Genuinely Good and Genuinely Political

Writing at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, asks if there are any “genuinely good, genuinely political novels” available. He sets the baseline for a genuinely bad political novel by mentioning Ralph Nader‘s new book, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!. But lacking any strict definitions of what “good” and “political” mean, the commenters were free to run rampant. And so they have—as I write this, there are 202 comments.

I’m responsible for one of them comments, pitching Ward Just, though I’m pretty sure he’s not the writer Farrell is looking for. Just is a keen observer of political personalities and of what public service does to a person’s (OK, a man’s) sense of ethics, but I haven’t read anything he’s written that forwarded a political argument. That’s a difficult, if not impossible thing to do in a way that isn’t awkward: Caleb Crain quotes Stendahl in the New York Review of Books as saying, “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.” Crain breaks out the quote in the context of his review of Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The short-story collection isn’t overtly political when it comes to its setting, Pakistan, but does suggest that the wealthiest classes there have grown only more hubristic as time goes by. Is that still a political work?

Two-hundred-odd comments aren’t going to resolve the matter, but the discussion did take an interesting turn into whether science fiction is the best available source in fiction for political ideas, for better or for worse. The author who seems to come up most often on that front is Ursula K. Le Guin, who apparently wouldn’t disagree with the commenters’ claims about her work. As she told an interviewer last year:

The world is so weird that (as the Magical Realists showed us) the only way to describe it is by accepting its weirdness – we begin to understand it by accepting the fact that we can’t understand it. … And fantasy and sf are good tools, the best tools, for getting perspective on the big social and political stuff (think of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”), and for figuring out what might be changed in our society – for better or worse – and what change might involve (think of “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

In any event, the thread is worth a look, especially given that it appears to still be going strong after three days.

2 responses to “Genuinely Good and Genuinely Political

  1. Any reference to 202+ comments is more than enough to keep me away from that post, so I’ll put my thumbs-up here for Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. Assuming that Farrell isn’t specifically looking for something published recently.

    • “The Manchurian Candidate” did make the list. And I would say that the comment thread is worth a scroll—200+ comments on a Crooked Timber post is a much different creature than 200+ comments on a Gawker post.

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