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Its title notwithstanding, this collection of essays by five novelists never develops a definition of the political novel. The essays are a mixed bag: Stone's is alter-nately [End Page 357] flinty and high-minded; Allende's mystical and hopeful; McCarry's anecdotal and aphoristic; Piercy's earnest; Vidal's defensively self-congratulatory. This is not a book for scholars, unless they have very thick skin. Full of ill-informed academic bashing, it is bound to be irritating to those expecting theoretically sophisticated discussions of ideology and politics in fiction. Piercy, for example, makes the astonishing claim that contemporary academics resist fiction that espouses left-wing causes; Vidal contends that academics seek some final Truth pleasing to University trustees but available only to their squirrelly selves. As descriptions of the current politics of literary criticism these sentiments are both naïve and inaccurate. Antirealist novelists such as Gass and Robbe-Grillet also take their share of abuse, especially from Stone and Allende, for abdicating their political responsibility. This criticism seems lame, however, when Stone then asserts that the writer's only social responsibility is to write well. If one need only write well, why does it matter whether one is politically conscious or not? These logical and factual flaws taint the reader's appreciation for the more enlightening points that sometimes follow.
McCarry's piece is by far the best, advancing helpful distinctions between propaganda and fiction (the first involves belief; the second knowledge) and comparing the novel to a strip of exposed film to be developed differently by each reader, an analogy that illuminates both the rhetorical power and political potential of good fiction. Yet this analogy contradicts his claim that (again) the writer's only duty is to write well. If creation is collaborative, surely a writer's duty also involves anticipating some of the consequences of such collaborations, especially if, as McCarry announces, the political novelist must "believe in consequences." The worst piece is Vidal's, which, aside from his salutary reminder that historical "facts" are always subject to scholarly biases, is mostly an excuse to snipe at critics of his novel Lincoln. He scores some palpable hits, but one doubts whether this book is the proper place for such attacks.
Nevertheless, each essay contains something useful, especially in regard to the practice of writing fiction; Piercy's descriptions of plotting and organization are especially useful. Other highlights include Stone's defense of the greater moral value of good fiction, in which he maintains that idealized versions of ourselves enable us to extend our capacity for social action. Allende's loosely organized essay offers a refreshing call for more optimistic fiction that will enable oppressed groups to discover their own voices and resist quietism and despair. Like Stone, she adheres to the moral and political imperatives by which fiction enhances the sense of community. And although none ever clearly defines the "political novel," Piercy's assertion that in a stratified society "all literature is engaged politically" comes closest to a satisfactory attempt. In sum, although often contradictory and sometimes illogical, these essays are never boring; occasionally they are even provocative. [End Page 358]