Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Musings on “Activist Lit”

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962
Photo by Dorothea Lange. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 – 1962

On my mind this week: “Activist Lit.” For the following reasons.

1. Over on the Grub Daily blog, Ron MacLean (a fellow Last Light Studio author) has a thoughtful post on “Avoiding the Trap of Activist Fiction.” The post begins:

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that activists make bad fiction writers. It’s also true that fiction writers – those who spend our lives working to see all sides of the story – make bad activists.

But this doesn’t mean that fiction can’t engage big social issues. Or that politics and fiction can never mix. Witness Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document as three examples of how such matters can be done well.

It does mean fiction writers need to be attentive to how we engage such issues.

The most obvious risk with activist fiction is lecture disguised as story. Fables with morals have been out of fashion for a long time, and in my estimation rightly so. Because such stories abdicate from what fiction does uniquely well: to capture human experience as we wrestle with the conflicts in our nature. To predetermine the outcome to such a wrestling match is not only to rig the contest, but to deprive it of genuineness in its most significant aspect: fiction ain’t about the outcome; it’s about the journey.

A work of fiction should never serve as a platform for anything. Stories and novels that set out to grind an ax invariably end up feeling false. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” That said, I think fiction can engage big life questions, potentially world-changing questions. The key is whether the literature is imposing an answer or exploring the questions.

I know plenty of folks who agree with this perspective. To a significant extent, I agree with it, myself.

But I wonder: Why do we seem to hold fiction to a higher standard than we hold other genres? Why aren’t we equally demanding when it comes to nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting? Why aren’t we as uncomfortable when an essayist or poet or playwright delivers “lecture disguised as story”? Why, for instance, is “agitprop theater” or “political poetry” so commendable when “activist fiction” is so fraught? (Essays are a tougher case to analyze here–but lately I’ve read so many bad commentaries/editorials that I’ve been thinking about this for nonfiction, too.)

You might respond, as I infer from his post that Ron might, that we read fiction for different purposes. Or you might say that we are just as demanding of other forms of literary art. And since I haven’t researched the topic yet, I can’t prove you wrong. All I can do is that it’s my experience–and my observation–that when it comes to politics seeding work in the other genres, there’s a lot more forgiveness for the presence of an argument in other genres–even, sometimes, when the argument is poorly crafted.

2. One reason I’m motivated to consider all of this more closely has to do with a day trip I took to Washington on Saturday to see a play.

Some background: A couple of months ago, The Forward‘s “Arty Semite” blog published an essay in which I explained why I–exquisitely sensitive to anti-Israel sentiments–had purchased a ticket to see a play that, some have argued “promot[es] a discredited and defamatory lie against Israel.” You’ll note in the essay my appreciation, once I had the chance to read the script, that this play, Motti Lerner’s “The Admission,” was not “propaganda masquerading as art” (unlike another play I mention in the piece).

In any case, the ticket I purchased was for last Saturday afternoon’s performance. I haven’t had a chance to write anything else about it. But you might be interested in The Washington Post‘s review.

3. One last, still-forming thought: I wonder if we sometimes denigrate “activist lit” as “preachy” or “polemical” if/when we oppose the particular activism at its heart.

I’m thinking here about a forthcoming novel. It’s one that I’ve recently read in digital galley form, a novel in which activists themselves are characters. (You’ll hear more about this novel when I post a Q&A with its author next month.)

I’m wondering if some of the criticisms likely to come this novel’s way (hints are there in pre-publication reviews) stem at least in part from the fact that the reader is clearly meant to “side” with one character: the protagonist. Much of the novel turns on the marginalization (and worse) that this character suffers because of her politics. I happen to endorse those politics. Am I less likely to see this novel as “preachy” (or worse) because I identify with the character? If the novel championed one of her antagonists instead, would I look on it less favorably (while others, conversely, might look on it more favorably)?

So that’s a glimpse into the turning wheels in my mind this week. What’s happening in yours?

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: Musings on “Activist Lit”

  1. Clive Collins says:

    Another interesting entry, Erika. If you do not already know it, you might like to look at Eudora Welty’s essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” from 1965. (

    Of course, some novelists must crusade – Dickens and Orwell come to mind immediately. James Baldwin famously said that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was “a very bad novel” (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”, 1949) and in purely literary terms it is hard to disagree. Again, in purely literary terms, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is also a bad novel and it is bad for many of the reasons that Baldwin judged “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to be bad. However, these ‘bad’ novels continue to be effective not only in terms of their specific targets but the larger human failings that underpin those targets. The work of a writer like Dickens might combine the specific, focused crusade with a more general raising of awareness but it seems to me that even ‘bad’ crusading or platform or protest novels still demand to be read and human beings resist that demand at some risk to themselves as individuals and to the societies in which they live.

  2. Sergiusz says:

    Very interesting entry, Erika.
    Ron MacLean quoted by you says “A work of fiction should never serve as a platform for anything.”.
    My question is: why then it so often does?
    In my opinion writers such as J. Steinbeck (Grapes of wrath especially), Andre Brink (most of his work but let’s take A Dry White Season as an example) or G. Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch) are more than accomplished at their craft. Nevertheless, they could be considered as well… “activists”, arguing against dictatorship, inequality, racism etc.
    Maybe a writer should not be thinking like “OK, now I’ll write something against racism”, but the sorrunding society very often may direct him or her towards this kind of a novel. A fiction can’t escape from reality. And its influence isn’t always detrimental to the literary quality of one’s work.

  3. Erika Dreifus says:

    Thank you both for the thoughtful comments. And Clive, special thanks for reminding me about Welty’s essay–it has been a long time since I read it, so I’m happy to have the link to revisit it.

  4. Interesting post, Erika, and a subject about which I care deeply. I disagree with Ron MacLean’s assertion that activist lit is a trap, although certainly it’s very difficult to do well. As is all fiction, for that matter. But I can name dozens of authors I admire who write novels that engage big social issues, and do it splendidly – authors like Rosellen Brown and Edwige Danticat, like Ann Pancake and Anthony Marra, like Andrea Barrett and Naomi Benaron, like Paule Marshall and Nathan Englander…. I could go on and on.

    And while you may be right that we denigrate novels that promote ideas we dislike, I think it goes deeper than that. Publishing and literary criticism are big business, and not immune from economic and political influence. So ideas that are unpopular, and especially ideas that could be seen as effectively raging against the status quo, are labeled as “cruder than work that simply embodies currently held notions” (that’s a quote from Marge Piercy).

    In any case, for some writers, the intersection of global injustices and individual characters is what we care about, what we try to understand more deeply, and therefore what we’ll write about, doing our best avoid cardboard characters and lectures.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Elli, yes, I know this is a topic close to your heart. I’ll admit that I was hoping you’d find your way here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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