Atlas Sucked

by Henry on October 23, 2009

There’s been a lot of discussion of Ayn Rand the last few days, because of the new (and very-interesting sounding) biography. Personally, I could never stand her work, not because of the libertarian philosophy (I like me mid-period Heinlein just fine), but the excruciatingly bad writing. If Chris Hayes is right, she finally has a worthy successor. Ladies, gentlemen, I give you Ralph Nader and Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us.

As a novel it is a dismal affair: gracelessly written, ploddingly plotted, and long. Oh God so long. And as a political tract it advances a conception of politics both grossly condescending and depressingly elitist. Democracy, Nader seems to say, could be ours: if only the oligarchs would get behind it. The basic plot goes like this. Moved by pity to travel to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina to oversee relief efforts, Warren Buffett encounters one desperately poor and grateful recipient of his charity who announces, “Only the super-rich can save us.” This gets Buffett thinking, and he proceeds to convene a top secret meeting in a Maui resort. There he gathers an eclectic group of the super-rich: Paul Newman, George Soros, Bill Gates Sr., Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Peter Lewis (owner of Progressive Insurance), and, somewhat randomly, Yoko Ono, among others, to create a “people’s revolt of the rich.”

This is apparently not a satire. But it does raise the question of whether there are any genuinely good, genuinely political novels out there. Since we’re coming up on the weekend, I’ll throw this out as an open thread (I have a few nominations myself, but don’t want to bias the sample). Have at it.

{ 281 comments }

1

Brian 10.23.09 at 6:47 pm

Definitely genuinely good and probably genuinely political (I think Edmund Wilson is wrong about this), how about Nabokov’s Bend Sinister? Or is it too old to be “out there”?

2

Yamascuma 10.23.09 at 6:49 pm

Certainly there are genuinely good, genuinely political novels out there. An overlooked masterpiece is Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a sophisticated novel documenting the period of the Great Purges in the Soviet Union, which New York Review Books re-released in English in 2004.

3

Steve 10.23.09 at 6:51 pm

I imagine you’re aiming higher than this, but like Christopher Buckley’s humor. Not on the great books list, and therefore maybe not genuinelygood, but maybe plain old good.

4

Joe 10.23.09 at 7:02 pm

Well, how political is ‘genuine’? If we’re just looking for Utopianism, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. That said, if there’s no advocacy requirement, I’d recommend a take-your-pick survey of DeLillo–certainly, Underworld is intelligent and searching on just about everything it touches, the better part of it in the public sphere.

For something more classical, I’ll go to bat for Heart of Darkness. For recent and political, but really, really bad, you can’t go wrong with Andrei Makine’s Requiem for the East. I’ll never get those hours back…

5

Steve LaBonne 10.23.09 at 7:09 pm

Speaking of Conrad, how about The Secret Agent? What a wonderful book.

6

Joe 10.23.09 at 7:17 pm

How could I forget? That’s an even better–or, at least, even more political–choice.

7

politicalfootball 10.23.09 at 7:19 pm

I’m finding the definition of “political novel” a bit slippery. Do we count Orwell? Brave New World? I find myself wanting to exclude allegories and speculative fiction. You mean to exclude satire, right? I might be prepared to make a case for Heller’s Good as Gold anyway.

How about Grapes of Wrath?

8

Andrew 10.23.09 at 7:21 pm

The review of the Nader book makes it sound uncannily like Huey Long’s My First Days in the White House

http://www.ssa.gov/history/hueywhouse.html

9

Prime Junta 10.23.09 at 7:22 pm

What about Ken McLeod? I thought the Fall Revolution series was pretty good, and it’s most definitely political.

10

ben 10.23.09 at 7:23 pm

Hadrian the Seventh.

11

kid bitzer 10.23.09 at 7:30 pm

plato’s republic.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.23.09 at 7:33 pm

Anything by Vonnegut. In fact, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us sounds a bit like him.

13

andy 10.23.09 at 7:42 pm

I’m fond of two under-appreciated (at least in America) works of Czech fiction, War With the Newts by Karel Capek and The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. Newts might be a little too heavily allegorical at times, and Svejk probably would have benefitted from a bit of editing (Hasek died before its completion) but both to me stand as excellent pieces of literature and overtly political interventions.

There are many other novels that I’ve considered political – JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (after Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe ) and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion – that also consider to be expert examples of literary art.

But novels that explicitly advocate for a specific position, and approach politics from anything other than an oblique angle, are few and far between.

14

andy 10.23.09 at 7:52 pm

Also added: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the masterpieces of 20th century Russian literature, a transposition of the Mephistopheles legend to 1930s Moscow. Forbidden to write and harassed by the Soviet literary establishment, Bulgakov took his revenge on his Proletkult tormenters by having the devil and his minions murder and torment them in various and grisly ways in his novel.

It is an explicitly political novel, even if its politics largely amounts to a demand that literature not have to be a political.

15

Pete Tiarks 10.23.09 at 7:52 pm

Think this might fall under your definition of a biased response, but:

# Charles Stross / Various
# China Miéville / Iron Council

16

andy 10.23.09 at 7:58 pm

Oh, good lord, I keep thinking of other examples. I’ll throw out a few more and stop to let others throw titles out there:

- John Dos Passos USA Trilogy
- Carlo Levi Christ Stopped at Eboli
- Alejo Carpentier Explosion in a Cathedral and Kingdom of This World
- Zola Germinal
- Philip Roth The Plot Against America

17

Isaac Smith 10.23.09 at 8:04 pm

Chris Lehmann’s essay on American political fiction is worth mentioning here. Generally, it’s pretty awful (think Primary Colors), but there are some standouts — Gore Vidal’s novels are mentioned, as well as a roman a clef about Lyndon Johnson called The Gay Place. Anybody read any of those?

18

Donald A. Coffin 10.23.09 at 8:09 pm

It’s been 40+ years since I read, it, so I can no longer really remember its literary merit, but Arthur Koestler’s Darkenss at Noon comes to mind. Man’s Fate (Andre Malraux) was assuredly political, but I do remember that the translation I read was not particularly readable.

19

John Emerson 10.23.09 at 8:11 pm

A vote for Svejk.

20

Fargo North, Decoder 10.23.09 at 8:11 pm

Props to Andy and to twentieth-century Czech literature: _Svejk_ and _Newts_ are two great political novels–I’d say two great novels, period. As for great American political novels: How about Upton Sinclair’s _The Jungle_?

21

Cian O'Connor 10.23.09 at 8:15 pm

Lanark by Alisdair Gray. James Kelman has wrote a couple as well (there’s the one written in officialese, which was rather brilliant). And Candide, obviously. And Pynchon’s last but one novel was heavily political. Passos’ USA trilogy. Hard Times by Dickens. This is off the top of my head, if I thought of it I could probably come up with some more.

22

Cian O'Connor 10.23.09 at 8:18 pm

Oh yeah and a vote for Svejk and Margarita. There’s an Austrian high modernist novel that I’m blanking on that surely qualifies as well.

Upton Sinclair was not a very good writer unfortunately.

23

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.23.09 at 8:20 pm

Kafka?

24

Steve LaBonne 10.23.09 at 8:23 pm

Man’s Fate (Andre Malraux) was assuredly political, but I do remember that the translation I read was not particularly readable.

Maybe I’m displaying my lack of literary taste, but I think it sucks just as hard in French.

Another vote for Svejk by the way.

25

Matt 10.23.09 at 8:25 pm

Is it Zombie Paul Newman they have helping? I hope so.

26

Zora 10.23.09 at 8:28 pm

Much of the best science fiction/speculative fiction is political.

Just about anything by Kim Stanley Robinson is political. His Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) is hyper-political. Organizing, undergrounds, revolution, constitutional convention, political scheming.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed is a wonderful book, guaranteed to tie Libertarian knickers in a twist. Her “utopia” is quasi-anarchist, but it’s the WRONG KIND of anarchist.

Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite features a harsh world of group marriage, cannibalism, and overlapping “political” entities. Bizarre but thought-provoking.

Jo Walton’s Small Change series. Alexi Panshin’s Rite of Passage. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, among others.

27

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.23.09 at 8:35 pm

If Svejk is political then Catch 22 certainly is too.

28

Theophylact 10.23.09 at 8:41 pm

I don’t care for his politics, but Charles McCarry’s The Better Angels and Shelly’s Heart certainly qualify.

29

Theophylact 10.23.09 at 8:42 pm

Drat. “Shelley”, of course.

30

Jonathan Lundell 10.23.09 at 8:51 pm

I, Claudius. Most dystopian novels (well, the “genuinely good” ones, anyway).

31

Salient 10.23.09 at 8:56 pm

I’ll probably be the thousandth one to think of, but I guess the first one to mention, Thomas M. Disch.

32

Natilo Paennim 10.23.09 at 9:04 pm

The Free, by M. Gilliland. Flawed, and too short, but still a fun anarchist utopia. Until the fascists shut it down.
Fire On The Mountain, by Terry Bisson. My new favorite utopian novel.

33

SusanC 10.23.09 at 9:06 pm

“Me too” to Svejk and The Secret Agent.

How about Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly?

34

Aulus Gellius 10.23.09 at 9:09 pm

More recently, I really liked (though I didn’t expect to) Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Oh, and I’ll go to bat for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though there are certainly some godawfully boring bits, and perhaps it wasn’t necessary for two characters to have beloved dead virtuous golden-haired mothers.

(I just saw that it was “novels,” not “literature”, and had remove Vergil, Lucan and Pindar from my response.)

35

matsig 10.23.09 at 9:11 pm

Staying with the Russians: “Petty Devils” (I think the English title is) by Dosteyevsky, and almost anything by Andray Platonov (But the most overtly political would probably be “The Foundation Pit” and “Chevengur”).

36

Michael Froomkin 10.23.09 at 9:34 pm

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here is good and political.

And as noted above, there’s politics all over Ken MacLeod’s “Fall Revolution” cycle, e.g. The Cassini Division

37

James Conran 10.23.09 at 9:39 pm

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Orwell obviously: 1984 and Animal Farm.

If we’re counting war books then All Quiet on the Western Front also.

38

John Emerson 10.23.09 at 9:44 pm

“Jews Without Money” is actually pretty good, a little Saroyan-esque.

39

Henry 10.23.09 at 9:47 pm

I may be the only political scientist to reference The Cassini Division in a professional publication (or not, depending).

40

lt 10.23.09 at 9:53 pm

Yeah, all of the USA trilogy. Invisible Man. Even the Jungle, which gets flack for its didcatism, is a good read. Most of Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dostevesky, and Conrad. More recently, Margaret Atwood, DeLillo, Coetze etc etc.

I mean, either you’re defining politically extremely narrowly, or it’s a ridiculous question.

41

Andrew 10.23.09 at 9:54 pm

The first two thirds of Larry Beinhart’s “American Hero” is pretty good. It was butchered in the translation to film as “Wag The Dog.”

I also enjoyed (likely out of print now) Hurd and Osmond’s early 1970s “Scotch On The Rocks” about a fictitional Scottish national liberation struggle (adapted by the BBC).

“The Master And Margarita” is stunning.

42

Mark 10.23.09 at 9:59 pm

Well, I find myself on the uneducated side of most of CT’s discussions. This has not kept me from reading, enjoying, learning from and hating many of the discussions.

I find that sci-fi is becoming more and more accurate in descriptions of the culture we now live in. My personal favorite is Neil Stevenson, although I still ague against his stuff being purely sci-fi.. It’s hard to imagine that someone who writes about skull guns could have (in my opinion) such accurate commentary on the viral nature of how information is being used to manipulate society today, but, well, he does. He’s not the first to discuss it (especially in sci-fi), but I just like the way he goes about it.

“A cultural medium for a medium culture.”

Maybe I’m being a little low brow, but I do like a good game of craps.

I second Zora’s picks, as well as Orwell.

43

Lisa 10.23.09 at 10:01 pm

Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name

44

Lee Sigelman 10.23.09 at 10:03 pm

THE GAY PLACE, which I read perhaps 30 years ago, remains an all-time favorite.

The very best political novel I’ve read in a long time — and please don’t dismiss it because it’s by someone who is best known for Cold War thrillers — is THE STALIN EPIGRAM, by Robert Littell. Way better, in my estimation, than Solhzenitsyn.

45

Substance McGravitas 10.23.09 at 10:11 pm

Josef Skvorecky’s Lieutenant Boruvka stories are mysteries in which many of the crimes would not exist except for conditions in communist Czechoslovakia.

46

John Quiggin 10.23.09 at 10:38 pm

Going back to Nader, I have at least some sympathy for the central conceit, as I wrote here

Certainly [Buffett, Gates and Soros] are doing a lot of good with their money. And while there are other billionaires who don’t do anything positive, taken as a group the ultra-rich seem a lot more attractive than the merely rich, as represented, say, by the Bush administration. So perhaps a bit of inequality at the very top of the income distribution (a few billion-dollar fortunes and a corresponding reduction in the number of millionaires/multimillionaires) is not such a bad idea. With this much money it is possible for someone to a lot of good unilaterally.

Maybe I should have written his novel back in 2003.

47

jacob 10.23.09 at 10:49 pm

I don’t know if Ellison’s Invisible Man counts as a political novel, but it is certainly one of the masterpieces of American fiction. I’ll second the USA Trilogy and Svejk; it’s been too long since I read War of the Newts to remember if I thought it was a genuinely good novel. Ditto Native Son, but I remember thinking 15 years ago that it was very good.

48

andthenyoufall 10.23.09 at 11:05 pm

Utopia. And I’ll throw in a half-vote for 1984, too.

49

Jim Harrison 10.23.09 at 11:12 pm

Some of the best political satire was produced in the waning years of the Soviet Union. I’m thinking of works like Znoviev’s Yawning Abyss, which is something like a Slavic version of Brazil.

50

Gleg 10.23.09 at 11:16 pm

Another interesting utopia is “Voyage from Yesteryear” by James P Hogan (who is also a quirky author in the Heinlein mold), which describes a fascinating alternate society where money is replaced by expertise, with a plot involving a future American fascist government spaceship arriving at that society, and the ensuing revolution… I am not sure if its a tribute to Heinlein or an unconscious parallel, but with Heinlein’s libertarianism replaced with something else, that is unique, and which is hard to find flaws in. But a utopia. It’s a great book to cheer yourself up with.

51

GeoX 10.23.09 at 11:22 pm

Robert Coover’s Public Burning, surely. Also, Pynchon’s criminally underrated Vineland.

52

lemuel pitkin 10.23.09 at 11:27 pm

I’m shocked lt didn’t mention the wonderful U.S.!.

So, U.S.!, by Chris Bachelder.

Also, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman.

53

Hidari 10.23.09 at 11:28 pm

Wyndham Lewis’s ‘The Revenge for Love’?

(Which is also one of the better titles for a novel).

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3612/is_199901/ai_n8833048/

54

lemuel pitkin 10.23.09 at 11:29 pm

Come to think of it, the book my handle comes from isn’t unpolitical, either.

55

Chris 10.24.09 at 12:08 am

Under Western Eyes

56

Crazy eyes killer 10.24.09 at 12:14 am

Okay, let me get this straight. Christopher Hayes, who wrote the review, objected to Nader sucking up to the rich, right? And he is a regular contributor to the Nation Magazine, right? And that’s the magazine that wrote beaucoups articles against Nader when opposed John Kerry who had millions of dollars from Wall Street hedge fund managers, multinational corporations, corporate lawyers, and real estate developers? Where’s George Orwell when we need him?

57

John Emerson 10.24.09 at 12:37 am

I’m all populist and shit, but Nader’s thesis doesn’t seem so bad to me. Nice to have a backup plan. Once you fully accept the worthlessness of the Democratic Party, every Hail Mary looks good.

58

Sebastian 10.24.09 at 12:55 am

some good ones are already taken.
I’d make a strong pitch for Heinrich Böll – pretty much everything, but especial The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
(is that still read in the US?)

59

vivian 10.24.09 at 1:23 am

The British do more political satire than this side of the pond/south of Canada: A Very British Coup, House of Cards, Le Carre’s classics are about office politics as much as espionage. Heck, Terry Pratchett has increasingly worked political satire in with social satire. But I think Henry wanted novels advocating a political action or movement, not anything that includes political issues or politics as plot points. Not just “Don’t let this go on,” but “If that bothers you, do this instead”. A well-plotted, well-written use-case for a manifesto, and worth reading, not just enduring. Some good suggestions upthread, but I can’t think of recent ones that fit.

60

Keith 10.24.09 at 1:36 am

Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Surprisingly for a monstronovel written in the mid 70′s and ostensibly about late 60′s counterculture vs the Man, it’s not very dated. It’s also hilarious, weird, and beautiful. There’s some political satire in Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy as well, which is sort of unofficial sequel and is also full of hard science and an interesting take on libertarian economics.

Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff is a sort of updated Illuminatus!, directly responding to Rand.

61

Keith 10.24.09 at 1:45 am

Of course, Illuminatus! also skewers Rand, with one of the characters writing a turgid political novel called Telemachus Sneezed, which features a 100 page monologue by a metacharacter named John Guilt.

62

Ceri B. 10.24.09 at 2:08 am

I think I want to suggest Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and the first two sequels (I’ve not read the others). Each one is a murder mystery, but they’re also very much about the overall shape and evolution of the Soviet Union and its successors.

I’m sure I want to suggest William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night.

63

andy 10.24.09 at 2:19 am

Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea.

I’m a great admirer of this wild and wooly work but I’m not sure it qualifies as a great novel, at least if we are being conservative about the definition of a novel.

Which does not mean that people shouldn’t read it. I spent a quite pleasant spring break in high school smoking dope and reading this amazingly amusing doorstop.

I always remember the way the novel detourned the Young Americans for Freedom slogan, “Immanentize the Eschaton” into a subversive phrase.

And in the spirit of the Platonov suggestion, another: Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. Again, though, its political import it more implicit than explicit.

64

lostin 10.24.09 at 2:35 am

I’m with Zora on Le Guin, although Always Coming Home seems more political to my mind.

65

Davis X. Machina 10.24.09 at 2:53 am

Phineas Phinn, The Prime Minister, and Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope.

66

harold 10.24.09 at 3:03 am

Turgenev, Fathers and Sons is the best. Peacock, Nightmare Abbey. Trollope’s The Pallisers is as political as can be and very readable. A Dance to the Music of Time is about a politician, Widmerepool, with Orwell making a guest appearance. And of course there is Point Counterpoint.

Journey to the End of the Night is the ultimate protest novel. Rouge et le Noir is political in being a devastating social satire. Zola’s books also. If you define political broadly.

I am in the middle of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, so can’t say if it is good or not, but suspect will find it to be a great political novel when I have finished it.

I loved Man’s Fate when I read it, both in high school English and in college French (class), though that was so many decades ago I’m embarrassed to admit it.

Used to like Elio Vittorini and Silone once upon a time.

67

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 10.24.09 at 3:45 am

Someone mentioned A Scanner Darkly. I’d add Radio Free Albemuth as another political Philip K Dick novel.

I think “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us” sounds like the title of a book he’d write.

68

Rob Kevlihan 10.24.09 at 4:27 am

Not sure if this counts as political, but What is the What by David Eggers is a well written distillation of the experiences of Sudanese Lost Boys both in Sudan and in their adjustment to the US.

69

Doctor Science 10.24.09 at 4:28 am

LeGuin, IMHO, qualifies for the Nobel Prize: “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Meaning, a work of *moral* fiction, about how humans should live. If you’re talking about groups larger than a family, that’s a political novel, ISTM. Books where politics and political/moral principles are discussed and acted out, whether in the “Real World” or in imagination, seem to me to be political novels. So I’d say:

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar; The Sheep Look Up; The Shockwave Rider.
Heinlein: all of it.
Rushdie: Midnight’s Children. The Satanic Verses.
Theodore Judson: Fitpatrick’s War.
George RR Martin: The Game of Ice and Fire, but it’s pretty old-fashioned politics.
Neal Stephenson: Ananthem, though that’s more a novel of philosophy than of politics per se.

70

P2Dream 10.24.09 at 4:41 am

‘Politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.’
Stendhal

71

Mitchell Freedman 10.24.09 at 4:44 am

Most Victor Serge qualifies, as Serge’s novels are like Balzac, a series of interconnected stories. Each book may be read on its own, but they begin before the Russian Revolution to the Stalinist takeover to the despair of the independent left during the late 1930s through the 1940s.

Also, Ignacio Silone’s Fortamara, Bread & Wine, the Seed Beneath the Snow, among others.

Vidal’s American history novels are highly politically charged, starting with Washington DC, which is about the rise of the national security state and the triumph of celebrity over substance in politics.

The Great Midland, by Alexander Saxton, which I’m just finishing, has been astonishing. It is about communist union organizers in the early to mid-20th Century in the Chicago area.

For those of a more American classical bent, Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, and Grapes of Wrath, of course. Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

72

Marc 10.24.09 at 5:06 am

The claim is that it is badly written, not that it is a product of St. Ralph and thus flawed by nature.

73

roy belmont 10.24.09 at 5:10 am

Just for contraries, Andy et al having covered most of what occurs immediately, James Earl Carter’s The Hornet’s Nest is a wonderfully evocative novelization of the historical record of the US war for independence. Which is sort of ur-political.
Plus if PKD and John Brunner get in Cordwainer Smith should be there as well.
And now he is.

74

shah8 10.24.09 at 5:11 am

Ok, in the okay sci-fi department, there is Karen Travis’ series that starts with City of Pearl. There are excellent novels of court politics in some of the novels that comprise Cherryh’s long-running atevi series. Ian Bank’s Excession from the Culture series is rather profoundly political in its way. Most of Paula Volsky’s most recognized work is pretty political….

Think I will add Kim Stanley Robinson’s 60 Days of Rain and stop here. My definition of political is where there is a distributed decisionmaking process and factional interplay in choosing a policy. That tends to leave out more sociological stuff like Richard Morgan’s Market Forces…

75

DCA 10.24.09 at 5:44 am

Two (at least) of D’Israeli’s novels: Coningsby (about politics) and Sybil (a call to action); maybe others, but these are the only two I’ve read.

76

The Raven 10.24.09 at 5:53 am

Surely Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Isabel Allende? Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men. An idiosyncratic personal favorite: John Brunner, The Squares of the City.

77

geo 10.24.09 at 6:16 am

Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia: not of high literary quality, but an amazingly plausible and attractive portrait of the good — and sustainable — life.

78

Belle Waring 10.24.09 at 6:47 am

Sinyavsky’s A Voice From The Chorus is excellent, but I’m not sure if it’s a novel, exactly. Zamyatin’s We? Kim Stanley Robinson is out because he is a terrible writer (I say this despite having read about two bajillion pages over the course of the Mars trilogy and that Antarctica one).

79

andrew 10.24.09 at 7:33 am

Bellamy’s Looking Backwards. Just kidding.

I’ll throw in an additional vote for Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent and We. There are some smart passages about politics in The Last Hurrah, but I found it an incredibly dull novel overall. I’ve seen The Blithedale Romance referred to as a political novel and while I’m not quite sure it makes it into that category, it’s worth reading anyway.

80

andrew 10.24.09 at 7:34 am

Also, The Princess Cassimassima.

81

bad Jim 10.24.09 at 7:57 am

Ross Thomas worked in the mystery and espionage genre, but many of his books deal with the nuts and bolts of politics from the point of view of an insider. Seersucker Whipsaw deals with electioneering in West Africa; a couple of American political operatives work for a local tribal leader. Yellow Dog Contract is about an embattled union. The Fools in Town are on Our Side is about an election campaign in the U.S.

Frederik Pohl is as relentlessly political as Ursula LeGuin, most conspicuously in The Space Merchants. Stanislaw Lem deserves mention, although he mostly expresses an outsider’s perspective on a foreign political system, like a great many authors previously mentioned. I highly recommend The Chain of Chance and Return from the Stars just for the way they make the quotidian exotic.

Dickens already got a mention, but, like Twain, his books are almost always somewhat political.

82

bad Jim 10.24.09 at 8:20 am

Let me second Sigelman’s recommendation of Robert Littell, although The Stalin Epigram is sitting unread on my bookshelf. The Company is almost a capsule history of the CIA; I have no idea to what extent it’s an accurate view from the inside, but it’s a compelling review of the moral ambiguity of the cold war. The Revolutionist is another twisted historical epic. Most of his books are more limited in scope, and I’ve enjoyed nearly all of them.

You may also enjoy The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb.

83

herr doktor bimler 10.24.09 at 8:49 am

Doris Lessing.

84

Dan Goodman 10.24.09 at 8:56 am

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

85

ron m. 10.24.09 at 9:56 am

Dostevesky’s Demons

86

JG 10.24.09 at 10:28 am

I second All the King’s Men and Doris Lessing, and add Smallcreep’s Day, Robert Muller, After all, this is England, William Kotzwinkle, Doctor Rat and a lot of GBS.

87

Chris E 10.24.09 at 10:51 am

Guiseppe Tomassi Lampedusa – “The Leopard”
Carlo Levi – “Christ Stopped at Eboli”

88

John Emerson 10.24.09 at 1:10 pm

#82 is almost the only book on the link that has much to do with nuts-and-bolts Poli Sci politics, and it’s at the extreme edge of that (a demagogic elected dictator). I believe that CP Snow’s books are pretty nuts-and-bolts, but I haven’t read them, and IIRC there are a number of others about East Coast machine politics embedded in big city life, but I haven’t read them either and can’t even remember their names.

And there’s a reason for that: Pol Sci politics is really boring, and a novel about that kind of politics would be like a novel about marketing or a novel about inventory management.

For some senses of the the word, Pol Sci isn’t about politics at all.

89

trane 10.24.09 at 1:55 pm

I’ll vote for

Conrad: Under Western Eyes
Vonnegut: Jailbird

90

Monte Davis 10.24.09 at 2:18 pm

Interesting how many go either to Great 20th-Century Isms or to science fiction. Both interest me — but narrowing the scope to American politics, one more vote for Vidal (who both understands and works to incorporate how actual politicians actually work, going back to Burr)… and another for the puzzlingly underrated Ward Just.

91

MacCruiskeen 10.24.09 at 2:37 pm

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books is an extraordinary book, first published in 1981 and still barely known in the US. It’s a brilliantly intense, naturalistic, working-class bildungsroman set in and around the city of Glasgow (Books 2 and 3), embedded in a dystopian fantasy set in and around the obsolescent (and soon-to-be-”swallowed”) city of Unthank (Books 1 and 4).

In short: the character called Lanark is the struggling reincarnation of the art student Duncan Thaw, dead of suicide at the age of 23 and now almost literally going through hell. But if Unthank is a kind of hell, then it’s a strangely recognisable one, in which capital, politics, bureaucracy, big medicine and the media are still virulently and voraciously alive.

In the Epilogue, which comes halfway through, the author addresses his protagonist as follows:

“You [Lanark] are Thaw with the neurotic imagination trimmed off and built into the furniture of the world you occupy.”

and:

“The Thaw narrative shows a man dying because he is bad at loving. It is enclosed by your narrative which shows civilization collapsing for the same reason.”

Recommended.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanark:_A_Life_in_Four_Books

92

GW 10.24.09 at 2:39 pm

I think we’re all waiting for a great novel set in the planning department of a Los Angeles suburb.

93

John Kozak 10.24.09 at 3:12 pm

The Edward Upward trilogy.

94

Ceri B. 10.24.09 at 3:13 pm

Housing developments have been elements in some of Michael Connelly’s mysteries, I think. I know that earthquake-aftermath stuff features in several of the Harry Bosch novels. (As do things like the federalization and politicization of a lot of law enforcement after 9/11.)

95

bob mcmanus 10.24.09 at 3:19 pm

90:Spent some time at Amazon, and Ward Just looks like the real deal, if the topic is books about politics, narrowly construed. I want to read him.

96

rich 10.24.09 at 3:28 pm

Catch 22, Joseph Heller
The Librarian, Larry Beinhart
If Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes
Can’t really avoid including Ellison’s Invisible Man or James Baldwin.
Anything by Mark Twain. (I can say that, right?) Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, if you can’t rationalize anything else, rather, view everything else he’s written as inherently political.
The Scarlet Letter. Even Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ argues against the new political regime.

Concur with Monte Davis, American political novels seem to clump into Great Literature and Science Fiction categories. So we have Steinbeck and Heinlein, dos Passos and Frederik Pohl, Nathaniel Hawthorne and LeGuin. I suspect Jack London is overlooked. Much of what qualifies as Literature fits awkwardly into the ‘political novel’ category, while author after science fiction author delivers extraordinarily rich allegorical material that’s Serious Lit and entirely political in nature.

Several authors straddle the two categories, if you can grant the political implications are strong enough in their great-social-science-fiction work:

Take Your Pick, Kurt Vonnegut
Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
Zodiac, Cryptonomicon Trilogy, Neal Stephenson (highly recommend Zodiac)
JR, William Gaddis — may fit this category, and have enormous political implications, but not sure whether it could be reduced to the political. If not, maybe none of them can.

More to the point:
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
Myra Breckenridge, Vidal — same problem as Pynchon and Gaddis, but political!

Farewell, My Lovely Raymond Chandler

Chandler, together with Twain, Beinhart & Heller, and including the Steinbeck and London set and the science fiction cadre, may do it. Ed Abbey.

97

LFC 10.24.09 at 4:02 pm

I don’t think these have been mentioned yet, unless in the last 10 minutes or so (apologies if they have been):
1) The First Circle (Solzhenitysn) — read it a long long time ago, so recollection is hazy (but I think I liked it).
2) Guerrillas (Naipaul) — sort of repellent politics (or very repellent, depending on your point of view), but superbly written. He deserved his Nobel prize on the strength of this book alone, or so I would argue.
3) A Flag for Sunrise (Robert Stone) — not everyone’s cup of tea; I think it is very good, occasionally a little overwritten.

98

jeremy 10.24.09 at 4:23 pm

since others already hit my favorites (turgenev, dostoevsky, conrad, kafka, celine, ellison, lessing…and penn warren back in the day) i’ll stretch a little: all of joyce, for his startling evocations of religious and nationalist politics, keruoac’s “on the road,” and the great italian film “the best of youth,” if only it were a novel. and yes, the latter is just an incitement for an entirely new thread.

99

jeremy 10.24.09 at 4:41 pm

oh, and then there’s roth’s “american pastoral.”

100

John Emerson 10.24.09 at 4:47 pm

“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, in fact, is about nuts-and-bolts politics.

101

King Rat 10.24.09 at 5:15 pm

Leonard Wibberly’s The Mouse That Roared.

102

KB Player 10.24.09 at 6:22 pm

George Eliot’s novels:-

Middlemarch which is great on town politics as well as being set around the time of the 1832 Reform Act

Felix Holt the Radical set at the same time as Middlemarch, and shows the influence of dissenting religion upon reformist politics

Daniel Deronda about Zionism and the Jewish question

There’s also Winifred Holtby’s South Riding about local council politics

103

ejh 10.24.09 at 6:35 pm

Another interesting utopia is “Voyage from Yesteryear” by James P Hogan (who is also a quirky author in the Heinlein mold), which describes a fascinating alternate society where money is replaced by expertise, with a plot involving a future American fascist government spaceship arriving at that society, and the ensuing revolution… I am not sure if its a tribute to Heinlein or an unconscious parallel, but with Heinlein’s libertarianism replaced with something else, that is unique, and which is hard to find flaws in. But a utopia. It’s a great book to cheer yourself up with.

It’s also a bloody awful piece of writing.

Comments in three figures and yet my Find function fails to detect The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which really is a great political novel. And I’ll second The Case of Comrade Tulayev (and for that matter, Darkness At Noon).

104

Ilya Gerner 10.24.09 at 6:36 pm

@79

I liked the Last Hurrah!

105

IM 10.24.09 at 6:53 pm

Vargas Llosa: Death in the Andes, but also many of his other works.

Sara Paretsky: Crime with the background of contemporary (Illinois) politics.

Swift: Gullivers Travels

Guareschi: Stories of Don Camillo

106

John Emerson 10.24.09 at 7:04 pm

“Caeser’s Column”, Ignatius Donnelly. Pioneer dystopian novel by an actual politician.

107

grackle 10.24.09 at 7:37 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Erskine Childers ‘ The Riddle of the Sands, a marvelous story that directly influenced Britain’s preparations for war with Germany prior to WWI.

108

Deliasmith 10.24.09 at 9:26 pm

Seven Days in May

Film not so good – spoiled by casting. Burt Lancaster v Kirk Douglas is primary colour poster paint acting, though Lancaster is really good as a Douglas McArthur figure and was a clever enough actor to have allowed his character to be defeated by a human-scale opponent.

109

Deliasmith 10.24.09 at 9:29 pm

Oh, and Don Camillo is politics for people who know, just know that socialism is against human nature.

110

Matt L 10.24.09 at 9:35 pm

I have to share, I just added _The Case of Comrade Tulayev_ to my amazon wish list and I was offered a chance to meet the Jonas Brothers. Verily, a sign that the final crisis of Capital is far, far away…

111

Gene O'Grady 10.24.09 at 10:37 pm

Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Glad to see that someone (correctly) mentioned Chandler, whom I like, but one might also mention the early, and very bloody but very Western US political, novels of Dashiell Hammett, whom I don’t much like.

And to continue my one person crusade, does anyone really think that Animal Farm and 1984 are good as novels? Strictly sources for 10th grade English essays as far as I’m concerned.

George Eliot was a good reference; Elizabeth Gaskell might also be mentioned. And, although his politics are a little remote, Walter Scott.

112

David 10.24.09 at 10:38 pm

Indeed, Salman Rushdie, reviewing Vineland in the NYTimes Bookreview, declared that it was a rarity among American novels in that it was overtly political. As for Kim Stanley Robinson, I couldn’t disagree with Belle Waring more if I tried. Another one of those curious lapses, I suppose.

113

David 10.24.09 at 10:44 pm

Cards of Identity, by Nigel Dennis.

114

Henry 10.24.09 at 11:14 pm

bq. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Erskine Childers ’ The Riddle of the Sands, a marvelous story that directly influenced Britain’s preparations for war with Germany prior to WWI.

My great-grandfather tried (and failed) to stop him from being shot.

115

roac 10.25.09 at 12:09 am

I would call The Master and Margarita an anti-political novel — a cry of agony at being trapped in a society where politics are compulsory. And from which the author can’t even imagine any escape but death.

If we are talking about mysteries — good, rereadable mysteries — from a left-wing stance, let me remind you of Rex Stout. And Sjowall and Wahloo (sorry abnout the diacritics, I can’t be botehred to hunt the codes down at the moment.

116

roac 10.25.09 at 12:11 am

Oops — looking back I see that Andy beat me to my observation about Bulgakov way back at no. 14. Sorry.

117

Bruce Sharp 10.25.09 at 12:20 am

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The “epilogue” at the end feels out-of-place, but that’s a minor flaw. It’s still a brilliant book. In spite of being written more than two decades ago, it has held up incredibly well. For that matter, every time James Dobson opens his mouth, it seems more and more timely.

118

Zora 10.25.09 at 12:26 am

To a class discussion on utilitarianism, add a reading of LeGuin’s short story, Those who walk away from Omelas

119

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 1:27 am

Interesting how many go either to Great 20th-Century Isms or to science fiction.

Keep in mind, for a large fraction of the internet, “fiction” just means “science fiction”.

For the various people who’ve mentioned Darkness and Noon, really have to reiterate my recommendation of Life and Fate, which maybe is the great Soviet novel.

120

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 1:28 am

and, at, whatever.

121

Zora 10.25.09 at 1:39 am

Pitkin @118 wrote: “Keep in mind, for a large fraction of the internet, ‘fiction’ just means ‘science fiction’.”

The fact that we’re recommending SF isn’t necessarily proof that we don’t read anything else. I suppose I could have recommended Felix Holt, but I should think it has little relevance to present-day politics. (I don’t think you’re going to find anyone today arguing against the secret ballot, as Eliot was doing.) So we’re left with depictions of present-day politics (which many of us find grim and unappealing) or speculation about possible utopias, dystopias, alternate histories, etcetera, all of which have direct relevance to the question, “Where do we go from here?” Political debate takes form as science fiction — as it does in Atlas Shrugged.

122

John Emerson 10.25.09 at 2:11 am

“Democracy”, Henry Adams.

Nothing special as a novel, but probably marks the first appearence in literature of the free-spirited California Girl.

123

rich 10.25.09 at 2:14 am

O’Grady @ 110 — Never could get past a few pages of Hammett, but Chandler’s spare sentences deepen and ripen every time I reread him.

B Traven. The Death Ship is about as political as it gets.
Katherine Anne Porter. Ship of Fools has to qualify on some level, but haven’t looked at it in 25 years.

Concur above that Pynchon’s Vineland is underrated and deals directly with this territory, “narrowly construed” as bob mcmanus put it.

124

Richard Cownie 10.25.09 at 2:57 am

“A Dance to the Music of Time is about a politician, Widmerepool”

No it isn’t. It’s a wonderful work, but I’d hate for anyone to plow through 12
novels and emerge a couple of months later disappointed that Widmerpool and
his somewhat absurd political career (IIRC he gets elected as a Labor MP in
the 1945 landslide – about 20 years into the timeline of the series – and later
becomes governor of a colony.) is little more than an intermittent object of
ridicule.

I’d also put in my vote against Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy on the grounds
that it’s quite tedious and poorly constructed: the science is unconvincing, the
politics isn’t much better; the characters are one-dimensional; and there’s pointless
weirdness like introducing a character, building her (IIRC) up at length, and then
killing her off in a futile accident before she does anything of interest. Political,
yes; good novels, no.

On a positive note, how about Graham Greene, especially The Quiet American ?
And Our Man In Havana for its takedown of the Cold War arms race …

125

GeoX 10.25.09 at 3:10 am

Well if we’re going to post critiques here, can I just say that All the King’s Men is a pretty bad novel? Because it is. Most of it consists of grindingly tedious navel-gazing by the narrator. Warren looooves the sound of his own voice, that much is clear.

And it’s not especially political, either; you could make a case that ol’ Jack’s gradual re-engagement with the world is a political process, but if we’re thinking THAT broadly, then it seems as though you could make a case for almost ANY novel being political, and let’s face it, that’s not what people are thinking about when they call AtKM “political:” they’re thinking of Willie Stark, who barely emerges as a character and whose only purpose is to serve as one of several foils for Jack’s interminable maundering.

126

LFC 10.25.09 at 3:37 am

I hesitate to mention C.P. Snow’s The Corridors of Power, since I never managed to read more than small bits of it, but its title did make that phrase popular.
I’m less hesitant to mention Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood; despite some annoying features, including being probably a bit too long, it’s very readable once you get past the opening pages. (The politics is fairly abstract not ‘nuts-and-bolts,’ and the left-wing theorist who is writing ‘the book’ of the title is not presented very sympathetically. But neither is anyone else.)

127

Tom 10.25.09 at 4:56 am

If we’re talking Russia, Dead Souls is not to be missed.

From SF I’d cast a vote for The Stars My Destination, as Bester definitely made a point with Gully Foyle.

128

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 5:04 am

The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir.

It’s that very rare thing, a novel that’s really mostly (well, about half) about people’s practical political engagement — founding magazines (and deciding what compromises they are willing to make to get them paid for), joining or not joining parties, organizing protests, etc. Plus it’s got a thinly veiled, fantastically nasty depiction of Arthur Koestler.

129

Simon Jester 10.25.09 at 10:22 am

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has already been mentioned.

How about Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”?

130

Lee Sigelman 10.25.09 at 10:41 am

Oh, I forgot earlier: R.M. Koster, The Dissertation. It’s great.

131

Keir 10.25.09 at 10:43 am

Sholokov!

132

Brian 10.25.09 at 11:21 am

I second Lemuel Pitkins’s choice of The Mandarins. It is a fascinating depiction of the French left after the war.

133

Mark Athitakis 10.25.09 at 11:22 am

One more vote for Ward Just, whose fiction isn’t political in itself but does a tremendous job of getting into heads of politicians. At the risk of coming off as self-dealing, here’s a piece of mine on the two editions of Just’s story collection “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert”:

http://thesecondpass.com/?p=1955

134

Alex 10.25.09 at 11:40 am

If we’re talking Conrad, The Secret Agent.

135

MR Bill 10.25.09 at 11:58 am

Ok, ok, you got most of them: Dickens and Penn Warren, Vidal and Conrad ( especially The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes), Kapek and Lem and Hayek. How about a minor Russian Classic, Voinovich’s The Fur Hat.

136

Henry 10.25.09 at 12:04 pm

bq. To a class discussion on utilitarianism, add a reading of LeGuin’s short story, Those who walk away from Omelas

Doesn’t William James have a hypothetical somewhere that is more or less identical to Le Guin’s?

Lemuel I – I think that there is something more than the ‘people on the internets are all sf readers’ thing going on here. You can (and somebody surely has) make a strong case that sf (and the writing of fellow travellers like DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis) is the most obvious modern descendant of the 19th century Condition of England novel. Most modern US/UK centric literary fiction is less interested in society than in the individual. Perhaps (speaking of KSR), it is all very different on the timeline where Virginia Woolf didn’t commit suicide and “went on to win the 1957 Hugo award”:http://io9.com/5362291/the-science-fiction-writer-who-received-fan-mail-from-virginia-woolf.

Lemuel II – given “what we know of Koestler’s life”:http://www.mclemee.com/id88.html, de Beauvoir wouldn’t have had to have tried very hard to make him sound bad …

137

belle le triste 10.25.09 at 12:14 pm

Less in the mode of dystopian SF satire of actually existing politics, many of Frank Herbert’s non-Dune books are speculative exploration of other possible political systems — as is Dune itself, I guess, with its theocratic ecotarky, though it’s a bit buried these days in the rubble of the rest of the cash cow the series became. The two Bureau of Sabotage books — Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment — are terrific portraits of multicultural negotiation between mutually alien communities in uneasy federation; the latter has a very funny courtroom drama set in a justice system that is highly advanced and sophisticated and utterly inhuman.

Samuel Delany’s Triton (aka Trouble on Triton) is a “reply novel” to Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” — the politics is more by way of backdrop I suppose, though the idea of the “Unlicensed Zone” is strong and interesting.

Peter Hoeg’s “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” is — as backdrop to a borderline SF thriller — a satire on intellectual arrogance as the spine (cause or effect) of both colonialism and its overthrow: the kind of territory emerson, mcmanus and seth edenbaum angrily stalk.

Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

All of Ishmael Reed: Pynchon starts here really…

T.H.White’s The Once and Future King is a very English exploration of why democracy and mutual niceness would be an improvement on maurauding robber barons and the war of all against all, and ewhat will proobably undermine it (=human nature) — it’s as sappy as that in a way, as dated and as class-and-culture-bound as a film like Brief Encounter, but a good snapshot of the utopias and delusions of a lost age. (Plus, you know, JOUSTING!)

138

belle le triste 10.25.09 at 12:26 pm

A scathing attack on the follies of empire that gradually — as its author got older and more dyspeptic about what came after — grew into a kind of apologia for same: George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman sequence.

Kipling’s work goes the other way: a strong bid to defend the notion of Empire, as the only possible framework for the richist possible multculturalism, that — because he’s such a ruthlessly grisly observer of nastiness — easily turns inside out, into an indictment. His short story Mary Postgate is one of the most ambivalently unflinching studies of how ordinary people — the kind of people T.H.White was cheering on — commit horrific warcrimes: the ambivalence is partly the question of what exactly happens in the story; is it actually even an enemy airman Postgate murders? And partly the question of Kipling’s and your response: at what point would you be on Postgate’s side?

139

Hidari 10.25.09 at 12:45 pm

The Comedians, Graham Greene.

Is nobody going to mention the political novels of Trollope, incidentally? (Can you Forgive Her*? etc.). He actually knew the world of nuts and bolts politics well, and once stood for parliament.

Or, to get even more onto the nuts and bolts of politics, what about Disraeli’s novels? Again I haven’t read them myself (and I’ve read quite a bit of 19th century fiction so perhaps that’s significant) but he was Prime Minister for God’s sake.

It seems to me that there are two definitions of the phrase ‘political novel’ being played with here: novels about ‘politics’ where politics is defined as being ‘the way in which we structure and order our lives through a political or quasi-political process” in which case almost every novel is political, and ‘novels about the nuts and bolts of politics as it is actually practiced in the real world’. As most novelists have very little experience of the latter, there are far fewer of these and their literary merit tends to be lower.

The problem here would seem to be the conflation of the two genres, and not comparing like with like. Nader’s novel may be awful (it probably is) but it’s interesting simply because he is a practical politician and has inside experience of politics denied to outsiders like George Orwell or Graham Greene, even though these last two are, obviously, far more talented.

*Or ‘Can You Finish it?’ as Stephen King once called it.

140

Hidari 10.25.09 at 12:48 pm

Apologies just noticed someone has mentioned Trollope. No Disraeli though.

141

John Emerson 10.25.09 at 1:04 pm

Someone mentioned Disraeli too. Other than that you’re right.

Ignatius Donnelly still has three books in print after a century. Atlantis, Bacon as Shakespeare, and dystopia — he’s pretty ancestral. Perhaps “Ragnorak” will be revived too, or his white-man-waking -up-as-a-black-man novel.

142

MR Bill 10.25.09 at 1:29 pm

Uhh, I meant Hasek.
And, of course, PK Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth is “political”, and Nixon is as much a symbol in his other novels (e.g. Valis) as a character.
And I have a dim memory of Roth’s Our Gang

143

JoB 10.25.09 at 1:35 pm

Karl Kraus, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit.

144

skidmarx 10.25.09 at 1:43 pm

Doesn’t William James have a hypothetical somewhere that is more or less identical to Le Guin’s?
She does quote from him in the introduction to TOWWAFO in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.So yes.
Her “The Word For World Is Forest” is also quite powerful.
Much of Pohl’s work has political overtones,even Gateway has it’s main character start of as a miner, and visit a slum in Brasilia in the sequel, though he said that his short story “The Children” about a public relations campaigner’s attempt to skew an election was his first story directly on the subject.
As does much of Philip K.Dick’s work, plus Michael Bishop’s Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas in which Richard Nixon has been re-elected three times and Americans who opposed the Vietnam War are stoned to death.

I found The Foutainhead turgid.

Gillian Slovo might be some people’s cup of tea, though I preferred her early detective fiction.

145

Hidari 10.25.09 at 1:54 pm

‘Someone mentioned Disraeli too. Other than that you’re right.’

Your ‘Find’ option in IE is obviously superior to mine.

146

SusanC 10.25.09 at 2:06 pm

@Hidari.

I was treating it as novels whose main aim was to make an argument about some real-world political issue.

The Secret Agent is also about the nuts and bolts of real-world politics, if you take that to include things like the bombing of the Greenwich observatory.

147

belle le triste 10.25.09 at 2:06 pm

Fritz Leiber’s A Spectre is Haunting Texas is the opposite of turgid.
Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War

Vonnegut is patchy but when he’s on it he’s great.

Apart from Disraeli and maybe Havel, tho he did it in the wrong order, who’s been a frontrank politician as well as a better-than-mid-rank novelist? It always makes me think of P.D. James’s poet-policeman Adam Dalgleish: I don’t dislike James’s books but surely Dalgleish’s poetry totally sucks.

148

tom s. 10.25.09 at 2:10 pm

Agata Kristof: The Notebook.

149

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:16 pm

Jonathan Franzen’s The 27th City. Way better than The Corrections. It’s a sort of conspiracy story about big-city (well, St, Louis) urban politics. He gives the impression of understanding the thinking of real estate developers and their interlocutors in government quite well. The big climax is even a local referendum!

there are two definitions of the phrase ‘political novel’ being played with here: novels about ‘politics’ where politics is defined as being ‘the way in which we structure and order our lives through a political or quasi-political process’’ in which case almost every novel is political, and ‘novels about the nuts and bolts of politics as it is actually practiced in the real world’. As most novelists have very little experience of the latter, there are far fewer of these and their literary merit tends to be lower.

Right, exactly. The Corrections is one of the very few contemporary good ones I can think of that falls in the latter category. (It’s really puzzling that there aren’t more. Practical politics is, compared with most areas of contemporary life, full of conflict, strong emotions, major decisions, etc.) But there is also a third definition, novels written to advance a particular political position or vision. Atlas Shrugged probably (it’s a long time since I tried to read it) fits that definition better than either of the first two.

150

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:17 pm

Oops, meant The 27th City in that last paragraph. The Corrections is not political and is only intermittently good.

151

ejh 10.25.09 at 2:18 pm

There would surely be a long list of novelists who’ve stood for office and failed? I’ll kick off with Upton Sinclair and Norman Mailer.

Haldeman’s The Forever War was heavily used in the Alan Moore/Ian Gibson series The Ballad of Halo Jones. (Indeed if we’re looking for political graphic novels, Moore’s Watchmen would be a good place to start.)

152

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:22 pm

I think that there is something more than the ‘people on the internets are all sf readers’ thing going on here. You can (and somebody surely has) make a strong case that sf (and the writing of fellow travellers like DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis) is the most obvious modern descendant of the 19th century Condition of England novel.

I think this is true. It’s a little puzzling why it’s true, tho — why doesn’t anyone writing fiction now seem to want to be the new Dickens or Tolstoy or Balzac? It’s my casual impression that there are still lots of interesting things going on in the world.

153

belle le triste 10.25.09 at 2:27 pm

Mph, Watchmen is a good place to start re political comics provided we immediately move on somewhere better — ie almost anywhere. *Clambers onto demented internet hobbyhorse*

Cerebus is a better place. Mid-period Cerebus. Before the really really tiny writing and the explanation why all women evah are evil marxist muslims.

154

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:27 pm

who’s been a frontrank politician as well as a better-than-mid-rank novelist?

Mario Vargas Llosa? (Who also wrote some fairly political fiction.)

155

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:28 pm

… or no, he’s more on ejh’s “stood for office and failed” list.

156

ejh 10.25.09 at 2:32 pm

Has Vargas Llosa ever been elected to anything? (I know you don’t have to be elected to be political, but it’s a useful filter to have, because without it, almost everybody qualifies.)

157

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 2:35 pm

He made a serious run for presidnet of Peru in 1990 — nearly won IIRC.

158

ejh 10.25.09 at 2:37 pm

Indeed, it was while reading about it on Wikipedia that I failed to refresh this page before posting and thereby missed your #153.

159

Jackmormon 10.25.09 at 2:47 pm

why doesn’t anyone writing fiction now seem to want to be the new Dickens or Tolstoy or Balzac?

Right now I’m reading Conspirators by Michael Andre Bernstein, someone very clearly rooted in the 19th-c realist tradition, but it’s a historical novel(set in 1910s Galicia). It has politics—capitalists and communists and marriage, so far! It’s been almost strange to recognize the pacing of such an earlier tradition, done so entirely without cutesiness (which I felt marred for example Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell). I only wish I could find more novels that dealt so intelligently and seriously with contemporary life. Smart, self-aware writers perhaps worry that the realist style of exposition, melodrama, and detail sketches will mark them as pretentious or doom their books in the market. There’s the whole omniscient narrative eye (and its ironic glance) that might be problematic for the contemporary setting, as well.

160

Jackmormon 10.25.09 at 2:48 pm

who’s been a frontrank politician as well as a better-than-mid-rank novelist?

Andre Malraux.

161

ejh 10.25.09 at 3:40 pm

A search for politican novelist offers Dobrica Cosic and Justin M’Carthy.

162

Henry 10.25.09 at 3:52 pm

bq. why doesn’t anyone writing fiction now seem to want to be the new Dickens or Tolstoy or Balzac?

Some people _want_ to – e.g. Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” It’s more that nobody really is succeeding.

On P.D. James – I used to dislike her intensely, because Dalgliesh was such an insufferable character. Or, rather, insufferable not-character – he’s really a type. M. John Harrison has a parody of his fantasy-cognate, tegeus-Cromis, “who fancied himself a better poet than swordsman” (and some literary criticism that talks about this trope). And I found the politics obnoxious – the kind of Toryism that Huxley’s Betas might have advocated in retrospect if they had had been interested in writing historical novels. But picking her up again a year or so ago because I had nothing better to read, I found myself getting pulled in despite myself, and realizing that what she is really, _really_ good at is capturing the particular social worlds that women made for themselves in the UK, before the advent of equality in the workplace etc. “Shroud for a Nightingale” is excellent in this regard (even if the mystery is iffy), but much of the later work qualifies too. She isn’t even slightly feminist, and regards these worlds unsparingly, but with some considerable sympathy for those whose worlds they were.

163

burritoboy 10.25.09 at 4:14 pm

I’m going to make a very bold – yet I think correct – claim here: not only are there very few political novels, there are no political novels at all. I would argue that novels are an explicitly anti-political genre, and (an even more bold claim here): might have been intentionally designed by the initiators of the genre to exclude politics.

First, “novels about ‘politics’ where politics is defined as being ‘the way in which we structure and order our lives through a political or quasi-political process’’ in which case almost every novel is political” – that is not politics (or, conversely, it’s so broad that almost everything is political, which means that definition is effectively useless). A political novel would be about politics itself – i.e. about explicit politics, politicians, statesman, policy decisions and so on.

Look at the genres that the novel competed against in it’s first days – drama and poetry. There’s no difficulty in naming a political drama: the first play we have (Aeschylus’ Persians) is undoubtedly about politics and most tragic plays until the advent of the novel are explicitly about notable political figures. There’s no difficulty in naming a political poem: until the advent of the novel, a huge number of the epic poems we have are explicitly about political figures doing political things.

164

burritoboy 10.25.09 at 4:24 pm

An aside here: politics in science fiction is garbage. There’s characters in science fiction whom the authors want us to believe are political figures. But science fiction authors uniformally can’t depict politicians doing political things in plausible political ways. Instead, they depict their politician characters precisely as their genre – the novel – forces all of it’s heroes into: they portray politicians as lovers rather than statesmen. I.E. their “politician” characters make decisions on the basis of love (or forms of sublimated love) rather than anything political: they fight for Moon independence because they love a native Moon woman, or because they fall in love with the beautiful Moon landscapes, or because they were born on the Moon and thus love their native Moon blut and boden.

165

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 4:30 pm

I’m going to make a very bold – yet I think correct – claim here: not only are there very few political novels, there are no political novels at all. … A political novel would be about politics itself – i.e. about explicit politics, politicians, statesman, policy decisions and so on.

So, there are no novels about politicians or politics at all. None — good, bad or indifferent.

Uh huh.

166

burritoboy 10.25.09 at 4:43 pm

“So, there are no novels about politicians or politics at all. None—good, bad or indifferent.”

There are (many) novels where a character is nominally called a “politician”. But the novel itself will not be about politics – it will be about the “politician’s” love affairs or family life (i.e. the politician could just be any other profession). Even when the novel authors try to write about politicians as politicians, they can’t do it: the politician’s politics will be driven by his love affairs or family life. Essentially, I would argue that novel genre itself blocks thinking about politics as politics.

167

Cranky Observer 10.25.09 at 4:57 pm

Unfortunately I was not able to post my thought earlier in the thread, but I think it has been amply illustrated by various comments: the problem with citing science fiction (or speculative fiction) as political literature is that no Serious Person(tm) accepts that science fiction IS literature. Unless the author engages in 30 years of mainstreaming (LeGuin), but even after that one hint of technology or scientific/social complexity and the work is back on the juvenile shelves. Regardless of its quality or insight in any absolute sense (to the extent that such a judgment can be made).

Cranky

168

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 5:04 pm

166-

Ah right, no true Scotsman. Of course you haven’t read The Mandarins or The 27th City or Jules Valles’ The Insurgent but you can assure me that my impression that they were about politics as politics must be mistaken. But then, I suppose it’s not necessary to know anything about particular novels if you know all about the genre itself.

169

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 5:07 pm

the problem with citing science fiction (or speculative fiction) as political literature is that no Serious Person™ accepts that science fiction IS literature. Unless the author engages in 30 years of mainstreaming (LeGuin), but even after that one hint of technology or scientific/social complexity and the work is back on the juvenile shelves

Look, I enjoy sf as much as anyone. But the notion that it has a monopoly on “social complexity” is a perfect example of the blinkers that I was snarking at in 119.

170

Sue VanHattum 10.25.09 at 5:09 pm

Yikes! I can’t read 168 comments right now. But I’ll be back, eager to see the nominees!

It depends on your definition of genuinely political, but I think The Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara qualifies. I’ll have more later…

171

ejh 10.25.09 at 5:17 pm

Admirers of the late Raymond Williams might like to know that I attended a lecture he gave not very long before his death – it may even have been his last lecture for all I know – in which he suggested that there was only really one socialist novel, that being The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. (It was far too long ago to remember his precise argument, but it may have been that other novels may have been written by socialists and may have offered critiques of existing society, but Tressell’s was explicitly about replacing that society with a socialist one.)

172

harold 10.25.09 at 5:35 pm

Science fiction is all about ideas — to the exclusion of character most of the time. I used to love it but now find it and all genre fiction mostly thin and unmemorable. Any novel can envision wanting to read over and over generally also fits the category of “serious” literature even if technically science fiction.

Speaking of genre fiction, that reminds me that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is also highly political, in many senses. He uses actual documents from debates of the time in which the novel is set.

173

Cranky Observer 10.25.09 at 6:31 pm

> But the notion that it has a monopoly on “social complexity” is a
> perfect example of the blinkers that I was snarking at in 119.

Please point in in detail, with exact quotes, where I stated that science fiction has a “monopoly” on involving concepts of social complexity. Because if you cannot, and I did not, then IMHO you have reinforced my point.

Which isn’t to say that most, or even very much, science fiction is any good. Other than GRRM and LeGuin I haven’t really read much of same for 20 years (excepting some adventure-trash, e.g. Sterling, for pure airport amusement). Still, the relegation to the ghetto sweeps up the good as well as the bad.

Cranky

174

Cranky Observer 10.25.09 at 6:34 pm

> Jonathan Franzen’s The 27th City. Way better than
> The Corrections. It’s a sort of conspiracy story about
> big-city (well, St, Louis) urban politics.

Having purchased and read _The 27th City_ in the first paperback edition back in 1988, I was astonished to see that it had been reissued last year in a new edition. A good book, but I thought it was long forgotten.

Cranky

175

Yarrow 10.25.09 at 7:36 pm

Henry: “Doesn’t William James have a hypothetical somewhere that is more or less identical to Le Guin’s?”

Yes indeed. The subtitle of the story, in fact, is “Variations on a theme by William James”. Details, including quotes from Le Guin and James, at the Wikipedia entry.

176

lemuel pitkin 10.25.09 at 7:39 pm

Cranky,

What can “even one hint of social complexity and it back on the juvenile shelves” mean except that books not on the juvenile shelves lack any such hint?

Anyway, I don’t think we disagree here really — I would also put some of LeGuin’s stuff at the top of the very short list of science fiction which is also good by non-genre standards. (But it isn’t because she’s “engaged in 30 years of mainstreaming” as you so patronizingly put it, it’s because — unlike the vast majority of sf writers — she is able to imagine & convey a whole range of characters and social and emotional situations. I just recently read her Searoad — not sf — which is close to To the Lighthouse in its attention to the depth and complexity of immediate experience.) But you’d have to be awfully cranky to complain that the “Serious People” don’t pay attention to science fiction after a thread of 150 comments at least half of which — by serious people as far as I can tell — recommend various sf novels.

177

lt 10.25.09 at 7:51 pm

Regarding the categories outline above, I think there’s a category in between “the way in which we structure and order our lives through a political or quasi-political process’’ which is overly broad as pointed out, and a novel about politicians, elections and so forth. Think about the “novel of ideas,” tradition, where characters are grappling with different visions of the world, including political outlooks – it’s not aimed at convincing readers a la Ayn Rand, or say, something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a different tradition, but it’s interested in staging the debates.

The Golden Notebooks would be a great novel in that vein – there’s a bit of petition-signing, but it’s mostly about politics as experience.

178

Donald A. Coffin 10.25.09 at 7:52 pm

Why I didn’t think of this earlier (amd I don’t see anyone else making a mention), I’ll never know, but at some point great war novels have to be about politics, and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” would be right up there.

179

Donald A. Coffin 10.25.09 at 7:59 pm

Now all Henry has to do is edit this all into a reading list for his new course on “Politics in the Novel…”

180

MR Bill 10.25.09 at 8:16 pm

And leave us not forget (as the man said) The Manchurian Candidate (which pretty much plagiarizes/samples I, Claudius in it’s description of the marriage of the Senator and Raymond’s Mom) and the other novels (Winter Kills, Mile High of the sadly under-appreciated Richard Condon.
As near as I can figure, the ultimate ‘political science fiction’, the Foundation Trilogy was all about government without all that nasty politics.

181

burritoboy 10.25.09 at 8:45 pm

“Ah right, no true Scotsman. Of course you haven’t read The Mandarins or The 27th City or Jules Valles’ The Insurgent but you can assure me that my impression that they were about politics as politics must be mistaken. But then, I suppose it’s not necessary to know anything about particular novels if you know all about the genre itself.”

The problem is that we’re struggling to find political novels – you managed to namecheck 3 or 4 fairly obscure items. But let’s compare the novel to the tragic drama: if you ask people what plays they know, they’ll probably mention Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Oresteia, Phedre, Threepenny Opera and the like. All of these (except for Threepenny Opera) are about explicitly political figures doing politics. It’s not only not hard to find a political play, most of the major examples are very political, it’s harder to avoid politics than to find it. Similarly, if we compare the novel to the epic poem: if you ask people what epic poems they know, they’ll mention Iliad, Aeneid, Odyssey, Divine Comedy, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and so on. Many of these are about explicitly political figures as well doing explicit politics.

In fact, even during an era when the novel has struggled to even begin to take baby steps on politics, two of the leading playwrights of the twentieth century – Brecht and Shaw – produced bodies of work that are heavily and explicitly political (both of them to the point that their plays often feature kings, princes, politicians, armaments manufacturers, members of parliaments and so on).

182

lt 10.25.09 at 8:54 pm

BB @ 181 – I’d hardly describe the range of what’s described in this thread as a stretch. You do have a point though, in the sense that drama was traditionally about the elites who ‘did politics’ in the traditional direct way of wielding state power. The novel, as many have described, rises with the rise of the middle class, so there’s going to me more of a focus on domestic life and psychological drama. But the novel certainly doesn’t exclude politics any more than it excludes any other sphere.

Then again, I thought American Wife (about Laura Bush) was pretty good, so what do I know.

183

ejh 10.25.09 at 9:00 pm

if you ask people what plays they know, they’ll probably mention Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Oresteia, Phedre, Threepenny Opera and the like

With the exception of the first of these, I very much doubt it.

184

belle le triste 10.25.09 at 9:37 pm

For a sour but basically sadly accurate demolition of Le Guin as someone who has shuffled away her considerable early talent in not very admirable pseudo-academic infighting and posturing, see Thomas Disch’s entertaining critical history of SF: “The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of”.

Burritoboy’s “no novel can be political hence all SF politics is garbage” would be a slightly less pompously silly non sequitur if it read “no novel can be political hence SF has produced no novels” — it’s still plainly wrong but it’s a more fruitful and useful error I think, because it hints at the possibility that the “novel” as a form is not the be all and end all of fiction; that there are other things we are allowed to turn our imagination to than the inner lives of the nearly real. I can’t think of a way to stratify SF into good-bad-terrible-whatever which actually delivers a tranche in which his “moon blud and boden” claim is routinely true (obviously unlike BB I’ve actually read quite a lot, which bolsters my confidence a bit here): characters driven by fiat positions of every kind pop up at every level of intellectual or literary quality.

I started rereading A Spectre is Haunting Texas as a result of this thread, so it’s not all bad…

185

Sue VanHattum 10.25.09 at 9:45 pm

I agree on LeGuin. And I think sf authors often explore political issues well. I see The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has been brought up at least 3 times already. I love that book and have read it about 20 times (even though it’s sexist, etc). I wouldn’t call it a really good novel, though. The writing is pretty stilted. But the ideas…

I am happy to include sf in the ranks of great literature when it is great, and pull some of the ‘classics’ out – I sure wouldn’t call Middlemarch good writing, it bored me to sleep over and over.

Barbara Kingsolver is a great writer and political, but her stories aren’t about poli sci politics. I loved Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, but I’m not sure it qualifies as great writing.

Here are some I’d nominate:
LeGuin, The Word for World is Forest
Linda Hogan, Solar Storms
Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean
Frances Temple, A Taste of Salt (about Haiti, young adult)

186

Sue VanHattum 10.25.09 at 9:51 pm

(Oops! My comment comes after something about LeGuin and infighting. I don’t know anything about that. What I agree with is the general sentiment here that she is a great author.)

187

Will McLean 10.25.09 at 10:00 pm

The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault

188

David 10.25.09 at 10:12 pm

Speaking as one who has enjoyed Ishmael Reed, he is hardly a starting point for Pynchon, given that Pynchon had published two novels before Reed’s first. It is also very entertaining to see the endless rehashing of how bad/trivial/fill-in-your-own-scholarly-snark SF is. Somewhere Leslie Fielder is shaking his head.

189

LFC 10.25.09 at 11:57 pm

@185: I agree that Burger’s Daughter is pretty good (though I read it a long time ago). I totally disagree with you about Middlemarch, and I think you are in a very small minority.

190

Western Dave 10.26.09 at 12:45 am

A second vote for Handmaid’s Tale

Ed Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang inspired a whole generation of environmental activists. I wrote my first letter to the government inspired by it. It hasn’t held up well due to it’s incoherent politics and misogyny but it should be on this list. Fire on the Mountain was a better book by Abbey, but it didn’t inspire nearly as many people.

191

lemuel pitkin 10.26.09 at 1:07 am

Oooh, The Monkeywrench Gang, good call!

If we’re thinking of political novel as a category defined — as the original post suggests — by Atlas Shrugged and Only the Super-Rich as core instances, then Monkeywrench is a perfect example. And while I’m not sure it’s a good book, exactly — it’s been almost 20 years since I read it — I am sure it’s much better than either of those.

192

lemuel pitkin 10.26.09 at 1:34 am

181-

If you’d said that there are surprisingly few novels about politics (in the narrow sense), and that this makes the novel quite different from earlier forms of literature, then no one would object. (You might also have mentioned shows like The Wire, which give a much richer fictional account of practical politics in the US than almost any novel.) It’s true – as lt says, the novel as a form coincides with the rise of the middle class, whose status is much less linked to the direct exercise of political authority than most earlier elites; and indeed the relative lack of political novels is precisely the starting point of this thread.

But of course that isn’t what you said. You said it was impossible to write a novel about politics, which is just silly.

193

Omega Centauri 10.26.09 at 2:06 am

I tend to think of politics, at least in the modern era, as primarily being about the balance of differing worldviews in the common population, and the exploitation of these worldviews by political actors. So any work of fiction which has a strong effect of changing the worldviews of a large part of the population will be important in shaping future politics. And of course worldviews are strongly affected by religion, and ethnic identities. So any work which has a nontrivial effect on the balance of the zeitgeist concerning any of these subjects, is inherently political. Sometimes this is by design, but oftentimes the zeitgeist influence is a nearly accidental result of the storytelling.

Because I’m duscussing the balance of competing worldviews among the public, I think the most commonly consumed forms of fiction will have the most influence. These are rarely the works (or even media) that us eggheads would regard as most worthy. So I nominate movies, and TV series (possibly even comic books). Long running franchises, such as Star Trek are probably near the top, as a definite sort of worldview tends has been promoted, and they’ve been such a large part of the entertainment/culutural landscape for decades.

194

Keith 10.26.09 at 2:07 am

why doesn’t anyone writing fiction now seem to want to be the new Dickens or Tolstoy or Balzac?

It was decided 50 years ago by the editorial staff of the New Yorker that all Serious Literature should imitate J.D. Salinger. Anyone who told a story and had something to say that varied form their family history and psychological hangups was deemed mere entertainment and not worth considering. If a book had aliens and ray guns in it, it was immediately shipped off to the SF ghetto.

195

andy 10.26.09 at 2:18 am

A final nomination: all of John Berger’s novels, particularly G and the Into Their Labours trilogy.

“Anyone who told a story and had something to say that varied form their family history and psychological hangups was deemed mere entertainment and not worth considering.”

This, sadly, is exactly right.

196

k-sky 10.26.09 at 4:24 am

I was glad to see the Chris Lehman reference above, and sad that no one’s made more of it. I’ve been thinking a lot about that essay with regards to my own creative writing about politics, and I’ve been impressed to think back about The West Wing and how well it avoided the pitfalls laid out by Lehman. It studiously avoids the American political novel’s poles (as criticized by Lehman) of corruption and naivete, and does, in fact, deal with questions of legislation and compromise, winning and losing, interests and power, and doesn’t dwell overly on corruption as the necessary outcome of entering the political arena.

It was chiefly annoying because it used characters who were much more idealistic than the Clinton crew to perform a kind of Clinton apologetics, and then once Bush got in devolved into the liberal fantasy hour. But considered in the context of that essay, it looks really good. Maybe the corruption/naivete poles are easier to resist in media that aren’t as completely dependent on characters’ internality, as suggested above.

197

David 10.26.09 at 5:14 am

Ignoring the entirety of offerings above that are less than fifty years old, I am left wondering how many examples of works that are, and have been, deemed “serious” literature it would take to convince Keith and Andy that they are wrong. Not to say, sadly, silly.

198

SusanC 10.26.09 at 7:37 am

I have some sympathy with the view (earlier in this thread) that the conventions of the mainstream novel aren’t well suited to describing political action, while genre fiction such as SF can more easily take on political themes.

Conspiracy theory thrillers are also often political (perhaps, a conspiracy theory is necessarily political). God examples would be Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

199

bad Jim 10.26.09 at 7:56 am

No mention yet of Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers [Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope]. Am I the first to mention de Sade or Rabelais? Prize, please./colbert

We Americans have left too much undone. We don’t have the republic we should have. As nice as it would be to have a comprehensive explanation, it would be considerably more satisfying to have a competent polity, a decent pay for a day’s work, color blind and collar blind.

The stories I want to read haven’t been written yet.

200

Martin Wisse 10.26.09 at 9:41 am

77: Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia: not of high literary quality, but an amazingly plausible and attractive portrait of the good—and sustainable—life.

With all the Black people conveniently self-segrated, but supposedly still equal. Uh-huh.

50: Another interesting utopia is “Voyage from Yesteryear” by James P Hogan (who is also a quirky author in the Heinlein mold),

Where quirky means having doubts about the Holocaust, but never mind…

164, 181 undsoweiter Hamlet is not about politics; it’s about revenge and honour and morality and love. such foolishness.

(Since the recommendations I would made have already been listed, I’ll make some anti-recommendations instead.)

201

Keir 10.26.09 at 9:53 am

Er, Hamlet is about dynastic succession and the requirements of public life; of course it is political.

202

Walt 10.26.09 at 10:02 am

I can’t think of a definition of “politics” that would include Oedipus Rex, but exclude, say, Lord of the Rings.

203

John Quiggin 10.26.09 at 10:07 am

Coming back to Trollope, what’s different about his novels compared to most of those mentioned above is that they are about political life, rather than politics. That is, Trollope’s political novels are about politics in the same way that the Barchester novels are about religion.

The only policy proposal that excites Palliser is decimal currency and (as happened in reality a century later) he is torn between the pound and the shilling and penny (UK kept the pound and brought in a new penny worth 2.4 old ones, Australia turned pennies into cents (roughly speaking) making a shilling worth ten cents, and turning the pound into two dollars).

204

ejh 10.26.09 at 10:32 am

If a book had aliens and ray guns in it, it was immediately shipped off to the SF ghetto.

Not completely unreasonably, by that definition.

I think Hamlet can be quite political: a strong theme within it is the corruption of the court. I remember seeing a production (Alan Cummings played the lead) which seemed to me to stress that theme quite strongly. And let’s not forget “that hath in it no profit but the name”.

205

belle le triste 10.26.09 at 12:14 pm

“Pynchon starts with Reed’ is a flippant reference to a joke TP makes himself, I think in the Rose Ballroom sequence of Gravity’s Rainbow. My copy of GR has devolved to unsorted looseleaf pages kept in a baggie so I’m not going to try and look it up.

Walt at 201 is correct: and of course any attempt to limit the definition of politics is itself a political act blah blah zzz (that’s code for “a truism which is nevertheless true”). To stay in reach of Ishmael Reed: you can’t draw a line between Elijah Muhammad and Sun Ra, even though they believe and declare sharply different things.

206

burritoboy 10.26.09 at 12:42 pm

“But of course that isn’t what you said. You said it was impossible to write a novel about politics, which is just silly.”

I think the very form of the novel quite strongly works against a novel being about politics. A novel which really was about politics would be a series of political speeches interspersed with some more personal conversations – i.e. something better done as a play. If we do have a political novel, it would be Xenophon’s imaginary history of Cyrus, which most modern readers do not percieve as being a novel at all. And that’s not solely because Xenophon pretends it’s a history. It’s because Xenophon structures the work around Cyrus as politician, not around Cyrus as a lover, and such a structure does not work within the genre of the novel.

207

burritoboy 10.26.09 at 12:51 pm

“Conspiracy theory thrillers are also often political (perhaps, a conspiracy theory is necessarily political). “

No, actually they’re usually quite un-political. Oh, there’s a pretence of the conspiracy being something about politics, but it’s revealing that in most of conspiracy thrillers the actual politics of the conspiracy is either left entirely undescribed (the conspirators are just childishly labeled as bad men) or, if it is described, the politics of the conspiracy are so bizarre, inane or just offensive (especially since a lot of the thriller writers are either political naifs or worse, fascisti) that readers usually politely ignore those portions of the works.

208

andrew adams 10.26.09 at 1:22 pm

I have to mention “What A Carve Up!” by Jonathan Coe.

209

John Emerson 10.26.09 at 1:46 pm

Are there any goddamn books that aren’t political?

I say, the collected poems of Emily Dickinson.

Prove me wrong, someone.

210

Slavoj Zizek 10.26.09 at 1:59 pm

Indeed, it was not Melville or Thoreau, but Emily Dickinson. who most cog*ntly diss*cted the great American barb*que.

211

belle le triste 10.26.09 at 1:59 pm

“Why — do they shut Me out of Heaven?
Did I sing — too loud?” = political

John you are wrong QED.

212

Slavoj Zizek 10.26.09 at 2:02 pm

Nah, she was just grumbling about the choir director and expanding her grumble beyond all reason.

213

Slavoj Zizek 10.26.09 at 2:07 pm

There’s a goddamn vole in my house. They’re normally outside creatures and have no fear of man. The one I have is downright friendly.

214

lemuel pitkin 10.26.09 at 2:34 pm

I think the very form of the novel quite strongly works against a novel being about politics.

Well, something does, for sure. It’s not clear that it’s the form, tho — there are quite a few differences between Oedipus Rex and The Great Gatsby besides the fact that one is a play and the other is a novel.

A novel which really was about politics would be a series of political speeches interspersed with some more personal conversations

One basic thing any halfway decent novel about politics would have to convey what a trivial part of practical politics speeches actually are.

215

Henri Vieuxtemps 10.26.09 at 2:41 pm

I think Burittoboy has a point. Still, social commentary (and/or social satire) is almost always present and that is very close to politics. Again, consider Catch22 with its M&M Enterprises and all the rest. “What’s good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country.” “Contract is a contract, that’s what we’re fighting for.” (quoting from memory). Is this not, at least in part, about politics?

216

John Emerson 10.26.09 at 2:56 pm

Am I banned? Or is Slavoj?

217

John Emerson 10.26.09 at 3:29 pm

Must be that Slavoj. What an asshole.

218

Richard Cownie 10.26.09 at 3:56 pm

“God examples would be Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”

I don’t think I’ve read any other book which left me feeling quite so thoroughly
cheated by the denouement. The build up is good, Smilla is an interesting character:
but then you get (SPOILER ALERT) not just a possibly-alive mysterious alien
asteroid giving off enough heat to melt itself into a glacier, but *also* a hitherto-
unknown lethal marine worm with vastly accelerated growth. There’s no point playing
the game of genre fiction if you’re going to cheat.

219

Martin Wisse 10.26.09 at 4:08 pm

Burritoboy’s argument runs something like this: novels don’t suit politics because politics does not suit the novel. He has made his stand, but it’s completely uninteresting because any counterexample you can offer he’ll dismiss as not really about politics. Even Primary Colors he would reject.

He also seems to think that politics is all about speeches (“A novel which really was about politics would be a series of political speeches interspersed with some more personal conversations”) which is about the least productive and least interesting part of politics, so even if you managed to convince him there is a novel that adheres to his criteria it would be bloody pointless to the rest of us.

220

belle le triste 10.26.09 at 4:09 pm

Haha yes Smilla does have a bit of a massively rubbish ending, like a must-fix-before-hand-in stupid MacGuffin he left it too late to actually fix. It would have suited the politics and the sensibility of the book better if he’d left the deaths and the phenomenon they found entirely unexplained: if Smilla hadn’t even bothered finding out the whys and wherefores of the villains’ plot, and simply — it would totally suit her character — told us she didn’t care.

221

Hidari 10.26.09 at 4:16 pm

‘I think Hamlet can be quite political: a strong theme within it is the corruption of the court. ‘

Almost all of Shakespeare’s drama are deeply ‘political’, although not the sort of ‘political’ that CT readers tend to like.

222

lemuel pitkin 10.26.09 at 4:28 pm

What about Dreiser? What about Frank Norris’ The Octopus? (I haven’t read it.)

Which brings up another puzzle: not only are there very few contemporary novels about politics, there are if anything even fewer about business. (IIRC Deirdre McCloskey has been known to complain about this.) Again Wolfe’s (not very successful) efforts to revive the realist novel really stand out by contrast. Didn’t Grace Paley use to talk about the world of work and money as one of the big things missing from most fiction?

223

Doug K 10.26.09 at 4:45 pm

“Kennis van die Aand” (“Looking on Darkness” in translation) by Andre Brink was the first Afrikaans novel to be banned in the apartheid regime. It was genuinely political and it tried very hard to be literature, though I found it unconvincing. However it was very effective politically, so weaknesses as literature are easily forgiven.

“The muzzled muse: literature and censorship in South Africa”, Margreet de Lange, is a good read on the subject.

224

Ken C. 10.26.09 at 5:01 pm

Regarding Nader’s conceit, I’ve always wondered about the relative cost effectiveness of bribing Senators to spend money on something, vs. just spending the bribe money. That is, would it have been more effective for Soros to bribe Congress to promote Russian democracy, than to simply spend money more directly for the purpose? Why doesn’t the Gates Foundation just buy Congress to spend tax dollars on vaccinations, instead of spend the money directly?

I’d guess there’s some kind of threshold above which bribery is more effective, but I don’t know what it is, and of course it depends on the desired effect; I think Senators are pretty cheaply bought for some purposes.

225

David 10.26.09 at 5:01 pm

@204, belle le triste: Page 588. The chapter involves Lyle Bland’s connections to the Masons and proceeds in Pynchon’s usual fashion, not the least being the anachronism of referring to Reed’s own explorations of Masonism (given that Reed would have been all of eight or younger at the time). The Roseland Ballroom sequence takes place much earlier, involving the harmonica, (the future) Malcom X and a young JFK.

My original copy, given to me in 1973, is pretty shabby from numerous readings and long road trips, but not quite in an unbound state.

226

Ken C. 10.26.09 at 5:06 pm

Rich at 123: Never could get past a few pages of Hammett, but Chandler’s spare sentences deepen and ripen every time I reread him.

WTF? This would be much more plausible in the other direction.

227

Doug K 10.26.09 at 5:26 pm

oh, and I agree with Sue, “Burger’s Daughter” by Gordimer, is a strong candidate.

228

ejh 10.26.09 at 6:22 pm

I think Senators are pretty cheaply bought for some purposes.

A contrary view

I have to mention “What A Carve Up!” by Jonathan Coe.

I’ve given that as a present to more people than any other book.

229

Richard Cownie 10.26.09 at 7:07 pm

“It would have suited the politics and the sensibility of the book better if he’d left the deaths and the phenomenon they found entirely unexplained”

Maybe. But it’s a bit tricky all round: since Smilla’s unique talent is her half-Inuit
background and knowledge of Greenland, the McGuffin has to be somewhere near,
or at least similar to, Greenland. But (having just read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”)
there isn’t much of value there to motivate a murderous conspiracy. Hoeg really
wrote himself into a tight corner. Though since he emerged with a bestseller and a
Hollywood movie, the joke’s on us.

230

Ralph Hitchens 10.26.09 at 7:47 pm

Have there been any good political novels since Joe Klein’s Primary Colors and The Running Mate? Not that I’ve heard…

231

Bunbury 10.26.09 at 9:15 pm

who’s been a frontrank politician as well as a better-than-mid-rank novelist?

Michael Ignatieff?

232

burritoboy 10.26.09 at 9:25 pm

“He has made his stand, but it’s completely uninteresting because any counterexample you can offer he’ll dismiss as not really about politics. Even Primary Colors he would reject.”

Primary Colors is certainly a novel about politics. But it’s not even a mediocre novel (certainly this is a matter of taste – but I would be appalled if someone seriously believed Primary Colors was a great novel). So, the best counterexamples people have come up with are: a fairly mediocre (at best) novel (Primary Colors) , several quite obscure items (Jules Valles, The Gay Place, etc), The Mandarins and All the King’s Men. That’s called struggling for counterexamples when it’s hard to find three good exemplars out of hundreds of thousands of works. Comparing that to tragic drama (where most of the major examples are political) and epic poetry (where a strong minority of major examples are political) tells us something about the relation of politics to the novel.

“He also seems to think that politics is all about speeches (“A novel which really was about politics would be a series of political speeches interspersed with some more personal conversations”) which is about the least productive and least interesting part of politics”

Have you ever read Jacobean drama? They are fully aware that speeches are often very unproductive (or even antiproductive) and many of the plays are centered around that understanding.

233

lemuel pitkin 10.26.09 at 10:09 pm

Burrito’s comments are a perfect example of the Contrarian Two-Step.

He starts with the breathtaking announcement: “I’m going to make a very bold – yet I think correct – claim here: not only are there very few political novels, there are no political novels at all.” But when this bold — and incorrect — claim is challenged, it quickly deflates to the much less bold — but correct, or at least defensible — claim that politics is less central to the novel than to many earlier forms of literature.

Burritoboy, what you need to realize is you’re talking here to a bunch of people who are as smart as you, have read stuff you haven’t (just as you’ve read stuff I or Henry or whoever hasn’t), and who’ve thought about this stuff as much as you. You are not going to come up with the one profound insight that all of us have overlooked that destroys the whole premise of the conversation. And by trying to, you turn what otherwise could be useful contributions into pompous windbaggery.

234

steven 10.26.09 at 10:24 pm

The Day of the Jackal.

235

Substance McGravitas 10.26.09 at 10:28 pm

Being There, plagiarism or no.

236

belle le triste 10.26.09 at 10:39 pm

I feel Michael Ignatieff’s novels are the conclusive damning evidence of something, except no one has yet been ruthlessly disenchanted enough to admit what.

237

Substance McGravitas 10.26.09 at 10:46 pm

I feel Michael Ignatieff’s novels are the conclusive damning evidence of something

Michael Ignatieff’s existence?

238

burritoboy 10.26.09 at 11:18 pm

“But when this bold—and incorrect—claim is challenged, it quickly deflates to the much less bold—but correct, or at least defensible—claim that politics is less central to the novel than to many earlier forms of literature.”

No, my bold claim is strengthened by your bizarre attempt to talk up your finding a handful of mediocre and generally pitiful marginal exceptions. Equally, I’m sure that somewhere, somebody has created a mosaic out of pasta shells – it doesn’t mean that mosaics should be made out of pasta shells. You would be yelling that some third-graders’ absurd and childish attempt to do just that means that we should continue to hope for the great pasta-shell mosaic genius of the future, even if we’d been waiting three hundred years for one without much of anything to show for it. And that is what has happened with the novel. Three hundred years, tens of thousands of authors, perhaps hundreds of thousands of books…….and out of that, we get Primary Colors?

I’d rather wait for a perpetual motion machine instead.

239

Substance McGravitas 10.26.09 at 11:22 pm

Three hundred years, tens of thousands of authors, perhaps hundreds of thousands of books…….and out of that, we get Primary Colors?

People are trying and failing to discover what kind of Scotsman you’re weeding out. Primary Colors was mentioned not as a fine novel but an attempt to grapple with whatever stupid scale you’re devising.

240

GeoX 10.27.09 at 12:10 am

The Public Burning is political and nothing but. It’s also one hell of a novel.

There have been bunches more examples here, but I guess if we have this bizarre stipulation that any novel with a strong personal element (as if you can separate the personal and the political) doesn’t “count,” then we are indeed somewhat limited.

241

Tom Bach 10.27.09 at 12:58 am

Trollope’s Barchester novels, like all his novels, are political. In the case of Barchester the politics of religion, from John Bold’s attack on the Hiram’s Hospital to the Proudie anti-Proudie parties of the rest of them. The same is true, I think, for his “The Way We Live Now,” which contains both brilliant dyspeptic discussions of formal politics to say nothing of the literary politics, the politics of social standing politics of family life, and the politics of money.

I would also nominate Fallada’s “Little Man, What Now” and “Every Man Dies Alone” as great political novels; even though the former is supposed to be a “social novel”; it is as much an rumination on the politics of the alienation of modern Germany as anything else and the latter is a brilliant argument about the futility and necessity of revolt in a totalitarian world.

In a more general way, I would argue that “Atlas Shrugged” is an extraordinarily a badly written exposition of a really loopy political philosophy and would suggest that Camus’ “The Plague” is an extraordinarily well written exposition of a fine political philosophy. The same, I think, is true of “The Stranger.” Although not nearly as well done, Sartre’s “Nausea” is political and very interesting, while his “Iron in the Soul” is a perfectly decent political novel. Both capture a fundamental truth about French political life with the latter illuminating weird political world of pre-War France where, as one intellectual put it, one had to “hate France” to show one’s “love” for it.

242

John Emerson 10.27.09 at 1:39 am

OK, I’ll be the anti-Burritoboy. All literature is political, even effing Emily Dickinson.

Discuss.

243

John Emerson 10.27.09 at 1:53 am

Rand adored H. L. Mencken, at least at one point.

244

lemuel pitkin 10.27.09 at 2:33 am

a handful of mediocre and generally pitiful marginal exceptions.

Here are some more books mentioned in this thread that are political in the exact sense of a Shakespeare history play — they have as a central subject the exercise of political power:

Alejo Carpentier, Explosion in a Cathedral
Zola, Germinal
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
Ellison, Invisible Man
Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
Greene, The Quiet American
Jonathan Franzen, The 27th City

Are you seriously going to say that Koestler and Grossman and Ellison and Silone are the equivalent of kids making macaroni mosaics? or do communist politics not count, the only real politics is turf battles between feudal barons?

245

Salient 10.27.09 at 3:10 am

Sigh. I think the idea is to mention authors whose novels (i) qualify as Good Literature in the commenter’s view and (ii) are more political than the average (for authors whose novels are Good Literature), to the point of being an outlier.

Until burritoboy offers an argument for why all future novels must be apolitical, no matter the intentions of the author, there’s not much to discuss here.

Admittedly I did thoroughly enjoy the comment, apparently made sincerely, that political novels revolve around unrealistically romantic characterizations of politicians and politics, unlike political plays. Well, wow. Allow me to introduce you to Henry V. Or Hamlet. Or Oedipus Rex. Or…

246

CaseyL 10.27.09 at 3:13 am

John M. Ford’s “The Scholars of Night” is explicitly an espionage novel about MAD with no science fiction overtones; his “Web of Angels, ” (aka “The cyberpunk novel written before Gibson even imagined the term”) is an explicitly political scifi novel.

Ford being Ford (and oh gods do I miss that man) both novels are also love stories, where revenge for a murdered lover is at the heart of the plot.

247

John Meredith 10.27.09 at 10:40 am

Has anyone mentioned Vargas Llosa? Conversation in the Cathedral is a great political novel. Panteleone and the Visitors too.

Fuentes? The Death of Artemio Cruz is a brilliant political novel.

248

chris y 10.27.09 at 12:41 pm

Jorge Semprun.

249

Anderson 10.27.09 at 2:43 pm

Encyclopedia Brown. The whole series.

250

Jeff 10.27.09 at 2:53 pm

Not yet tossed into the mix:
Vassily Aksyonov, “The Island of Crimea”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Autumn of the Patriarch”
I second Graves, having just read “Claudius the God”

I read widely and looked for political fiction while successfully avoiding writing a dissertation in political science, and came to the same conclusion some others have: like works in history, economics, and many other subjects which can (should) be read politically, much fiction falls in the penumbra of politics, portraying experience within politically structured settings, broadly-construed political themes operating within ‘private’ life, life during political events, etc.; but nothing intimately or interesting related to the core of political science’s paradigm of organized interests battling strategically over public policy within a constitutional setting. That seems too banal for great art.

251

John Emerson 10.27.09 at 4:05 pm

Sherlocks Holmes. Jane Austen Choderlos de Laclos. Donald Barthelme. The Little Prince. Alice in Wonderland. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Baron Munchhausen.

252

Chris A. Williams 10.27.09 at 4:35 pm

I’m with the multitude on _Miss Smilla_. Half-decent thriller turns into crappy skit on _Canal Dreams_ in the final chapter. It reminded me a lot of Herge’s _The Shooting Star_: lovely initial plot (aside from the antisemitism, but hey, it’s the 30s) and stylish technical drawing fail miserably once Tintin arrives at the Mcguffin itself.

The best political novels I’ve read in the last 10 years have all been by Ken MacLeod – OTOH I’ve not read many novels in the last 10 years.

253

SusanC 10.27.09 at 6:36 pm

I didn’t like the ending of Miss Smilla either. It’s a common fault of conspiracy thrillers that, when you finally discover what the conspiracy was about, it’s silly. (cf. the changed ending in the film version of Watchmen…)

The knowing silliness of some conspiracy novels might rule them out as genuinely political, even when the characters are doing political things: if the politics is impossible, but the writer doesn’t care, because that’s not what the book is really about, then it’s not a political book. I offer Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as an example of how a novel can be neither good nor political.

254

Richard Cownie 10.27.09 at 7:41 pm

“when you finally discover what the conspiracy was about, it’s silly”

Yes, but even by the rules of the genre Smilla is way too stupid: you’re allowed *one*
implausible sci-fi McGuffin, as long as you explain it to some extent. But Smilla has
*two* McGuffins – the possibly-alive heat-emitting asteroid, which is never really
explained; and the lethal marine-worm parasite, which is explained, but which just
happens to be in the same remote location as McGuffin 1. Not good. You expect
some elementary level of craftsmanship even in a trashy thriller: a Bond movie doesn’t
end with the villain being struck by lightning and hit by a crashing airplane at the same
time.

255

Anderson 10.27.09 at 7:45 pm

a Bond movie doesn’t end with the villain being struck by lightning and hit by a crashing airplane at the same time.

Like that wouldn’t be cool!

256

matsig 10.27.09 at 8:13 pm

Oh, and it just struck me: Two very good novels, both by Per Olov Enquist (and consequently, possibly less know in the English-speaking world, but available in translation): The March of the Musicians, and The Visit of the Royal Physician (Possibly the Royal Physician’s Visit, can’t remember at present). While the latter is the more explicitly political, the former is arguably the greater novel.

They also differ from most of those previously mentioned (that I’ve read) in being more or less explicitly about political reformism, as opposed to being utopian or dystopian. Particularly the March of the Musicians also has a clear bottom-up-perspective, and is very much about “the little people making politics”.

257

LFC 10.27.09 at 8:17 pm

lemuel @219: re contemporary-ish novels about “the world of work and money” — Louis Auchincloss. E.g. The Partners. Most of his novels I haven’t read, but that one I have read; it’s ok, if somewhat dated.

258

Laleh 10.27.09 at 8:49 pm

All the suggestions here are so extraordinarily Euro-US-centric (and mostly written by white men at that). What about Asturias? Carpentier? Garica Marquez? Bolano? What about Munif’s Cities of Salt? Satrapi’s Persepolis? Mahfouz? Shammas’s Arabesques? Parsipur? Kanafani? Khoury? Al-Saadawi? Hage? Al-Aswany? Khalifeh? Adnan? Tayyeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North? What about Achebe? Ngozi Adiche? N’gugi wa Thiongo? Breytenbach? What about Toni Morrison and Alice Walker? Richard Wright? What about Trouillot? Dandicat? What about Mushin Ahmad’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist? Rushdie’s Shame and Haroun (I believe two of his other books have been mentioned)? Durrenmatt? Romain Gary’s White Dog? Dorfman? Saramago?

I could come up with probably dozens more. They have all written intensely political novels -political in both the broad and in the narrow sense. It is amazing that these authors just don’t disturb the surface of this very erudite group of commenters’ consciousness!

259

belle le triste 10.27.09 at 9:41 pm

I don’t actually think there’s a problem in principle with the Smilla conspiracy being basically a silly one — part of the point the book’s making, after all, is that the conspirators are such monomaniacs of a particular kind that they can’t see to defend themselves from her; that they’re highly intelligent from one perspective and deeply stupid from another — that their lack of certain key sensibilities, such as sympathy for their fellows and empathy for their surroundings, actually makes them stupid and self-destructive in the long term — which is part of the politics of the book, if you like. And as I said above, I think greater indifference to the specifics of the conspiracy could maybe have been made to work, in exactly this setting — ie the sea and ice near West Greenland; even the asteroid, why not? If Smilla solved it but deliberately didn’t tell us what they wanted to do with it, because it was evil and therefore stupid; something like that. That would fit her character, after all; and her politics. The problem is really that Hoeg has an indifference to the formal conventions of the genre, as regards endings: and kinda deals with this by going “Fuck you, here’s an ending if you want one — yes it’s stupid, but so are you for wanting one!”

I assumed that the lethal worm was a mutation caused by the radioactive asteroid: though I’m not certain this is stated. I’m also not 100% convinced that any of the details Smilla uncovers — radioactivity or worm or whatever — are meant to be correct, in Sherlock-Holmes-reveal terms: some of the conspirators believe some of them; others merely want people to believe them, because this gives them leverage. But this aspect is all so casually handled — bcz Hoeg is unsympathetic with the politics of Holmesism? — that the unclarity gets in the way of itself. He sets himself a problem he doesn’t solve.

260

lemuel pitkin 10.27.09 at 9:44 pm

Laleh-

You are absolutely right. (Carpentier and Garcia Marquez were mentioned.)

I’m afraid I’m not familiar with most of these writers — altho I should have rememebred Asturias’ El Senor Presidente and Augusto Roa Bastos Yo El Supremo.

So educate us — what are the best political novels by some of those writers? In what sense are they political?

I, and I’m sure others, would love to read more fiction from the Arab world, which we English speakers are shamefully ignorant of.

261

belle le triste 10.27.09 at 9:51 pm

In other words, the asteroid-worm mcguffin is — possibly — actually a mcguffin within the story also, as far as the chief conspirator is concerned: just something, true or rubbish, that gets people frightened, which he can use. Which is potentially a neat idea — except it’s handled poorly instead of well.

262

Salient 10.27.09 at 10:04 pm

It is amazing that these authors just don’t disturb the surface of this very erudite group of commenters’ consciousness!

It’s not that amazing: exposure’s largely environmental, right? One reason I come to CT is because I’m painfully aware of this problem in my own consciousness and seek to ameliorate it however I can. It’s not a trivial problem, and help (even inadvertent help) is always appreciated. Unless you mean to ridicule us for our ignorance, which I doubt, there’s no need to assume your suggestions would be dismissed or unwelcome here among this “very erudite group of commenters.”

Thank you for your list; about two-thirds of those names were unknown to me. And while they already give me plenty to pursue, I’m personally hoping you feel inclined to follow up on “I could come up with probably dozens more” with however many more you’d like to share: it’s surely widely welcomed and will result in at least one person stepping off to the library with a larger list, come Thanksgiving break.

263

Walt 10.27.09 at 10:06 pm

Wow, a bunch of Europeans and Americans came up with a European-American-centric list. Who would have guessed?

264

Kaveh 10.27.09 at 11:29 pm

@260 That in itself isn’t such a problem (well, it is a problem, but…) except that proclamations are then made about the suitability of the novel format for political content based on said “West”-centered list. “We really can’t generalize about the novel as a form, because we left out Arabic and Persian novels” (and African, and Chinese, and…) should probably be a natural reaction whenever somebody attempts to generalize about something so widespread as “the novel” based only on “Western” examples.

Anyway, now we know. And knowing is…

265

Martin Bento 10.28.09 at 7:17 pm

I think what burritoboy is flagging is, as someone said, partly the difference between modern and premodern literature, rather than the novel and other forms. In modern drama and poetry, it is easy to come up with examples that are not primarily political in any narrow sense: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Waste Land, The Three Sisters, Desire Under the Elms, Waiting for Godot, the Cantos. Even works with major political themes tend not to be purely political: Howl, Angels in America.

That said, I do think the literary novel has limitations for dealing with politics, resulting from the centrality of character and the necessary appeal to sympathy. Because of our desire to see virtue in ourselves, there are potentials that are clearly in human nature – that are demonstrated empirically in history, including modern and contemporary – that we will be resistant to recognize as potentials in ourselves. Literary novels have trouble with villains, though history throws them up like houseflies. Rather we must see villians as they see themselves, as in some sense fundamentally good people.

The 20th century has given us many deeply impressive villains – Hitler, Stalin, Pot, we all know the list – but literature that deals with them directly is thin on the ground. Much of the serious treatment of the Holocaust, for example, is really about the unthinkability of the Holocaust, how full comprehension defies our imagination – The Tin Drum, Maus. But these atrocities were not done by aliens but by men, in many cases (including the Khmers), modern educated men – people much like us. We resist the notion that such evil is a real part of our natures and resist sympathy with or understanding of such characters. Hence, the literary novel has trouble approaching the darkest poentials of human nature directly, and these always lurk as possibilities in politics, as that is where they can find fullest expression (no serial killer ever killed millions). Genre fiction has an advantage in that it is not committed to getting the reader’s sympathy for all major characters, and therefore can have villians.

266

ejh 10.28.09 at 8:49 pm

I’m ignorant of fiction from the Arab world. I am not, however, shamefully ignorant of it.

267

Mario Diana 10.28.09 at 11:30 pm

Walt @ 263

As an American, let me nominate the Chinese novel, To Live, by Yu Hua. Admittedly, I read it in translation.

The scene where the communist official’s wife experiences complications during labor, and the resolution of that scene, is bitingly inspired.

268

Richard Cownie 10.29.09 at 1:16 am

“I assumed that the lethal worm was a mutation caused by the radioactive asteroid: though I’m not certain this is stated”

My recollection is that there isn’t any clear explanation of a relationship between the
unprecedented lethality of the worms, and the presence of the asteroid. The urge to
assume such a link is strong. But then we’re not even sure the asteroid is radioactive:
IIRC it just gives off heat. And if it were radioactive, why not just have the radiation
kill the divers ? Rather than futz around with the worm stuff ?

I dunno, maybe it was a deliberate satire on stupid conspiracy thrillers, but the
appropriate tone and details got lost in translation.

269

roy belmont 10.29.09 at 1:18 am

Okay le triste, now do The Quiet Girl.
Which is kind of Smilla again, with a big wash of Boll’s The Clown over the strong architecture of Hoeg’s maturing vision. With his obstinate refusal to stop loving still carrying the day.
Which is what made Smilla great, right? The love that she carried through the story, for the author, and how we recognize that in our own lives and hearts.
And: Le Carre’s Absolute Friends, which is fiercely political.

270

roy belmont 10.29.09 at 1:20 am

And John Berger. Anything. Especially the Pig Earth stories and To The Wedding and King: A Story of The Street, especially that one.

271

xaaronx 10.30.09 at 12:52 am

Coming in super-late, I just want to mention Freedom and Necessity, by Emma Bull and Steven Brust. Somewhat obliquely political, but good. If you like long epistolary novels.

272

rich 10.30.09 at 12:02 pm

Walt 10.26.09 at 10:02 am

I can’t think of a definition of “politics” that would include Oedipus Rex, but exclude, say, Lord of the Rings.

There we go!

Neatly puts an end to the (apparently uninformed) ‘ Science Fiction is Not Political Debate.’ There’s an entire body of academic literature dealing with the necessity to go allegorical in one’s writing to evade censorship as well as more dire political consequences. The novel and fiction itself, as well as eventually science fiction (Lem), can be seen at various points as tactics to get one’s message across a) via subterfuge to readers whose conscious political/social orientation left them unwilling to entertain explicit or explosive political messaging, and b) without costing the author his or her life.

If that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

Just sayin.

273

rich 10.30.09 at 12:04 pm

Second sentence above penned by Walt! ; quoted by me:

I can’t think of a definition of “politics” that would include Oedipus Rex, but exclude, say, Lord of the Rings.

274

ajay 10.30.09 at 12:40 pm

War and Peace, surely, counts as a novel about politics*. Look at the first sentence, for heaven’s sake.

*with the addition of other means, thanks Carl

275

EC 10.30.09 at 2:05 pm

All The Kings Men has been already mentioned.
As has Vineland by Thomas Pynchon but I agree it is underappreciated.
For a cracking read on US politics, I think the book was “Facing the Lions” by
Tom Wicker. Like a more up to date All The Kings Men.
And perhaps stretching the criteria to breaking point, Hunter S Thompson’s
Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

276

burritoboy 10.30.09 at 2:26 pm

“There’s an entire body of academic literature dealing with the necessity to go allegorical in one’s writing to evade censorship as well as more dire political consequences.”

Which applies to the generally far right wing authors of American scifi, how? They were worried that their equally right wing neighbors and equally right wing political regime would……..do what, precisely?

277

rich 10.31.09 at 2:27 pm

Which applies to the generally far right wing authors of American scifi, how? They were worried that their equally right wing neighbors and equally right wing political regime would……..do what, precisely?

How does the nature of narrative apply to the exercise of power? That’d be the more accurate question. And who said I was referring only to right wing scifi writers? Three quick responses:

The virtually endless examination of literary strategies conducted in the shadow of power and in the context of social conformity has everything to do with “the generally far right wing authors of American scifi.” What part about the way narrative lit across the board and texts in general actually work did you not pick up on? Fiction as a whole and science fiction as a genre employ the same devices to persuade your average dullard and stubborn conformist alike. Distracting and entertaining the villagers — by which I refer as much to the urban cogniscenti as the rural rube — while slipping in social messages that when uttered out in the open would be deemed shocking, ridiculous, illegal or heretical is just the most general description of storytelling in and of itself.

Doesn’t really matter what the politics of the author are, or what the specific genre is. If the story takes place in Denmark rather than England or Middle Earth rather than Middlesex, if it’s set on a desert island or in an unfamiliar kingdom or deep into the future, or takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away — authors weave a storyline to release the conscious defenses crutch-like beliefs ideologues and average folks lean on in the light of day. Writers of all stripes are better able to persuade you and those you disagree with using age-old narrative tactics in general and and the less-subtle plot devices of science fiction specifically. Along the way, authors can evade persecution by enforcer and priest alike.

You seem awful eager to omit any recognition of the applicable pith within that universal trait.

Second: American science fiction is hardly defined by or limited to authors with a right-wing agenda. Upthread someone mentioned Frederik Pohl, and he’s one of many that satirized consumer culture and conformist society, or warned of totalitarian regimes.
http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/pohl-frederik

Pohl’s protagonists were often men in grey flannel suits, corporate executives, ad men, who represented the middle class culture of the near future. They worried about paying bills and getting raises. Cogs in great corporate machines, these characters often came to recognize the horrors their companies were helping to produce. . . . Pohl focused on mundane life in future cultures, asking us to reflect on social, economic, and cultural trends that might link his apocalyptic societies to our own.
http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/science_fiction/profiles/pohl.html

Andrew Ross has written of the Futurians: “Their injection of social consciousness into the fandom world had an enduring effect at a time when the pulp stories were beginning to address the future of authoritarian social orders. Graduating to the ranks of professional editors and writers at the end of the decade, they eventually formed something of a counterculture operating against the established power of the field’s publishers and editors.

To underscore that point a bit: you seem unfamiliar with American science fiction. To say nothing of 20th century political history.

Third, you seem to be confusing the artist with the artifact. Is it the case that a novel that weaves a story around a totalitarian political regime is necessarily promoting such a political order? Uh, no. Instead, the author might be demanding that readers take a little responsbility, and confront what kind of social, cultural and political order they can in good conscience support.

Fourth:I’m not sure we can make the case that every libertarian author is actually, in point of fact, a right-wing science fiction writer. Let’s recall the closed, nay oppressive, social and political order of the 1940s, 1950s — and which extended in signficant ways into the 1960s and 70s. In that context, writers advocating for individualism and for limited government would be taking a conservative position — and as a liberal (progressive) I can wholeheartedly agree with those values for all the right reasons. And you should as well.

In short, political repression was a serious threat from the 40s through the 60s, and its remnants still had to be contended with in the 70s, when its remnants were still felt on a visceral level.

In that context, clumsy or crude sci-fi plots were not likely to be seen as such, and as a blunt instrument were more likely to get the message across to a general audience. In that context, it may be that a writer with legitimate conservative values could oppose an oppressive culture and a repressive political regime with a fervor equal to any writer of liberal bent.

We benefit from the luxury of a more open society, but that clouds our vision and renders hindsight at best unreliable.

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rich 10.31.09 at 2:33 pm

Turns out that Frederik Pohl (1919 – ?) has his own blog.

http://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/

Still kickin’ it, old school

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rich 10.31.09 at 7:41 pm

http://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/2009/10/deborah-websters-solution/

This post caught my eye: Pohl appears to have applied that nearly unavoidable kittehz captioning phenomenon to yield some insight into the use of animals as subjects in clinical trials by inverting the relationship between Schrodinger’s cat and our erstwhile, nominal observer. I think.

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Laleh 11.01.09 at 12:23 am

Lemuel,

Political in the popular sense of political which includes the kind of human events that are not necessarily institutional, that can sometimes be violent, but which are always about a “power”-ful way of arranging social relations.

As for novel names, please see below (I am only naming one per each author; most are in Wikipedia; almost all have written more than one political novel):

Miguel Angel Asturias – El Senior Presidente (authoritarian rule)

Alejo Carpentier – Explosion in a Cathedral (against revolutions)

Gabriel Garica Marquez – The Autumn of the Patriarch (authoritarian rule)

Roberto Bolano – The Part about the Crimes (in 2666 – about the murder of Mexican women in the border work-towns)

Abd Al-Rahman Munif – Cities of Salt (about the way in which oil transformed Saudi)

Marjane Satrapi – Persepolis (The Iranian revolution)

Naguib Mahfouz – The Cairo Trilogy (the political transformation of Egypt in early 20th century)

Anton Shammas – Arabesques (creation of Israel and the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel)

Shahrnush Parsipur – Touba and the Meaning of Life (political transformations of gender in 20th century Iran)

Ghassan Kanafani – Men in the Sun (Palestinians’ predicament)

Elias Khoury – The Gate of the Sun (Palestinian refugees’ predicament)

Nawwal Al-Saadawi – Woman at Point Zero (political imprisonment)

Rawi al-Hage – De Niro’s Game (civil -or not so civil- war)

Orhan Pamuk – Snow (Islamism, nationalism, Kemalism, coup-d’etats)

Ala Al-Aswany – Chicago (diasporic politics)

Sahar Khalifeh – Wild Thorns (masculinity in war)

Etel Adnan – Sitt Marie Rose (feminnity in war)

Tayyeb Salih – Season of Migration to the North (Colonialism)

Assja Djebar – Fantasia Trilogy (colonisation and decolonisation)

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (colonisation and decolonisation)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Half of a Yellow Sun (the Biafran war)

N’gugi wa Thiongo – The Wizard of the Crow (fantastic satire of kleptocracies in Africa)

Mushin Ahmad – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (9/11)

Salman Rushdie – Shame (Pakistan post-independence)

Romain Gary – White Dog (racism in 1960s US)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt – the Physicists (politics and ethics of science)

Ariel Dorfman – Death and the Maiden (torture)

Lyonel Trouillot – Street of Lost Footsteps (devastation of Haiti)

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The Raven 11.01.09 at 1:34 am

It occurs to me that many of CJ Cherryh’s novels–Downbelow Station, Cyteen, the Foreigner series, and other books that aren’t coming to mind right now–are political works.

I will venture the hypothesis that prior to the 20th century novels were sometimes political, that during the 20th century the political novel was marginalized, and that in the early 21st century the novel has become political again.

In my view, part of the reason the 20th century literary novel is non-political is exactly because of political meddling with the form. There were political novels, many of which were propaganda and read very poorly now, and novels of character. I am thinking here of Dos Passos’s work, after Hemingway arranged Dos Passos’s humiliation in Spain.

In a very odd sf novel, Jack of Eagles (which I do not recommend), James Blish, author and critic, once made the point that you can’t put yourself in a possible world where what you want is true and at the same time expect your study of that world to lead to useful predictions. You can’t get predictions: only projected wishes. Long years after last reading that book, it seems to me that this might be a critique of propaganda in fiction and poetry: if an author bases a novel on political predictions, the story can only give back those political predictions. Such a novel can’t speak meaningfully of the possibilities of character, only, like a religious story of sin, speak of the Harm That Will Befall When Characters Break The Rules.

The pols either wanted the form to serve their purposes, or wanted no interference with their propaganda. The great communist propagandist and publisher Willi Münzenberg (1889-1940) was one of the major figures here. But the CIA seems also to have meddled in post World War II arts in the Western Bloc, though I know little of the details. And the meddling killed the art. But the meddling seems to be over, and the mainstream political novel has made a resurgence.

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