For those currently tuned into the mayhem of British and American politics, the world appears to be existing on the brink of apocalyptic doom. While political trends usually operate on an endless pendulum swing from left to right, the vitriol and division that seems to characterise both contemporary policy and propaganda has instilled the sense that forward progress has been almost entirely coopted by hate. Few of us have lived in a period so seized by anger. Where passion, particularly in the realm of politics, is a necessary part of any progressive formula, it can spiral easily into a refusal to compromise or engage, therefore stymieing potential movement. The notion that hope is absent in the face of contemporary hate-mongering is, however, a total mischaracterisation of popular responses to xenophobia and racism. One need only look to literary trends and the publishing industry’s current creative darlings to see a place that champions voicing the voiceless.
While it’s impossible to speak for the publishing industry as a whole – and, as a recent trip to Barnes and Noble showed me, a nonfiction focus on fear and vitriol has strengthened exponentially in recent years – there is something of consistency in the direction of major agencies. Publishers operate within our standard capitalist model and a responsiveness to profit over moral obligation will always dictate publishing trends. Inherent in those profits – and thus the general attention of publishers to seeking out particular genres or types of work – is a representation of popular interests. Where there has been a visibly expanding attention to fictional rewrites of both history and historical myth – as with Pat Barker’s Homerian retelling, The Silence of the Girls – readers are clearly intrigued by fiction’s potential to challenge traditional narratives. It is difficult to imagine men’s rights activists enjoying the empathetic take on Circe’s story in Madeline Miller’s Circe or the absence of traditional myths on the masculinity of the Wild West seen in Téa Obreht’s Inland. It is similarly challenging to envision an occasion where a work of fiction or nonfiction that invokes – or implicitly advocates – contemporary prejudices or prejudicial narratives on identity would receive the anticipation and critical acclaim of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.
It would be dangerous to assume that trends in our reading consumption and the consequential direction of the publishing industry indicates an absence of conservatism in literature. The mere fact of recent election outcomes and the debates currently occupying news cycles exists in a reality where political dialogue speaks to the popular notion of ‘political correctness gone mad’. With such speech has risen a need to justify prejudice with reference to millennial ‘snowflake’ culture and the idea that concerns for equality are merely a superficial attempt to police thought and speech. Yet the complexity of contemporary literature – particularly those works that might be labelled ‘liberal’ in subject matter or narrative – absolutely contradicts the idea that left-wing ideals operate as anything other than an attempt to redress deep-seated issues of systemic violence. Arguments that liberalism merely looks to displace a natural Darwinian logic – that the world must always be premised on a ‘survival of the fittest’ structure, where poverty is seemingly avoidable if one only works hard enough – run totally counter to the stories that have been most celebrated across our history.
In our most popular contemporary writers, we see a constant drive to fill the voids of intentional, politically and socially crafted absences. A refusal to educate and equalise opportunities for minority groups has the inevitable consequence of abolishing any possibility of representation. A fact that I have run into time and time again – one that ended up serving my decision to leave academia and human rights research behind – is that no one is as qualified to speak their own story as those who embody it. Yet our world continues, in many respects, to operate on the assumption that representation is possible against a backdrop of breathtaking inequality. The literature best-loved today – from the insistent anger of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys to Tommy Orange’s poignant reflection on contemporary Native American culture in There There – shows us what true representation looks like. Literature allows our realities to speak with a vibrancy that is utterly impossible when viewed through the lens of statistics or the words of a painfully ignorant politician. And it is for this reason that literature, and art more broadly, plays one of the most crucially powerful roles in times of political crisis.
Talk of political correctness and its position in society is a distraction tactic. It removes discourse from what matters most – the realities of systemic oppression and the kind of socially-condoned violence that leaves psychological and historical, rather than physical, scars. It is easy to lose oneself to overwhelm in the face of such grave issues. Yet art – and our choices as those who ingest it – offers us an opportunity to speak through our creative consumption. I encourage anyone who feels distressed by what they see in the world – whether political concern, fears for the environment, or social issues – to read with a mind to exploring the complexity of our realities. Advocate for those authors who are shouting into the chasms of social ignorance and help to populate absences with the voices of those who speak to their own identity and experience.