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Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?

Saturday 21 February 2015

FEB. 17, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose debate literature’s influence on politics.

By Mohsin Hamid

Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable.

The line between fiction and nonfiction is more blurry than many people like to admit. Sometimes, political writing that claims to be nonfiction is actually fiction. The political power of such fiction-as-nonfiction is undeniable: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” stoked the fires of European anti-Semitism in the decades before the Holocaust; American news coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin incident facilitated the escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam; supposedly true accounts about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction contributed to the disastrous invasion of that country 12 years ago.

The power of fictions that admit to being fiction, such as novels, may seem to pale in comparison. There are exceptions, of course: In popular lore, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is said to have hardened opposition to slavery, thereby helping set in motion the war that led to slavery’s abolition.

Most novels aren’t directly credited with starting wars. Yet fiction still instigates change. Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable, combating the coerced silence that is a favored weapon of those who have power. In Pakistan, for example, where numerous hatreds — including of Hindus, of atheists, of supposed sexual transgressors — have been actively promoted by the state for purposes of social control, we have seen Hindu characters, nonbelieving characters, sexually transgressive characters being humanized in fiction.

Over half a century ago, Saadat Hasan Manto lampooned religious and nationalistic bigotry in Pakistan, opening up political and creative space for so many Pakistani writers, myself included, to enter. Reading his acerbic, wanton, irreverent short stories for the first time, I thought: “Wait, you can write that?” It was an electric experience for me, like reading James Baldwin and Toni Morrison would be, like reading Chinua Achebe would be.

I encountered Achebe in my final year of high school in Lahore, the sole African writer on our syllabus. “Things Fall Apart” forced me to grapple with how infantilizing the experience of colonialism must have been — how it killed off the adulthood of generations of parents, made children of them, made the colonizer into the adult, the colonized into the children of children. It was the only assigned novel I can remember my friends and myself talking about incessantly after school.

Politics is shaped by people. And people, sometimes, are shaped by the fiction they read. After Manto, I was more aware of the dangerous social desiccation being imposed in the name of religion around me in Pakistan. After Achebe, I was more concerned with agency, the notion that we Pakistanis needed to take responsibility for solving our own problems, because blaming the outside world, even when partly justified, served only to perpetuate our own sense of powerlessness.

I also read George Orwell’s “1984” around this time. The Berlin Wall fell the year I graduated from high school, and so it seemed to me that Orwell had gotten things wrong, that his dystopia, no matter how believably chilling, could never be humanity’s future. I associated “1984” with life behind the Iron Curtain. Only later, living in London in the noughties, an era of Bush-Blair doublethink and perpetual “war on terror,” did it occur to me that Orwell’s novel was set not in Russia but in Britain, and that perhaps the only reason his terrifying vision of society had been prevented from coming fully into existence was that he had already warned us — for otherwise the tendencies to slip into his nightmare were everywhere to be seen.

Does fiction affect politics? Yes, inevitably. So is all fiction political? To my mind, yes again. Fiction writers who claim their writing is not political are simply writers who seek to dissociate themselves from the politics furthered by their writing. Making up stories is an inherently political act. Like voting is. And like choosing not to vote is, too.

Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: “Moth Smoke,” a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a New York Times best seller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” a winner of the Terzani Prize. His latest book is an essay collection, “Discontent and its Civilizations.” ◆ ◆ ◆ By Francine Prose Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote, but occasionally fiction can get things done. Sadly, it’s easier to chart the ways in which literature has changed politics for the worse than to make a case for its positive effect on the course of human events. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and “The Turner Diaries” have confirmed bigots in their bigotry and made new converts to the cause of racism and intolerance. The sacred texts of most religions (let’s call them narratives and leave others to debate the question whether they are fact or fiction) have been used to justify unspeakable violence.

But can fiction change history for the better? Many of us have heard how Abraham Lincoln asked Harriet Beecher Stowe if she was the little lady whose big book started the great war. But the story is most likely apocryphal: a literary urban legend. Doubtless Stowe’s popular novel helped persuade its readers that slaves were human beings with feelings like those of their masters. But neither Lincoln nor Stowe could seriously have believed that her novel had functioned as an actual call to arms. Interestingly, I know of no similar stories about the authors of celebrated antiwar novels; apparently no one imagines a world leader telling Stephen Crane or Erich Maria Remarque that he would surely have declared war if not for “The Red Badge of Courage” or “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is that of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Its disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. So what if Sinclair had hoped that his work would end the oppressive conditions under which industry workers labored rather than merely improving the quality of the protein on middle-class tables?

But while it’s difficult to trace the direct — the quid pro quo — impact of literature on politics, it’s encouraging (certainly for writers) to suggest that our books can change how readers interact with their fellow humans. Fiction can (though by no means is it required to) enable us to see the world through the eyes of people unlike ourselves and view them more empathetically; such changes may make us more likely to favor the creation of a more humane society. A 2013 study reported in The New York Times found that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

Though the novels of Charles Dickens failed to radically improve the lot of poor children in Victorian England, they did raise public awareness of the Oliver Twists and Little Dorrits whom readers might otherwise have ignored: children suffering the humiliations that Dickens endured when, as a child, he worked in a boot-blacking factory and his father was sent to the debtors’ prison. In an essay on John Ruskin, George Eliot wrote that “in making clear to ourselves what is best and noblest in art, we are making clear to ourselves what is best and noblest in morals; in learning how to estimate the artistic products of a particular age, . . . we are widening our sympathy and deepening the basis of our tolerance and charity.”

Certainly George Eliot can make us more charitable and patient. My long literary acquaintance with the Rev. Edward Casaubon, Dorothea Brooke’s pedantic husband in “Middlemarch,” has made me far more forgiving of the handful of Casaubons I’ve met in life. I always think, “Hey, that guy’s not just a pompous idiot, he’s a sad, self-deluding mess, like Edward Casaubon!” Medical students have been advised to read works such as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” on the theory that these masterpieces will help them see “cases” as “people” and treat them accordingly. After reading Chekhov, I feel, however briefly, that we are all suffering humans, deserving of sympathy and tenderness. Who knows how our social and political lives might change if we were all persuaded to read at least one Chekhov story each day?

Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A version of this article appears in print on February 22, 2015, on page BR35 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?