Political Fiction Writing


Robert Penn Warren must have forgotten Aristotle’s maxim that “human beings are political animals,” when he insisted in an interview that All the King’s Men was not about politics, but about human nature. Politics is an indelible aspect of the human condition, and so characters in fiction often confront political issues, directly or indirectly, which means their authors must do the same.

 

This advanced creative writing course will examine how authors have treated political themes such as the state of nature and civil society, individual rights, justice, human freedom and equality, and democratic self-government. Students will explore how authors have employed craft techniques to translate these abstract concepts into human drama while simultaneously using fiction as a means to pressure the state and provoke political action among readers.

 

In a democratic society—where the law protects freedom of expression—writers may pressure the state. Under repressive regimes however, the state pressures the writer. As a contrast to political fiction written in Western democracies, this course will also examine works produced under repressive dictatorships, where the state may have considered any work of fiction to be political—where the very activity of self-expression through writing was an act of political dissent. Students will explore the tendency for such writers to produce more allegorical and magical work as a way to slip under government radar. Through the contrast with American and other Western fiction, students will discover how social/political context (repression vs. freedom) affects craft.

 

By the end of the course, students will have:

  1. defined political behavior
  2. defined propaganda
  3. learned the role politics may play in fiction (and vice versa) by examining how authors have reflected on political questions and themes and incorporated these into their fiction
  4. learned which craft techniques have allowed American writers to successfully address political questions in their fiction and still produce art rather than propaganda
  5. learned how political context (freedom vs. repression) affects craft by contrasting American fiction with novels written under dictatorships
  6. practiced writing political fiction where the exploration of the human condition remains paramount, i.e. fiction that confronts political issues or themes without becoming a rant, a polemic, or propaganda.

Readings

  • Writing and Being   by Nadine Gordimer
  • a political novel of the student's choosing, to be determined during the second week of class
  • “Introduction” from Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
  • “Politics and the English Language”  by George Orwell
  • “Why I Write”  by George Orwell
  • “The Power of the Powerless”  by Vaclav Havel
  • “The Personal is Political”  by Carol Hanisch
  • “NowTrends”  by Karl Taro Greenfield
  • “Night Walk”  by Adam Haslett
  • “The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon”  by Mary Gaitskill
  • “Patriotism”  by Yukio Mishima
  • excerpts from The Turner Diaries  by William Luther Pierce
  • excerpts from Cement
  • “North Light”  by Mark Helprin
  • “Man from Mars”  by Margaret Atwood
  • “Another Night at Camp David”  by Thomas Mallon
  • “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”  by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Buying Lenin”  by Miroslav Penkov
  • “The Peripatetic Coffin”  by Ethan Rutherford
  • “The Short Happy Political Life of Amos McCary”  by Jerry File
  • “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky”  by Nicole Krauss
  • “Sans Farine”  by Jim Shepard
  • “Fetch”  by Heidi Julavits
  • “Harrison Bergeron”  by Kurt Vonnegut
  • excerpt from The Dispossessed   by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • “Saboteur”  by Ha Jin
  • “A Man Like Him”  by Yiyun Li
  • “The Smell of Death and Flowers”  by Nadine Gordimer
  • “Innocence” and “19502”  by Yusuf Idris

Assignments

Examining the Landscape of Political Fiction

The purpose of this project is to have you investigate and consciously examine what political fiction you have read, why you have read these works, how you find new novels to read, and which works you want to read.

Step 1: Read the list of political novels provided by your instructor and highlight the books you have read.

o        After completing the highlighting, write a reflection on what the highlighting reveals. Are there some categories with lots of highlighting and other categories with very little/no highlighting? Is there an “empty” place that you’d like to be full of highlighting? Did you recognize many or some of the novels you have not read? Of the novels you have read, how did you first hear about these books? What made you want to read them?

Step 2: Add books to the list. The list I have created is purposefully incomplete. Add 5-10 books (novels, novellas, or short story collections) to existing categories or create a new category and suggest 5-10 books for it.

o        After you have found 5-10 books, write a reflection on how you found these books. What methods did you choose? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Is this your normal way of locating books to read? How did this process differ from the normal way you find books to read?

Step 3: Create a “to do list” of 20-25 novels and/or anthologies you have not read but believe you should in order to be well versed in political fiction, or perhaps those books you believe every citizen of democracy should read as part of their civic education.

o        Write an explanation of why you chose the books you chose. What do your choices reveal about your thoughts, politics, values, fictional aesthetics, et cetera?

Step 4:  Choose a novel from either my list or your list to read over the semester. It cannot be a novel you have read before, or one of the following well-known novels, which many of your classmates will have already read: 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, or anything by Ayn Rand. You will teach the class about your novel toward the end of the semester. For details, see below.

 

Novel Presentation

After reading a political novel you select, you will write a response essay to the book and then teach the novel to the class. Your in-class presentation should last about ten minutes. The response essay should be at least 3-pages (double-spaced). Do not write about whether you liked or disliked the novel and do not discuss the author’s biography. Instead, use the follow questions as a guide:

  • What political issue is being explored? What position does the author seem to take? How does the author “make their case” for that position?
  • Is the other side of the issue presented? How?
  • Does the author or a character ever lecture the reader?
  • How does the political process / issue drive the plot into the inner lives of the characters?
  • How does the author combine the personal and the political?
  • What craft technique(s) did the author use and to what effect?
  • Why might the author have chosen that technique?
  • How do the elements of craft play into the political issue of message explored in the reading?
  • What is the emotional core of the story?
  • What is the genre? Why did the author choose that genre to explore their ideas?

 

Political Autobiography

Write a 6-8 page autobiography chronicling your political life. What do you believe in politically? When did your political consciousness awaken? In what ways have you participated in politics / civic affairs / public discourse. How would you like to participate in the future? How political are you? Which three issues do you care most about? Why? What have you done to support these causes? Have you taken formal classes about politics beyond high school civics? If you could only devote yourself to a single specific policy goal for the rest of your life, what would it be? Why? Who are your political heroes? Why? Your answers must be specific, concrete, personal, and emotional—not abstract—and show critical thinking.

 

Politics on Your Life

If we intend to write fiction that interweaves the political and the private, that explores how decisions in the public realm have consequences for our characters’ inner private lives, and illustrates how abstract ideas can have intense emotional effects, then we should be able to recognize the role politics plays in our own lives. For this assignment, write a 6-8 page personal essay that answers and reflects upon these questions: How have the actions and decisions of political actors affected your life, in both positive and negative ways? How have specific pieces of legislation affected your life (this may require research)? How aware were you of the effect legislation plays in your day-to-day life before this assignment? After? Your answers must be specific, concrete, personal, and emotional—not abstract—and show critical thinking.

Examples: I fought in Iraq; Social Security is my only source of income; a family member died due to terrorism; my family was divided by the Cuban revolution; I was beat up by neo-Nazis at a punk rock concert; I was bullied by right-wingers in Miami; et cetera.

 

Original Short Story

Over the semester, you will write an original short story of 12 to 16 pages. This must be a new story—old work written for another class is not allowed. You will turn in 3 drafts of your story over the semester. You must settle on a story idea by the end of week four, and after that point you may not begin a new or different story, so don’t ask. Professional writers work on a single story for many months, and their feelings about the story fluctuate wildly. You will experience this fluctuation—so at times you will be excited about the story, and other times you will hate it and want to abandon it. You need to learn to anticipate these feelings and work past them.

Limitations on your story: You may not end the story with your main character dying

 

Final Portfolio

At the end of the semester, you will submit your original short story of 12 to 16 pages. Revise it based upon feedback you received in workshop. Your manuscript should be formatted as if you were submitting it to a journal for publication and include a cover letter.

 

Also, include an essay (formatted according to MLA guidelines) of 3-4 pages, that reflects upon your composition process over the semester, from the initial invention stages through the final revision. Discuss any weaknesses you see in the final version as well as its strengths. How and why did you make the revisions that you did? How does the current draft compare to the first draft? How did the story evolve over the semester? What techniques did you employ or try to employ? What affect did you hope to achieve with these techniques? Did you succeed? Why did you make the choices you made with respect to form, character, and plot? Reflect upon your workshop experience. And finally, how does the story speak to you, or in other words, why were you compelled to write this story at this time?

 

In-Class Writing Assignments

Every class will begin with a prompt in the board/projector. You are expected to begin writing as soon as you arrive. These exercises are designed to help you express yourself vividly, concretely and imaginatively, to provoke ideas, and to promote the development of a daily writing habit. Other in-class writings may be given in addition to those at the start of class.


Alternative Assignments

Editing a Short Story Anthology of Political Fiction

Compiling and editing an anthology of political short fiction can be an opportunity to discover new writers and explore one’s personal fiction aesthetics and politics.

 

For this assignment, search literary journals, collections, the short story database Wilson Web Short Story Index and read as many stories with a political edge as you can. Which stories grab you and hold your imagination? Which stories inspire or excite you? Which stories stay with you long after you finish reading them? Which stories flawlessly marry political ideas and human drama? Choose 12 such stories to become your anthology.

 

After you have identified 12 stories, you will actually assemble a physical book by following these steps:

  1. Create a cover page
  2. Create a table of contents page—remember to think carefully about the order of the stories
  3. Write an introduction. All anthologies open with an introductory essay by the editor and yours will be no different. Write an essay of 2-3 pages that explains how the stories you have selected reflect your aesthetic sensibility or worldview.
  4. Print the cover page, table of contents, introduction, and all 12 stories
  5. Bind them into a book (if you are crafty, you can do this yourself, otherwise Office Depot and similar stores offer this service for a few dollars—it’s not expensive)

 

Annotated Bibliography

Create an annotated bibliography around the work of a single author who has written many political novels, or an assemblage of political novels by different authors united by a common concept—the same political issue or era, the same genre, similar character arcs, et cetera.

 

Once you have chosen an author or concept, find and read at least seven stories and five relevant critical essays by literature scholars. For each story and critical work, write a 200-300 word summary of the story/essay and then provide brief commentary about the story/essay—your thoughts about it, what ideas it triggered, what you might steal as a writer, or in other words, what is your takeaway?

 

The paper should be formatted according to MLA guidelines for an annotated bibliography.


Course Calendar

Introduction

Week 1 - The Tradition of Political Fiction

      intro & syllabus review
      a survey of political fiction, film, television
      discussion: from Mark Twain to Gore Vidal
      discussion: If politics is about abstract ideas (rights) and fiction is about the 

                          human emotions experienced by the characters, then how does

                          someone right fiction about politics?
      discussion: Isn’t all fiction political?

 

Week 2 - Politics and Political Participation

      discussion: what is politics and political participation? 

                          Do writers influence politics and vice versa?
      readings:   “Introduction” from Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

                         “NowTrends” by Karl Taro Greenfield

                         “Night Walk” by Adam Haslett
      due:  Great Writers are Great Readers

 

 Week 3 – Connecting the Personal & the Political

       discussion: what is meant by “the personal is political?”

       Hegel argued all people desire to have their worth recognized by all others. 

       Perhaps all political fiction is about the shame, anger, et cetera felt when one’s

       worth and dignity is not recognized by others
       readings:  “The Power of the Powerless” by Vaclav Havel

                         “The Personal is Political” by Carol Hanisch

                         “The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon” by Mary Gaitskill
       due: Political Autobiography

 

Week 4 – Art vs. Propaganda

      discussion: what sets propaganda apart from other persuasive literature?

      a preliminary attempt to define some political fiction aesthetics
      in-class viewing of propaganda films
      readings:  “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima

                        excerpts from The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce

                        excerpts from Cement
     due: 4-5 short story proposals

 

Craft of Political Fiction

Week 5

      readings:  “North Light” by Mark Helprin

                       “Man from Mars” by Margaret Atwood

                       “Another Night at Camp David” by Thomas Mallon
      due: craft analysis

 

Week 6

      readings:  “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” by Jhumpa Lahiri
                        “Buying Lenin” by Miroslav Penkov
                       “The Peripatetic Coffin” by Ethan Rutherford
                       “The Short Happy Political Life of Amos McCary” by Jerry File
      due: craft analysis

 

Week 7

      readings:  “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” by Nicole Krauss
                        “Sans Farine” by Jim Shepard
                        “Fetch” by Heidi Julavits
      due: craft analysis

 

Week 8 – Science Fiction

       readings:  “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

                         excerpts from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
      due: craft analysis

 

Week 9 – Fiction under Political Repression

     discussion: Does political repression affect craft?
     readings:  “Saboteur” by Ha Jin;
                       “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li
                       “The Smell of Death and Flowers” by Nadine Gordimer
                       “Innocence” and “19502” by Yusuf Idris
     due: craft analysis

 

Workshop

Week 10

     workshop of students 1, 2, 3
     workshop of students 4, 5, 6

 

Week 11

      workshop of students 7, 8, 9
      workshop of students 10, 11, 12

 

Week 12

      workshop of students 13, 14, 15
      workshop of students 16, 17, 18

 

Week 13

      students 1-9 teach the political novel they read this semester

 

Week 14

      students 10-18 teach the political novel they read this semester

 
Conclusion

Week 15

      discussion: a revisit of our discussion of political fiction aesthetics

      what makes great political fiction?
      end of semester self-assessment
      instructor evaluations

 

Week 16

      exam week - no class!

      final portfolios due