Most of us suppose that we know politics when we see it. Bertrand Russell, for one, thought he was saying the obvious when he declared that “politics is concerned with herds rather than with individuals.” Others note that politics always entails a struggle for power, often involving parties, or movements, whose reasons for being are cast in ideological terms. Yet others contend that politics inevitably requires actors who believe that their actions have some prospect of success, or who operate from a conviction that the established reality in their society is intolerable and must therefore be opposed, whatever the costs. By this token, there can be no politics where it is felt that nothing can be done to effect change or that the laws that govern society and define reality are fixed and immutable.
In recent years some have argued that the distinction between herd and individual, or between public and private life, is specious, and that in fact everything is political, so that what goes on in the bedroom is as much a struggle for power, and therefore as “political,” as what takes place in a parliament or a revolutionary insurrection. An interesting notion, to be sure, and one that has effectively altered the way that ambitious writers and thinkers of the last half century have come to write about politics, often mixing public and private to a degree that suggests that the old distinctions are no longer fully compelling. When writers nowadays invoke “politics” they are apt to be thinking about the intersection of public and private life, where the motives of individuals may well play a more decisive role in the action of a novel invested in political outcomes than in the programs of parties or movements. Not possible, any longer, for anyone taking up the subject of politics and the novel to ignore the fact that leading writers, from Mario Vargas Llosa and Milan Kundera to Pat Barker and Russell Banks, have taught us all—certainly they have taught me—to think of politics as a great deal more than the activities and stratagems of a political class, and to think of the private life as determined to a considerable extent by the wider public life.
Novelists have often thought of novels as vehicles not merely for raising questions but for staking out positions and demonstrating the awfulness of a political regime or ideology. James Baldwin, among others, noted the widespread influence in his own day of what he called “protest” fiction, “novels of Negro oppression” designed, as he put it, to “say only: ‘This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.’” And he noted that such novels, among them Uncle Tom’s Cabin, were apt to be “self-righteous” and to read more like pamphlets than authentic works of fiction. Does anyone today write protest fiction, novels designed to mobilize sentiment and influence events? Do they find a ready and enthusiastic audience? The answer, in both cases, is most definitely, and of course. And is this a problem for those of us who read and wish to take seriously novels that have something to tell us about our relation to “the world”? Let us say that, when we think about politics, and about literature, we want to be able to make elementary distinctions, to grasp the difference between a work whose reason for being is to trumpet its own “virtuous sentimentality,” as Baldwin put it, or to effect one or another decisive change in society, and another kind of work not meant to be “improving” but to raise difficult questions and to evoke—again, Baldwin’s language—the “beauty, dread, [and] power” of our lives.