ran to be the Democratic nominee for New York City mayor in 1969. He said: “The difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m no good and I can prove it.” In the US, the divide is perhaps less pronounced. But in England it is glaring. Saturday is one of the few books written in England in recent years to come close to politics. Though even it spends no time itself on the march against the war. Politics is background, the real action is personal and domestic. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, published earlier this year, gives politics the same status. The characters overhear political news, they comment on the effects of austerity, but the drama is about how adults respond to a sick child. Invoking politics in a novel in this way does the same work as mentioning the brands the characters use or the music playing on a radio. It’s part of a broader overture to realism—in other words, it’s not aesthetically unimportant, though there’s no conviction that politics might be informing the choices people make, either driving them to despair or inspiring them.
There is another effect that fiction commonly extrudes from politics: the House of Cards-style thrill of skulduggery. Robert Harris, Andrew Marr, Richard T Kelly—these authors use the theatre of politics. They often do serious work at the same time. Harris’s Cicero trilogy, completed in 2015 with the publication of Dictator, is superb on the perils of politics: how the monopoly of violence that the state assumes becomes a threat to liberty, how a successful polity becomes wealthy and then that wealth corrupts it. But Harris knows all too well what we end up calling this kind of work. As he puts it, “because any work of fiction that seeks to describe the public sphere—its miscarriages of justice, coups, conspiracies, elections, assassinations, spies and swindles—is automatically labelled a thriller, a thriller-writer is what I have become.” Perhaps some writers steer clear of politics because they don’t want to be labelled in the same way.
Another challenge for English novelists writing about politics is our focus on the conventional sites of power. The movements that joined under the banner of “Leave” had to appeal to parliament for a referendum first. Momentum has broader purposes but those are viewed with suspicion. Certainly the scope for local politics is narrower in England than in the US. The kind of community-making that Beatty and Markovits write about is harder to pull off in our centralised political system. Perhaps the new wave of mayoral elections and the enhanced powers that (some) mayors will have might prompt new municipal fiction. In the meantime, though, writing about politics seems to drive writers to Westminster, and to be rude about your university friends who became politicians or towards genre fiction.
Even the new novel by Ali Smith, Autumn, billed as an instant reaction to the Brexit vote has more to say about the 1960s—one of the characters collects art from that decade—than 2016. The state of the nation merits no more than a few paragraphs of the kind of prose that kicks off the longer opinion pieces in a Sunday newspaper supplement. The sadness is that politics is teeming with life right now, mainly low life perhaps, but writers shouldn’t decline to observe the very worst in us. Alternatively, perhaps some citizens have already set off on the road to political progress, or they are trying out ways to be more just to the weak and vulnerable far away from the corridors of power. Couldn’t writers watch them and observe for us the perils and possibilities? It is what Beatty and Markovits have done, though they are rare among American writers, and the scene is sparser still among the English.