The Power of Political Fiction

An Interview with Tony Christini by Mike Palecek

[Initial questions by Mike Palecek. Other questions supplemented, per request.]

Q: Why use fiction as a tool for social change?

Fiction can be engaging and effective as a tool for social change. How do we know? Lots of ways – including careful studies such as Michael Hanne’s book The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change that document the extensive social, political, and cultural effects of “political fiction” and the ways in which governments and individuals have used and feared and counted on the public (and private) power of political fiction.  Take the case of Pakistan today which has banned all fiction imports from India. Pakistan has no such wholesale ban on nonfiction (“technical, professional, and religious” nonfiction books are allowed). Even if the author is Pakistani but the book was published in India, it’s disallowed, apparently because the state of Pakistan fears that the power and influence of fiction will undermine its control. In this case, fiction is even more feared than nonfiction. And why shouldn’t it be, given its very influential history and nature, in public and private realms both? 

Q: What makes fiction so powerful?

The power of fiction comes from a variety of sources, including its popular forms, and often its many vivid emotional, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic layers of appeal, and so on. Its personal nature. People often get involved in working for social change based on personal connections and personal experiences. And personal experience, character based experience – both private and public – forms the heart of what fiction is.

Q: Why Tom Clancy on every small-town library shelf for the past many years, but no Tony Christini or Andre Vltchek?

Huge selling novelists Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Michael Crichton all write political fiction. That’s not all that their fiction is, but that’s a big part of it. Their political persuasion is generally liberal or conservative or reactionary, and so it mainly supports the status quo (often accompanied by either some power-approved reformation or deformation or both). 

 The primary political fiction of Mainstay Press, on the other hand, is progressive – in the sense that it is informed by a worldview that understands the need to revolutionize the economy to make it democratic, and the need to otherwise revolutionize the distribution of power so that poverty and extreme wealth and unemployment are essentially eliminated, so that health care (and not just health insurance) is amply provided universally, and so that the country and the world can move far forward – toward real democracy and a humane equality of condition, in part as outlined, for one place, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Q: Does anyone want to read political fiction? Or do people prefer to turn to nonfiction for political insight and cultural criticism?

People read a lot of political fiction, a lot of culturally critical fiction. Look at all the sales of Clancy, Grisham, Crichton, and many others. These authors write fiction that is largely politically motivated, or at least politically actuated. It’s far from progressive political fiction, but there is no reason to think there is not a large, populist audience for progressive views. Just take for example an anti-war novel regarding Iraq. Both before and after the war the majority of people in the US, let alone the world, were against the war. Only a brief period in which state propaganda held sway was this not the case in the US So evidence exists that anti-war novels would be quite popular and profitable, if publishers were willing to solicit and publish them. It appears that the economic incentive exists to publish such fiction, but not the decisive political incentive. [More on this and on some of the other comments in this interview, here.]

Q: Do publishers publish politically progressive fiction? If not, why not?

For merely one example, how many recent anti-war novels can you name that have been produced by this highly militarized nation state? Why aren’t publishers actively, publicly seeking such novels? Polls suggest that there is a huge domestic, not to mention international, audience that would at least potentially be sympathetic toward and interested in such fiction.

Also, the US for years has allowed corporations the use of patent laws, which have prevented HIV vaccines from reaching Africa resulting in millions of lives lost. Where are the expose novels? Name the so-called muckraking novels or vivid polemic novels about the unconscionable U.S. health care system. Or poverty rate. Or avoidable environmental catastrophes. Etc and so on. Not easy to do. It’s possible to come up with a few examples, including John le Carre’s recent novel The Constant Gardner – exceptions to the rule.

Multicultural fiction has been far more pronounced in recent years than it has been traditionally and some of this fiction is progressive or has progressive aspects, including some overt progressive and revolutionary aspects, but the gaps in the area of progressive political fiction remain gaping.

 Q: What are the chances Mainstay Press will be around in one year, two, longer? How will you measure success?

I don’t see any reason why Mainstay won’t be around from now on. The key way in which I would measure its success, if not the only way, is by our ability to contribute to social change, to help make change for the better by way of education, by way of the establishment of progressive institutions, by way of our ability to participate with others in actions that make a difference.  

Q: What can a novel do in the face of the gigantic power of the Bush government?

The same things it can do in the face of all governments at any time – enlighten, motivate, inspire, energize opposition to injustice, and otherwise act as a catalyst for change.

Q: If Clinton were still president, the same atmosphere as those times were in place basically – would you have the same incentive to write?

Absolutely. Clinton and Bush, the Democrats and Republicans, are political siblings. They stand for the status quo, more or less – and the status quo is not tolerable. These are the parties of stasis, and worse, mainly. Unemployment is not tolerable. Poverty is not tolerable. Lack of adequate health care, let alone health insurance, is not tolerable. Widespread catastrophic environmental destruction is far from tolerable. Economic autocracy, that is, corporatism, is not tolerable. Military and economic aggression is not tolerable. The Republican and Democratic parties both largely serve an anti-democracy function – one that is a real threat to survival, not least.

Much fiction itself functions as a tool for stasis or worse, in many ways. The central focus of Mainstay Press is on quality works of fiction and art (and some nonfiction) both popular and literary that function as tools for progressive social change.

One thought on “The Power of Political Fiction”

  1. Against Nature by John Nelson is a modern dystopia set in the post 9/11 landscape. It’s about a global pandemic but the novel is bound together with progressive political threads. It was written during the Bush years, a truly dystopic time, but sadly remains relevant today.

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