Political Fiction Writing

This hybrid course combines a literature class with an advanced writing workshop and explores how political themes are expressed through fiction

Robert Penn Warren must have forgotten Aristotle’s maxim that “human beings are political animals,” when he insisted 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 examines 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 explore how authors have employed craft techniques to translate these abstract concepts into human drama.


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.

Educational Goals

By the end of the course, students will have:

  • defined political behavior
  • defined the line between political art and propaganda
  • discovered which techniques allow writers to address political questions in their fiction and produce art rather than propaganda
  • 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.

Additional Readings:  Short Fiction & Excerpts

  • excerpts from Cement by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov 
  • “Patriotism”  by Yukio Mishima
  • “NowTrends”  by Karl Taro Greenfield
  • “The Astral Plane Nail and Waxing Salon”  by Mary Gaitskill
  • “North Light”  by Mark Helprin
  • “Man from Mars”  by Margaret Atwood
  • “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

Required Texts

  • Writing and Being  by Nadine Gordimer
  • a political novel of the student's choosing, to be determined during the second week of class

Additional Readings:  Essays

overview of Assignments

Short Assignments

 -  daily writing

 -  written critiques of stories submitted to workshop

 -  participation in every in-class workshop


Political & Civic Autobiography

If students intend to write stories that interweave the public and the private — that explore how political decisions have consequences for their characters’ inner lives — then students should be able to recognize the role politics has played in their own lives.


To this end students write a 6-8 page political and civic autobiography chronicling and reflecting upon their place in society and history. that answers and reflects upon questions such as: What do you believe in politically? When did your political consciousness awaken? In what ways have you participated in politics or civic affairs? 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? 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? How aware were you of the effect legislation plays in your day-to-day life before this assignment? After?


Surveying the Landscape of Political Fiction

Students investigate and consciously examine what political fiction they have read, why they have read these works, how they find new works to read, and which works they want to read. Students begin by reviewing a comprehensive list of politically-themed fiction and highlighting the works they have read and want to read. Next they write a reflection essay on what the exercise revealed about them as a reader and what the list revealed to them about the landscape of political fiction. 


Novel Presentation

Students select a political novel, write a review and analysis of the novel, and then teach it to the class. 


Original Short Story

Students write a single original short story of politically-themed fiction that is 12 to 16 pages long and turn in 5 drafts over the semester. This simulates the experience of professional writers who work on a single story for many months and experience wide swings of emotion about their work. Students often begin writing excited about their story but during revision want to abandon it. The assignment teaches them through experience to anticipate these feelings and work past them. 


Final Portfolio

Due at the end of the semester, the final portfolio consists of  1) a final draft of their original short story, formatted as if submitting it to a journal for publication,  2) a cover letter and 3) a reflection essay of 3-4 pages that explores the student's writing process over the semester, from the initial invention stages through the final revision.


The reflection essay discusses any weaknesses they see in the final version as well as its strengths. How and why did they make revisions? How does the current draft compare to the first draft? How did the story evolve over the semester? What techniques did they employ or try to employ? What affect did they hope to achieve with these techniques? Did they succeed? Why did they make the choices they made with respect to form, character, and plot? Why were they compelled to write this story at this time?