I’m enjoying the video recording of Ahdaf Soueif’s keynote and the following debate from last Friday (17 August 2012). There is a lot of really inspirational and intellectually stimulating points made during the 2 hour panel, below is my response to one particular audience member’s comment early on in the panel:
One audience member suggested that literature or the novel, based on its prescribed function of providing a reader with an ‘escape’ from the world, should not necessarily be political, as by its very label, it should be *literature* first. Alternatively, it is the citizens and other bodies which participate in the political struggles who are responsible for being political. From what I understand, there are two points to his argument:
1) the style of writing is the primary concern;
2) the purpose of a piece of literary writing is to entertain.
Though I would not dispute Ben’s argument that there is a line between literature and most writing which is used for political purposes (i.e. the pamphlet, the speech, etc.), I would side with Ahdaf Soueif who says that a writer (or author for those who insist there is a distinction between those who simply write and those you create literary art) cannot necessarily help but be political, as they write about what they experience, feel, and know.
My decision stems predominately from the theory of constructivism, which asserts that an individual both shapes, and is shaped by, their environment. Therefore, if a person is influenced by their – let’s say – social environment, which is highly dependent on the political situation in that area, then of course the writing of this individual will also be affected and, by extension, incorporate political characteristics.
Two very well known example of this in the Western world is Animal Farm by George Orwell, a political satire about the Russian Revolution of 1914, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, both of which are required reading in most American high school English classes. A more contemporary example of this would be Beyond Compromise, which is a collaboration between young Palestinians on the ground in Palestine and exiled Palestinians abroad to provide an outlet for sharing what is happening in Palestine and how it is affecting those who identify with this movement. Both examples are of pieces of literature which were written to provide the authors with an outlet for their experiences, yet those experiences, once written down, clearly exhibit a political influence.
My question would then be, how inappropriate is it really for a novel, or piece of literary work, to have a political focus; particularly when it is rather inevitable for a writer to remove their own outside influences completely?