To Tweet or Not to Tweet? - The Role of the Writer as an Engaged Citizen

Nick Holdstock
Writers and political engagement

Recently I have been wondering whether writers should care about suffering.  I ask this neither flippantly, nor as some existential query: what I want to know is whether writers — by which I mean fiction writers; I doubt the kinds who don’t make up their worlds have much choice in the matter — should be trying harder to engage with global events. For rhetorical purposes, I am going to take it as given that we all care about suffering to the level where seeing bombings or starvation on a screen makes us feel bad, sometimes angry, with the result that we talk about it with friends and colleagues, share a link on Facebook or Twitter, maybe even hand out leaflets outside an embassy, march through city centres in a crowd of thousands. I am, in short, going to assume that we are all socially and politically engaged citizens to some degree (yes, I know this is a fantasy). My question is whether writers are obliged to do more.

This year I took part in two events relating to this issue: the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, and the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia. PEN is an international organisation that promotes freedom of expression. Many countries have a local PEN branch, but the US one is by far the largest and most influential. The World Voices festival has a level of corporate sponsorship that allows it to throw parties in the penthouse bars of some of Manhattan’s poshest hotels. It’s not the kind of setting most writers are used to. When I stood on the veranda of The Standard Hotel, looking out over the Hudson River at night, a Blood Orange Negroni in my hand, many things went through my mind, but whether or not to tackle the pressing social issues of our time through the medium of the novel was definitely not amongst them.

This wasn’t only proof of how easily minor writers get co-opted by a few free drinks: the PEN festival is first and foremost a literary festival. But over the following week I went to few events that didn’t involve some discussion that related back to the notion of ‘Bravery’, which was the theme of this year’s festival. This was most obvious during the events on literature from countries where writing has been, or still is, a matter a life and death in a very non-metaphorical way (Burma, Palestine, South Africa) but was just as present in discussions of using literature to explore (and often question) norms of gender and sexuality. I don’t recall anyone saying that literature must do this; but there did seem to be a tacit belief that at least one of the jobs of literature is to highlight inequality and injustice.

Sometimes this occurs irrespective of the subject of a writer’s work. During the festival I chaired a panel on endangered languages, which explored the factors that are causing languages to become extinct- it’s been estimated that every two weeks the last speaker of a language dies and that by the end of the century at least half of all currently existing languages will have vanished. This is often due to a government deciding what the majority language of its citizens should be, and then, through either neglect, or active suppression, encouraging other languages to become marginalised. We spoke about this in the context of Welsh and indigenous languages in British Columbia and Mexico – one of the participants made the point that merely using a language can be a political act, and sometimes dangerous, if it challenges a state’s (linguistic) definitions of its citizenry – i.e. who belongs.

I didn’t leave New York thinking that a writer is obliged to be more political than any other citizen – but it did make me think that if you’re not, it should be at least partly through choice.

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The Croatian branch of PEN was also involved in the events in Zagreb. The Subversive Festival is a two-week long gathering of the European radical left, comprising a film festival and a series of political workshops based around such themes as the right to the Commons, Nationalism and Neoliberalism, the Utopia of the EU, and the role of the European Left. Like the PEN World Voices Festival, it too has its celebrities, such as Slavoj Žižek, Tariq Ali, Saskia Sassen, the difference being that most of the events they participate in are free to attend.

The first and most important thing to say about the Subversive Festival is that it is a genuinely popular and inclusive forum whose aim is to promote discussion of how to deal with the ongoing social and economic crises spawned by neo-liberalism throughout Europe. It address vital issues, helps forge links between different communities, and is also a vehicle for some of the most earnest, tedious speechmaking I’ve encountered. If it were not so incredibly infuriating to hear people denounce ‘international finance capitalism’ for the fifth time in an hour, it might have been funny. And of course I say this not for petty, snarky reasons – my aim in doing so is to make it clear how politically committed the atmosphere was. I thought that to even ask if a writer’s work should engage with social and political issues seemed a hopeless non sequiter. Which was fine, except that I had to chair a two hour session devoted to this theme. ‘Yes, of course,’ the writers would say while rolling their eyes, leaving an hour and fifty-nine minutes to fill.

My only option would be to play devil’s advocate until I was glared off stage. I could think of three main reasons for not trying to use one’s fiction as any kind of political platform.

Firstly, there’s the risk that a novel or story becomes nothing more than a method for Delivering a Message. This might make for good propaganda; but it certainly isn’t art (which in my humble opinion is all about ambiguity, uncertainty, and remains open to many ways of reading). Exhibit A, on the political left, would be the terrible novels of Upton Sinclair; whilst on the right, as Exhibit B, one might point to the crypto-fascist novels of Ayn Rand. This is not to say that there is no excellent, socially engaged works of fiction (Catch 22, Brave New World, Broken April), just that it’s formidably difficult to pull off.

The second reason for avoiding such issues is that writers are just as liable to say stupid, ill-informed things about complex global issues as anybody else. Whilst you might think you have done ‘research’ for your novel or story, reading five or ten books (or, more realistically, opening five to ten webpages) about a subject doesn’t qualify you to make pronouncements about Islam, the Occupy movement, or immigration. Being able to write a nice sentence (or even, paragraph) doesn’t make you a political commentator.

Thirdly – well, I wasn’t sure about that. Hopefully there’d be sufficient righteous outrage at the first two points.

Our panel was held in a stuffy room with mismatched chairs that became almost half full. There were three other writers, none of whom I knew much about apart from what it said in their biographies. I thought it best to begin in a fairly non-controversial way before I made my fake objections, so I began by asking the panellists to speak about the idea of ‘engaged’ literature, which I defined as work with an overtly political intent. The first speaker, Andrej Nikolaidis, obliged by speaking of the writer’s responsibility of going against the mainstream and being provocative. But then another writer, Ivana Sajko, said that she thought art rarely activates people, and that a writer’s great struggle is really with themselves. Matters weren’t helped by Grazyna Plebanek, the third writer on the panel, following this by saying that when she engaged in activism, it was as a citizen, not a writer.

This was both very interesting and incredibly annoying. In an effort to get them to avow their faith in the Radical and Politically Transformative Power of Literature, I moved the conversation to the question of writers being directly involved in political causes. This didn’t work out much better. Though in fairness there was some talk, albeit brief, of using writing as a form of opposition in the past in the Balkans, this quickly gave way to politically-committed utterances like “I don’t know what my causes are” and “democracies have a tendency to be boring.”

“What about interviews?” I asked. “Is that not a place where a writer might be asked to discuss issues explicitly?”

The panel conceded that yes, it was. But not that this was any kind of worthwhile opportunity. When Andrej laughed and said that maybe a writer should, like Thomas Pynchon (the famously reclusive American writer who has never been interviewed), be present only as his texts, I rather petulantly wished the same was true of him.

My final stab at eliciting some acknowledgement of the notion that some writers, through their cultural position, and their audience, do have an opportunity to raise public awareness about political and social issues, and so maybe, sometimes, a writer might use social media to do so.

Alas, the radical notion of a writer using Twitter to do this was more or less laughed at. “If you’re no better at writing a tweet than an activist, then you don’t need to,” was one riposte. “You should write a story about torture, not a tweet,” was another. A slightly more principled objection was that often we’re writing against the kind of simplification that 140 characters requires. Yet, as I suggested at the time, there’s no reason why writing a novel or sending a tweet should be thought contradictory acts – they’re different approaches to the same problem. 

My last hope was that the audience might at least challenge the panel. But they, too, seemed untroubled about the idea of an ‘unengaged’ literature. As one man said, “You are trying to take us out of the cave, you don’t need to do any shouting or going out with flags, you just have to make us think whether we need change. Some people say we don’t need any change! You just have to think about is your literature good.”

I can’t pretend that the aesthetic dimension of a writer’s work isn’t the most important thing, nor that being a writer and an activist are the same kinds of role. But if we don’t want to influence people’s thoughts and beliefs, why do we bother to write? Isn’t there always a degree of didacticism? I don’t think it’s superfluous or redundant to pose that old question: what is literature for? As the great Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist once asked,

Is there an art more important than the world? Is it the function of art to make mass graves banal?