Topic: Must Read
My less-than-complimentary post about Margaret Atwood’s feminist screed, The Handmaid’s Tale, got me thinking about the relationship between politics and literature.
My principal complaint about Atwood was that she used the medium of fiction to send a political message. But I see now that my criticism flew wide of the mark. Though in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale the author’s ideological conformity spoiled a good idea, there’s no reason in principle to suppose that a writer with a political motive will inevitably produce junk.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a bad book not because Atwood had a political motive in writing it, but because the demands of feminist orthodoxy caused her to falsify her view of the world. Atwood is lying to her readers—but before that, she lied to herself. Because she doesn’t really believe that a cabal of religious fundamentalists will take over America and turn women into illiterate breeders, the intelligent reader cannot not believe it either. Nor can The Handmaid’s Tale be read as satire, for that which the novel may be seeking to satirize does not, in fact, exist. If anything, as I suggested in my earlier post, this book provides an insight into the weird mental universe of radical feminism—an insight hardly intended by the author.
It should be noted that there are on the conservative side some equally egregious examples of bad political fiction. Without doubt, the all-time champion is Ayn Rand’s libertarian tract, Atlas Shrugged. Once again, the basic idea is a good one: What would happen if the nation’s productive minority got tired of being fleeced for the sake of a parasitic majority and just…went on strike? But Rand could not control her fanaticism, and the result is an exercise in unpardonable exaggeration. Atlas Shrugged is variously adolescent, preachy, turgid, incredible (in the literal sense of the word) and just plain dumb. As with Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale, it soon becomes impossible for the intelligent reader to believe that Rand is serious.
Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and others have nobly demonstrated that there’s no bar in principle to the fusion of politics and literature. But it needs intellectual honesty—a virtue conspicuously lacking in these books by Atwood and Rand.