Monday, October 26, 2009

The Unlikelihood of a Political Novel

(initially posted over at Crooked Timber)

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.


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