The Novelist and the Tyrants

The Novelist and the Tyrants

In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for SJ Naudé's essay, and visit to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.

In the South Africa of the 1970s and 80s, political writing was practically the only mode that was available to writers who wanted to be taken seriously. And coupled with the need to integrate a critique of the inhumane system of apartheid into one’s fiction, was the requisite mode of realism, which had long been viewed as the most effective vehicle for politically engaged fiction. The works of South African novelists known for their anti-apartheid stance, like André Brink and Nadine Gordimer, were generally in this vein. It is interesting, however, that the work of their contemporary J M Coetzee, whose taut and startling tales largely eschewed the realist matrix, and who confronted political questions on his own terms (often attempting to address ethical issues through resolving formal literary problems), took longer to reach a wide audience, but has had more staying power.

This essay explores the notion that writers of literary (or ‘serious’) fiction are, or should be, harbingers of freedom and democracy, i.e. should follow an oppositional approach and, through their prose, cause the oppressed to rise up, or, at least, activate the consciousness of readers who have influence on those who wield power. What currency, I will seek to ascertain, does this idea have in the early 21st century?

The view that novelists should set out to change the world – and the self-aggrandising assumption that they can – is in some ways an old-fashioned one. In the West, unlike in South Africa, from the 1960s onwards, the idea of the writer as champion of freedom had started waning. The reasons for this included the development of investigative journalism, the expansion of individual rights and freedoms and, in more recent times, the impact of social media. Political discourse has been democratised, has ceased to be the preserve of the elite (including those who produce cultural artefacts).

Has any novel, one may ask, ever changed a political system, or played a meaningful role in preparing the ground for change? The answer to the first question is surely no. The second question requires a more complex response. Literary novels by their nature work in singular and indirect ways – by changing perceptions and dislodging assumptions and prejudices. And it does so one reader at a time. In the United States, the novelist is generally viewed as an entertainer rather than someone engaging in a political act. There are more serious ideas about the role of the novelist in circulation in America too – a few years ago, for instance, there was a newspaper report about a local US police department whose training requires its officers to read novels as a way of educating them about how others think and feel. A far more modest notion, this, nevertheless, than that of the novel as a tool of revolution. In Russia, Continental Europe and parts of the Global South, writers have historically often had greater ambitions for – and readers greater expectations of – the novel. Writers and readers in these cultures have always had stronger hopes of novelists playing the role of protectors of liberty.

Without resorting to the grander spectrum of ideas regarding the writer as oracle, I would argue that the novel can indeed equip its readers with expanded political consciousness. It can use language and narrative as probes to explore ways of being and experiencing that are new – more authentic, more humane. It can change readers’ ideas about what is possible in human relationships or in thinking about the world. And, yes, it can ultimately help to galvanise people into action. Those with power instinctively seem to understand this – writers have historically sometimes been, and are in some countries still being, imprisoned. This is also why some despotic regimes have attempted to spread propaganda through literature. Think, for example, of Soviet production novels. (Hitler, however, knew that film exerted a greater power on the masses than books.)

In order to have an impact in the public sphere, a novel however first has to compel, beguile, sadden, horrify, outrage, console, fascinate, shock or anger. The novel has singular, irreducible power, but only if it works as a novel. A directly political approach in fiction – raw political proselytising – is boring. Such an approach cannot work in the 21st century. Literature cannot be journalism. Nor can it take the place of activism. It can however refuse the master narratives that politicians want us to internalise, and it can disrupt an understanding of the world that readers deem to be self-evident. If politics are concerned with false promises for the future, ethics are concerned with the suffering and truth of the present. And the best politically engaged writing is preoccupied with ethics rather than politics (even, or particularly, when it is set in a dystopian future).

To turn to a concrete example: does the novelist have the power to resist a proto-despot like Donald Trump? The truth is that, in the 21st century, activism is undoubtedly a more efficient political tool than literature. Organised resistance has a far more direct impact than stories. In a post-truth era in the United States, fiction sales have apparently dropped. A nation that is trying to resist their president’s brazen lies needs less rather than more fiction, it seems – even if the latter is aimed, in its singular way, at revealing truth. Creative writing is apparently not what is required to counter a discourse in which any notion of a shared truth is threatened.

Writers will not get Trump impeached. However, novels have their own way of making a difference. Incrementally, converting one mind at a time. So, don’t give up on the serious book yet. Even if it is not the primary tool of freedom, it has staying power. It works in deeper, slower ways. Long after Donald J Trump’s orange body has been buried in the earth, and his sorry legacy in history’s dustbin, novels will still be written, and will still refuse to surrender language to the deceitful tongues of the tyrants.


Copyright © 2018, SJ Naudé. All rights reserved.

Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.

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