I should like in this essay to consider the difficulties of the writer holding strong political or other disputatious views and wanting to further them by means of his/her writing.
Propaganda versus Literature? Do they militate against each other? This was constantly asked of the 1930s poets: Spender, Day Lewis, Auden to some extent. (Some Art, surely, was the direct offspring of philosophical commitment, viz. the plays of the great religious festivals of ancient Greece from where the word ‘drama’ originates.) In the mid-19th century, Wesker’s plays attracted criticism as being too overtly propagandist. Certainly The Kitchen could be seen as a powerful argument against nuclear arms; but it was also an entertaining play with accurately observed social commentary. And I remember many years ago seeing Roots at the Sheffield Playhouse and being profoundly moved by Beattie’s discovery of herself, without at that time seeing it as a political play or knowing that it was part of a more political trilogy, or being aware of ‘the personal is political’ as an idea.
Writing that is expressly written with a propagandist intent is not, then, necessarily inferior as art though, of course, if the message is too crudely emphasised or the work itself merely a vehicle for the message, it will be flawed. One has only to think of the many, no doubt apocryphal, works of the kind: Joyfully Serving the State on a Collective Farm, worthy in aim but devoid of intrinsic interest or artistic merit. Certainly there are many novels successful as literature as well as polemical in intention.
The writer has problems of weighting in a particular direction. Will this damage his art? Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was dogmatic in both tone and message, written by a convinced Christian, but this has not stopped it from becoming one of the most popular books ever written. While Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, of the 1950s, with its sombre, modern lack of belief in a loving God or a redemptive Saviour, is uproariously funny both to watch and to hear. In Bunyan’s book, the characters and the story-line hold our interest. In Beckett’s play there are visual comedy, witty dialogue and, constantly, the unexpected. It is perhaps only when the play has ended that we shudder at the bleakness of the godless vision, these shudders in turn being mediated by Beckett’s recurrent showing forth of human courage in the face of terrible adversity. Deliberate shaping has not damaged these two works. On the contrary.
Why did Harriet Beecher Stowe decide on a novel (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) as the form for her anti-slavery message? Here was a new society. The novel form arose with the new bourgoisie under modern capitalism. The middle class, who read novels, were a progressive, literate and broadening band. Many would have already read reformist ideas in Richardson’s Pamela, in Defoe, Fielding, Dickens, Thackeray, and in Godwin, the political reformer.
Writing in English was writing for the English-speaking/reading world and not just for America. Reformist zeal in Britain would be ready for Stowe’s message, and these zealots were the literate people who read novels. Many novels at that time were long, and in a long work the arguments could be fully expounded and all facets considered. It could be said that at that time ‘all’ novels had a moral message. Stowe’s had a wider, corporate, moral message.
Let us consider other forms available. Stowe had too much material really for a poem. What about a speech? Well, speeches are transitory and may well be given to an already prejudiced audience, and again, the speech would have to be dauntingly long for both speaker and hearers if it were to cover all the ground Stowe had to cover. A sermon would be heard by only a few and very probably an antipathetic few. Initially antipathetic readers of a novel may have their sympathies engaged as they are drawn into the story and identify with the emotions, thoughts and experiences of the characters.
What about a play? A play can certainly move its audience, although its effects may be more transitory than those of a novel. A play today could reach a huge audience on television but in those days it would reach comparatively few in the theatre. A novel had the potential to reach many. There is also a closer communion between reader and novel than there is between audience and play. The novelist creates a world for the reader who lives in a different world. The novel could be like a social documentary showing different points of view sympathetically (or unsympathetically, if the writer wanted to weight the scales).
I am not a gifted playwright or an outstanding novelist. I am not a powerful politician or an influential journalist or broadcaster. But I am, I reckon, an ardent polemicist and seeker after truth, justice, reform, and the prevention and alleviation of avoidable suffering. I seek in this blog, and on my website, to engage your interest and hopefully to move you to concern about the harm done by scandalously over-prescribed pharmaceutical drugs with poorly-understood, and often unacknowledged, adverse effects, by processed salt-laden, nutrition-deficient snacks and ready meals manufactured by a profit-driven food industry reckless of the damage to the health of their customers, and by dieting, and by medical doctors, too eager to prescribe more and more potentially harmful powerful drugs. The greatest scandal of all being the catastrophically wrong beliefs about the causes of obesity and the best ways to prevent or to reduce it being promulgated by the obesity and dieting ‘experts’. I hope you will consider helping me in my mission in whatever way you can.
Margaret Wilde © 2009