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The Sunday Salon: The Political Powers of Fiction and Nonfiction

The Sunday Salon.com Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog knows that I love nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction and memoirs. I think it takes a tremendous amount of skill to write compelling, interesting, and powerful stories about things that are real, without changing the ending or characters of ideas to reflect what we wish the story could be rather than what it is.

At the same time, I’ve never been a fan of fiction that deliberately takes on political issues, even though I don’t mind nonfiction on similar issues. For example, I loved Jesus Land, a memoir about living in a Christian conversion sort of camp in Jamaica, but wouldn’t have picked up a fiction book on the same time. Why is that?

Ben Yagoda’s new book, Memoir: A History, wrestles with a lot of these questions. There are a lot of things about the book that I want to talk about, but when I came across the following paragraph it struck me as extremely provocative and related to some of my questions:

Dictating his own memoirs, At Random, in the late 1960s, Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, commented that when he started in the publishing business, in the 1920s, “fiction outsold fiction four-to-one. Now that ratio is absolutely reverse, and nonfiction outsells fiction four-to-one.” The reversal reflects the craving we have developed for the literal. Fiction has become a bit like painting in the age of photography — a novel item that has its place in the Booker Prize/Whitney Museum high culture and in the genre-fiction/black-velvet-Elvis low but is oddly absent in the middle range. Certainly, when it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is gone. referring to her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little lady who started this Great War.” But that was then. The most recent novels to have had a social impact, or that were even paid attention to in any national debate, were the muckraking works of Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair in the first decade of the twentieth century. Today, for a didactic text to be taken seriously or even attended to, it requires a certification of documentary truth. [emphasis added]

After reading that paragraph, I knew it was something I wanted to talk about. What do you think of Yagoda’s contention? Has fiction lost it’s political power? Do books of nonfiction carry more weight in creating social change that fiction?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Christine Coleman January 24, 2010, 5:16 pm

    I like to read novels that extend my (virtual) experience of places, cultures and ideas , so that I feel I’ve genuinely experienced these for myself and added them to my store of knowledge (as opposed to ‘information’).

    I don’t usually read memoirs, but was lucky enough to win a ‘give away’ on a blog (Dovegreyreader). It’s “Unimagined” by Imran Ahmed, who came to England from Pakistan, aged one year old. It’s funny and touching, and very refreshing to see life from the viewpoint of a British Muslim. http://www.unimagined.org/

    • Kim January 26, 2010, 5:06 pm

      Christine: It’s interesting that you equate experiencing a place with fiction, versus nonfiction on the topic. I see the distinction though, as fiction storytelling tends to do place, images, what it feels like to be there more than straight nonfiction might. The memoir you mentioned sounds fascinating.

  • Jodie January 25, 2010, 5:48 am

    Good question. A novel isn’t allowed to be overtly moralistic anymore, without receiving severe criticism (no bad thing in my opinion) so any fiction that comes out to purposefully shape our political ideas is examined with extreme scrutiny. It does feel that political novels now must be intensely realistic, while delivering their message, to avoid being condemned as moralisticly simple. So they must contain good and bad characters on both sides, flawed characters among the heros and slices of redemption in the villians. I imagine this does make political novels harder for political groups to use as examples of their cause because they’re not as clear cut to interpret as previous fiction with a political aim might have been.

    I think it also says something about the way our culture values the arts against the factual disciplines that political fiction does not take centre stage in political campaigns. Politicians don’t see fiction as important and they don’t think the general population values it, so they don’t use it as a tool. Fiction now tends to inspire the personal political actions of an individual, or small groups.

    • Kim January 26, 2010, 5:09 pm

      Jodie: What about books like 1984 or Animal Farm? Do you think those books, which are pretty critical pieces, wouldn’t have the same impact today as they did when first published?

      It is interesting the way nonfiction is taking the things fiction usually has — characters, good versus evil, narratives — and using them to make nonfiction more powerful or emotionally resonant.

      I love your last point: “Fiction now tends to inspire the personal political actions of an individual, or small groups.”

  • Andi January 25, 2010, 9:02 am

    America is such a “prove it to me” pragmatic society these days that I think fiction has lost its political clout for the most part. This is not true for me personally, as I enjoy fiction dealing with “issues” very much, but in the larger sense, I think it’s necessary for the public to be fed documented proof. I see this with my students on a regular basis–a documented fact goes much further than a telling allegory, for instance. They see fiction as fake and that’s the end of it.

    • Kim January 26, 2010, 5:10 pm

      Andi: Yeah, the whole prove it thing is pretty pervasive. I’m not a big “issues” in fiction person, but that’s because it tends to focus on small issues. I like fiction that deals with broader issues, though.

  • Nymeth January 25, 2010, 4:06 pm

    I agree with Jodie that a novel that tried to push a point too overtly would probably come across as too didactic for today’s taste. Another thing is – even though I do think novels can be an effective way to change attitudes towards a cause or group of people, and in that sense CAN be weapons of social change, it’s difficult for any one novel today to have the impact Uncle Tom’s Cabin did, simply because there are SO many of them. It’s pretty rare for any one book to reach a very large audience. So while I think change is still happening, and that novels still have political power, it’s all happening on a smaller scale.

    • Kim January 26, 2010, 5:12 pm

      Nymeth: Such a good point. Society is so spread out, it’s hard for a book to reach a million people. And the ones that do don’t seem to take on the issues in a way that can promote social change. At some level, fiction does have power in the sense of showing what an experience is like, but the reach is a lot smaller.

  • Jeanne January 25, 2010, 4:27 pm

    There are still satires like Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday that can have the same kind of propagandistic effect Uncle Tom’s Cabin did in its day, but Nymeth is right; they don’t reach as many people. I’m not sure that it’s not possible to reach that many people again, though. Look at all the lessons that kids have learned from Harry Potter.

    • Kim January 26, 2010, 5:14 pm

      Jeanne: If only Harry Potter had been about politics and social change! Like I said to Nymeth, most books that do reach that level just don’t have it. Which is too bad — I think people could be persuaded to care if given books that had the chance of convincing them about it.

  • Jodie January 27, 2010, 12:20 pm

    Kim that’s hard to answer, but in the case of Animal Farm I don’t think it would, filtering it through the literary history we now have some people already dismiss it as a simple, rather preachy allegory and I think it’d get deffed off by critics who like to think of themselves as complex because Snowball is so bad, nothing redeems him.

    I actually saw a review of ‘An Elergy for Easterly’ (short story collection about Zimbabwe)this weekend that said in one of the stories even Robert Mugabee is slightly redeemed (paraphrase) like that was a good thing, like it would have been a failing of the authors if she’d painted him only as the evil dictator (which she does in many other stories). I’ve read the collection and I don’t agree with that assessment, but imagine what that type of reviewer would make of pure evil Snowball now.

    I so don’t want to go back to the days of white and black characters, but I do think character complexity weakens what a politician can make of a novel’s political message, how they can use them, or that at least that’s how politicians will probably perceive it. Happily complexity strengthens a book’s core message for general readers and allows other, more subtle messages to come out about the nature of humanity which hopefully brings us all to understand each other a bit better.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:37 am

      Jodie: That’s a good point about Animal Farm — the book isn’t subtle at all, and it was written at a time when that sort of simplicity was accepted. I can’t really think of any good allegories today that would make an accurate comparison, although that might just be because it’s early in the morning and my brain isn’t awake yet.