What is political writing?

  • What is political writing?

    Posted by Martin Roberts on 6 February 2024 at 08:37

    Hi All

    It struck me that the forum hasn’t really addressed the question as to what exactly is political writing. I’d love to know your thoughts.

    Here’s my stab:

    The challenge is that, as has often been pointed out, all writing is political. This is true if by politics we mean the business of who governs and what is the process of governing. Being social animals we cannot live in isolation. As such we cannot ignore the links that hold a society together, a fact the even the most die hard misanthrope cannot ignore.

    In its broadest sense, therefore, politics is about the governance of any societal relationship; in a marriage or romance, at work, in the family – indeed anywhere where the dynamic of the group requires some kind acknowledgement of who’s in charge. And so the struggle begins.

    With such broad possible definitions, what area of the struggle should interest a political writer? If we are to retain any kind of focus it seems to me that political writing should concern itself with two headline concepts and their interaction. Firstly the human thirst for power and control and secondly the great ‘isms’. Racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism etc. In the world as it exists, the former requires the latter; power is a function of oppression, which leads to the inequalities that cause so much misery in the world. It’s the task of the political writer to address this.

    Bold? Ambitious? Or just hubristic? What do you think?

    Noelle Riggott replied 2 weeks, 6 days ago 6 Members · 12 Replies
  • 12 Replies
  • bridget king

    6 February 2024 at 10:26

    Hi Martin. I guess you’re right, and all writing is political, because all writing concerns human relationships. Every relationship contains some sort of balance of power and as you say, politics is all about power. My pennyworth is that there are lots of ways to define what you might call specifically political writing. The obvious way is to depict a struggle against a political system that is obviously oppressive, like George Orwell does in 1984 and Animal Farm. But a more traditional story can also be used to illustrate a political point. Dickens used his books to raise awareness of many of the issues of the day, like the workhouse system and child labour in Oliver Twist. DH Lawrence used the love story in Lady Chatterly’s Lover as a vehicle for his rage against social inequality. Fiction can be surprisingly effective in speeding political reform. A great example of this is Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty which was a major factor in improving the laws about animal cruelty in the Victorian age. I think Black Beauty is actually one of the best examples of political literature in the English language. It never lectures the reader, unlike Lawrence in Lady Chatterley. It’s all done by “showing not telling”. If you haven’t read it, I’m sure it’s free on kindle.

    • Outi

      9 February 2024 at 19:49


  • Martin Roberts

    6 February 2024 at 10:40

    I mentioned Dickens in an earlier post. To my mind one of the valid criticisms of his work is the happy middle-class endings. His depictions of the inequalities of Victorian life are powerful but are somewhat diluted by the saccharin ‘but it all turns out ok for those for whom life was never that tough anyhow’ – or versions of it. I always feel that Dickens bottles it – he was obsessed with his popularity and just couldn’t bring himself to point the finger at the guilty.

    Really good point about Black Beauty. I never really thought of it as a polemic but you’re quite right. I confess I never read it (my sister did about 17,000 times!) but I know the story. I guess we should put Charles Kingsley into this category as well. I think I’m right in saying The Water Babies led directly to child labour legislation.

    • Fiona Saint

      8 February 2024 at 08:24

      It’s true that writers can bring about changes in attitudes without being politically correct in their own lives. Dickens opened people’s eyes to iniquities in Victorian society but was racist and misogynistic in his own life.

      Humour can be a powerful weapon. I’ve enjoyed reading Thomas Carlyle’s satirical novel Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Reclothed) in which a nineteenth-century dandy assumes poor people must be members of a religious sect who have taken vows of abstinence. But Carlyle himself was a dreadful racist…

      • Martin Roberts

        8 February 2024 at 09:20

        This, of course, raises the vexed issue of whether we really can
        uncouple the artist from their art. The wisdom is that we can and
        should, but I’m not so sure. My sense is that an artist is so deeply
        invested in their art that we necessarily must see their work through
        this lens. How, for example, should we view Peter Pan after learning of
        JM Barrie’s sexual proclivities? Is it a celebration to be condemned or a
        cri de coeur which invokes our sympathy? And knowing its emotional provenance, how should we feel about the £££££s that it has provided for Great Ormond Street hospital over the years? I imagine that the cancel culturalists prefer to over-look this one. An endless debate I feel.

  • Noelle Riggott

    10 February 2024 at 09:01

    Glad to join the group. Here’s my 3 most influential (small p) political books

    Grapes of Wrath

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    The Trial

    • Martin Roberts

      12 February 2024 at 08:56

      Hi Noelle and welcome to the group. We’re just getting started and already have had some really good exchanges. I’d love to know what you’re working on.

      • Noelle Riggott

        13 February 2024 at 13:22

        Thanks for the welcome. I’m working on a modern interpretation of the Baghavad Gita, which is obviously philosophical rather than political – but the cross over is around right values, respect, right actions. Also my character Kay (aka Krishna) has views on climate change and material greed.

        My challenge is to stay true to the original text but to make it accessible and not ‘preachy’, which I think can be an issue for spiritual/ philosophical/ political novels. Any thoughts on treading that line?

        • Martin Roberts

          14 February 2024 at 08:19

          <div>Hi Noelle – what an intriguing and brilliant idea for a book. William Boyd’s ‘New Confessions’ comes to mind. It’s a very long time since I read it and, to my dim recollection, apart from using the picaresque structure of the original ‘Confessions’ and it being loosely about a journey of self-discovery, it’s not really a re-imagining. I wonder if you will be using the dialogue technique of the Baghavad Gita? It obviously works well here and it didn’t do too badly for Plato.</div><div>

          Digging a little deeper into the history of the Baghavad Gita I am intrigued by the similarities (in provenance rather than style) of The Illiad. When I was at school (and annoyingly knew it only by having to translate great chunks of it, rather than study the poetry), no one ever disputed that it was a work by Homer and that he was a real person who lived in Ionia in the 8th/9thC BC. Now it seems that he may not even have been a real person and that the work emerges from the oral tradition and only formalised around the dates at which Homer is alleged to have lived. There seems to be some doubts around the authorship and dates of the Baghavad Gita but surely, as with the Illiad, this doesn’t detract from the poetry or the message?


          I have recently been to Hampi and spent a day walking among the temples. I’m not sure if you’ve been there, but most of the tourists visit the Virupaksha Temple then take the little rubber wheeled train to the Shri Krishna Swamy Temple – have themselves photographed by the stone chariot as they hold up a 100rs note – and then take the train back again. As such, if you’re a little more intrepid, you have the 1600 or so other temples all to yourself. We walked for 12 miles and, with the possible exception of the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, I have never had a greater sense of the human urge for metaphysics – beautiful, moving and inspiring.

          Good luck – never has the world more needed a re-visiting of this seminal text.

          • Noelle Riggott

            14 February 2024 at 09:06

            Hi Martin l haven’t read Boyd’s Confessions- but I’m going to now, thanks!

            It’s interesting how these important ancient texts across the world echo eachother so much.

            Following on from feedback from WWJ I’m pulling back a bit from so much dialogue – though it’s still going to be central – and trying to get the message weaving through the narrative of my characters more. At first I felt nervous about moving away too much from the original format but the more I progress the braver I get about using my own voice. I do want to appeal to a wider audience than those who already know the BG – not to be more commercial but because I think this ancient text is so relevant to us right now and I really want to to get it out there.

            Haven’t been to Hampi but heading off to Dehra Dun next month and will call in at Rishikesh – yoga central!- which is always inspiring. Would’ve liked to go to Vrindavan, big Krishna pilgrim spot, but not enough time.

  • patti carter

    13 February 2024 at 23:17


    What a great idea for a group.

    The books that I have most recently read and considered to have political themes are

    The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas and The Overstory by Richard Powers.

    I’m writing for a younger audience – possibly slightly older than Middle Grade, and am very conscious of not preaching and of avoiding cultural appropriation as particular challenges , so your starters for ten in @martin-roberts original post resonated with me!

    Good to meet you all.


    • Martin Roberts

      14 February 2024 at 08:46

      Hi Patti and welcome to the group.

      Thanks for your book suggestions; both excellent.

      The need to educate our young people has never been more important than in the present age. The poor souls are bombarded with emotive nonsense via their cell phones and who can forgive them for either switching off completely or pursuing a toxic creed of unenlightened self-interest? Democracy for instance, which I believe Churchill wittily but perceptively called ‘the least worst option’, is counter-intuitive. Vital concepts such as the separation of powers and losers consent have to be learned and understood for their merits. And then, what IS justice, why is the presumption of innocence so important? What are fundamental human rights and why should we defend them? All of this is lost in Trumpian rhetoric.

      How do we address this? Through stories of course. Although somewhat old fashioned and, in some cases, not exactly aligned with our current sensibilities, generations of children have sat wide-eyed as the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm and Hillaire Belloc (inter-alia) were read to them. Stories carry messages in ways that no sermon can match. But of course you know this. More power to you Patti – our children need you!