Use Your Words: The Political Power of Literature

by David Ebenbach

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
-George Orwell

It may be nonsense in our time, too.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell reminded us that lots of good writing springs from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He continues: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

And writing has pushed the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a powerful and mobilizing call against slavery that Abraham Lincoln was said to have called Stowe (in a comment that is, strangely, both dismissive and admiring at once) “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, an outcry against inequality and injustice, famously forced reforms to the food production industry that had been so harmful to its workers and consumers. In Stalinist Soviet Union, poets were persecuted because they were feared for their ability to nurture and inspire popular resistance; the poet Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for the same reason. Chinua Achebe changed the way the world looked at Western imperialism; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale galvanized a generation of feminists to take on misogynistic political forces; Orwell himself has left us properly wary of doublespeak and unchecked governmental control. The history of the written word is a history of impact.

Of course, in the 21st century, the picture may be more complicated. The potential reading world is inundated with captivating alternatives to words on paper: TV, movies, social media, streaming video, and all the other usual suspects. It’s probably harder to reach people with our writing. And yet the world still needs pushing—desperately. How can we continue to have influence?

Well, one thing we can think about is indirect influence. Many writers are also teachers, or participate in Writers in the Schools programs, all of which puts us in contact with emerging generations of people—people who will go on to shape the world. As it turns out, getting books into young hands is a powerful thing. For starters, literature has repeatedly been shown to increase readers’ empathy—something we need a lot more of in our time.

Or there’s the influence that comes from the power of literary community. Poets Against the War didn’t bring the second Iraq war to a screeching halt, but it ultimately produced Split This Rock, an organization that, year after year, raises up “poems of provocation and witness” and that has, through festivals, conferences, and youth programs, rallied many people to do some much-needed pushing themselves. Literature produces countless communities, big and small, that inspire and hone and launch voices into the public sphere.

But let’s not discount direct influence, either. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen has shaped a national conversation on the ways racism can permeate our everyday social interactions; Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has helped to complicate the public understanding of gender; novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran have brought a wide range of history into global view. And sometimes our work affects powerful people indeed; President Obama, for one, has cited novels like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as a major source of influence in his life. Even if we don’t quite reach the president, there are a lot of decision-makers in our world, nearly countless people we might find with our work. And each person we affect has the ability to affect others.

Besides, of course we can jump off the page if we need to—screenplays that get turned into movies reach a lot of people, good blog posts go viral, and after Jennifer Egan released her story “Black Box” in 2012 as a series of tweets, social media became fair game for the rest of us.

The point is that we probably still feel the desire to push the world—many of us more than ever in these troubled times—and that we have the leverage to do it. One thing we have learned from this election is that words still move people; they can incite fear and resentment—we’ve heard plenty of those kinds of words, lately—or they can inspire justice and empathy. We need a lot more of the latter.

If you’re a writer, you have gifts and skills that not everyone has. The world needs those gifts.

Put them to use.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

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3 thoughts on “Use Your Words: The Political Power of Literature

    1. He was right. Baudelaire that is. The title ought to have been “Yes Us”, for “Oui nous” where to begin, “Le Cygne” was slavery, the sin a sign of the modern times, a bird, heard and followed the word of his and our minds…

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