I won’t deny that in thinking of content for this blog, my mind wanders to the maelstrom that is the current political climate. I could say that I have made a conscience choice not to add my own noise to this political tempest – that would even be partially true. But it would truer still to say that every post I have made has been political on some level. Education, science, technology, reading and writing: these are all political acts, and always have been. Nowhere is this truer than in books.
This week, while following the writing team of James S.A. Corey on Twitter, I saw a tweet in which someone – apparently a fan – urged Corey in no uncertain terms to stick to writing fiction and leave political criticism alone. This is laughable. The idea that a writer could convey more political upheaval in a 140 character tweet than in six novels is absurd. It would be absurd even if the novels of The Expanse (Corey’s scientifically fabulous space opera) did not demonstrate the empathy and political depth that they do. It also made me laugh, to think of what James Holden of The Expanse would do if he were told not to tweet about politics. I’m thinking he would retweet everything, all in caps.
Of course writers can, and probably should, comment on the politics unfolding around us. In a way, though, they almost don’t need to – they have already done so in their books. The books we choose to read, write, and criticize are our voices; that they do not speak directly about current events does not diminish their political significance. My students presented their Classic book projects this week, and had to answer the question “is this book applicable today?” With books including Lowry’s The Giver, Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and Huxley’s Brave New World, the applicability was painfully obvious.
Books do not need to feature oppressive dystopian regimes to be acts of politics. They are political acts because they teach us empathy; they teach us how to analyze and understand villainy and corruption, how to forgive those who have done wrong, how to feel compassion for those who have suffered. They teach us to care about people who we have never and will never meet; they are a reminder that when we look out at the world, the stories of strangers are worth hearing.
If that is the role of books, then what is the role of writers? We don’t need to blog about current events or create fictional statesmen in order to write politically. There are no statesmen in my novel, The Steel Lady: only 19th century engineers, factory workers, and women. Writing of their struggles not only gives empathy to their fictional lives; it lays bare conflict which the 21st century has not left behind, such as ignorance, fear of progress, and sexism.
It would be narcissistic of me to claim that writers are somehow uniquely qualified to give political commentary, but to suggest that they should stay in their fictional worlds is to miss the purpose for which those worlds were created. Books have never been apolitical - why should writers be?
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.