Political Commentary Question in Literature

We talked about satire and politics last week, but Wodehouse also makes little comments in his works, like the following from Mike and Psmith:

‘I am with you, Comrade Jackson. You won’t mind my calling you Comrade will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.’”~ Psmith, explaining to Mike why they should hijack another student’s study room, P.G.W., Mike and Psmith

I was amused. =)

But, amusement aside, considering the historical impact of literature on policy (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which changed both working conditions in general and food processing and safety in particular, being the biggest, brightest, grossest example I can think of), where do political commentaries belong in fiction? Like I said, I was amused by Wodehouse’s definition of ‘socialism,’ so I think he pulled it off without sounding uppity.

However, for this one example, I can think of many others — generally in unpublished works that I’ve had a chance to critique through the years, but there’ve been plenty in published works too — that have not pulled off this kind of commentary gracefully. It sounded preachy. It reads like THIS IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m reading a story, it’s primarily for entertainment purposes. I’ll read Orwell’s Animal Farm more to see a bunch of animals come to terms with each other (or, you know, not) rather than conciously think about how it has anything to do with Communism and the Russian Revolution. I’ll read 1984 more to see how the characters get out of rat-cage torture rather than read it as an Evils of Communism dissertation.

Though I do recognize that the motives and intentions behind both of Orwell’s works are political and cautionary, which does add levels and depth. But, as a result of the motives, there are long passages in 1984 that make me put the book down every time. I don’t want to be preached to, no matter how much I agree with the point being made.

But I think that Orwell, for all the preaching, also pulled off the commentary. In the unpublished pieces that I referred to earlier, the political comments were clunky. Like the narration broke away from the story in order to make a comment on some social injustice. The commentary somehow wasn’t integrated into the story itself. (And in a couple cases it seemed like the commentary’s purpose was opposite of the story’s point — so it didn’t make any sense.)

Another thing I’ve noticed is that issues and politics can be presented very one-sided. I think in order to explain a political point, the opposite side has to have some kind of legitimate representation–no adding in the opposite side just to take a pummeling.

I recently read a novel where all of the characters started off pro-capital punishment. Then, for one reason or another, all of them were anti-capital punishment by the end. The problem, for me, was that it felt unbalanced. Why not have just  one character have the opposite epiphany? Go from anti-capital punishment to pro-capital punishment. The weight is still heavily placed on the anti-side but at least the argument for the pro-side is there, and since it’s a side-switcher, you know that there’s been a legit argument made.

In my opinion, fiction’s purpose is to raise the questions, not answer them. So when the commentary seeks to answer the questions, I think it comes off lop-sided or preachy. Which makes for boring fiction. It’s not raising a discussion, it’s drilling in an opinion.

Have you guys ever been thrown out of a story because suddenly there was a Message? How about a movie? What stories/movies have successfully pulled of a political message for you? How did it work?



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One response to “Political Commentary Question in Literature”

  1. Ajay Avatar

    I am always skeptical of message books or movies. It is demeaning to the reader's intelligence that he/she see only the author's point of view. That said, both 1984 and Animal Farm worked for me. Though Orwell, of course had communism in mind, Animal Farm can also be read as a growing up story: the struggle between idealism and life. He seems to be saying too much idealism can also corrupt. And i saw 1984 as the futility of trying to adapt the world to oneself (substitute Winston Smith as a novelist/writer who thinks he can change the world). The most fascinating part for me is not the totalitarianism critique (though it is relevant today, how about corporations?) but things such as the manipulation of language (PC-ness, political rhetoric) and of course the omnipresent Big Brother. All of this in a capitalist nation!

    The preachy tone of these two books has become to serve as paradigms of the Right's stance against socialism which is sad to see. And you're right, some of the passages in 1984 belong to a newspaper article than a novel. Orwell was not the typical novelist. And there is a definite change from a novel like Burmese Days (which I think is no less brilliant than 1984) to his later ones. By his own admission, he could write “purple” prose only when writing with no political emphasis.

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