The Books Briefing: The Uneasy Place of Politics in Fiction

Sally Rooney’s novels have long been criticized as insufficiently political, but reconciling ideology and storytelling has always been a thorny issue for writers.

photo illustration of Sally Rooney
Erik Voake / Getty; Bettmann / Getty; The Atlantic

In Sally Rooney’s novels, idealistic college students espouse Marxism despite never having read any of the ideology’s foundational texts; they advocate for radicalism while keeping up their grades and wrestling with deeply traditional romantic desires. They are startlingly realistic—but their role as political actors is much fuzzier. Indeed Rooney has long been criticized as insufficiently political. Mentions of leftist politics suffuse her works (Conversations With Friends, Normal People, and her new release Beautiful World, Where Are You), but although her characters aim to diagnose the ills of the system, Rooney herself barely addresses those issues. If she comes to any conclusions at all, they are situated at a much smaller level—personal realizations about individual, almost utopian systems of care among friends and lovers, not society as a whole.

According to Stacey Abrams, a politician, voting-rights activist, and romance author, politics and novel writing are interconnected. To do either well, she says, one must tell compelling stories with clear stakes. This guidance can explain where some more straightforwardly political novels fail—and where others succeed. Take Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered. The book, which considers the factors that led up to Donald Trump’s election, is timely and not much else. The characters are thinly veiled parables, and Kingsolver sacrifices storytelling at the altar of political representation. More successful are works like Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed. The book follows Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and focuses on well-realized characters who are steeped in public life. Ahmed writes about both his characters’ individuality and their place in the broader political ecosystem; each person is shaped by policy changes and has clear stakes in the upcoming election. Thus, Ahmed marries two of the political novel’s competing demands, producing a work that understands both systems and individuals.

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What We’re Reading

illustration containing the outline of two people

Laura Peretti

Sally Rooney addresses her critics

“While a novelist may be Marxist, novels rarely are.”

📚 Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney

illustration of a face

Hogarth Books

The small rebellions of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

“In Normal People, characters have different things at different times: money, social capital, looks. The novel suggests the possibility of a setup in which these advantages are shared and redistributed according to need. Call it a Marxism of the heart.”

📚 Normal People, by Rooney
📚 Conversations With Friends, by Rooney

illustration of Stacy Abrams

Lauren Tamaki

The story behind Stacey Abrams’s fiction career

“I’m a good politician in part because I’m a very effective storyteller.”

📚 While Justice Sleeps, by Stacey Abrams

wooden cut out containing the outline of a group of people

Alvaro Dominguez

Barbara Kingsolver’s superficial view of the American family in the Trump era

“This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings.”

📚 Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

a rhinestone-encrusted broach reading "Obama"

Martin Parr / Magnum

The political novel gets very, very specific

Radiant Fugitives is a systems novel, not a domestic one; [Nawaaz] Ahmed cares more about reflecting life in a society than life in a contained set of familial relationships.”

📚 Radiant Fugitives, by Nawaaz Ahmed

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan.

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