22 June 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Art or Propaganda?

The Literary Blog Hop is a bi-weekly event sponsored by the good folks at The Blue Bookcase, and for each session they ask a probing question about literature.  This time 'round, the questions are ones that my  husband and I frequently discuss: Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?  (I frequently discuss books this way while my husband discusses art.)

There's a book I read a few years ago that spends a lot of time discussing this very idea.  It's The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax, in which three musicians must decide whether to compose and/or play music that speaks out against the rise of Fascism in Europe (and oh, yeah, one is Spanish, one is Italian, and one is a German Jew).  In other words, where does propaganda end and art begin? Do artists have a responsibility to get politically involved, not just with their personal lives, but with their work as well?

My own response to this week's question is that while many (perhaps even most) great works of literature do, in fact, have far-reaching political and cultural ramifications, the works themselves cannot have been conceived with the sole intent of wanting to make a statement.  The best writers sit down to tell a story, not to express their own views, and if the story is good, those views will find their way into the story anyway and have lasting value.  Hard to imagine War & Peace or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without their social and political critiques today because you simply cannot separate them--they're part and parcel of the story--an essential undercurrent but not what gives the novels definition.  Animal Farm, on the other hand, is ALL social and political critique with hardly any story to flesh it out.  I guess that's the difference between a great novel and a political allegory: one is timeless and the other quickly becomes dated.

Nothing cheapens or dates a book so much as sensing that the writer's social, political, or cultural agenda takes precedence over the story or the craft.  Take my reading relationship with Barbara Kingsolver, for example. I think she's a very good story teller (hard for me to choose between The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna as my favorite) and her stories are absolutely imbued with her own political and social convictions, but they serve her stories, rather than the other way around.  And yet I cannot bring myself to finish any of her nonfiction because the same agenda is there but no novel with which to couch it. 

Nonfiction, on the other hand, fits much better with a political/social/cultural agenda.  It should be persuasive and apparent, and while it can have many layers, it should also be on the surface.  And when I want to read it and be informed and persuaded, I know it's there for me.  But please don't make it the avowed agenda of my fiction!


  1. Great discussion of the question, though I of course disagree with you that Animal Farm has become irrelevant.

    "Nothing cheapens or dates a book so much as sensing that the writer's social, political, or cultural agenda takes precedence over the story or the craft."

    I tend to agree with you on this, and yet I still value books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which the message far outweighs the craft. It's a complicated matter.

    Thanks for joining the hop!

  2. Interesting post. One of the things I liked about The Little Bee was that I felt like it was broadening my thoughts/awareness about social, political, and cultural issues without being "preachy" - though for me the wheels started to come off towards the end (when they were all at the park onward).

    I loved reading The Poisonwood Bible, but I haven't read any of her other fiction. I really enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - but I was going through some dietary changes when I read it which made it pertinent. Otherwise I could see it getting redundant.

  3. On the whole, I agree with you, although I would disagree that Animal Farm is dated!

  4. I think you pretty much just stated in a lovely, eloquent way what I was trying to say at my blog.

    I love reading your thoughts.


  5. I agree up until the point where you say Animal Farm is dated (along with everyone else it seems!) But the thing is, I really think you can read Animal Farm and just see it as a story about some mean pigs, then learn some Soviet History and have a massive revelation about that book! But I do tend to agree that political agendas shouldn't necessarily be at the forefront of creating art, but tend to sneak in there anyway, because how can they not?

  6. Well, I do think Animal Farm is dated in the sense that it was written with a particular political system in mind. But allegory is allegory and in that sense I could agree with y'all that it is not dated--but to call it a novel, yes, it is.

    Laura, I would suggest that if political agendas are "sneaking to the forefront" in a work of art so that it can only be read as political agenda, that it's not art at all--it's propaganda. But if the agenda is informing the viewer/reader/listener and giving it an extra dimension and an extra meaning, then it rises above the level of propaganda to approach art.

  7. I am stubborn; I don't like anyone (even authors) to try to tell me what to think. I don't mind it when someone takes me along for the ride (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) and shares a story. Two different things.

    Here's my post: "All a Poet Can Do is Warn."

  8. I really like the use of the word propaganda in the title of your post. I think that some novels are written as propaganda, and those are the ones that don't endure, because the writer has sacrificed the art for the politics.

    Here is my post (and a literary giveaway!)


Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)