Should literature be political?
Should literature be political?Six theses for the World Writers’s Conference 17.-21.8.2012
– Edinburgh Book Festival, 17/8/12
1. When I went on a reading tour in 1987 for my first novel, afterwards during the question and answer session a listener asked what any of it had to do with politics. The novel was about the colour of vowels. In other words, it was so abstract and experimental you couldn’t actually read it. I had just started out as a writer and, with appropriate naïvety, I responded, ‘Was that necessary for this literary genre?’ The prevailing Zeitgeist back then suggested it was always necessary. My publisher later advised me that when faced with these kinds of questions in future, I should state everything, quite literally everything, which we think and write about, is political. That way I would avoid any problems in future. I have followed her advice and had no more problems.
2. Then, I started to publish essays which really did deal with political issues. I always differentiated between articles and books, distinguishing the respective roles that the author of the texts may adopt: the attitude of an “engaged author”, as such I wrote for newspapers or radio; or as a writer, who writes his books, and is otherwise not bothered by anything. Incidentally, the second role helps you fare much better with the critics, especially if you wear a shabby leather jacket and appear slightly aloof, while struggling to find the right words in every interview. ‘Ah!’, most of them say, ‘if he takes such trouble over his language, he must be a genius.’ Somebody who writes politically engaged literature might be anything at all, but not a genius. The setting for my next novel will be World War Three and the fall of the Western world, so dealing with all kinds of political aspects. But my publisher has already let me know that the marketing will definitely not focus on these aspects – for the contemporary Zeitgeist this would simply not be sexy enough.
3. Thanks to my essays I was invited to Berlin at some stage to join a small discussion panel of politicians from the SPD or CDU. Once, I even sat next to Mrs. Merkel and spent my time using all the rhetorical means I could muster to convince her of one thing or the other. The effect on her was the same as many people in the world have now experienced, in other words, no effect at all, absolutely none, zero. She just listened for so long, until my time was up. At the very latest since this encounter, I was obliged to ask myself what the practical value is of meddling in political affairs. I would probably have reacted in a similar way if Mrs. Merkel had spent an entire evening telling me how, in her opinion, I should write. Suddenly, I thought that a politically engaged author is a fool kept by the politicians wielding power at court, so they occasionally have something to laugh or at least smile about.
4. The model of the engaged author in Western cultures is probably on its way out. There is also something a bit presumptuous about an author claiming the ability to judge the complex processes (let’s say) concerning the Euro crisis from the comfort of his or her own living room, like the croaking of satisfied frogs. It can also be an honour to restrict oneself to one’s personal talent and not to aspire, like some megalomaniac, to take the fate of an entire nation in hand. A true genius, and not just the make-believe one in the leather jacket, is generally modest, knows his or her limits and sticks to them.
5. I am talking about authors in the Western hemisphere. The opposite applies for all others. Especially in Third World dictatorships, an author as an undercover journalist deserves all our respect. By employing all his artistic means to subvert the mechanisms of state control, he lives more dangerously than any other author in the West. Unfortunately, the half-life value of such literature is minimal, since it must make an impact during an author’s lifetime, while its eternal value is irrelevant. But … which author is indifferent to eternity?
6. Lastly, an author should never forget what the actual mission is: to cloak the eternal themes of humanity in the garb of our present time and to narrate them in a new style – love, loyalty, betrayal, hatred, violence and so on and so forth. This is a vast field and difficult enough. Only wholehearted dedication to this mission enables the great themes to transgress the centuries and to emerge in the mantle of new books, which are fresh and unused, in order to appeal time and again to new generations of readers. On another note, even that is a political act. We can improve the world even with a successful poem; we are not compelled to do so with slogans and manifestos.