The Orwell Prize & the New Political Fiction

by Jude Cook

The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and Political Writing was awarded this week to Anna Burns for her brilliantly sustained novel Milkman, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, both worthy winners which make a strong contribution to a growing body of Troubles literature, including David Keenan’s blistering For the Good Times, and Jenny McCartney’s recent, quieter take on 1990s Northern Ireland, The Ghost Factory. Yet the Orwell prize only broadened its remit to make an award for political fiction this year, and this is perhaps symptomatic not just of the times, but of a growing desire by readers to explore political issues through novels, and not just works of non-fiction.

Novels, poetry and drama have always reflected the eras in which they were written, from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (which led to his exile from Rome), to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Kyd’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (for Scotland and Italy, read the Jacobean court), to Kafka’s parables of totalitarianism. While a work of the imagination may or may not always contain reliable historical information (a novel is full of ‘facts and pseudo-facts’, as AS Byatt commented), it can be said to ‘know’ as much about a given subject as the hard data and statistics presented in works of history or political theory.

A dramatic rendering of a political moment can often be more compelling than a dry factual account. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poesie and Poems argued (contra Plato) that art was superior to the historical record; because while history gives us only ‘what men have done’, poets ‘deliver a golden [world]’. If history gives us the Marc Antony, Shakespeare gives us a particular Marc Antony. In this respect, novelists who explore the present political moment have to possess an awareness that theirs is a singular take on the times, not a definitive one, and one written as history continues to unfold unpredictably.

While novels that attempt to anatomise contemporary politics can have a built-in obsolescence, it’s surprising how many survive and are treated, by later generations, as definitive accounts of their times. One thinks of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, or Dickens’ Hard Times. The Social Problem novels of the 19th century, such as Disraeli’s Sybil or Gaskell’s North and South tell us as much about the ‘Two Nations’ of 1850s England as the Blue Books. In the 20th century, one could point to novels such as 1984 or Sinclair Lewis’s It Couldn’t Happen Here, both of which perform a similar function. Certainly, works of imagination are as valuable to an understanding of the times as the works of Carlyle and JS Mill in the 19th century, or Keynes and Bertrand Russell in the 20th.

Yet three years on from the EU referendum, it is surprising how few contemporary works of literature address the subject. Given that Brexit’s eventual outcome could affect the UK for generations to come, there is a paucity of literary fiction (though much non-fiction) concerning the challenges faced by the country. While there may be extrinsic reasons for this (the slow pace of publishing, the current risk-averse publishing climate, and the general reluctance of novelists to write politically or polemically), substantial novels on Brexit, the wider rise of the global far-right, European Nationalism, and the ultra-conservative Trump administration are thin on the ground.

The most often cited literary reflections on Brexit are Ali Smith’s novels Autumn and Winter, and Sam Byers’ post-Brexit novel, Perfidious Albion. Alex Preston, writing about literature’s response to the crisis in a recent piece for the Economist, suggested that many novels ‘refer to it only subliminally, maybe even subconsciously, rather than placing the campaign and its aftermath in the foreground’. Certainly, Jonathan Coe’s recent and much-trumpeted Middle England felt as much an exploration of the English character as of the hard political decisions facing the UK following the vote to leave the EU. For my money, the best example of ‘rapid-response’ Brexit literature is Anthony Cartwright’s novella The Cut, which was published by Peirene Press in 2017, exactly a year after the Referendum. Here, Cartwright deftly pits a middle-class London documentary-maker against a Black Country ex-boxer in order to show how we really have become a divided nation.

But can political fiction make any kind of difference? New Historicist theories maintain that artistic works can also affect the times in which they produced, as well as reflecting them – a well-known example is Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, which was instrumental in precipitating educational reform. So the answer is yes. But the pitfalls of setting out with this objective are numerous. The challenge for any novelist is to avoid writing polemically or didactically (as Tolstoy did in his later works). The aim should be to present each ideological stance neutrally, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, the best works of art ask more questions than they answer.

My own second book, Jacob’s Advice, is a political novel set in Paris in 2015, and follows two cousins searching for their Jewish identity against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks of that year. Setting the book in 2015 was vital. The year now feels like it was the crucible for what came next – the political tide in Europe was just about to turn, with the resurgence of far-right extremism, nationalism and antisemitism. When I began to write the novel, no one in the mainstream media was talking about racism or antisemitism much – now, four years on, post-Brexit and Trump, there are swastikas on the streets, and deadly attacks on places of worship. We live in more dangerous times, and I believe that fiction urgently needs to address that. Hopefully my book, and many others that seek to confront the times head on – as well as The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction itself – will go some way to redressing the balance.