In search of Orwell

Where are the great popular novels, plays and films that grapple with today’s major political and ideological issues? It’s a question that occurred to me while watching a talkfest on ABC TV last night, where assorted pundits mused about a list of the ten most influential books of the last 50 years or so (I think – I only tuned in towards the end of it). Orwell’s 1984 predictably got a guernsey, and Animal Farm also apparently figured in the top 100. Of course there were more contemporary nominations, like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but no clearly political works as far as I could see.

I’ve also been reading the autobiography of American playwright Arthur Miller, almost all of whose works (not just iconic ones like The Crucible and Death of a Salesman) dealt in one way or another with great political issues of the mid twentieth century.

The 1940s and 50s were times of enormous political and ideological ferment, with the contest between fascism/nazism, communism and western liberal democratic capitalism succeeded by the Cold War between the latter two ideologies, not to mention the breakup of the European colonial empires. Those times gave rise to great political works of fiction by authors like (inter alia) Orwell and Miller, and in Britain by John Osborne and others.

And yet the world in this first decade of the twenty-first century is every bit as confused and ideologically conflicted. Neocon triumphalists like Francis Fukuyama were wrong: history hasn’t ended. Liberal democracy jousts with external threats from Islamo-fascism and internal ones from the neocons themselves and their fellow travellers from the Christian Right, while increasingly beleaguered advocates of neoliberalism still do battle with social democrats.

But these great ideological conflicts don’t seem to have given rise to a flowering of ideological literary or dramatic works to compare with those of Orwell, Miller et al, at least not ones that have imprinted themselves indelibly on the popular consciousness. Plays and art-house cinema attended by a tiny handful of latte-drinking cognoscenti don’t count. Nor do cartoon-like, simplistic cinema propaganda documentaries like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. Arguably (and certainly in my view), great drama and literature help us to absorb, make sense of and psychically deal with major social and political change in a deeper and fuller way than the documentary format or the even shallower genre of TV current affairs. Oliver Stone frequently attempts political themes in contemporary Hollywood movies, but you’d hardly class him with Orwell or Miller, let alone compare his works with cinematic masterpieces like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

So why hasn’t this current era of political ferment summoned forth great literary and dramatic works that tackle and synthesise contemporary political and ideological movements in a creative and imaginative way? Is the world too confused and fragmented for even great creative imaginations to be able to draw inspiration, synthesise and make sense of it? Have the audience’s attention spans been rendered too short for great polemical fiction by computer games and MTV? Have we all subconsciously absorbed post-modern relativism to such an extent that we really don’t think any coherent answers actually exist; just ephemeral, historically-contingent (and usually cynical and world-weary) vignettes? Or maybe the great contemporary works are out there but I’ve just been too busy to notice them. But even if they are, why haven’t they impacted the popular consciousness in the way Orwell or Miller or Steinbeck or Mailer or Hemingway managed to achieve? Or am I just showing my age and spewing forth a variation on the age-old codger’s lament that “things were much better in the good old days”?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Literature. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
28 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

ken – first of all remember (1) it was on TV and as far as I could see from the 10 minutes I watched while searching for a book (2)was populated by “personalities” panelists from Sydney and probably (3) produced in Sydney [or Australia as it prefers to be known within the ABC and last 2 Prime Ministers’ circles].

Secondly, from memory, it was about “your favourite book” not best book, not most influential, not least understood , not raunchiest, not most valued least read etc.

Even the resident homie here, who has read perhaps 5 books in entire life, (3 million tvs shows and DVDs/ videos/ fillums) but counts 2 Willy S. plays as favourites, go figure, remarked today at breakfast (2pm) whilst scanning newspaper for cartoons, “Those top books are all bloody films plus christians voting – idiots”.

Sometimes in a family there are rare moments of parents and youth bonding. One learns to treasure them

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Perhaps the landscape is less clear than it was in the 40s and 50s. Perhaps ideologues have found other outlets to air their ideas, for example professional journals, wider circulation journals of ideas. Maybe it’s all the fault of the blogosphere for distracting potential writers from their work. Or just maybe it’s because publishers are too tied to the bottom line, and fiction that deals with great ideas is not a seller. And a final idea – I think it may have something to do with the ever increasing specialisation in intellectual pursuits of all kinds. As a consequence, it has become increasingly difficult to popularise serious ideas in ways that do not trivialise them. It is still done of course. Just to mention a few interesting authors who have done so (reading from my bookshelf) James Gleick, Stephen J Gould, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Jared Diamond, Alan Davies, Stephen Hawking, Peter Whybrow. Note, though, that all these writers are non-fiction writers, mainly dealing with science or sociological subjects. Politics doesn’t get much of a guernsey.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, the weekend press had a piece on the South African author Andre Brink, who certainly tackled some of the great issues of the 80s and 90s in his fiction.

I’m not sure whether you’re talking about literature generally or Australian literature. Probably not the latter, but too much of Australian literature is about stories of “self-discovery” rather than the sort of big issues that also ought to get a guernsey. There are some contemporary exceptions, of course – Amanda Lohrey being a notable one.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago
Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Congratulations Alex. Succinct satire in 5 words.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

I revise my opinion. A Google search on “political novel” reveals numerous contemporary novels dealing with politics. One or two I have read (eg One Hundred Years of Solitude) some I have not (eg Checkpoint – see review here http://www.slate.com/Default.aspx?id=2104805)

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Alex

I’m not suggesting that there is a complete dearth of contemporary novels (or plays or fictional films) dealing with political themes, just that they don’t seem to have anything like the broad popular impact that Orwell etc achieved.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Maybe it’s just that over the last 20 years or so the ‘politics of identity’ – of gender, race, culture, sexuality, etc – has been the focus of a great deal of literary fiction, rather than the big-picture stuff — tho’ of course the big picture’s always there to be seen in if you look carefully….

And maybe it’s a ‘posterity’ issue too, Ken — the favourite books of 2064 should be interesting!

Scot Mcphee
2022 years ago

Bret Easton Ellis. It’s not quite ‘political’ in an overt sense as you mean Ken, but it IS about the emptiness of modern existence, the savagery of capitalism, the vacuous meaninglessness of celebrity culture.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

OK, Ken. Perhaps wider choice, less broad interest in politics are possible reasons. Also, maybe there just aren’t authors around of the calibre of Orwell who are interested in politics. Going back a few years, Doris Lessing is worth considering.

BTW, if you’re still interested in doing battle on the global warming issue, I’m currently fighting off attacks from several quarters over at JQ’s blog.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

So many issues, so many questions, so many places to begin.

The topic of 1984 is tempting; I could do a rave on how inflated its reputation is. I think the reason it got into the top 10 on Oz’ Favourite Book has a lot to do with what one panelist called the ?worthiness factor?. It’s a credit to Orwell’s skills as a writer that there are so many people who credit it as the novel on the dangers of totalitarianism when it’s so riddled with internal inconsistencies (such as the inherent contradiction of the NewSpeak dictionary. Limiting the language to all and only those words that allow goodthink pretty much eliminates the need for the word thoughtcrime (inconceivable). More seriously, if the project were successful, it would choke of the continuing supply of Winston Smiths you need to keep that boot stamping on a human face. Forever).

Let’s take a look for those missing works instead. Perhaps you’re looking in the wrong places. Lemme see what I can come up with.

A Flag for Sunrise and Damascus Gate by Robert Stone. The first deals with US involvement in South American politics, the second with the Middle East (more specifically Israel, obviously).

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Seriously weird and intriguing book which deals, in part, with Japanese society’s state of denial over its war record.

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, obviously.

Louis de Bernieres, once you get past Captain Corelli.

J G Ballard nails the nature of modern war in Empire of the Sun. If you can’t be bothered reading the book, rent the video. It’s nowhere near as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be.

There’s still a few writers who are prepared to tackle political issues in their works. Just as there are others who’ve made it clear that they wouldn’t touch political issues with a bargepole. Not even if their next book contract depended on it. Maybe the latter are enjoying a temporary ascendancy. Maybe we’ll start noticing the former when they start turning up on high school prescribed reading lists.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gummo, Murakam’s ‘The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ is fabulous. It was my christmas reading a few years ago…

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Ken,

There are two explanations that spring to mind. Maybe it is just too soon to be able to synthesize such a “political” work as you are envisaging. Or the times with writers of the stature of Orwell et al were atypical, and our equivalents haven’t yet emerged.

Alternatively, I like Wen’s “posterity” point. In other words, maybe it is not a lack of writers, but a failure on the part of current readers. The “John Maynard Toole” phenomenon if you like.

Also, these days the “political” would have to be broadened beyond the shenanigans of our elected pollies otherwise you would be left with bed hopping, door slamming farce or a diary a la “Washingtonienne”.

In the last 20 years, attempts have been made. Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame”. Heller’s “Something Happened”, a personal favourite, but which tries to speak to ’70’s “post revolutionary” malaise. DeLillo in “White Noise” and “Libra”. Marquez of course. A couple of Ishiguro’s early novels. Tom Wolfe has tried to order and I suppose satirize broad aspects of modern life and customs, albeit in a fairly formulaic way.

Another favourite and a seminal writer is Kundera, who deals with the quotidian experience of totalitarianism.

I think all of these meet your criterion to some extent. On their “greatness”, who can really say? I would argue that some are, the Heller and some of Kundera for example. But then to me, the issue of supposed “greatness” is ultimately just not important.

dan
dan
2022 years ago

Maybe the fact is that we have a different approach to the political than before. Someone above mentioned the focus on “identity politics” and there have certainly been many novels on the themes of gender, race, age, sexuality, equality and oppression.

I would also say that some of the pivotal contemporary books with a lasting political impact are those which deal with society and ways of approaching things. Consider anything by Douglas Coupland but especially Generation X.

And finally, the role of political commentary in the nature of Animal Farm and 1984 may have moved to film – with the likes of Minority Report, Gattaca and even (dare I say it) Demolition Man, that deconstruct the idea of progress and control.

Phil
2022 years ago

Would Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale qualify? I think so.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Ken,

I’m uncertain on this, I think the political novels of say the first half of last century, are so representative of the upheaval with the Depression and those that the Great Wars and have that spark of immediacy.

But I would be in disagreement with suggestions that we are drifting into a period of relativist works. I think there was a huge change to writing following the Holocaust, which lead to such a psychic jolt when mankind discovered how tainted certain symbols of civilisation could be, and how endemic certain ideals could be to self-destruction. I believe this is the starting point of post-modernism, a search for a new form, I think Lyotard in the intro of the “Defining the Postmodern” describes this as being about the attempt to find the beginning of a new way of living and thinking. Lyotard’s description that “mankind is in the condition of running after a process of accumulating new objects of practice and thoughts,” would I think explain some of this process, which is attempting to come to grips with how various systems of “progress” could lead to Stalin’s Great Terror, the Holocaust and an array of other horrors that are not to be overlooked.

I have a sort rough thesis on this in regards to German fiction, which post the second war led to much of the potent symbolism being abandoned in succeeding German works. When one considers how much some of this symbology is apparent in writers like Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, a sort of Nietzchean fervent pursuit of the Dionysian, there is a period after the war were there is a certain timidity that can be expected after such shocking events, where writers struggled to grapple with ways to represent the world. However recent German fiction in particular has more than reinvigorated itself, with an array of works attempting to look back at history, and writers like the brilliant W.G. Sebald attempting to somehow reclaim this disappearing past, leading to encounters of all these rapid histories and fragments of lives.

I think this rather crude thesis could be applied to a lot of works, which have been about the attempt to understand this period of such turmoil where our narratives failed us so miserably. I think this is why so much of the work has been so reflexive, and has a “looking back” mentality, often leading to attempts to find new forms of narrative to explain our life. I think this is representative of a time when the certitute of relations have been somewhat dissolved, and this doubt can be quite healthy, in attempting to find a re-appraisal, aware that that which preys on humanity is often very difficult to depict.

In a political sense this is pretty well portrayed in the paranoia that abounds some American writers. In this Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo come to mind if you think of an America of nefarious connections, from J Edgar Hoover to Watergate, cold-war paranoia to recent manifestations of uncertainty and anxiety. In many of these texts, much ironically like the hard-boiled detective genre, the quester against malevolent force often finds themselves entangled in the confusion of events, often unable to find a complete resolution. But this is just one example, I’ll get some more work done and then reconsider the resilience of literature.

Oh, and Mark I agree about Marukami’s “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” its an absolute corker of a book. I’ve got Kenzaburo Oe’s “Somersault” on my desk, who generally writes personal existential novellas but whose recent text attempts to come to grips with the nihilism of the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacks. In January when I am allowed to abandon sinking in theoretical dross I’ll guiltily read this book.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Atwood, absolutely !!!

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

explicitly political literature is not necessarily great literature. for all its influence i don’t think of 1984 as great literature. there are novelists who deal with themes more subtly however – someone mentioned Murakami. you could say all his novels, including the quirky ones are implicit critiques of his society. don de lillo is another. also look to science fiction – neal stephenson in particular.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

“Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, obviously.”

I was required to read his Hundred Years of Solitude as a highschool student. It was unrelenting pap, meandering twaddle, the writings of a dopefiend friendly with the dictionary.

I agree with Jason: if you want the best of modern commentary, you should delve into science fiction, and to a lesser extent, fantasy. These genres can completely abandon the everyday in a quest to understand the human condition.

Take for instances, Iain M Banks “Culture” novels. I’m not convinced about the social structure, but it’s fascinating.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Stephen, really interesting comments. W. G. Sebald’s “Natural History of Destruction” is a fascinating read, and I look forward to reading his fiction – I’m under a self imposed ban on reading fiction until I get my thesis finished!

David Tiley
2022 years ago

I don’t know about you Mark, but I can’t blog and read fiction. Sad.

I don’t know how Jacques can miss the magic of Marquez and still pounce on the central point about genre.

Post war, fiction divided more thoroughly into genres and became ghettoised. Orwell got away with Animal Farm, but Wyndham or Hoyle didn’t only a few years later.

Henry Handel Richardson (who drove me nuts at school but is a good example) wrote mainstream fiction; put it on the market today and it is “historical fiction..”

Dick, Pynchon, Attwood, le Guin, Le Carre, Elroy, Ballard, put hugely insightful chewy books of ideas on the shelves – but they don’t get the kind of commentary given to most of the mainstream Booker winners. (dodgy example, I know, but its kind of symbolic).

The other factor is the two World Wars. Even Tolkien was in the trenches. Golding helped to liberate a Concentration Camp. Orwell in Spain.. Heller was in the Air Force… think of the energy that comes from oppressed societies – Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Marquez etc etc.. not to mention the Eastern Europeans.

Hey Stephen – Heinrich B

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

As for Booker nominees, David (to be contrary for a second, I’d suggest that Michael Moorcock’s Pyat series tackles some of the biggest issues of the Twentieth Century, as do in a different way the Jerry Cornelius sequence of books.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I obviously saw what folk wanted me to see in Marquez. I was schooled in the breathless theories about Magical Realism, and learnt not to mention science fiction and fantasy when giving up offerings to the this particular sect of the Great Gods of Literature. Apparently your work is OK if you accuse banana companies of murder; no good if you explore the outer limits of human possibility.

For what it’s worth, I learnt enough to earn a “Very Good” from the high mandarins of eng. lit at Cambridge in IB English HL.

Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of magical realism left a mark. Really it’s surrealism with anti-capitalist undertones, but hey, what can you expect? In any case, I later wrote stories which were arguably in that vein of literature; probably because I couldn’t write good hard SF if my life depended on it.

Gummo Trotsky
2022 years ago

“… I couldn’t write good hard SF if my life depended on it.”

There’s a short story idea lurking in that little statement, Jacques.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I’ll stick to short stories about angels, Gummo.

The closest I get to SF is cyberpunk. Even then I struggle.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jacques, cyberpunk’s another good example of exploring some pretty interesting issues. If Jason pops back in, I’m sure he could give us a well thought out reading list!

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Cyberpunk’s probably my favourite genre, even though I’m scandalously unread in it. It’s fascinating in perhaps the same way that Arthur C Clarke is fascinating: it tells us as much about the time it was written – essentially the 80s – as it does the future. Even the name is 80s.

I’ve been tapping away at a cyberpunk genre novel for a few years now (and heck, who hasn’t?). But I don’t know if I’m up to it. If nothing else I find the anti-corporate futurism of cyberpunk to be unconvincing. Corporations have to get their money from somewhere. They aren’t that all-powerful.

The question then becomes: is an anti-statist cyberpunk possible? Is it even really cyberpunk anymore? Magical realism without latin american anti-capitalism is just jungle fantasy.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jacques, a good place to start might be Bruce Sterling’s anthology Mirrorshades:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0441533825/qid=1102589410/sr=1-13/ref=sr_1_13/102-0828244-4797752?v=glance&s=books

And I think Neal Stephenson writes anti-statist cyberpunk.