Whence arises the question above? If you have spent time in mainstream literature classes, alas, you will know. While the bias against mixing art (or what elite folk think of as “real art”) with the political has greatly diminished over the past fifty years, especially in the world of activism, it has not disappeared. Again and again literature students are taught that being political obstructs the production of good fiction. This notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is we have incredibly good fiction that is overtly political. Take, for example, such powerful and richly imaginative feminist and anti-racist novels as Madge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (https://www.amazon.com/Woman-Edge-Time-Marge-Piercy/dp/044900094X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518974855&sr=8-1&keywords=woman+on+the+edge+of+time+by+marge+piercy)
Take Toni Morrison’s Beloved (https://www.amazon.com/Beloved-Toni-Morrison/dp/1400033411/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518974973&sr=1-1&keywords=belove) Do we really want a bias which militates against penning such masterpieces?
To probe further into the error being made, the assumption that there can be such a thing as a piece of writing that is non-political is gravely mistaken. The seemingly non-political is rather the internalization of a hegemonic politics. Additionally, an illegitimate conflation is being made between being overtly political and being “polemical”—(i.e., simplistic, rhetorical, heavy-handed)—something that great writers like Piercy never are.
So what is my advice to other writers of fiction? Paint with a full palette of colours. In no way feel that you need to avoid the political. Fiction gives us lessons about life, provides insights into human existence—and "the political" is an intrinsic aspect of this. At the same time, ensure that you are not falling into being polemical, for at that point, art, as is were, “goes out the window”.
Is there a possibility of our endangering the quality of our art precisely by being overtly political? There can be. What follows, accordingly, are guidelines that might help you safely navigate the terrain: Do not let the overtly political overwhelm your work. Make it rather one among many strands. As always, prioritize making the imagined world come alive. Weave together a variety of themes and plot lines. Make sure that in some way or other, you are shedding light on the basic dilemmas of human existence. Eschew “good guys” and “bad guys” scenarios, avoid characters that are personified abstractions, and in the process, give birth to multidimensional and nuanced characters.
A recent novel of mine is one among many examples of how this can be done. It is called “The Other Mrs. Smith" (https://www.amazon.com/Other-Mrs-Smith-Bonnie-Burstow/dp/1771334215/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518975248&sr=1-1&keywords=the+other+mrs.+smith) and the story which emerges is told from the perspective of Naomi, a shock survivor who struggles to recover what she can of her life after being subjected to and severely damaged by ECT (electroshock). Yes, without question, there is a political intent behind the novel—to awaken the reader to the horrific reality of electroshock. At same time, the novel is hardly single dimensional. Examples of other themes which crisscross throughout this novel are the mystical connection between identical twins, north-end Winnipeg Jewry, and how as human beings, we can make something meaningful of what has been made of us. The writing often reaches the dimensions of the lyrical, and a spirituality inhabits this work. Moreover, the characters are at once varied and multi-faceted, with even the husband who signs for his wife to be shocked depicted in his full humanity.
In this regard, Tom Sandborn—one of the journalists who has reviewed the novel, writes:
This could, at first blush, seem like unpromising material for a novel. Whatever their position on the public debates about ECT, the average reader might be forgiven if she thought an anti-ECT polemic told from the perspective of someone whose memory has been followed out by the controversial procedure would not work as fiction. Such a reader would be wrong.
He goes on to wax eloquent over what he calls on the book's “richly imagined cast of characters,” and he ends by pronouncing the novel “a literary tour de force.” (see http://vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/the-other-mrs-smith-will-shock-and-move-you)
In short, write a solid work of fiction and readers will recognize it as such.
Will some who are allergic to the political generally or your particular politics critique your work as if it were inferior fiction regardless? This can indeed happen, especially if you are a well-known political figure, and especially if it touches on “controversial issues”. However, such an outcome hardly spells disaster. Here once against The Other Mrs. Smith sheds light.
While most reviewers have lavished generous praise on this novel, by contrast, one reviewer largely dismissed it as a simplistic polemical work. Whereupon commentators on the review—and, within short order, an abundance of them popped up—to a person, made it clear that they saw the reviewer—not the author—as a problem, in the process, rising to the defence of the novel. In short, the average reader can be trusted to recognize quality art when s/he comes across it and s/he knows deep in her bones who is and who is not being polemical.
Speaking more generally, the aesthetic and the ethical are far from antithetical. While they spring from different branches of philosophy, they complement each other exquisitely. What goes along with this, while those of us literary artists who consciously incorporate the political are generally more closely allied to current disenfranchised communities—the Indigenous, the poor, the refugee, the trans community, the mad—we also stand is a long and honourable tradition of writers who leverage their art to comment on the practices and events of the day. No less a notable than Shakespeare himself did precisely this, hence Queen Elizabeth I rising in indignation upon attending a production of his play Richard II and exclaiming, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?" (see https://www.mhpbooks.com/i-am-richard-ii-know-ye-not-that-or-when-shakespeare-was-actually-politically-controversial/).
In short, the political is not the enemy of art. And together, they allow us to take in on the deepest possible level that what happens in the world matters.
Correspondingly, if approached skillfully, cannot the political itself be made to dance?