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Political writing

April 25, 2010

My friends, today I wish to speak to you about a subject of urgent national importance. Never before has the political landscape zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Yes? For many people these days, politics is possibly the least interesting subject imaginable, despite its importance. Britain is two weeks away from a general election, one that will in all likelihood see the end of the 13 year dominance of the Labour government, and see us in a period of minority governance, if not a hung parliament.

According to the national press we are “gripped” by election fever. According to the man in the street however, the reaction is a shrug of the shoulders. “They’re all the same” is the cry. The leader of the third party, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, is still unrecognisable by many, despite excellent reaction in the leaders debate that put the Liberals into first place in the polls for the first time in a century.

Writing is intimately associated with modern politics. Spin, rhetoric; these are the outputs of writing when filtered by the dark art of politics.

George Orwell once said that political writing is bad writing. Wading through some of the party manifestos this election, you’d be tempted to agree. Bloated puffery and turgid sentimentality drip from the pages.

But not all political writing is bad writing, though the exceptions are rare. Books on politics (or political books) are common, but few move beyond their niche market and find a wider readership. I can only think of three that I would describe as “popular” literary works. They are The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek and the granddaddy of all political writing The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.

Beyond these to find politics in literature we have to delve into metaphor and symbolism, sometimes overt, sometimes not. Orwell would be the obvious example, from the not-so-subtle critique of the Russian Revolution in Animal Farm to the anti-authoritarian Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book whose message has been appropriated by all sides of the political spectrum.

Many writers place an underlying political idea into their work, or even build an entire work out of a core political philosophy – think Ayn Rand. For some the idea is essential to the cohesiveness of the work. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America would not have worked without the central critique of Lindbergh’s political ideas, as this alternative American history hinged on the idea of Lindbergh becoming President. Whether the novel would have worked without the perceived critique of Bush administration is another question.

Some of the most rousing political rhetoric comes from fiction, particularly Shakespeare. Today’s spin doctors could take a lesson in destroying someone with praise by reading Marc Antony’s eulogy to Caesar in Act III, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar, and for stirring up national fervour we have Henry’s St Crispen’s Day Speech in Henry V.

We all of us have political leanings, and in writing we can give them an eloquence they might not have in the spur of the moment conversation. But a word of caution. There is no surer way to alienate half your audience by writing from an overtly simplistic political position. To write a story based on the unalloyed good of “all property is theft”, or “the free market will decide”, without showing any negative aspect, will alienate not only those who disagree with your message, but more than likely those with a measure of sympathy for your ideals. When surveyed, most people tend not to stray too far left or right of the middle, regardless of where the political parties lie.

Paul’s favoured candidate is mysteriously absent from the ballot papers this time around. Vote for Cthulhu! Why settle for the lesser evil?
One Comment
  1. April 25, 2010 11:23 pm

    It can be a touchy subject to broach the politics in my writing. I enjoy being known as a political writer.

    For me, political fiction can do something my political propaganda or opinion pieces can’t. It contextualizes and illustrates ideas through a story. I don’t state I hate capitalism. I illustrate the things I hate about capitalism, sometimes in not so overt ways, that people can see this for themselves.

    I agree about simplistic political positions alienating readers, but sometimes a writer’s niche is aimed mostly at people who agree mostly with you, or at least are open to these ideas. There will always be some readers who will disagree with you but if you try to cater to them as well, then you tend to dilute your ideas that they mean nothing.

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