Great Political Novels Not Agenda Driven

Andrew Sullivan alerted me to a fine Robert Boyers article on “the political novel” that has given me a better understanding of how fiction intersects with the world we move in. Given my belief that “great literature can change our lives,” I’m grateful for his perspective.

Boyers presents us with a not atypical conundrum. In an interview he conducted with South African and anti-apartheid writer Nadime Gordimer, Boyers says she bristled when he called Burger’s Daughter a political novel.

It was not, Gordimer argued, written to promote an agenda. It did not subscribe to a particular idea or ideology. To call it a political novel was to suggest that it had–as Henry James once put it–“designs” upon us, that its author wished to banish incorrect opinions and to install in their place clearly more beneficial views of politics and society. At their best, Gordimer contended, novels were not useful. If I admired her novel as much as I said I did, I would do better to regard it as a free work of the imagination, an inquiry with no purpose that involved providing answers to the difficult questions it posed.

Despite what Gordimer says, regularly on this blog I talk about how literature can be  “useful” in the service of political causes. For instance, I have turned to it time and again to make sense of the 2012 presidential election. However, I fully understand, and agree with, Gordimer’s concern. Although she often wrote passionately and eloquently against apartheid in non-fiction essays, she knows that a prior agenda can overwhelm, or leach out, the human complexity that is integral to novels. Any novelists who feel they must be loyal to specific political positions risk turning their characters and situations into one-dimensional props.

Boyers doesn’t back off of the notion that novels can be political, however. Instead, he opens up what he means by political, invoking novelist Natalia Ginzburg’s concept of “spiritual attitude.” A spiritual attitude, Boyers says,

exists for a reader as the sign, or token, of the seriousness with which ideas are entertained. Novels in which politics plays a central role purport at least to represent reality in a way that will seem plausible to an adult intelligence and read the relevant implications in a richly complex way.

The great political novels, he says, are rich in spiritual attitude:

[I]n James and Conrad and Stendhal and Dostoevsky, we find that the ideas are constantly changing shape as the novels wind and unfold. Alternatives are posed not as fixed positions but as possibilities not fully understood, whatever the actual consequences they may portend.

Boyers delves into Ivan Turgenev’s novel Father’s and Sons, calling it a novel rich in spiritual attitude. A novel he finds to be spiritually deficient, on the other hand, is Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (which I haven’t read and so can’t defend):

Some years ago, in a review of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, I argued that Roth had not done what was necessary to get inside the idea of political radicalism. Instead he had created, as an expression of “the American berserk,” a pathetic, twisted, angry young leftist who was made to exemplify the primary thrust of the 1960s New Left. An extremist with some plausible relation to actually existing elements in the counterculture of the period, Roth’s Merry Levov could seem genuinely terrifying. But she was, at the same time, an undifferentiated cartoon of adolescent rebellion, and her creator had made no effort to accord to her or her associates the benefit of any doubt, to accord to anyone associated with the New Left even a modicum of respect for their idealism and their opposition to an established order that had given us the Vietnam War. The spiritual attitude exhibited in such a novel is thus deficient in the sense that it does not labor to resist the reduction of reality to caricature. Roth offers no sign whatsoever that he entertained misgivings about the easy reduction of the radical left in the 1960s to lunacy and puerility.

Boyers’ article has many more rich in examples. In contrast to American Pastoral, he holds up Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro MaytaHe talks about how V. S. Naipaul in Half a Life “examine[s] the difference between a serious and a fraudulent, spiritually deficient way of engaging reality.” And he goes toe-to-toe with Christopher Hitchens about Snow, a novel by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Hitchens apparently argued that Pamuk doesn’t condemn Islamic militants enough in his novel. He is impatient with Pamuk’s protagonist Ka who, as Boyers describes him,

is a determined innocent who refuses much of the time to acknowledge what he sees. The air he breathes is suffused with what Hitchens calls “fatalism and passivity.” As a sensitive and generous soul who clings to his own innocence, such as it is, Ka wants to believe that at bottom political Islam is simply a protest against meaninglessness. . . . Readers like Hitchens demand from Pamuk not a tract but a focused interrogation of a religious movement overwhelmingly dominated by provincial and reactionary sentiments and determined—even on the evidence of the novel itself—to win the war against modernity and multiculturalism. On this reading, Pamuk as novelist is far too invested in the benign, dreamy, generous perspective of his
 poet character, and the novel thus fails to engage adequately with the ideas embraced by proponents of political Islam.

Boyers counters that Pamuk does indeed undermine fanatical Islam in ways that Hitchens fails to see:

The novel thus portrays fanaticism as awful and comical. So bizarre are the convictions and rages and stratagems of the Islamist fanatics that we cannot but regard them as part of a highly stylized extravaganza, a sort of wild opera buffa. The devoutness that can prompt the actions of adolescent suicides seems at once terrifying and moving and also terminally infantile. To feel “ordinary and superficial” [Ka’s self characterization] next to a devout fanatic willing to die for his beliefs is understandable, but the novel also incites wonder at ostensibly reasonable adult figures who can get worked up about the virginity of unmarried adolescents and think it a good idea to have Islamic thought squads interrogate people like Ka about their atheism.

As an aside, I note that Ka sounds a lot like Yeats trying to figure out what he thinks about revolutionary Irish nationalists, which I posted on last week. Yeats too feels “ordinary and superficial” compared to the “terrible beauty” of the Irish martyrs, but I see the poem as acknowledging and describing the dangerous romanticism of political violence rather than endorsing it.

Through the Hitchens-Pamuk controversy, Boyers makes the point that readers no less than authors can turn a novel into an agenda and characters into one-dimensional props. Readers undervalue a work’s profundity when they do so. I would add that those novelists that try to steer us to certain interpretations of their works (which Gordimer refused to do with Boyers) actually have switched from writers to readers. Often in those cases, their books are smarter than they are.

That’s why, according to Boyers, most authors don’t try:

[M]ost novelists also freely concede that their takes on issues and ideas in fiction are richer, more complex, and thus truer than anything they can say outside the framework of their novels. The novel as a form allows a good writer with views to resist the temptation to simply and straightforwardly promote them. Bad or lesser writers are unable to resist that temptation. Likewise, readers who are unable to read without demanding a comforting echo of their own beliefs will have no real feeling for the rigors and inflections of serious fiction.

Boyers concludes,

Politics, in novels we can admire, must always pit ideas against the world as it exists, or might conceivably exist, and allow at every turn for contradiction and irresolution.

In this blog, I have been known to call out certain novels for being agenda driven, most notably Ayn Rand’s fiction. Now that I have Boyers’ framework, I can call The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged spiritually deficient as well. Likewise, this would be a spiritually deficient blog if I tried to reduce the works I discuss to the issues I address.

Instead, I try to let the works take the lead, drawing on their complex understandings of humanity to open up insights into puzzling, frustrating, and difficult situations. Knowing that the classics are always smarter than I am, I apply them and then try to get out of the way, watching with baited breath to see what wisdom emerges. The more I honor the works, the more I am rewarded.

This entry was posted in Conrad (Joseph), Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Ginzburg (Natalia), Gordimer (Nadine), James (Henry), Llosa (Vargas), Naipaul (V.S.), Pamuk (Orhan), Roth (Philip K.), Stendahl, Turgenev (Ivan), Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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