17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...

My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.

Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?


  1. Great post, Steve.
    Advise and Consent is the first novel about homosexuality in American politics - and Drury was surprisingly sympathetic to the character. (BTW, it's often been commented that that was the only minority Drury ever showed sympathy to.)
    Others - Wag the Dog, of course. Max Headroom - which should really be streaming live right now. The Handmaid's Tale.
    BTW, my whole attitude towards the idea of "artists should stay out of politics", etc., is really? With a reality TV show host as President? Give me a break.

  2. Yes, I've heard this argument a lot (writers staying out of politics.) I think - on Facebook - it might be a good plan, in that you can alienate a lot of potential readers very quickly and perhaps innocently. But we wouldn't have Casablanca without politics, as a perfect example. We Allies were trying to get you Americans into WW11 - grin. And I believe it worked.

  3. We have been watching Ken Burns' series on country music and one of the commenters (Rodney Crowell?) said, approximately: "Someone was going to get Woody Guthrie. Country music passed on him because of his politics and folk music gained from it."

  4. "Hair" kind of comes to mind.

    Almost anything by Eric Ambler. Or John LeCarre. Or Len Deighton (but especially The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.

    Tony Hillerman's books mke me stop and think about the politics of anglo interactions with the people who were here first.

    In terms of music, I have a deep affection for Phil Ochs' songs (especially one of the greatest songs I have ever listened to, over and over again--"Crucifixion"

  5. Hi, Steve. I tried to find out who first said "Everything is political, and "The personal is political" on Google. Okay, I didn't try terribly hard, but lots of smart people are saying one or the other or something similar. I just started reading "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett. I suspect it will be steeped in both religion and politics. One of the world's biggest best sellers.
    It's sad when people don't know what literature is all about and then write reviews. Just too many negative people loving to complain, especially online now.

  6. That is a sizable list, Steve. During reading, a novel would come to mind, and one by one I'd encounter them in your article.

    Nevil Shute's On the Beach, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, and pretty much everything Tom Clancy writes touches upon politics.

    Nursery rhymes were often disguised politically commentary on the political system.

    It's sad and shocking and difficult to avoid politics when white supremacists (Hannity, Bannon) are welcomed in the White House. Perhaps the most intrusive example of politics lay in a bestseller a few years ago. It mentioned Jimmy Carter in just a paragraph or two, but portrayed him as arrogant, cruel, and condescending to White House staff. I couldn't imagine anyone of any party buying into an image like that.

  7. Jan, Thanks for your comments. I don't call the people who complain "negative," I call them "ignorant."

    Dan, yes, I forgot about Len Deighton. Spy novels, are, pretty much by def, political, aren't they?

    Melody, I have so few sales my calling a spade a $*&@ shovel on Facebook doesn't hurt much. ;-)

    Some great other works here I left off, some of them because I completely forgot about them. Leigh, yes to On the Beach. We actually assigned that in classes early in my teaching career, and I forgot it completely. Great all-star cast in the film, too.

    Yes on the nursery rhymes, too. And jump rope chants. Ring-around-the-roses is about the plague.

    Probably the most obvious (and largest) political novel I've read recently is Don Winslow's The Border, part three of his trilogy. He posits the idea that the Mexican drug cartels are funding real estate deals for a presidential supporter with holdings in NYC. Winslow openly despises Trump, and it hasn't hurt his numbers at all. He's still one of my favorite writers.


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