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The art of political writing

Bernardine Evaristo, Colson Whitehead, Edna O’Brien and more Orwell Prize-shortlisted writers explain how politics informs their prose.

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George Orwell’s ambition was “to make political writing into an art”. This is the guiding principle behind the Orwell Prize. Here, to mark Orwell’s birthday on 25 June, the 13 authors shortlisted for this year’s prizes – for political writing and political fiction – share their thoughts on the interplay between politics and art in their own work and those that inspired it.

Bernardine Evaristo: My only agenda is to show the multiplicity of who we are

I am deeply interested in the power structures in our society and the relationship of black people to it in particular. In Girl, Woman, Other, I elevate 12 primarily black British female characters up to shine in the spotlight, because we are so absent from my nation’s narratives. Through their stories I explore the intersecting politics of race, class, sexuality, gender, immigration, work, income, family and much more besides. However, these are seams running through the interconnected dramas of their lives and the politics emerges naturally out of the character’s stories so that it never overwhelms the fiction. A few of the women are consciously, even rebelliously politically engaged, especially around race and gender, but others lead politically unexamined lives. The book has no thesis. While I am a feminist, most of the characters are not. My only agenda is to show some of the multiplicity of who we are, not to impose my politics on my fictional creations, which would make my novel didactic.

All books operate in a culture where hierarchies of power are played out, and all fiction deals with power-play because it is at the heart of conflict which drives narrative. However, I would argue that political fiction more consciously engages with society’s hierarchies and the public and private battles that are a consequence of this reality.

Charles Moore: Orwell understood that politics is not a science

Political writing is certainly an art, in that it is not a science. This is because politics is not a science either. A “scientific” approach to politics is dogmatic. It seeks to establish a false causality, leading to false remedies, leading to totalitarianism. Orwell understood this instinctively, which is why, though his sympathy for the underdog inclined him to the left, he never fell for Soviet communism or Marxism.

The art of political writing can therefore take many forms. It can be philosophical, polemical, historical, fictional, journalistic, diaristic. In the philosophical class, I admire Michael Oakeshott’s essay “Rationalism in Politics”, which brilliantly characterises what politics is, and why rationalism (different from rationality) should not be applied to it. In the polemical, I love Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which exposes the cruelty of revolution. Hilary Mantel’s great Thomas Cromwell trilogy is, among many other things, a wonderful portrait of one man dominating a monarchical system and yet trapped, and ultimately killed, by that monarch’s caprice.

The art of politics comprises everything from the great debates among the founding fathers of the US Constitution to what Evelyn Waugh, laughing at Randolph Churchill, called “the conveying of political gossip on whisky-laden breath”. The art of writing the biography of Margaret Thatcher, as I saw it, was to capture the woman who broke almost every established rule (including those of gender), while fervently believing in established rules – a truly radical conservative.

Caroline Criado Perez: Our language reflects a society in which men have supremacy

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.” This, by Simone de Beauvoir, is the epigraph to my book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, and it more or less sums up my position on the concept of “political writing”, which is that it is a tautology. There is no such thing as non-political writing. There is only that which is powerful enough to seem neutral, and that which is not.

My work is a challenge to the default. Generic male language – that is, the use of the masculine as gender neutral – may seem like common sense, but it is merely the reflection of a society in which men have supremacy. Had we lived in a matriarchy for millennia, it would seem like common sense that women are the neutral beings.

But female is not the default. Male is. And so while what I write is automatically seen as “political”, a piece of writing that does not interrogate masculinity, that uses male as the default, is not seen as such. But it is just as political as writing that does. Not only that: its framing as apolitical is itself political.

As Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition.” What could be more political than that?

Attica Locke: The pleasures of crime fiction mask its politics        

  

I think of politics as the distribution of power. Who has it and who doesn’t? And what are individuals or groups of people willing to do to hold on to that power? Or to take it from someone else?

These are nakedly good story elements: conflict and character exploration; potential plot twists; and themes of morality and what it means to be your brother’s keeper. My books all feature these basic storytelling building blocks – only I make my stories about specific real-world people and specific real-world policies that affect both my characters’ lives and the lives of the people who read my fiction.

Heaven, My Home is a crime drama that takes place in rural East Texas and features a black Texas Ranger who is conflicted about the badge he wears, and on which side of the law true justice lies. Crime fiction, as it deals with a nation’s laws, is inherently political, but its politics can easily be masked because the sheer pleasure of a page-turning tale is also a requirement of the genre.

Politics at its core provides an elemental look at the question of how we all share space together on this planet. It asks whether we choose to see humanity in other people and build communities and public policy that reflect that – policies that centre human kindness and a willingness to share resources – or whether we choose policies that highlight and exploit our differences and presume a scarcity that discourages sharing.

I am fascinated by this eternal struggle in human beings. As an art form, my books are a contemplation of these aspects of the human spirit, of who we are at our core and what it means to wrestle with our baser natures.

Shoshana Zuboff: I feel a kinship with Hannah Arendt’s righteous indignation

I approach political writing as public education, and I regard public education as the highest calling. My writing is the sign and signal of my devotion to my children’s futures and all children’s futures. Writing is for the world. Political writing is for healing the world. That is the crucible of all my ambition, even when I fall short.

Through the years of writing The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, I’ve wandered my library in conversation with many thinkers. Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Thomas Paine’s call to arms are never far from my thoughts. But my truest confidants have been George Orwell and Hannah Arendt.

Arendt and Orwell confronted “totalitarianism” as an unprecedented form of power. My work confronts a uniquely 21st-century constellation of power that I have called “instrumentarianism”. Instrumentarian power does not threaten violence but rather works remotely through digital instrumentation, first to know everything about us and then to tune and herd our behaviour in the direction of its interests. It has flourished as a market project in the West, the consequence of a rogue surveillance capitalism that claims our lives for its secret processes of datafication, production and sales.

My project as a writer is mobilised, like Orwell’s, by the conviction that illegitimate power is sustained by scrambling citizens’ mental abilities with an outright denial of reality, in a fog of gaslighting, lies and misdirection. He observed that the resulting “contradictions and absurdities” are so disorientating that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. Orwell knew that when we lose that struggle, we lose democracy. I feel a kinship, too, with Arendt for her mettle and righteous indignation. She knew that even the philosopher must step forward in the first person on occasion and tell her stories, because the sins of unaccountable power are not mere abstractions.

The cadence of my language is sometimes threaded with memories of Paine’s melodies. Metaphor and poetry are part of my medium, because they can intimately bind author and reader, if only for a moment, in a cleansing breath of shared faith in what the world can be.

When does political writing rise to art? When it insists and implores, with the urgency of the ram’s horn call on Rosh Hashanah: Awake ye from your slumber! Then it offers a path through the trauma of awakening, asking, “Will we make the world better, or will we let it make us worse?” It provides a North Star under which author and readers can gather to find our bearings together.



American dream: Martin Luther King’s speeches informed Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. Credit: Howard Sochurek/The Life Picture Collection via Getty

Colson Whitehead: I returned to James Baldwin and Martin Luther King

    

Some of my work attempts to illuminate and dissect societal energies – race, class, the impact of technology – and in doing so becomes political by conventional definition. And some of my work does not resemble what some people would call political writing (my book on poker, my book on New York City) – but in a crappy world, maybe attempting to capture a humanistic or empathetic feeling can be a political act. The “art” part is perhaps compelling novelty. It has not been done this way before, the shape of the argument is unique and alluring.

The Nickel Boys is a story about two black boys trying to find their way in the world. Since they exist in the world, they are subject to the power of institutional racism, capitalism, humanity’s innate cruelty, among other things. In trying to make a coherent self in this chaos, they fight these various powers.

I had to devise a philosophy for a boy in 1963 who believes that the world is capable of progress, of being improved. Whom would he look up to? Energized by the civil rights movement, he’d look to Martin Luther King Jr and James Baldwin. In trying to figure out which of their words would resonate with Elwood’s story, I had to figure out what they meant to me. Returning to King’s speeches and Baldwin’s essays after many years was an unexpected and delightful gift.

Kate Clanchy: Education in Britain is soaked in politics and class

 

Everyone remembers George Orwell wrote “Good prose is like a windowpane”, but not necessarily his preceding statement: “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

Orwell is one of my heroes. I love his visceral, unshowy prose and his empathetic characterisation, and admire his courageous journeys out of his class and his country. I’m confident, too, that he would have agreed with me that education in Britain is soaked in politics and class. We differ here though: Orwell didn’t need to say in Down and Out in Paris and London he went to school at Eton, but in writing Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a book set in the English state system, I had to talk about attending a Scottish private school. I couldn’t picture disadvantaged and migrant children in the 21st century as if my lens were clear, as if my personality could be “effaced’’ to leave an unbiased narrator, because that would be to centre my privileged, white point of view and “other” the children.

Rather than efface myself then, I have faced myself. “Kate” in my book is obtrusively, blunderingly present, actively observing, growing up as a person and a teacher. My hope is that if you look past her, rather than through her, you may be able to see the children and the issues.

This is an artful, political way to write and also effortful. I like to think that Orwell, always dogged in his pursuit of the truth, would have appreciated the struggle, at least.

Lucy Ellmann: I have a dictatorial streak that I try to control 

   

A woman gets shot by her ex. A man commutes long distances to support his family, but they still can’t afford health-care. People drive cars and have children and buy sweatshop sweatpants and never ever take a stand on perpetual war and inequality and the consumption marathon. To top it off, they’re destroying what’s left of the natural world.

All these matters are raised in my novel Ducks, Newburyport. Fiction is play, it’s art. It’s not a soapbox. But a wholly depoliticised novel would be a strangulated creature. Jane Austen’s work is full of observations on class and gender injustice – her influence on feminism is subterranean but immense. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is political: a study in hubris, loneliness and ostracism.

Just as there is no real writing without humour, there can be no honest fiction without politics. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to write about a world that wasn’t imploding under patriarchy. Once female supremacy is safely installed, I’ll write tales of peace and freedom and an intact environment, with high self-esteem, easily gratified lust, and abortion on demand.

But in the meantime, patriarchy’s misdeeds will probably keep seeping into my manuscripts: the legions of corporate men with their penile ties and lies, their mercenary attitudes and nutty indifference to everything that actually matters. Because of them, I have never led an unoppressed life. No one has. And it makes me mad.

The tricky part is not bludgeoning the reader with one’s political stance, which could become another form of oppression. I have a dictatorial streak I try to control. But please, no apolitical fiction. We’re eating here.

John Lanchester: Orwell felt he had to give his art a political purpose

   

I think Orwell’s views on political writing came out of a predicament he felt profoundly, which was that he couldn’t write anything without a political purpose, but he wanted to be an artist too. He says he wanted political writing to be art, but I think it would be more truthful to say he wanted to create art and felt an ethical injunction to give that art a political purpose. Personally, I think the distinction between art and politics is often clearer than that, and there is lots of political writing which is very effective but isn’t art (Marx’s Das Kapital, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom), and lots of literature in which its politics are barely present, deeply implicit, or quietistic.

Mind you, I can’t say that about The Wall, which is indeed a political novel, the most explicitly so of the five I’ve written. The book sets out a horrible future as a call to action to prevent that future from happening. It would be deeply weird to write a novel about climate change that had no political aspect. As odd as writing about slavery without a political take – though as it happens one of my favourite pieces of political writing, Valerie Martin’s 2003 novel Property, achieves its huge impact through a slave-owning narrator who is completely oblivious to the moral horror of slavery. It is an uncomfortable book because it challenges the reader to think about complicity and ethical blindness, subjects which have always been interesting to me and which I tried to engage with in The Wall.


Survivor: an 18-year-old woman at a transition centre in Chad. She was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was 15 and later escaped. Credit: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos 

Edna O’Brien: I set out for Nigeria to meet the Boko Haram girls 

  

My novel Girl arose from a political situation, the capture of young girls from their homes, their farms, their schools by Boko Haram; taken for use and misuse, sexual enslavement and daily radicalisation.

One day in a doctor’s waiting room I read a small news item of a girl who had escaped with her baby when found by a vigilante in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest. The girl did not know her name or where she had come from and I thought: this is like an ancient myth, except that it is a myth occurring in our time. There and then, I felt a compulsion to write this story.

For me a purely political work is one such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. With consummate knowledge and indignation he charts the wrongs, injustices and subordination of the people of Algiers and by association of all developing countries occupied by European conquistadors. But as a reader and therefore a writer I am more drawn to human stories set against the context of history because in that way I can feel the pain, the pity, the fatality and, miraculously, the endurance of individuals. I am thinking of Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Nadezhda Mandelstam and many others.

I set out for western Nigeria to see the country itself, the contours of earth and sky, the daily human mill. But most of all I wanted to meet young girls who had escaped incarceration and their mothers, and the mothers who were still waiting for their children to return. I think of those encounters as having happened in some subterranean universe. For almost four years I relived those experiences of the girls’ withholding of emotion and yet the prodigious courage. It was a rewarding, upsetting and salutary time. 

 

Amelia Gentleman: These lives reveal so much about decades of discrimination

 

I wrote The Windrush Betrayal because I felt so angry about the way the government had treated thousands of people who were living in this country entirely legally, but who had been wrongly classified as illegal immigrants. In my day job as a news reporter much of that anger has to be restrained within short emotionless paragraphs. Writing a book allowed some of the rising fury to emerge; most of all I wanted to expose readers to the same sense of unease and growing outrage that I experienced as I investigated how Theresa May’s introduction of the hostile environment in 2012 had shattered so many lives. But I also wanted to write in detail about the people affected by these policies, people whose lives reveal so much about British colonial history and decades of discrimination.

I’m not sure there is an art involved, but there is perhaps a skill in finding ways to persuade readers to engage with subjects that appear really complex and unpalatable. The immigration legislation that caused all these difficulties is complicated; no one in their right mind would sit down and choose to spend a few hours immersing themselves in the small print. I hope the stories of insane cruelty meted out by the Home Office to people of the Windrush generation will force readers to absorb the politics without quite realising.

Tim Bouverie: Politicians can provide supreme examples of black humour 

     

One of the major aims of my book Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War was to try to place the reader in the period; to allow them to “experience” the diplomatic missions, crises and dilemmas as they would have at the time.

In this, I was greatly aided by the vivid accounts that survive in archives, published diaries, diplomatic dispatches and journalistic reportage. The “art” was in weaving this material together to form a compelling yet truthful narrative; to be able to lead the reader from the prime minister’s breakfast table, to the telegram announcing Hitler’s latest coup, to the scenes being witnessed by the foreign correspondent.

Most of the writers I admire – Gibbon, Austen, Waugh – are masters of irony. I am a great believer in humour in political writing. We sometimes forget that politicians are human beings (often fairly odd ones) and that their behaviour can be extremely funny. The fact, for example, that the foreign secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, took himself off on an ice-skating holiday, in December 1935, to recover from a series of fainting fits, blacked-out mid-skate, broke his nose and that this coincided with a major international controversy, of his own making, precipitating his resignation, strikes me as a supreme instance of black comedy.

I felt blessed to be working on a period inhabited by some of the most talented diarists in British history. If Orwell had the chance to read the chronicles of Harold Nicolson, Chips Channon and Duff Cooper, he would have realised that he lived in an age when the art of political writing was secretly flourishing.

Robert Macfarlane: We are leaving a long-term legacy of harm on the planet

 

At the heart of my book Underland: A Deep Time Journey is the searching question asked by the immunologist Jonas Salk: “Are we being good ancestors?” To be a good ancestor is to extend responsibility forwards in time, beyond one’s children, or one’s children’s children, towards what Rebecca Solnit (one of our most artful current political writers) has called “the ghostly billions yet unborn” (human and more-than-human). This, it seems to me, is a profoundly political question, and it is Underland’s central preoccupation: the long-term legacies of harm and disruption that we are presently leaving as individuals, polities and as a species, in the epoch increasingly referred to as “the Anthropocene”.

To engage with the immensities and monstrosities of the Anthropocene, writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, “new, hybrid forms” of writing will be needed, which mix their modes of seeing, telling and shaping. Underland was an attempt at such a hybrid, written in the eight years between the Deepwater Horizon blowout of 2010 and the entombment and rescue of the young Thai footballers in 2018. In the book, I wanted to locate our current epoch of extremity and precarity within the greater expanses of geological “deep time”, and in this way to activate senses of good ancestry.

If there is an “art” to Underland, then it lies perhaps firstly in the ways I draw at times on techniques from fiction and prose-poetry to help, and secondly in the patterns of key images that I tried to embed in the book’s structure (the open handprint found on cave walls; the subterranean networks of mutualism that connect individual trees into interconnecting forests).

Underland surfaced in the spring of 2019, a moment of unprecedented global protest and concern over the climate and ecological crises, and seemed to resonate with people at that time. I didn’t know when I was writing the book that many of its preoccupations – with buried or suppressed natural forces rising up to overwhelm human systems, with catastrophe and confinement, and with “hope in the dark”, to borrow the title of Solnit’s brilliant book – would also come to echo uncannily through the intense Covid months in which we are still living.

The winners of the Orwell Prizes will be announced on 9 July

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football