‘Should literature be political?’ Njabulo S Ndebele asked Open Book Cape Town the other day. Ndebele, a renowned academic in South Africa, has written a précis of his speech for the Guardian. He draws a distinction between political novels, which dramatise activism, and other forms of literature that ‘politicise’ by deepening awareness. His point is often sunk by his own loquacity (‘These two books [The African Child and God’s Bits of Wood] reveal the continuations between political literature and literary politics. Both achieve transcendence through art that politicises and depoliticises all at once.’); but, that aside, he makes some very compelling proposals about the role that literature can play in Africa’s renewal, a ‘continent increasingly impatient and desperate for renewal’. With the Marikana mine dispute fresh in the memory, he says that ‘we need writing that explodes willed invisibility’, which he defines as ‘the hidden acts’ of business, politicians and stakeholders that threaten the environment and public morals. He says that this political literature would be ‘reflective activism’, which appears to blur the distinction he drew earlier in the piece.

So far, so theoretical. Indeed, Ndebele evades the practical question of actually putting pen to paper and describing a world in which ‘the political’ encompasses so much more than activism, and in which domestic politics is being dominated by global issues.

The New Yorker ran a piece not so long ago by Ian Crouch in which he examined real estate in literature, from Dickens to John Lanchester’s Capital. Bricks and mortar are political, in England especially. The mixed community that resides on Pepys Road in Capital have little in common except an address. They (or at least those who own a property) are a version of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘property owning democracy’, an idea that owed much to 19th century Whig notions of the importance of holding a ‘stake in the nation’. The sinister character who posts anonymous letters to the residents of Pepys Road saying ‘we want what you have’ juxtaposes the haves and have nots. It is a political act, highlighting the fact that we have invested so much worth in property. The fragility of this way of life becomes apparent during the global financial crash, which also serves to punish the hubris of those characters whose speculation contributed to it.

Crouch made a similar observation about real estate in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, quoting the memorable phrase about aspiring Patty Berglund being ‘the thing that was happening to the rest of the street’. Thus Franzen opens a satirical front on the vacuity of gentrification and middle class identity, touching on related malaises like apathy, depression and alienation along the way. Patty’s disenchantment with the world and her place in it becomes so pronounced that her only meaningful relationship is with a bottle of overpriced chardonnay, the expense being all important.

These themes are, of course, recognisable primarily to affluent people in the developed world. Indeed, Franzen seems unduly fascinated with those who are rich enough to satisfy a therapy addiction. Despite this, Freedom has much to offer readers from the real world. Walter Berglund, Franzen’s protagonist, wants to save a breed of North American warbler from extinction. This is an expression of his deep concerns about the ecological damage caused by overpopulation and rapid economic development. Walter’s dilemma is how to achieve his goal when government connives in the globe’s exploitation. His resolution is to make a pact with the devil, in the form of a Texan oil man who promises to reserve an enormous sanctuary for the warbler after first extracting all he can from a strip mine at the site.

There are many possible interpretations of this episode – hypocrisy being the easiest to support as Walter is hounded from public life by a New York Times exposé. Yet the deal expresses the plain fact that unless governments act in concert on environmental issues, men like Walter can only hope to co-opt mega-rich philanthropists, who, obviously, can’t do everything for free. In this sense, Freedom thoroughly ‘explodes’ the ‘willed invisibility’ that Ndebele identifies as a threat to the future.

If there has been no such explosion in Africa, then there are more pertinent questions to ask than the redundant “should literature be political?” Literature is necessarily political if it engages with and contributes to debates about decisions: decisions and arguments being the essence of politics. Therefore, even a writer’s choice of words can be a political act, as the poet Jorie Graham, winner of this year’s Forward Prize, explained in an interview with the Spectator earlier this year:

‘There are many ways to be ‘political’ in a culture. The way poetry uses language, for example, is, to my mind, by nature political. Poets, throughout cultures, have felt the most basic obligation to revivify their language, rid it of stale metaphors, clichés, ready-made phrases — which are of course ready-made ideas — as well as prior uses which attach to words systems of belief that need to be jostled, to put it politely. Part of this impulse (which is also a basic artistic necessity) is political. Language is not a pure instrument. It is used by many forces before a poet picks up a pen. It is used to sell programs, objects, ideas — to propagandize, to create artificial desire, or, in the mouths of some politicians, to hollow out meaning, to lie — especially in those places where the euphemism conceals corruption and violence. Walk into any supermarket and look at the words on the labels of packages. What are they selling you? Or turn on the news — what are they selling you? And the words they are using: what are they doing to those words, your words?’ 

These ‘what’ questions seem more likely to realise Ndebele’s dream of ‘reflective activism’ than the self-regarding ‘should’.

Tags: Africa, Fiction, Philosophy, Politics